Siggraph 2008 Day 2

With the vendor exposition opening today, was expecting tired feet and brain overload and I wasn’t dissapointed.

First spotting of the day: the Latte art machine uses existing inkjet technology to spray chocolate ink onto foam-topped beverages.

In the new technology areas, I spotted at least two dozen or so haptic (touch) sensors and feedback tech demonstrations. Some require that you wear something on your hand or finger, and some let you move your hand within a confined space. Some offer touch feedback. This is the future of UIs, especially for creatives.

Also in the new tech areas, Shinoda Lab had what looked like a big metal table with various lights and other gadgets arrayed around the surface. Apparently, this surface not only supplies power to the gadgets, but allows them to communicate. So some of the devices are sensors, others make light, noise, show video, etc. Completely unsure what this is good for, but I’d sure like to let my kids play with it.

Spent a little time in the Maxon booth catching up on their new Cinema 4D Release 11. Some of the things I grabbed on to were: support for 64-bit on Mac OS X, the Projection Man matte painting system originally developed for Sony Pictures, and COLLADA support (an open file exchange standard).

Saw an interesting presentation about the Electronic Arts (EA) motion capture studio. All of their sports video games, tennis, football, golf, skateboarding, etc. utilize extensive mocap. They have a football-field sized studio in Vancouver with tons of Vicon mocap gear. It took them $8 million to build this facility. They can lay down turf for a football field, or erect a giant half-pipe for skateboarding in this thing.

Did some quick walking around the rest of the show floor then headed over to the Production Tracking Methods, Issues and Challenges BOF session. Lots of TDs and producers from major shops were there along with a few software vendors. Good discussions about render management, the touchy subject of tracking artist’s work, representing shot complexity, reporting, plans vs. actuals, workflow, and unique aspects of the VFX industry.

Finished up the day with an interesting talk by Jim Callahan of Temerity. They make Pipeline, a workflow management app. It basically takes the (often hand-crafted) task of building a render pipeline, and puts it into a configurable, node-based toolkit. You configure your pipeline using a set of tools that are pre-wired to popular VFX apps. It does a lot of really smart stuff and can save a facility a lot of money. The bulk of their business is actually consulting with shops to help them improve their pipelines and save money. The best part of the talk was when he got into his work of deriving statistics from collected production data. Jim hired a financial statistician to work out all kinds of crazy correlations in the data, and presented some really interesting looking graphs. From this we can see all kinds of uncomfortable things about a production, like, who has the most influence on a project vs. how much time they spend at the office (sometimes an inverse correlation.) There is much more work to be done, but hopefully VFX houses will have new tools to analyze their productions and improve their margins.

What I learned today: IT in VFX houses is typically done by folks know Python scripting, that are willing to wing it. Very little extra money for “proper” IT. A very closed-loop system that seems to yield a lot of hacked together solutions. The funniest anecdote was the shop that did its production planning in Photoshop!

Siggraph 2008 Day 1

Since this is my first Siggraph show I opted for the basic pass, which gets me into the exhibit floor and a lot of the artist exhibitions, but not the technical talks. Since the exhibits open tomorrow, on Tuesday, I arrived today (Monday) around 4:30pm for registration. Time from Oakland to LAX: 1 hour. Time from LAX to Los Angeles convention center (via the Blue shuttle) 2 1/2 hours. Sheesh.

After getting registered it was straight to the Autodesk event at the Shrine Auditorium. Noticing that the program was to be about 3 hours long without a break, I took a ‘strategic’ seat on an aisle.

The presentation kicked of with a series of choice commercials done by various houses. Some were very innovative and folks were applauding. This is a very cool community of folks.

The keynote featured a look at gaming graphics from Ubisoft, who are doing James Cameron’s Avatar as the first stereoscopic console game. There was also a mention of new HDRI capabilities in Stitcher, and something about Moviemento. It was hard to follow. Apparently, a very thick French accent was a speaking requirement for anyone doing the keynote.

Next was an amazing demonstration of a 3D modeling, texturing and painting application called MudBox. The artist was able to ‘paint’ on textures and materials in real time. It was amazingly fast. But it just kept getting better as he turned on various specular settings to make the figure look wet, turned on ambient occlusion, changed the lighting by moving around an HDRI lighting map, dialed in a shallow depth-of-field, and more, while continuing to work in real time. The crowd really went wild for this.

The Third Floor did a really cool demonstration using the Moven wireless suit and a handheld virtual camera to create a pre-vis scene containing a moving character in about 10 minutes. The Moven suit is totally self contained and uses accelerometers placed at strategic points in the lycra suit to measure the movements. The ‘director’ used the virtual camera to get different camera angles and a handheld feel for the shot. I could totally see using this for pre-vis, corporate video, and sports training.

Blizzard Entertainment showed its work on Starcraft 2/Diablo 3 teasers. Very cool to see these at full resolution on a big screen compared to the little compressed ones you see online. Amazing work. The StarCraft II trailer was excellent.

Duncan Brimsmead provided a series of small demos in Maya showing off their nParticles system. He is really a master. Simple demos that spoke volumes. The second, and last set of product feature cheers for the night.

The new stereo viewports in Maya, Toxik and Lustre were very cool. We all had 3D glasses and slipped them on when the artist popped into 3D mode.
Jaw-dropping the first time you see it.

Dreamworks demonstrated a scene from Kung Fu Panda reworked for 3D. This was the jailbreak scene and it was stunning. Its purpose was to shatter all of the old assumptions about what you can and can’t do with 3D. Quick cuts, DOF effects, camera pans, etc. The crowd was really excited over this.

Then, Dreamworks showed a 5 minute preview in 3D of their upcoming Monsters vs. Aliens. Looks like its going to be another great show to take the kids to, and the 3D was done very nicely — not over-the-top like the Journey to the Center of the Earth clip that Sony showed later in the evening.

There was also a clip from one of the original Star Wars films converted to 3D. Very cool! The crowd cheered that one. Also a new Pixar/Disney short in 3D about a lonely Russian outpost guard who is visited by space aliens.

During the (way too long) stereoscopic screening with Sony, you could really start to get a sense of what works, and what doesn’t in this new medium. Nice and subtle uses of parallax with good motivation work to add depth to the scene. Overt uses of the technology, for example the flying fish in Journey to the Center … that fly right at the camera, the National Geographic title sequence (with title graphics all on different depth planes) and flat looking backgrounds don’t work. We’re going to see a lot of 3D crap before it gets better.

The after party had about a dozen models dressed in some kind of world-of-warcraft / barbarian costumes. About a half-dozen artists from Massive Black were creating illustrations of the models that were being projected on large screens. I left when I could no longer move freely.

The List of VFX Project Tools

Over at the PixelCorps, we are working on a bunch of visual effects shots for an independent film. It is a massively distributed project with the director, producers, VFX supervisors and artists located all over. I’m part of the production management team and the task of coordinating 50+ people located all around the world is — complex. Communication is the key thing.

A project like this really needs a system that people can collaborate around, something that would help coordinate a far-flung post-production team: posting the shot breakdowns, shot assignments, task progress, submission and review cycles, client approvals, tracking the progress of the overall pipeline, moving assets and work outputs.

Being a database guy, my first thought is: “Aha! I need a database.” My next thought was: “Surely, someone has already built one.” However, so far, I’ve found nothing that really fits the bill. I started using a spreadsheet but quickly found that I could not keep up with all the activity.

It seems that the big houses have elaborate home-grown systems for managing the shots, and assets, and budgeting and all that — but what do small/independant VFX producers use for project management to keep everything organized? So I started doing research for my own home-grown VFX project database. I’ve come across the following resources which I’m posting here for reference.

UPDATE (7/18/08): I added Shotgun and Flowsmith to the list.

UPDATE (10/24/08): I’ve move the list to its own page.

Beware! The Ctrl-Opt-Cmd-Dot Gamma Nightmare

I just solved a color issue on my Mac that was so insidious, so destructive and so mind boggling that I had to post a warning to others.

I was working away on some video, doing motion graphics and color correction, etc. and at some point, I noticed that everything seemed darker and “off”. I really noticed it in some motion graphics that have grey lines over black: the grey lines were barely showing up.

I looked at every display setting I could find. I read up on all of the crazy gamma shift issues around Mac, QuickTime, Final Cut, etc. I was tearing my hair out, and about to do something drastic, like reformat my hard drive and reinstall everything.

Then finally, almost by accident, I stumbled past the Universal Access settings. My Display was set to Enhanced Contrast. If you use this key combination: Ctrl-Option-Cmd-. (dot) you will increase the display contrast by one notch. I must have hit this by accident — although I’m not sure how. This totally changes your display gamma curve across everything, and is insidious because it is not a setting you will find anywhere on the Display prefs.

Problem solved. Doh!

The best DVD format for archiving

Did you know that there are significant technical differences between DVD-R and DVD+R media? Neither did I. It turns out that DVD+R is a better bet if you are trying to use DVDs as an archival medium. (Not a great choice, but a choice nonetheless.)

Here’s an excellent article outlining the differences, including why DVD+R is a superior format, and a source for high-quality DVD+R media:

Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page for DVD+R. It gives a concise explanation of the differences between the DVD-R and DVD+R formats.

Buy AppleCare, Always

I’ve bought six Macintosh computers over the last five years and have paid for AppleCare on every one of them. I’ll tell anyone who asks, “Yes, you want AppleCare.” At the Genius Bar, you’ll be treated like someone of above-average intelligence rather than being left to feel that you are inadequate and unworthy.

I once accosted someone in line at the Apple Store, a Mom, buying her daughter a laptop for college: “You know, you really *do* want the AppleCare.” She didn’t care that she was buying into 3-years of guaranteed utility, or seem concerned that all things (even great things like Macs) can sometimes break. She just didn’t want to spend the stinking 200 bucks. She has my pity.

Just last Friday afternoon, I trundled into my office/studio and found it ominously quiet. The trusty G5 PowerMac, nearing its 3-year mark, was not making its usual jet-engine sound and the screen was dark. No power light. Odd. After checking the power switch, cables, power outlet and everything else I could think of, I made an appointment for the Genius Bar. While I was waiting, I ogled a bit over the new Mac Pro systems. Dang! Why do they have to be *so* much faster than my (now relatively impotent) dual G5?

With only 37 days left on my 3-year AppleCare contract, the technician informed me that the liquid cooling system had leaked all over the inside of the computer, corroding and destroying the motherboard, one of the processors, the power supply and the case. It was a total loss. It would have to be replaced by a new system with approximately the same configuration.

“You mean… are you saying… I get a new Mac Pro?”

“Yeah, do you want the base 2.66Ghz model or do you want to pay the $1500 difference for the 3Ghz model?”

“Huh? Uh, the 2.66Ghz model will be fine.” (I’m thinking 6 times faster than my G5 is more than adequate.)

Aside from now fully understanding why Apple abandoned the G5 for Intel chips, I am again completely sold on AppleCare. I don’t know whether my experience is common or not, but this is not the first time that AppleCare has saved me a ton of cash. I recommend it.

Life is good.