Festival Watch
SIGGRAPH 2003: July 27
Photo credit: Little Fluffy Clouds

Emru Townsend · July 27
| This year, SIGGRAPH—undoubtedly the most important conference related to computer graphics and animation—is being held in lovely San Diego. Actually, my description doesn't do SIGGRAPH justice; it's more about technology, art and interactive applications, spanning everything from a seven-foot tall, digitally composited work printed on canvas to a presentation on a haptic vest for remote stroking of pets. But to be sure, animation makes up a huge part of it, with artists and gearheads commingling to show off and discuss the art and technology of the moving image.

Some of the events and presentations I'll be attending this week cover independent animation production, Japanimation (their word, for all the sticklers out there) and 3D stereographic businesses in Japan, Finding Nemo's production, and the viability of using Macromedia Flash for feature animation. And Wednesday I'll be busy chairing three sessions that detail how work was created for The Matrix Reloaded, The Two Towers, The Hulk, as well as a production that takes a traditional Asian art—Chinese shadow plays—into the digital realm. All of these will be reported on as they happen.

But today, I went to the movies.

One of the highlights of SIGGRAPH every year is the Electronic Animation Theater, a two-hour compilation of some of the most spectacular, funny, and moving short digital animation of the year. But that's only one part of the broader Computer Animation Festival, which also encompasses the Animation Theater, a collection of four programs of shorts, each nearly two hours long themselves. It may not be the cream, but it's certainly the best of the rest.

Today I caught two of the Animation Theater programs, "Storytelling" and "Realities Challenged." The most interesting films from the "Storytelling" program were those that used no dialogue, expressing themselves mainly through animation and music. In particular, Little Fluffy Clouds' Au petite mort is a little gem. It follows a dragonfly's flight, a fish's undersea travels and the fish's attempt to eat the dragonfly with a graceful show of colour, light and motion, alternating between frenzied action and oceanic calm, lending the ironic circle-of-life ending a quiet humour.

On the other hand, Hiroyasu Shimo's Mekarate eschews nature entirely; an office worker nods off at his computer late at night, and has disquieting dreams—only to awaken to find that there are worse things happening in the waking world, with much more in store for him. Contemporary Japanese anime and cinema directors have a singular talent for depicting alienation, and this film practically reeks of it, amid all the horrific biomechanical creatures that torment the lead character. Distressing audio and a visual aesthetic that faithfully mimics a handheld video recording contribute to make Mekarate so disturbing you can't look away.

Photo credit: Vinton Studios
"Realities Challenged" is a good program title, because its varied meanings all work. Some of the works combine the unreal with the real (it seems almost inevitable that several involve prehistoric creatures), some are dry simulations, and one postulates what could be. The two standouts are National Gallery of Art/Tangerine Studios' Empire of the Eye: Andrea Pozzo and Vinton Studios' Dia de los Muertos. Empire of the Eye is educational, explaining how Pozzo's brilliant perspective illustration on the ceiling of St. Ignatius fools the eye. It's a cheeky concept: Pozzo created the illusion of depth by painting on a flat surface, and the film uses CG to show the reality of how the eye perceives the image, as well as how the church would really look were the painted columns, arches, and dome real.

Dia de los Muertos is set in Mexico, with live characters portrayed using stop-motion, and the carousing, skeletal spirits of the dead in CG. The skeletons are a touch too smooth—a tiny bit of stop-mo jerkiness would have suited them well—but the overall mood is one of eerie melancholy, thanks to the low-key tone, beautiful sets, and understated but sensual colours.
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