How's Your SIGGRAPH?

This past week was SIGGRAPH, a yearly event held in different cities. The last LA one was in 2012, so it’s been a while since I’ve been.

I half-jokingly suggested to Dan that would we meet up at SIGGRAPH and tour it like other podcasters do with CES or WWDC. One of our favorite podcasts (we’re podcast fans too) had a comedy bit poking fun at people constantly asking other people, “How’s your CES?”

Then, before I knew it, we had plans in place and Dan was coming to LA, I was taking a day off work, and we were making silly jokes.

It was such a busy week I haven’t even had the chance to reflect on it until now.

Tuesday, I had to drop off my car (some jerk hit it when it was parked) and pick up a rental, work a day, drive to downtown (turns out there was a Dodgers game causing traffic!), go to a Ringling College of Art and Design event, stop by the bar Dan and I selected for the meet up, and then meet Dan in person in Little Tokyo. I found out at the bar that they had a membership policy, so I got to worry about that, and I had a nasty aftertaste from a margarita and a mojito, so I took a little travel-sized bottle of Listerine I had with me to meet Dan. I spit the mouthwash into a planter just in time to turn to Dan waving to me. I’m not sure how the day could have gone any smoother.

The next day, I met Dan again, picking him up from the LA Hotel (weird name, right?) I put Dan in charge of getting us to the downtown Blue Bottle Coffee (formerly Handsome Coffee). This didn’t work out because Dan’s phone thought he was in Arizona still. Good thing we were in Downtown Los Angeles where the streets are so easy breezy. Ha. We got there, got our coffee and headed back to The Los Angeles Convention Center.

The LACC is a sprawling complex of buildings, with various halls and parking garages. The LA Auto Show uses up the whole thing and there’s frequently plenty of people parking in the private lots around the center. Not for SIGGRAPH this year. Everything was closed up except one garage. Hardly any foot traffic around the building. If you were passing by the buildings, you would assume it was closed.

Making our way to pick up or passes was also strange. In years past, the registration has been in rooms, or in the lobby, downstairs. This year they crammed it next to the “Art Gallery” section. Dan and I had “Exhibition Only” passes which didn’t include the brightly colored, VR-tastic area so we walked back to the main show floor.

So small. Not only were there fewer companies on the floor, but each company dialed back their elaborate booths. Areas had little stands with cloth curtains to sort of shrink in the space (so it didn’t look like a void with a few stray booths). It was pretty depressing and it took hardly any time to walk the show floor to survey what was on offer. Some booths were just a table, others had tables and some demo stations of different products, like Image Metrics which would track bloody wounds, or makeup, on to your face in real time.

A few booths had space for presentations, with some chairs or benches, and large screens. Dan and I witnessed a few of the presentations, but it was all fairly auto-piloty, with slideshows, or sped up movies of workflows.

The Foundry hosted some nice ones for Mari with two texture painters from a video game studio, and another with a presentation from Tippett Studios about how they used Katana and Nuke to quickly execute a sequel project in half the time as the original. (Videos of the booth presentations are available on The Foundry’s site, but it does require creating a login to view them.)

There were some presentations in little rooms upstairs, but the schedules weren’t posted anywhere Dan and I noticed until we wandered up there. By then it was mostly for topics we did not have an enormous interest in.

Even though it was Wednesday, of a week long convention, it seemed to be winding down. Most major things seemed to have happened Monday or Tuesday. I certainly wouldn’t book a week to attend, unless I was some big head-honcho. A Renderman “Art and Science Fair” was scheduled for that night, but it ran for several hours and would have consumed the limited time Dan and I had (besides, neither of us use Renderman these days). Renderman did seem to be the biggest draw, but mostly because people are interested in Pixar (the line for the walking teapots was so long).

We went back to Dan’s hotel, recorded half of a podcast episode wrong, and then half of a podcast episode right. Listen to Episode 59 here.

We grabbed some dinner at a pretty lackluster restaurant (rounding out a full day of pretty unexceptional dining) and finally sorted out how to get people in to the membership-required bar (Dan and I are both members of a rum bar now.) One of the podcast listeners that came to the event even went to SIGGRAPH, but I continue to be fascinated by the listeners we have that enjoy the show regardless of all the inside-baseball stuff about VFX nerdery. Very thankful for all the listeners, even those that could not make it.

Reflecting on the whole thing, I came away with a pretty negative impression of SIGGRAPH 2015. It doesn’t seem to service artists a whole lot, and seems like more of a corporate networking event. Even the job fair section shriveled up and tumbleweeds blew through it. Although Imageworks had a big booth, they were hiring for Vancouver, which still hurts. I wish the people I know there well, but I’ll never be able to work there again. Seemingly none of the other companies were all that interested in LA either. Dan got a free mint though.

Incongruously, there is a ton of cool stuff that comes out of SIGGRAPH. Papers, presentations, software, etc. It mostly affects you if you’re lucky enough to work at a company that can take advantage of these advancements. Or even companies that have R&D budgets. I encourage everyone, regardless of their chosen discipline to check out the work. Stephen Hill from Ubisoft in Montreal is collecting links and putting them up on his blog.

How about a demo of OTOY’s path-tracing, physically-based renderer that streams right to your desktop browser? There’s even a real-time subsurface scattering demo that works in WebGL in your friggin’ phone’s browser.

Seriously, go look through all the amazing stuff people make that you won’t see on tech news sites.

However, if you would prefer to digest this through a news site, I would recommend fxguide, which had a number of people covering it in great detail. Day one, day two, and day three.

The industry I work in sure has changed a lot in the three years since I last attended one in LA, and I was confused about why they even bothered to have it in LA at all this year, let alone Anaheim next year, and LA again the year after that. Sony Pictures Imageworks’ move to North made Vancouver the largest concentration of VFX workers. Sure, there are small places, like my current employer, as well as Disney Animation and DreamWorks, but it hardly seems like a thriving community with high morale. Video games seems to supplement some of those motion picture losses. But they mostly seek out engineers, not artists. Same for VR.

Would I attend another? Sure. Who knows, maybe things will turn around for people in my particular position. Barring that, I’ll at least be able to document it’s steady decline. Yay.

At least I have the podcast with Dan, people that enjoy it, and some neat projects to look at.

2015-08-16 23:52:00

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