Even if you’ve been wowed by the antics of Spiderman swinging across the New York City skyline, you probably don’t know the half of what you’re seeing. For sure it’s not a stunt man who’s crawling up tall buildings. Instead it’s the seamless integration of computer graphics and the live action of real people. “The audience doesn’t know if it is totally computer animated, totally live action, or both,” says Doug Dixon, an independent Princeton technology consultant, editor, author, frequent U.S. 1 contributor, and speaker specializing in digital media. (Check out his information packed website at www.manifest-tech.com.)
First of all, Spiderman, whoever he is, is not webbing his way across the “real” New York City. (Of course in a world where the folks who make movies and TV ads want fancier effects than they can get with actual people, one might ask what “real” is anyway?) He’s making do with a computer generated model of the city, which includes not only the buildings, but the rooms that face out of the buildings.
Even the crowds of people swarming the streets are not real people. The computer generates them, dressing each individual uniquely and moving each one differently. “It gives the impression that each of them is an individual,” says Dixon.
The movie cuts between overhead shots that are computer generated and close-ups of the live action of real people, and the result is a huge cost savings. Scheduling problems are reduced, you don’t have to close streets, you don’t have to gather together crowds, and you don’t have to a pay for a stunt man or the insurance that covers his potential accidents.
The professional organization that deals with animation is the computer graphics special interest group (SIG) of the ACM (the Association for Computing Machinery). It is known as SIGGRAPH. The mother organization has been around for a long time — as you can tell by its name, says Dixon — but SIGGRAPH concerns itself with the hottest technologies and the artistic products made possible by these technologies.
Dixon will be a host of a show of computer animation declared to be the best in the world at the SIGGRAPH conference last summer in Boston. The event takes place on Thursday, October 19, at 7 p.m. at a joint meeting of the Princeton ACM and IEEE-CS chapters at the Sarnoff Corporation Auditorium at Routes 1 and 571. There will also be networking, a silent auction of “hot gear,” informal exhibits of high-end graphics work from central New Jersey, and a free raffle of graphics/media books and software. For more information, go to www.movingimage.org.
SIGGRAPH’s summer conference in Boston included exhibits of emerging technologies from more than 230 companies, a juried art show with 107 artists selected from 1,000 submissions from 29 countries, a juried film show, and an academic segment that included 86 refereed papers and a number of panels. To be more inclusive, the conference also offered hundreds of informal poster exhibits of graphics works. There were 20,000 attendees from 80 countries.
This yearly conference is the spot far on the horizon that animators move toward all year as they prepare work to submit to its juried film show. Out of 726 total entries, SIGGRAPH selected 97 pieces, out of which 34 were dubbed the “best of the best.”
The October 19 showing — the organization’s 27th annual — is going one better: “We’ve picked the best of the best of the best,” says Dixon. The clips in the hour-long show will range from gee-whiz commercials, to video games, to films that huge teams worked on for a year, but it will also include student and individual work done on PCs with tools that regular computer nerds can buy and use.
Representative of trends in the industry, three genres of film will be most prominent at the festival:
Computer-generated/live mix. The movies like Spiderman that seamlessly mix computer generated segments with live action. Another example Dixon shares are the “disgusting-looking pirate ghost creatures in The Pirates of the Caribbean.
Fully computer-generated. You can make use of animation to create movies in which human beings as we know them are entirely absent. The characters may be cartoony-looking people or even cars, as in Pixar’s recent movie, “Cars.” Another animated feature film, “Over the Hedge,” features squirrels, raccoons, dancing badgers, and turtles who walk upright, have big expressive faces, and talk, but they still have to look like the type of animal they are. Disney has produced “The Wild,” and Sony Pictures has brought out a haunted house movie.
This realm of animation demands a tradeoff between making things look real versus cartoony. With the squirrel’s long, furry tail, for example, the hair has to move if the wind is blowing. If the squirrel is running, then the hair should be moved back by the force of the wind. In planning how a squirrel will walk, the animator can use hand-drawn pictures, a film of a running squirrel, or a human dressed up like a squirrel. Another consideration is the film’s environment. In films out on the water, a computer often models the motion of waves, wind, and rain.
Scientific graphics. Computer graphics help scientists who need to be able to visualize very complex systems, whether on a macro level, perhaps a hurricane or a tornado, or on a micro level such as the movement of nuclear plasma or the action of cells in the body.
“Either they are too big to observe or too small or too dangerous,” says Dixon. “They want to collect data and try to look at that data in ways that let them learn things that they can’t actually see.”
Scientists need to simulate and they need to write programs that take the data from big supercomputers and evolve it into the future, for example, to predict the path of a hurricane. One current venture involves using data acquired from mapping and photographing Mars that allows people to visualize walking on the surface of Mars. “This will enable geologists to see things that they really can’t see otherwise,” says Dixon.
Because animation is often project based, hiring cycles for animators bear some similarity to those of the broader movie industry, which staffs up for feature films, and then staffs down. “But there is always demand for good animators,” says Dixon. The industry requires different areas of expertise. It needs the artists who design the characters, the animators who design the motion, and environment designers to determine what the streets and houses look like.
“And you need programmers in all environments to make it all work,” says Dixon. He says that there are always “pages and pages” of ads for animators in industry publications like “Game Developer” and “Computer Graphics World.”
Dixon describes the artistry of the films he will be hosting. “Some are photorealistic, recreating natural environments like you see in Star Wars. Some are painterly, drawing-like, and cartoony, and it is not the technology, but the artistry that is of interest.” He says that more than half of the “best of the best of the best” films were done on PCs with tools like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe After Effects, 3D Studio Max, and the higher end Maya.
“Students with fairly simple tools but a lot of creativity can go far,” says Dixon. “A lot of hiring goes on at SIGGRAPH. The major companies come, including Pixar, Sony, Dreamworks, and Blue Sky. They are not looking for people brilliant at a particular tool. They are looking for creativity. That’s what’s so exciting.”
Phil Saunders, who teaches interactive multimedia and art at the College of New Jersey and at New York University was on the art show jury and is a former exhibitor. He will talk about what it was like to choose art for the show.
Eliot Feibush of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is among the professionals who will be showing work at the Princeton meeting. Feibush’s work simulates what happens in plasma.
There will also be informal demos of local student and corporate work.
Although Dixon played around with computers in high school, it was at Brown University that he got hooked, particularly on the “visual aspect of computing.” After graduated with a degree in computer science in 1977, he worked in video and digital media at Sarnoff and Intel, but burned out on software development, moving on to product development and product and project management.
Dixon really has fun with his technology and he is a natural for sharing it with others. He writes to communicate technological information to real people, and he makes his writing and presentations available to all comers on his website.
Dixon also consults and develops technical communications for clients, including Adobe, Intel, and Sonic Solutions, and he serves as an expert witness in litigation involving digital media and DVD technology and products.
Dixon says that typically a couple hundred people show up at the IEEE/ACM animation event, which high school and college students are encouraged to attend. “It’s very inspiring to see the range of things people are doing,” says Dixon, but then he expresses what has really motivated him to come see all 27 yearly animation gems: “It’s just fun.”