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Report on ACM SIGGRAPH 97

Los Angeles, USA
3 - 8 August 1997

Work Hard, Render Fast, Retire...
A Blurred Elephant screaming across Bonneville Salt Flats


48,700 people gathered in Los Angeles in temperatures of over 100 degrees to see and hear about the latest and greatest in computer graphics, interactive techniques, and their applications. Hotels were booked out from downtown to the ocean on one side and downtown to the mountains on the other side. Along with the smog, SIGGRAPH had come to town!

Figure 1: Los Angeles Convention Center Welcomes SIGGRAPH 97

Figure 2: Long Queues for Merchandise are not for the faint-hearted!

Scott Owen, SIGGRAPH 97 Conference Chair, in his opening address invited all the participants to catch the excitement - As a kid growing up in LA, I used to surf the ocean waves, and now I'm surfing the waves of changing digital technology with everyone at SIGGRAPH 97. We welcome you to this festival of the future. In LA this week, you'll meet the creators of that future. The people who are developing the new algorithms, hardware and software to create the waves of change. The SIGGRAPH artists are the most creative riders and surfers of the new waves.

Scott Owen outlined the extra features of this year's SIGGRAPH:

One exhibitor's advertisement at last year's SIGGRAPH had the crunch line - When the Digital Revolution rolls over you, you're either part of the Steamroller, or part of the Road. SIGGRAPH 97 Exhibitors, Press Releases and newspapers had the following punchlines on display:


The Steven A Coons Award for Outstanding Creative Contributions to Computer Graphics was made to Prof James D Foley, Executive Vice-President of Mitsubishi Electric Information Technology Centre (MERL). The classic graphics textbook Fundamentals of Interactive Computer Graphics had sold over 300,000 copies with translations into Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Polish, Russian and Spanish.

The Computer Graphics Achievement Award was made to Prof Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz for his work pertaining to modelling and visualizing biological structures such as plants and seashells.

In his acceptance speech, Prof Foley outlined three challenges for the future:

Research directions were in traditional areas, in desktop technology, and in new domains such as the home and entertainment.

Computer graphics and education offers opportunities at interdisciplinary boundaries that need to be exploited.

With government research budgets under pressure it is important to have stronger university/industry links. Rapid changes in technology were leading to an increased loss of relevance of pure University research which was being rendered out of date before it was completed. A closer coupling between University and industry would improve impact, accountability, relevance and quality. In turn, University tenure systems should recognise the value and importance of work that generates an impact rather than simply the number of papers produced.

Overview of the Conference

The Conference offered 35 pre-Conference Courses followed by refereed Papers and Panels Sessions. A large Exhibition offered demonstrations of all the latest and greatest in computer graphics, virtual reality, digital video, special effects generation, 3D motion capture, Internet tools etc. Side shows offered: SIGGRAPH 97 Art Show, a Computer Animation Festival, Electronic Garden, and the Electronic Theatre. Further activities included Special Interest Groups.

The Electronic Theatre

The Electronic Theatre offered the latest and greatest in computer generated animation at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Highlights included: The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Industrial Light and Magic), Stars Wars Trilogy Special Edition (Industrial Light and Magic), Titanic TD 27 (Digital Domain), The Animation of M. C. Escher's 'Belvedere' (Kinki University), The Ghost and the Darkness (Sony Pictures Imageworks), Fifth Element: Leeloo's Reconstruction and Time Square Montage (Digital Domain).

The Electric Garden

The Electric Garden was the most exciting area for the new ideas and concepts.

The most adventurous was an interactive multimedia experience centred on Sunset Boulevard where the passing motorist viewed a drive-by soap on two billboard sized TV's located at Billboard live, a high tech LA night club, and then interactively influenced the action with their electronic garage key to change the action between a number of set selections. We understand the traffic was halted a number of times as motorists became enthralled in the action of the multimedia drama. The result was just another 'cool' experience for the hardened Hollywood commuters.

The largest number of Electric Garden exhibits used gesture recognition to control the action of computers and robots. This growing trend from Japan was demonstrated on 35% of the Electric Garden stands. The most visual and attractive being on the Iamascope or interactive kaleidoscope where a video projector projected a kaleidoscopic image of the participant onto a screen. This was enhanced by the person's movements and accompanying music.

At a more simple and practical level, a team from the ATR Media Integration & Communication Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan used hand gestures captured by video camera to interpret and create scenes on a video wall. The designs being demonstrated were pure CAD - the design process more like a hearing disability sign language conversation. What would a reader of sign languages have made of this conversation?

Snippets from the Courses

Course selection is difficult due to the many courses on offer! I attended Interactive Movies: Techniques, Technologies and Contents, Scanning and Recording of Motion Picture Film, and Exploring Gigabyte Datasets in Real Time: Algorithms, Data Management, and Time-Critical Design. All courses were well presented with full course notes. Steve Bryson (MRJ Technology Solutions/NASA Ames Research Center) and colleagues gave an overview of how to handle very large data sets (over 100 Gbytes), especially the problems of interactive exploration. Interactive Movies surveyed the field of traditional cinema and cinematic structures and the technological convergence being brought about by the developments in virtual reality and telecommunications leading to possible new structures in the future. Scanning and Recording of Motion Picture Film reviewed current technologies for scanning film into digital form for processing, and recording digital images back to motion picture film.

Figure 3: Packing Delegates into Demonstrations

Interactive Movies

Prof Kristine Samuelson, Director of the Film & Television Program at Stanford University, considered the various ways in which cinematic experiences created an emotional response in audiences. Because of shared viewing experiences as consumers of global media, viewers are able to decode and respond to cinema much as they do to language. A grammar exists which consists not just of individual shot choices, but of the sequencing and relationships of groupings of shots. These image chains, augmented by aural elements, convey both the text of the story as well as the music of the cinematic composition. Motion pictures share many qualities with music: rhythmic values, repetitions, symmetries and harmonic patterns. Much as cinema is linked to music and other arts such as literature and drama, it is connected to various cinematic techniques which draw audiences into media work, creating the emotional connections which set that work apart from the prosaic. Traditional cinema thus makes connections with its audiences using well established syntax and grammar.

Interactive movies are a swing away from this towards spectator choices and spectator involvement. A key issue is how such choice and interaction preserves the filmic point of view with regard to narrative, form, structural elements, and audio design. Traditional cinema is an offspring of the 20th century and borrows elements from literature, art, theatre, painting, and photography.


In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch, Silman-James Press, 1995 (Editor of The English Patient)

The Media Equation, Byron Reeves and Clifford Nash, Cambridge University Press, 1996

The Elements of Cinema, Stefan Sharff, Columbia University Press, 1982.

The Conference

The Conference was Keynoted by Brian Ferren, Executive Vice-President for Creative Technology and Research at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Brian Ferren's thesis was that one thing was more important than the Information Age and this was the Storytelling Age. Making ideas comprehensible was the world's oldest profession. Just as good graphics design improves visual literacy, so the use of good story telling tools gives good storytelling literacy. What was crucial about new media was their emotional capability to communicate. In some cases, increasing the technical resolution can decrease the emotional resolution.

Figure 4: Technology Convergence (Edward Altman) As interactivity is increased, lose traditional Virtual Reality and Cinema respectively

This summary highlights points of particular interest to the author in the conference, though this is inevitably synoptic since there is not time to attend everything.

Panels of note included: Narrative Environments: Virtual Reality as a Storytelling Medium, Motion Capture and Computer Graphics Character Animation, Interfacing Reality: Exploring Emerging Trends between Humans and Machines, What 3D API should I use and why?, New Realities in Film Production: The Process of Creating Digital Visual Effects, Educating the Digital Artist for the Entertainment Industry: the Collision of Academia and Business. There was a full house for a Panel on Image Based Rendering chaired by Mike Cohen of Microsoft.

Research developments were presented in papers on illumination, visibility, animation, virtual reality, surfaces, geometry, hardware and texture.

Image-Based Rendering - Really New or Deja Vu?

Image-based rendering (IBR) consists of techniques that generate new images from other images rather than geometric primitives. This Panel sought to address the issues of What is IBR good for?, Will IBR replace polygons?, What could IBR mean for graphics on the Internet?, What are the implications of IBR for hardware design?

Michael Cohen (Microsoft), Eric Chen (RealSpace), Marc Levoy (Stanford University), Leonard McMillian (MIT), and Jitendra Malik (University of California at Berkeley) presented different aspects of the subject. Prof Marc Levoy discussed the pros and cons of geometry-based rendering versus image-based rendering.

Figure 5: Geometry-based versus image-based rendering

He gave a definition of IBR as the study of image-based modelling and rendering is the study of sampled representations of geometry.

Sampled representations of geometry included: textures, sprites, shadow maps, reflectance maps, range images, disparity maps, optic flow fields, panoramas, movie maps, density volumes etc. Recent additions included: arrays of images, light fields/Lumigraphs, inconsistent arrays of range images, hierarchical image caches etc. New aspects were brought about by increasing memory and CPU speeds; greater dimensionality and size; and algorithms that operated without geometry. He raised the question: Where are the boundaries of this paradigm - in the sense of what other representations are possible? What operations are possible on image-based representations? What new applications exist for these techniques?

The dimensionality could be increased, the quantity represented could be replaced, and a taxonomy could be formulated as follows:

Other possible operations are changing the illumination, changing the reflectance, and changing the shape. A table of input versus output for forward and inverse methods is contained at:

In answer to the question: Will IBR take over the world?, the following pros and cons were offered:

A full set of Marc Levoy's overheads is contained at:

Prof Leonard McMillian believed that IBR would be used in walkthroughs, stereo synthesis, latency compensation, framerate interpolation and framerate equalisation.

Prof Jitendra Malik outlined the current limits of computer vision and the difficulty of identifying correspondences. He envisaged two extreme variants of IBR: one using light fields, and the other using the traditional computer vision/computer graphics approach. Hybrid approaches were promising for the near and intermediate terms and were likely to be domain dependent.

Educating the Digital Artist for the Entertainment Industry

Dr Ed Catmull (President, Pixar), Prof Robin King (Sheridan College), Carl Rosendahl (President, Pacific Data Images), Prof Jane Veeder (San Francisco State University) and Prof Richard Weinberg (University of Southern California) discussed the credentials needed to work in the film and television industry.

Dr Ed Catmull, President, Pixar produced Toy Story under contract to Walt Disney (and recipient of two Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).

Pixar was bought from George Lucas of Star Wars fame by Steve Jobs founder of Apple and now recently returned to Apple. Jobs is still retaining his high interest in the state-of-the-art computer animation work of Pixar. The objective of Pixar is to marry Silicon Valley technology with film making creative genius. Toy Story made a profit of $37 million. Jobs owns 60% of Pixar which is currently valued at between $700 million and $800 million. Pixar now have a five-picture deal with Walt Disney.

Question: What do Pixar look for in a student's showreel?

  1. Creative, innovative and personal style.
  2. Tight storyboarding, well conceived (shorter is better - 30 seconds to 2 minutes maximum).

Students think their showreel is their magnum opus. Pixar receives several thousand showreels per week from people wanting jobs. Most are rejected after 10 seconds viewing.

Question: What kind of people are Pixar looking for?

  1. Studios are now becoming more selective. Jobs are available but you have to prove your worth. The very top students who can demonstrate they have the right creative skills to achieve success for the company can command a salary of $80-100K p.a.
  2. Students need to give attention to proper educational foundations. In general they try to get around learning the basics to use the latest piece of software for special effects. This is a mistake, and shows in what they do for their showreel.
  3. Students' storytelling is generally very shallow (often concentrating on roller coaster rides and special effects). Lack of depth to the stories. No life experience to give good, deep stories.
  4. Craft and skills are needed first, in order to be able to use the computer creatively. Observational skills are needed.

Summary: Three Common Misconceptions

(To be continued in the next issue - including information on the SIGGRAPH Exhibition)

Rae Earnshaw
University of Bradford, UK

Bill Boffin
Computing Suppliers Federation, UK