SIGGRAPH 2017: Back Again, But For How Long?

Posted By David Blumenfeld on August 02, 2017 06:33 am | Permalink
After a year away, SIGGRAPH is back in Los Angeles, and once more, I'm fortunate enough to spend a few days checking out the latest tech, production recaps, and other highlights those in the visual effects, animation, and computer graphics fields have to offer. I couldn't come to the show on Sunday due to prior obligations, but was happy to start my week off here.

Attending provides me an opportunity to immerse myself in the latest trends and techniques, all of which I share with the artists I work with, while providing great value for the company where I practice my craft. For any of you who have been here in the past, you'll remember the little ribbons along the bottom of your badge, indicating some form of your qualifications, access level, and other special merits. I learned today that the "pioneer" ribbon is exclusively for those who have attended the show for 20 years or more. Personally, I've been in this field more than long enough to qualify, but I didn't start going to SIGGRAPH until the early 2000's, so it'll still be a while before I get that, but I'm not so sure the show will be around long enough for that to happen.

In years past, I've talked about how the expo floor seems to have less company presence each time and how attendance seems to be down from prior shows, but never has it seemed so pronounced to me as it has this year. I always park in the West Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center, as it gives me convenient access to the 110 Freeway entrance at the end of the day. 

This morning when I pulled in, the lot was nearly empty, and as I walked through the doors, for a moment I was concerned that I made a mistake and should've gone to Anaheim. As it turns out, the show was only going on in the South Hall, whereas before it took up both South and West. Upon picking up my badge, I noticed the Conference Locator handbook was smaller as well. While looking through it to plan out my week, I no longer had the problem of having to choose between simultaneous Production Sessions, as there were no more overlaps, another bad sign. At a quarter to 2pm, I got in line for the Making of Disney's Beauty and the Beast Production Session, only to find out it had been cancelled. This trend continued throughout the day. There seemed to be far less courses and technical papers, and while the expo floor was still being constructed for Tuesday, there was a lot more unoccupied room up front, and looking through the Exhibitor and Job Fair Participant lists, even more big names and companies seem to be absent.

All of this leads to my concern that perhaps, much like the big box retail stores, the age of the technical expo is also coming to a bleak end sooner than expected. I can make many guesses as to why this may be happening, but none of them are based on actual data, only my personal opinion. It could be possible that the cost of buying a booth and the advertising materials that go with it simply no longer show a positive return on investment, or maybe the Internet age has made this venue seem archaic. Papers can be published online, while making-of videos and tutorials can be shared via YouTube and other similar methods of delivery. In either case, it's a real shame, as there is a significant value to be gained from the human experience this show offers, especially in a field that already places people in small dark boxes by themselves for increasingly long hours, interacting with clients, co-workers, and fellow artists virtually rather than physically. 

Sometimes, this isn't always better. I'm a pretty high-tech guy, and I use apps for many things to make my life more convenient and my tasks quicker and easier, but I still prefer the paper Conference Locator booklet for planning my day over the SIGGRAPH app because it's simply quicker to pull it out of my pocket and flip to a dog eared page with a checkmark on it than to navigate the app. Sitting in a room with the creators and supervisors of a film or the authors of a research paper, being able to ask them questions and shake their hands, and seeing friends and former co-workers simply can't be replicated any other way. I guess we'll see what happens, and I hope I'm wrong, but I would highly encourage you to attend this show or one in the near future before it becomes just another page in tech history, an awkward story us old guys tell the young interns who will eventually replace us.

Since I had a few hours unexpectedly free up, I decided to check out my back-up plan and attend the course on Multithreading for Visual Effects, and I'm glad I did. This was obviously a pretty technical talk that began with an overview of what multiprocessing is, the difference between vectorization (parallel processing) and threading, how they should be employed to work together in combination efficiently and for maximum speed increase, and what various tools and frameworks exist for this, including Intel's Threading Building Blocks and flow graphs. Understanding that many popular programming languages such as C, C++, C#, Java, Python, Perl, and Ruby were never built natively for threaded usage is key, so using specialized tools for this purpose is important to reduce workarounds and significant amounts of unnecessary code. 

From this foundational explanation, some developers from Disney proceeded to explain some custom tools that they have recently written to capitalize on multithreaded environments. They showed tools like Nitro, a Maya viewport accelerator used to significantly speed up redraws for faster playblasting, and their rig-caching systems Pose Cache and Parade, which speed up rig playback performance for faster-than-realtime viewing of animation interactively. All of these systems have helped streamline the animation workflow for their artists. With the Pose Cache system, all rig control values are sent into a custom node, where multiple threads operate to convert that pose to a cached geometry data file of reduced complexity (mathematically, not visually), reducing the amount of dag-tree evaluation during subsequent playback. With Parade (an add-on extension to Pose Cache), the prior process is split out to separate tasks which are each sent to individually spawned batch Maya sessions, allowing multiple frames to create their pose caches simultaneously.

By using these in combination, rather than having to cache through each frame linearly, multiples can happen at once, allowing cached viewport playback to occur in a fraction of the time. Using the three of these tools in conjunction means an animator can view their playback results incredibly quickly and even produce a playblast rendered version blazingly fast. Making changes to individual frames only requires the modofied data to be re-cached for playback. The more iterations an artist can create in a shorter amount of time, the quicker they can reach their goal of final animation and move through more shots faster with a higher quality result. All of this was attained by simply making use of threading and parallel processing, and since processor speed has reached a peak, this is the only current way to realize significant speed improvements. These ideas and implementations can clearly be extended to many more areas, and hopefully as the price of hardware continues to drop, this will likely be the focus of future development in the near-term.

From there, I decided to check out the panel with the founders of Blue Sky Studios called CGIStudio: Thirty Years, One Renderer. This talk focused on their in-house raytracer, CGIStudio, and how it has evolved over time. It's funny to see how their forward thinking goal of using physically based shading via raytracing and global illumination was once thought odd, but now is the defacto standard of most all production renderers today, a clear sign of them being ahead of their time. They shared fun stories of the early days and projects, the challenges and history of how they got started in the business, and the evolution of their films and the awards they garnered along the way.

I opted to end the day with the Computer Animation Festival Electronic Theater, and it was not a let-down in the least. After the awards presentations, a number of short films were shown, including the amazing student film Garden Party ( and the heartwarming stylized Scrambled (,as well as some game trailers,snippets from currentfeature films, and a few out-there experimental animations. I enjoyed many of the things I saw, and it's inspiring to see work of such high quality.

All in all, it was a good day, and I was happy to be back. I'm looking forward to the rest of the week's schedule, as well as seeing if there's anything of interest on the expo floor. As always, if you want more details or have comments or questions, feel free to email me at, and I'll try to get back to you as soon as possible. Check back tomorrow for more, and now, off to bed!