Festival Watch
SIGGRAPH 2003: July 29
Photo credit: NCSoft

Emru Townsend · July 29
| Today's Animation Theater presentation, "Fun & Games," was the only screening I came away from disappointed. NC Soft's Shining Lore, from the game of the same name, is a whimsical romp featuring very cute anime-style characters, cut from the fantasy adventurer/sorcerer molds, on the run from very cute anime-style villains, like fanged pandas and deranged, bulbous-headed warthogs. There's no real story—the heroes are trying to get away from the critters and escape to some mystical place—and the only things that keep it entertaining are the snappy, colourful graphics and the goofy goings-on. But Namco's SoulCalibur II—Under the Star of Destiny didn't give me any reason to care beyond the cool graphics. I remember thinking that every other article written about modern games talks about the cinematic style and storytelling, but I wondered at the repetitiveness of the stories being told.

Those thoughts were borne out while watching Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, which appeared to be a collection of cut scenes (the narrative bridges between gameplay) organized to form an eighteen-minute fantasy epic.

Ho-freaking-hum. Reign of Chaos had great staging, great vocal performances, and some incredible visuals, from a blackbird's ruffled plumage to a dramatic shot of a warrior standing in the face of awesome pyrotechnics. But these all supported a story that just felt too familiar. It's entirely possible that the actual gameplay makes up for this shortcoming, but on its own it was wobbly and more than a little tiring.

Traffik was a one-note gag, which in itself isn't a bad thing. It was flawlessly executed, but Tex Avery did this gag in the 1950s (empty road; look right, look left; take a step out, and...). What's new here? A dog, plus some gore and a bad-taste (and not unexpected) joke at the end.

Photo credit: Andrew Silke
Gore is also a feature of Andrew Silke's Cane-Toad, a distinctly Aussie entry in which a working-class toad lounges in a dog dish with a beer while wondering alound where his hapless mate Baz has got himself to. We see the different scenarios he's dreamed up, and watching this eager but inevitably doomed amphibian is a hilarious exercise in comic timing and expression. Two of these imagined tableaux end in spectacular messes, though, which might turn off some viewers. Still, it was one of the highlights in a program that was well above average but not as consistent as the rest.

I also attended the Electronic Theater on Tuesday night. The screening itself was preceded by an compilation of highlights from the past decade of Electronic Theaters, presented with a voiceover that had the audience in stitches, while reminding us of how far things have come.

It actually has been pretty interesting to see the Electronic Theater evolve; although this is just my second SIGGRAPH, I've been watching the Video Review compilations of the Electronic Theater for years, and when I think of the first one I ever saw, around 1989, the difference in tone is striking. It's easy to gripe—and I did—that many of the presented films were either high-profile game demos (including a mercifully shortened WarCraft 3: Reign of Chaos), commercials, or clips from big-budget films. Considering that these made up eight of the 28 shorts (ten if you count the music videos Respire and Nature is Ancient), that's certainly true; but then, in that late-'80s Video Review, there were more than a few shorts that were scientific visualizations or demonstrations of then-new techniques like texture mapping. The quest for equilibrium appears to be ongoing. (Incidentally, some were later heard to wonder aloud at the absence of work from Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away.)

This year there were two technical/scientific shorts, but they weren't as dryly dull as the ones from decades before. NVidia's Dawn was only a minute long, but its lush demonstration of real-time rendering wasn't easily forgotten. Molecular Visualizations of DNA started out threatening to be a yawn-inducing explanation of how DNA replicates during cellular mitosis, but the evocative imagery coupled with mechanical sounds made it a fascinating look at what goes on, unseen, in our bodies.

The remaining films were narrative, and most of those tended toward humour. Of particular note was the trio of short films titled The Boxer, featuring two springy toys whose dynamic suggests a brother-sister rivalry as they engage in a battle of wits and fists. Aardman Animations' The Deadline ended up preceding Passion Pictures' Gary's Fall, and I couldn't help thinking that in this Brit stop-mo–style pairing, Passion Pictures out-Aardmaned Aardman. Gary's Fall features a family of polar bears in a zoo, and what happens when dad Gary takes a spill while playing with his son. The character animation and facial expressions are every bit as expressive as Aardman's, but it has less of the talking-head feel of The Deadline.

Photo credit: Sam Chen
Perhaps the most encouraging trend in this year's Computer Animation Festival was an increased focus on lighting and colour as a way of expressing mood. Several of the Electronic Theater shorts made brilliant (pun not intended) use of lighting, the best being Sam Chen's Eternal Gaze, which took this year's award for Best Animated Short Film (though I felt DIGIC Pictures' Exigo was also breathtaking). Eternal Gaze is inspired by the life of painter/sculptor Alberto Giacometti, and focuses on the artist's torment as he spends the last years of his life struggling with his work. Both the visuals and the story are arresting, and it's hard not to get lost in the animated Giacometti's eyes—which, though more intense than the real Giacometti's, are no less captivating. Some people complained about Eternal Gaze's 15:46 length but I felt it was just right, and a perfect way to cap another fine retrospective of the year's best digital work.
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