SIGGRAPH 96’S ELECTRONIC THEATER: A REVIEW

By Alan Beck, editor in chief

August 16, 1996

  New Orleans, La. --  Each year, a SIGGRAPH jury chooses a group of 
what it considers the finest computer-animated vignettes for concatenation
and showing during its convention. The latest selection consists of 46 clips,
ranging in character from pure art to crass commercialism. 

  All are excellent and truly represent the state-of-the-art. Yet,
personalities and tastes differ, so this reviewer apologizes in advance if
his remarks reflect a narrow, idiosyncratic bias and overlook much. The
incredible creativity and technical virtuosity brought to bear in each and
every offering were apparent to the entire audience throughout and are
necessarily taken for granted in the commentary that follows. 

  Although computer animation -- electronic theater -- is new, theater is a
venerable institution in Western culture. This is because for centuries its
practitioners have pursued one primary goal with loving, single-minded 
and often fanatical devotion: staging drama designed to move the human heart.

  Thus, although theater may contain pageantry, it is much more than mere
spectacle. Although it may embody energetic action, it is not sport. Although
it may teach or persuade, it is neither education nor argument. And while
theater may be preeminently entertaining, it transcends common diversion. 

  The elicitation of emotion is the soul of theater. As emotions may be
simple or complex, shallow or profound, fleeting or lasting, theatrical
presentations may be judged by the same measures. Electronic theater, despite
its utilization of extraordinary technologies, cannot escape application of
these ultimate criteria to its value, for such criteria lie now, as they
always have, at the living root of the discipline itself.

  These simple, challenging standards define the relative degrees of success 
achieved by different teams of animators engaged in the pursuit of effective
electronic theater. What a striking difference, for example, between the dry 
stereotypes of athletes presented by Jessica Hodgins in "Atlanta in Motion"
and the genuinely amusing stick figure in James J. Troy's "Dynamic Balance
and Walking Control of Planar Bipeds" -- despite the extremely spare graphic
treatment found in the latter.

  If similarly motivated pieces are compared, the same standards apply with
equal force. The pathetically venal animated Statue of Liberty in R/Greenberg
Associates' puerile "Oldsmobile Caught Their Eye" is cheerfully relegated to
a conceptual dustbin along with its advertising message, while the
hilariously and aggressively absurd star of "Citroen Saxo" by Industrial
Light & Magic is not readily dismissed -- or forgotten. 

  Perhaps no clearer example of this point could be made than by juxtaposing
typical viewer reaction to beautifully-conceived educational pieces like The
Palladian Group's "Fibonacci and the Golden Mean" and NCSA/Cosmic Voyage
Inc's "Cosmic Voyage: Galaxy Formation and Interaction" with the
eyeball-rolling dullness of "Computer Aided Cornea Modeling and 
Visualization" by UC Berkeley's Brian A. Barsky.

  While many of the art pieces communicated a sinister tone, they deserve
special kudos nonetheless, since they are fine illustrations of what
electronic theater can be: Yellow Co. Ltd.'s "The Play" might be considered
a demonic ode to dyspepsia, yet its power is undeniable. Nickson Fong Wei
Ming's "Dreamaker" is disturbing but still gorgeous. Far from being a
technical showcase, Dan Hower's "Crud: Descent 2" still creates a surreal
impression that reverberates through the psyche; the same holds true for
Rob Breyne's melodramatic "Stairwalker." Tippett Studio's "Three Wishes" is
a tremendous, truly scary tour de force.  

  For theater professionals, a sharp difference must always be made between 
effect and affect. Unless the former is firmly grounded in the service of the
latter rather than the other way around, drama dies -- and with it the
rationale for the whole wonderful enterprise.

  The final Electronic Theater choices, listed in the order in which they
were shown, are: Opening by Windlight Studios; Joe's Apartment -- Funky Towel
by Blue Sky Productions; Oldsmobile Caught Their Eye by R/Greenberg
Associates; Hallmark Magnet by Pixar; Three Wishes by Tippett Studio; Dutch
Nelson, Galaxy Guy by Ronin Animation; Chicken Crossing by Andrew Glassner,
Microsoft Research; Atlanta in Motion by Jessica Hodgins, Georgia Institute
of Technology; Dynamic Balance and Walking Control of Planar Bipeds by James
J. Troy, Iowa State University; The Fight by Acclaim Entertainment; MTV Music
Awards 95 Les Numeros de Cirque by Mikros Image; Cycles (shown in 4 staggered
excerpts) by Lisa Slates; Wet Waltz by Xaos; Stairwalker by Rob Breyne,
Hogeshool Gent-Kask; Compuserve Whale by Industrial Light & Magic; The Play
by Yellow Co.; Mercedes Rhino How-To by Digital Domain; Butterfly Sequence
from Columbia Pictures "The Craft" by Sony Pictures Imageworks; Cosmic
Voyage: Galaxy Formation and Interaction by NCSA, Cosmic Voyage; Homer^3: The
Simpsons 1995 Halloween Special by Pacific Data Images; Breath by Will Vinton
Studios; Citroen Saxo by Industrial Light & Magic; Plymouth Neon Popcorn by
Pacific Data Images; Aftershocks by Tippett Studio; Cites Anterieures-Brugge
(excerpt) by Mikros Image; Dreamaker by Nickson Fong Wei Ming, Savannah
College of Art and Design; Histoire De Crayon by Moira Marguin, All-ENSAD;
Hunchback of Notre Dame (excerpts) by Walt Disney Feature Animation; Shark
Attack Sequence from "James and the Giant Peach" by Sony Pictures Imageworks;
Waterworld 3D Tracking by Cinesite; Jumanji (excerpts) by Industrial Light &
Magic; Terminator 2 - 3D (excerpts) by Digital Domain; SIGGRAPH 96 Papers
Video Proceedings Excerpts by Jim Blinn, Microsoft Research; Watch Out by
Jonathan Wood, Ringling School of Art and Design; Naked Empire by Ned Greene,
Apple Computer; Computer Aided Cornea Modeling and Visualization by Brian A.
Barsky, University of California, Berkeley; Instant d'Apres by SUP Info Com;
Ma La Notte by RAI; Crud: Descent 2 by Dan Hower, Syracuse University;
Different Themes by Stuart Sharpe; Rolling Stones - Like a Rolling Stone by
BUF Compagnie; Fibonacci and the Golden Mean by The Palladian Group; Big
Bear: Paper Bag Bear by TOPIX Computer Graphics and Animation, Inc.;  Babe:
The Making of by Rhythm and Hues Studios; Twister (excerpts) by Industrial
Light & Magic; Dragonheart (excerpts) by Industrial Light & Magic.

------------------

  HPCwire welcomes reader suggestions and comments.


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