SIGGRAPH 2017 - I blinked, and it was over

Posted By David Blumenfeld on August 21, 2017 08:08 am | Permalink
As seems to happen all too quickly, the last day of SIGGRAPH was once again upon me. I left the house this morning looking at my watch, trying to remember what time we were officially married.  Today was my 14th wedding anniversary, and I asked my wife what time it actually occurred at, as I wanted to at least text her if I could at the precise moment (you know how us die-hard romantics are). We knew it was after noon, most likely between 1pm and 2pm. Since neither of us could remember exactly, in an effort to pick something, she decided 1:42pm would be the time. I disagreed of course and thought, since the ceremony took place in Porter Ranch right off the 118 freeway, that would make 1:18pm easier to remember, so 1:18pm it was (because I always win, right...guys?!). I'm not sure if making up the time is any better than not remembering at all, but whatever, it's my life and I'll live it how I damn well please!

I finally arrived at the show, eager to attend the final three production sessions of the day and make it out onto the expo floor before it started closing down and ask a few extra questions I had thought of the night before. I made my way to the "Blizzard Entertainment Presents: The Making of the Overwatch Animated Shorts" presentation, eager to hear what they had to say.

A good friend of mine and former co-worker, Enrique Muñoz, is a lead cinematic artist and senior lighter on these projects, so I was excited to see more about the making of. In addition, I know that Blizzard is using Redshift to render these projects, and as Redshift is the primary renderer I have used for the past two years, it also piqued my interest to see if they were doing anything unique and cool with it. The presentation was well done, and they showed numerous clips from three different shorts, all of which looked fantastic. One thing, which I thought was interesting, was a unique procedural smoke trail creation system they came up with in-house to save significant time on this type of effect without having to run CFD (computation fluid dynamics) simulations.

From what I gathered, this was essentially a volumetric fill shader system for Houdini that could be applied to geometry and curves, very similar to a unique cloud rendering system I used last year called Elementacular (check it out at  They talked about their various pipelines, their game level builder called TED, which was pretty cool for creating the world environment to populate and then interact with to construct scenes and shots, and their various in-house lighting tools (Aurora, and its replacement, Overpass), which seemed to be essentially like Katana if I'm not mistaken. They discussed their standardized character mesh called GenMan (version 1 with 32k quads, version 2 with 10k quads), and how their facial rigs all use bone joints and set-driven keys, without the need to use any blend shapes, making the rig more transferrable and easier to pose and control. Of course, the only way they could've accomplished this amount of work in the short timeline they had was to render with Redshift, which has also been a lifesaver for me at Brickyard. The quality, speed, and functionality of it are honestly second to none, and if you haven't had a chance to try it out, I highly suggest you download the fully functional demo and give it a spin in your DCC of choice.

The next presentation I went to was for the "The Making of Marvel Studio's Spider-Man Homecoming," featuring the work of Method, Digital Domain, and Sony Pictures Imageworks. Two of the presenters were former coworkers of mine, including Lou Pecora (whom I worked with on Stealth) and Theo Bialek (whom I worked with on Beowulf). As with the other presentations I saw and wrote about already, most of what they covered was the standard fare. They had to make a city, tons of water, smoke and fire effects, full digital characters and props and sets, etc. All fantastic work to be sure, but as I said, it's all becoming the same in every movie and at this point, it's almost expected that the raw filmed plate will contain an incredibly small percentage of what appears in the final shot, and I'm beginning to wonder why they continue to shoot plates at all sometimes. In either case, it was nice to see them speak about what they created, and I found Method's discussion about recreating Washington, DC, particularly interesting as I was recently tasked with bidding a job where I too would have had to recreate the National Mall, mostly from scratch.

My final session of the day was "The Making of Marvel Studio's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." The sheer volume of work in this film actually eclipsed the others, and I believe the statistic that was thrown out was something along the lines of, out of just under 2,800 shots in the film, only 80 of them didn't have visual effects. I think that works out to over 97 percent.  I guess that's supposed to be a cool statistic, but I'm not sure how I feel about that, so I'll leave that to you to be the judge of the implications. Of course everything looked amazing, though even with shots playing back on loop, I had a hard time focusing on all the bits and pieces in them as there was just so much happening at once. I will say that the way movies are made now has definitely changed and evolved, but I find us at a point where the quantity of work simply can't go up much more (aside from making all the actors in every shot CG), and the quality has reached a pretty high pinnacle as well, so you'd be hard pressed to find a "bad looking" shot in any of these films. 

This of course brings us to the commoditization of visual effects, which in my opinion is not a good thing, but I'm curious to see what the next decade brings as this industry is finally getting close to reaching maturity in my opinion. Naturally, I'm a huge fan of creating visual effects, and it has provided me a great career for many decades now. I love the challenge, the creative freedom it affords on the production side and in the technical arena, and the level and quality of artistry that can be put forth for audiences to enjoy.  However, as with anything, it can't be overused and undervalued to the point that it becomes its own worst enemy and brings about its own demise by putting all the studios that create this work out of business, so some care must be taken as we move forward.

I was able to ask the questions I wanted to on the expo floor during the breaks between production sessions, and am eager to try out a few new pieces of software that are being released soon. And yes, I did remember to text my wife! Once more, I left SIGGRAPH feeling renewed and excited to dive back into the development realm and put to use some of the techniques I observed.  I likely won't be attending next year in Vancouver, but I hope to be back the year after that when it's in Los Angeles again, and I hope you'll either attend or at least tune in to have a read at that time and see what has again changed in that seemingly short span.  

As always, please feel free to reach out to me at  if you have any comments, questions, or thoughts, and until next time, keep striving to create beautiful art and pushing the boundaries of technology in this field that we all hold so dear. It really is the coolest job in the world and I hope to be doing this for many more decades to come!