Thursday, August 18, 2005

Brave New World

First the setting, then the story ...

The setting: The L.A. Convention Center runs roughly parallel to the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles, stretching for block after block, like a vast glass and metal snake sunning itself on a rock. The place is huge — 720,000 square feet of exhibition space, 54 meeting rooms, assorted food courts, a cavernous theater and a parking garage with more levels than Dante’s Inferno. In local terms, you could easily fit the Van Wezel, all the boats at the annual Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix, the Opera House, the Arts Day celebration and all of Sarasota’s available downtown parking (and then some) inside. From July 31 to Aug. 4, Siggraph was inside.

What’s Siggraph? If you want to get technical about it, the quaintly named Association for Computing Machinery has a series of special interest groups (i.e.: SIGs). The “SIG” devoted to computer GRAPHics has a conference every year. This is it. Technically speaking, that’s all this is.

But there’s much more to it than that: Siggraph is Woodstock for nerds. Five days of peace, love and pixels. It’s a tradeshow for the vendors of illusion. Want to buy fake fire, water, skin, characters, explosions, samurais, starships or planets in a shrink-wrapped box? They’ll sell it to you.

It’s a job fair for sorcerers’ apprentices seeking employment in the illusion business.

It’s a scientific conference for the sorcerers themselves — the scientists, mathematicians and researchers who do the math behind the illusions. It’s a cyberpunk fashion show for next-wave designers.(Imagine a cross between “Zoolander” and “Neuromancer” strutting around on the runway.) For digital animators,
it’s the equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival. Siggraph exhibits the best of its work (which includes cartoons, commercials, scientific visualizations and snippets from feature films) at a series of rotating screenings. The best of the best is featured at its Electronic Theater. Being included in Siggraph at all is an honor, but it’s a screening before an internal audience of digiterati, not mass exposure. As area digital artist Bruce Baughman put it, “Siggraph can start your career, but it doesn’t make your career. You haven’t arrived. But if you’ve got the drive and ambition, it’s an open door.”

An open door is nothing to sneeze at.

Year after year, the Ray Harryhausens of ray tracing converge on Siggraph to participate. They come from around the world and across America. Many come from Sarasota; they’re either students or graduates of the Ringling School of Art and Design’s Computer Animation Department. They must be doing something

Not everybody is, at least not in America. Take away the Staples Center across the street (which was currently hosting the X-Games and ringed by in-your-face posters and pennants and hagiographic images of athletes the size of buildings) and you might think you were in downtown Tokyo or Beijing. About half of Siggraph’s participants seem to be young, gifted and Asian. Another good chunk is European, predominantly German. The schools over there are doing more than talk about the future. They’re creating it. The schools over here?

In so many words, George Lucas called the American educational system “woefully lacking” in his keynote address. He then shared his plans to take advantage of Asia’s talent base by moving Lucas Arts’ 3D animation division there. Downsizing, in other words. You could hear a collective groan move from one end of the auditorium to the other, rising up from the American animators, imagining their jobs disappear, watching sacks of money with wings flying out the window in the cartoon theater of the mind.

But Lucas is right. The jobs go where the talent is; the talent goes where the education is; America’s educational system is wasting America’s talent. The Ringling School of Art and Design is an exception. That’s why the art school’s students and alumni always makes a strong showing at Siggraph — as strong as some countries. 2005 was no exception.

So what is the area art school doing right?

The story is the story.

Ringling’s once-and-future talent earns a strong showing thanks to strong stories. Not all the digital animators at Siggraph (from America or anywhere else) can boast that. Some create pretty, abstract patterns with no stories; some simulate tornadoes; some offer stories that look cool and make no sense. Ringling’s students and graduates offer tales that make you laugh, cry or both with a beginning, middle and end. They’re as good at the technology of narrative as they are at Lightwave and Maya. Why?

Mary Craig, the art school’s assistant director of marketing and communications, considered this question. During the conference, she was in charge of Ringling’s booth on the exhibition floor, handing out colored and monochromatic M&Ms when she wasn’t handing out answers to questions like the above.

“Because they’ve been taught,” she said, “every Ringling student gets a grounding in the humanities in our first-year core program. Storytelling is a big part of it. They know the mechanics. They know the history. They have that foundation.”

It shows. You can see it in Joshua Beveridge’s slyly comic “Things that Go Bump in the Night.” The visuals are gorgeous, but the filmmaker never forgets that every frame is telling a joke. You also can see it in Jeff Fowler’s Oscar-nominated digital cartoon short, “Gopher Broke.” The tale of greed and frustration is stripped to essentials, as elegantly told as a sonnet and laugh-out-loud funny.

Beveridge said, “People have the wrong idea when it comes to animation. It seems like a loose, spontaneous, fun thing to do. There’s nothing spontaneous about it. My four-minute short took more planning that anything I’ve ever done.”
He said that Ringling not only taught him not only how to tell great stories — it taught him to do it on a deadline.

“The job has to get done,” he said. “The instructors never let you forget it. Telling a great story is the heart of your job as an animator. That’s the reason story is pushed so hard. Your instructors tell you again and again: Everything rests on one idea. No matter how talented you are or what wonderful tools you have, it all rests on that one idea, and the simpler the better. That’s another thing a lot of people don’t understand. They think a simple idea is easy. Simple is hard. Stripping a story down to its essence and telling it in a few minutes is very hard. That’s what you learn at Ringling. The process is miserable while you’re going through it. When you get through it you realize, hey, your instructors were right.”

Beveridge graduated in 2004. “Things that go Bump in the Night” was his senior thesis at Ringling — and the reason he’s now working at Sony Imageworks.
Fowler graduated from Ringling in 2002. He is now an animator at Blur Studios out of Venice, Calif. That’s where he created his featured cartoon short in 2004. He’s equally grateful for the storytelling edge the school gave him.

“People hurry into computer graphics before they know what to do with it,” he said. “But the story has to come first. That’s one thing the computer can’t do for you. The curriculum at Ringling always stressed that.”

Fowler spoke highly of the talent on Ringling’s Computer Animation faculty: Jim McCampbell, its department head, Karen Sullivan, the department coordinator ... Deborah Healy ... Jamie DeRuyter ... and other names lost in the crackling blur of a borrowed So-Cal cell phone. He spoke just as highly of his fellow students.
“It’s both collaborative and competitive,” he says. “Your fellow students look good, it drives you to look good. You also help each other look good.”

They do. Ringling’s animation alumni look good — out in the real world, where it counts. They’re doing great work, but they’re usually doing it somewhere else. The big digital production studios aren’t in Florida. Florida’s economy remains rooted in tourism and real estate, not technology. As a result, year after year, Sarasota’s world-class art school sends out another crop of world-class talent to someplace else in the world.

But that’s another story.


‘Gopher Broke’ is a tale of need and greed Chuck Jones would be proud of. A gopher (as wily as any coyote) is looking for a free lunch. Thanks to a pothole
and a few unsuspecting truck farmers, he finally gets it. But it’s more than he can swallow. Nominated for an Academy Award in 2004. Featured in Siggraph’s Electronic Theater. Animator: Jeff Fowler.

‘Sal and the Great Frustration’ introduces a nonagenarian who’s puttering around on a motorized wheelchair but roaring down the road in a ’20s roadster in his mind. Featured in Siggraph’s Electronic Theater. Animator: Andrew Malesky.

‘To Air is Human’ concerns a man who’s a rock star in his mind. His air guitar addiction has cost him his house, his job, his girlfriend. Out on the streets, he still rocks on. Featured in Siggraph’s Computer Animation Festival. Animator: Christopher Bancroft.

‘Things that go Bump in the Night’ is a sly, comic tale of childhood terror that moves from primal scream to primal scene as a child discovers there are more disturbing things in the world than the monster
under your bed. Featured in Siggraph’s Electronic Theater. Animator: Joshua Beveridge.

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