If you don't know, Siggraph is the big annual computer graphics convention. I've been attending since way back in the late 80's (when it was mostly about medical imaging), but I hadn't been in a few years. (As Big Idea grew and we were sending lots of people who were much smarter than I, it got to the point where I finally asked myself, “Why am I here?” So I stopped going.)
So now that I'm out on my own again, I thought it was about time to return to Siggraph. And it was a lot of fun. I bumped into some Big Idea alumni (Josh Gunther and Rob Ducey) who are now at Mike Young Productions and Will Vinton Studios, I believe. They're both great guys, and it was good to see them again.
What struck me the most about the exhibition was that many of the big players had shrunken their booths considerably. Alias and Softimage, the two big players in the 3D software biz, were each in spaces maybe 1/4 the size I remember from 5 or 6 years ago. And when I saw Silicon Graphics' booth my jaw dropped. In the late 90's their booth resembled a small city, easily the largest in the show. And now their tiny presence brought to mind a guy with a folding table. It's kinda sad, really, considering that I cut my teeth on their hardware. (I think I still have a scar on my knee from tripping in a parking lot while carrying my SGI Personal IRIS workstation out to my car. I sacrificed my knee to save my workstation… $25,000 for 16meg of ram and a 320meg hard drive.) Well, the world zigged, and Silicon Graphics zagged. That either means you're a genius and you're going to get stinking rich, or your presence at the trade shows will soon be a guy and a folding table. Things are tough all over.
One of the highlights was a two-hour seminar on puppetry and CGI. (If you don't remember, Mike and I met as puppeteers in Bible college.) The panel included folks from Tippet Studios, Henson and others. The highlight was the presence of Dave Goelz, the long-time Muppet performer of Gonzo, Bunson Honeydew and others. He actually brought out Gonzo in the middle of the seminar, which made everyone flip out.
Henson has a new group working on digital puppetry, where CG characters are driven in realtime by multiple puppeteers, using very expensive, complicated-looking hardware interfaces. They were in the nVideo booth on the tradeshow floor demonstrating a digital character, who just happened to be a mermaid wearing very little clothing. (There's nothing like scantily-clad women, either real or virtual, to attract men to a tradeshow booth. Except at the Christian Booksellers convention. There you can only use candy. But that's another story.)
Here's a picture of me and Henson's digital mermaid.
No, wait… that's me and my friend Paul again. Sorry.
So I'm standing there watching this mermaid – not for the outfit, mind you, it's the technology I'm interested in – when who walks by, but Dave Goelz! So we get to talking, and sure enough he knows about VeggieTales and Jonah and all that, and I tell him about the essay I wrote in 5th grade declaring my goal in life was to one day work for Jim Henson. And of course, Classic Media attempted to buy the Muppets, and successfully bought Bob and Larry, so we had that to talk about, too. We must have talked for a half-an-hour, and by golly, he's about the nicest guy you could ever want to meet! And that got me thinking about how sometimes when you watch certain characters, and you think, “Boy, the people behind those characters must not be very pleasant,” and then you see characters like the Muppets that are just wonderful and sweet, and you wonder if the people behind them are wonderful and sweet, too. And guess what? They are! I've heard great things about Jim Henson, and from meeting Dave Goelz it's pretty clear that he surrounded himself with a group of really wonderful people, and all together they made those characters what they are.
Like Pixar, for example. From what I've heard, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter are great guys, and they seem to have attracted a bunch more great guys (and gals), and as a result, their films are populated with characters you just love.
And speaking of Pixar, my other highlight of the trip was Pixar's new short, “Boundin',” which was directed by Bud Luckey (whom I believe is the mascot for a brand of jeans, isn't he?). Anyway, this new short, in the form of a sort of western ‘story-song' (you know, the kind that starts out, “Let me tell the tale of a buckeroo…” and rhymes), is absolutely fantastic. It's cute as can be, funny, touching, splendidly animated (of course), and what do you know – it even has a moral lesson! When it was over, I desperately wanted them to rewind the film and show it again. As I was watching it, I found myself thinking, “This is exactly the sort of thing Disney should be making right now.” It was perfect. It had Walt's heart, great character design and development, great humor, and I couldn't help but think that that was what Disney films should feel like today. If only they hadn't lost their way so badly. And Pixar has found it, thanks to the leadership of Ed Catmull and John Lassetter who are not just brilliant, but also wonderfully sweet. Like Jim Henson before them, and Walt before them all.
Hopefully, Pixar will tack this short onto the front of “The Incredibles.” You've got to see it. It just made me feel so good I wanted to hug someone.
That about wraps up my Siggraph experience. There were a ton of great short films from all over the world… Japan, Korea, even Czechoslovakia. Most of which you'll never see, unfortunately, since there's no distribution channel for short films in the US. (And most of which wouldn't have been made without these governments subsidizing the work of local animators, another dynamic that doesn't exist in the US. Which means shorts only get made in the US in film schools or at studios that actually care about the craft and are rich enough to afford the total loss of money they represent. Read: Pixar.)
So look for “Boundin',” smile the next time you see a Muppet, and meet me in LA for Siggraph next year. I'll be back!