Interactive Immersion: SIGGRAPH Offers a Broad Showcase of CG Achievement

***This article originally appeared in the August ’21 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 312)***

What better way to escape the summer doldrums than by diving into the wonderful collection of panels, keynotes, production sessions, screenings and meet-and-greets that this year’s virtual SIGGRAPH confab is offering. Of course, we don’t have the electric excitement of “being there” in person and walking through the packed exhibitors’ space that we used to enjoy in pre-COVID times, but there are still lots of wonderful opportunities to take in the best of the world’s latest CG achievements, VR projects, student films, tech papers as well as job recruitments and art galleries.

We had the chance to check in with this year’s conference chair Pol Jeremias-Vila, Computer Animation Festival Electronic Theater director Mark Elendt and VR Theater director Larry Bafia to learn more about the 2021 edition:

Can you tell us what to expect from this year’s SIGGRAPH program?

Elendt: As a developer at SideFX, I’m always interested in the new research presented at SIGGRAPH, so I look forward  to the Technical Papers program. There are also courses suitable for everyone, whether you’re just starting out or you’re a seasoned veteran. Another one of my favorites is the Talks program. While Talks cover a diverse set of topics, they often dive into more tangible applications of research to practical problems. For example, I’m always interested in the latest production techniques, so you’ll definitely find me watching the two pipeline Talks. Unlike much of the on-demand content, there are many sessions that will only happen once, including some great Production Sessions offerings. Make sure to add those do-not-miss events to your calendar!

But, what I appreciate most about SIGGRAPH is the chance to see work that falls outside of my area of expertise. You’ll likely find me in the Q&A for the Art Gallery’s “Forms And Reflections” or even, perhaps, exploring projects on immersive medicine. You never know what might inspire you.

Jeremias-Vila: What Mark said! Plus, don’t forget to mark your calendars for live sessions from our Featured Speakers as well as within the Production Sessions program. There’s something for all walks of computer graphics in both lineups, including deep dives into the productions for Pixar’s Soul, Netflix and Sony Animation’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, visual effects in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more. I would also encourage everyone to take advantage of the fact that a majority of the Talks and content will be accessible on-demand until October 29.

What are some of the more innovative highlights that we can’t miss?

Elendt: There is always a lot of diverse computer graphics content at SIGGRAPH. But, as its director, I have to put in a plug for the Electronic Theater. This mainstay of the Computer Animation Festival is recognized as a qualifying festival by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and is one of the premiere screenings for computer animation. One thing we’re adding for those who will be joining us virtually for all of SIGGRAPH 2021 are two watch parties for the Electronic Theater, which will allow attendees to chat in real time as they tune in to the show. Bonus: Nobody can shush you or tell you to turn off your phone.

What lessons did you learn from the previous virtual edition that helped you build this year’s program?

Elendt: Planning for a SIGGRAPH conference is a multi-year process. I have to commend last year’s team of volunteers who were able to pivot and convert all their well-laid plans to a virtual format. While it may not have been perfect, they did an outstanding job to lay the groundwork that our committee could build upon. As volunteers, we not only help put the conference together, but we’re also attendees. As attendees, we realized there were things about last year’s conference that could have been a little better or run a little smoother. We’ve investigated a plethora of virtual platforms and technologies to try to make this year’s conference even better.

Fortunately for the Electronic Theater, we found a great partner in Eventive in 2020 and have been able to build upon that partnership to offer an expanded experience for 2021. While not much has changed within the platform itself, there are two versions of the show this year — the classic showcase plus an extended Director’s Cut — and ticket sales are open to all, whether you’re registered for the rest of the conference or not.

Jeremias-Vila: We learned a lot from 2020 and attendees can definitely expect some surprises during this year’s virtual conference. In terms of what will be the same, we will mirror the structure and format of much of 2020 via a combination of both live, simu-live and on-demand session content. We’ve partnered with ohyay to offer spaces for networking/social hours, we have improved time zone management within the virtual platform to better suit our international community, and we are offering improvements to the chat functionality to better facilitate dialogue between attendees and speakers. Finally, in addition to the Electronic Theater changes that Mark has shared, we’ll be offering a new format for the Technical Papers Q&A sessions.

Mark Elendt | Pol Jeremias-Vila | Larry Bafia
Mark Elendt | Pol Jeremias-Vila | Larry Bafia

How will we experience the VR program this year?

Jeremias-Vila: For VR and other immersive programming, we’ve made every effort to offer greater access to selected projects, whether that’s through downloads for headset owners or expanded Panels, Talks and Q&As with directors from the VR Theater or contributors within the Immersive Pavilion.

Bafia: The virtual conference presents an opportunity for the VR Theater. During a typical in-person conference, the VR Theater has been limited to curating a program that averages around 45 minutes to one hour in length. Since SIGGRAPH 2021 is virtual, our VR Theater jury had the luxury of selecting many more quality works for our participants. We are pleased to be able to spotlight 15 experiences as part of this year’s program.

Can you tell us a bit about the Electronic Theater program? What are some of your favorites?

Elendt:  We weren’t exactly sure what to expect this year, but my team and I were amazed at both the quality and quantity of submissions to the Electronic Theater. The sheer number of high-quality pieces — over 400 submitted from more than 40 different countries — made the jury process very challenging. The jury’s selecting of the awards was even more difficult.

Each award winner is special in different ways. The Best Student Project winner I’m a Pebble is a beautifully artistic piece that pulls at your heartstrings with a story that deals with loss and loneliness. Jury’s Choice went to Meerkat from Weta Digital and is, conversely, a light-hearted cinematic that used cutting-edge, real-time technology via Unreal Engine. And, finally, the Best in Show award winner, Migrants, is a film with a lot going on: from thematic social issues to its animation style, and even down to the detail of material design used to create the characters.

The Director’s Cut will contain a few more films that might be considered a little less mainstream, but actually were some of my favorite pieces. Finally, you can catch three world-premiere short films this year: Twenty Something from Pixar Animation Studios (U.S.) [all tickets], Julian Tuwim: To Everyman from Platige Image (Poland) [premium ticket only] and Blood Song: A Silent Ballad from Zati Studio and Thai Media Fund (Thailand) [premium ticket only]. This year’s show is a unique opportunity to see some films for the very first time, as well as to discover what filmmakers have been creating during the craziness of the pandemic. I think you’ll find the stories to be inspiring.

If you want to expand your experience of the show, check out episode 45 of the SIGGRAPH Spotlight podcast, during which I spoke with three directors about their projects. And, for anyone registered for the conference, tune in live to the Electronic Theater Directors’ Special Session on Thursday, 12 August, to hear from four more filmmakers on their work.

What can you tell those who are experiencing a bit of a virtual-event fatigue this year?

Elendt: I look forward to attending SIGGRAPH in person again, too. But, there are certainly a significant number of positive elements to having a virtual conference, such as greater flexibility and access to content —  even just being able to rewind Talks to catch that little detail you missed. So, although the conference is still virtual, the opportunities to learn and interact with like-minded individuals cannot be beat.

Jeremias-Vila: SIGGRAPH is more than just its sessions and presentations and, as Mark said, we understand that the community aspect of SIGGRAPH is what we all — myself included — miss. To bring it around to the idea of changing someone’s mind, here it goes: If you like computer graphics and interactive techniques, this is the event of the year, hands down. Nowhere else can you learn about both the past and future of the industry, explore the latest scientific research and digital art, or hear from the most brilliant minds across the globe. The scope and variety of this year’s event is spectacular!

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