SIGGRAPH: Always choose problems worth solving

Posted By Michael Stein on August 09, 2011 10:53 am | Permalink

Before today's keynote speech, a moment of silence was held for Andy Witkin, who passed away last September. Andy had a distinguished career in computer graphics, and was most recently a researcher and computer scientist at Pixar. I had the privilege of being one of his students as an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon, and then 10 years later being one of his co-workers at Pixar.

Reflecting on Andy's contributions made me think about being part of the graphics community, and how great it is to have a chance to not only attend a conference, where we can come together and discuss technological advances, but to be able to step outside the day-to-day and reflect on where we've come, and look to where we are headed. Being in one place with colleagues and friends make you realize how we are solving similar problems, and perhaps by communicating and collaborating we can quickly solve the problems that challenge us, and move on to the unique problems, or at the least the harder ones together.

Andy was known for telling his students and colleagues "always pick problems worth solving." So much what I've seen so far follows that maxim. On Sunday, at the "Pushing Production Data" talks, Dreamworks presented a novel approach for doing out-of-core global illumination using points, which was used on Kung Fu Panda 2 and scales to billions of points in a single scene. Weta, known for both their digital effects as well as their practical prop-making, approached the problem of digitizing props through a setup which controlled both a physical turntable as well as a digital camera, and unique computer vision algorithms. Capturing images in a controlled environment enables them to get accurate representations efficiently. 

"Facing Hairy Production Problems" presented solutions for different game and film production challenges, include two different approaches to writing parallel code that works efficient on both CPUs and GPUs.

The conference kicked off in force on Monday, with a full slate of talks, panels and courses. Cory Doctorow presented the keynote, which was focused on what has gone wrong with copyright and how to fix it. For a conference attended by many industries, which ultimately generate creative works, there seems to be no greater problem which affects as many people attending SIGGRAPH.

One common theme that's been picking up steam over the last several years is open source software. The movement has had a huge impact on the software industry at large, and the visual effects, animation, and games industries are starting to make great strides. 

At a panel entitled "The Need for Standardization within Global Visual Effects Productions Through Open Source and Open Standards," industry veterans from MPC, Sony Imageworks, ILM, and others discussed how open source efforts can enable studios to benefit from knowledge and experience outside their walls, allowing them to focus on the unique challenges that each faces. The discussion focused on a number of key issues, including the initial formation of an open source project, choosing the proper governance model, and which areas of the visual effects/animation pipelines are good for open source projects. Some of the discussion was focused on Alembic (, an open source interchange format developed by Sony Imageworks and ILM. Much of the industry is watching Alembic's development carefully to see whether it can serve as a successful model for open source standards or if it will just add yet another standard to a somewhat crowded area filled with past attempts. In general, many facilities are working to understand how new open source projects might improve their workflows and let them focus on other problems "worth solving."

That's all for now from Vancouver. Check back for more updates throughout the week.

Michael Stein is with The Moving Picture Company in London. He can be reached at: