I first attended a SIGGRAPH convention in 1983. The International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques was held in Detroit that year. I traveled with Tim Onosko, a technology writer from Madison, Wisconsin, to learn about pixels and how computers were able to help with the laborious process of animation.
Traditional cel animation had no inate ability to illustrate 3D geometry, only providing photographic 2 1/2 D depth through multiplaned layers of glass shot on the animation camera stand. In the 70’s I had worked on a few independent cel animated projects with Steven Lisberger in Boston, and we imagined that in the future perhaps computers would replace the drudgery of inking and painting acetate cels. I was shocked to see Steve had moved into 3D computer animation when he wrote and directed TRON, and I was determined to catch up on this innovation.
SIGGRAPH 1983 was a rush of excitement, a real eye opener. I attended a 2 day course presented by staff members of NYIT’s computer graphics lab; Fred Parke, Duane Palyka, and Lance Williams to name a few. They were writing their own software and systems to aid 2D painting, tweening and 3D animation. At small gatherings and parties I met some of the leading thinkers in new media at the time, such as Gene Youngblood whose book EXPANDED CINEMA had influenced me greatly in my earlier undergraduate film school studies.
There was a great sense of anticipation and invention. The software engineers and artists at SIGGRAPH 1983 knew they were staring at a wide open territory fresh for developing new frontiers in 3D animation, gaming and filmmaking. Back in those days, the animation industry itself was weak. MTV was just starting to spark new creative endeavors in music video production. Pixar, The Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, Ren and Stimpy, Beavis and Butthead, South Park – none of these had happened yet.
By 1984 I was working at NYIT Computer Graphics Lab as a 2D compositor, experimenting with animating a 3D Gumby model which appeared as part of the SIGGRAPH 1984 Electronic Theater. In 1985 and 86 I was NYIT’s post production director for their SIGGRAPH show reels.
The upward momentum of computer graphics and animation in those days was even more intoxicating than the great Internet ramp up and bubble in the late 90’s. Yet today, you can’t escape the influence of computer graphics. Animated pixels and visual effects are part of almost every motion picture, television show and certainly every computer monitor. I would argue that today there is as much or more artwork generated by computer artists than by traditional painters and sculptors.
SIGGRAPH has lost that magical luster of cultish wizardry for me. It’s a routine convention machine now, carefully connecting large educational institutions with large corporations and influencial Hollywood studios. Also, in the past, employers were more willing to help pay your way to a special conference such as the SIGGRAPH that once was. Now the corporations are tighter, and travel expenses to just another convention are often seen as an obstacle. Although the mystical secret genie of SIGGRAPH was out of the bottle over 10 years ago, if I were paid to cover SIGGRAPH I’d go and know what to look for.
SIGGRAPH will still be full of great technical papers, panels taught by smart guys looking to have some of their costs covered, and more student animation than you will have time to sit through. So for me it’s more of the same, mostly redundant stuff, and not the excitement of riding a remote new wave with a small band of pioneers that it used to be.
As the Donald Fagen song The Goodbye Look goes…
The rules are changed, it’s not the same
It’s all new players in a whole new ball game.