Interview: Alain Chesnais, President of ACM SIGGRAPH
What first drew you to computer graphics?
In the early 80's, while on leave from the CNRS (Centre National de la
Recherche Scientifique), I was working at the Centre Mondial Informatique et
Resources Humaines that Nicholas Negroponte had founded in Paris. I was
doing my research on queuing theory, focusing on aspects of parallel access
to shared data. My work involved running huge simulations to experimentally
validate mathematical models that I had developed to describe the behaviour
of concurrent systems with locking capabilities. I was using a Vax 780 to
run these simulations in batch at night.
I was approached by another CMIRH employee: Henri Gouraud, to see if I had
any problems with letting a group art students from the Universite Paris
VIII use the Vax to do CG at night. I had no idea how compute intensive CG
was and agreed. I soon discovered just how easily a handful of art students
could bring the Vax to its knees by running massive render jobs all night.
Needless to say, I was concerned about this and the impact it would have on
my own research. I went back to Henri to indicate that I was having problems
with the amount of extra load the students were putting on the Vax. I told
him that I wanted to kick them off.
Henri suggested that given my research focus I might be able to do something
about the performance of the software they were using and pushed me to look
at optimizing the rendering phase instead. I agreed and got hooked by the
possibilities that CG offered. I ended up asking my CNRS supervisor to shift
research directions to focus on CG and was actually told to suggest
something a bit more serious than making pretty pictures (CG was not quite
considered to be a serious domain of research within certain parts of the
computer science community at that time). For a while I continued doing my
official research during the day and my CG during the night, trying to
schedule some amount of sleep whenever possible in between.
In 1986 I decided to leave CMIRH to start up a company with one of the
students who had worked on the Vax to do computer graphics. The company,
Studio Base 2, did both software development and productions, focusing on
high end rendering capabilities such as ray tracing, particle systems and
interactive shader tuning tools. We were later acquired by Abvent and the
Studio Base 2 code became the basis for Abvent's Art*lantis Render product
line. I later left Abvent and joined TDI. TDI was acquired by Wavefront
Technologies, which as later acquired by SGI and merged with Alias to form
Alias|wavefront. At A|w I was director of operations for the Paris office
until 1998, when I moved to Toronto to work on the core Maya architecture,
then moved on to be Director of Engineering and Business Manager of Design
I've since left A|w and am now V.P. of Engineering at TrueSpectra.
developing dynamic image servers. One can think of dynamic image servers as
being HTTP servers with a fully featured compositing and 2D rendering engine
Do you have any favorite CG mentors?
See above: Henri Gouraud.
What was the first time you contributed to SIGGRAPH?
In 1987 we submitted a piece to the electronic theater: "Systeme
Particulier" and another to the art show. Both were accepted.
What year/city was your first SIGGRAPH? Which was most intense? Why?
Though I registered for the 1986 SIGGRAPH conference, I ended up not
going as we were behind schedule on a major production doing the special
effects for a televised science fiction series in France called "Trakal". I
finally went for the first time the next year in Anaheim. I was blown away
by the whole SIGGRAPH experience and it remains one of my most intense
SIGGRAPH's as I went around each venue with stars in my eyes, totally amazed
by the amount of things going on. It pushed me to join, first the Paris
chapter, then ACM SIGGRAPH itself and volunteer to help. 1997 was another
intense SIGGRAPH conference for me as I was then vice chair of the
organization and also chair of the conference's international committee. The
experience of organizing the 1997 conference was magical in that the group
of people who came together to be program chairs under the leadership of
Scott Owen had a vision that we would radically change the shape and
experience of the conference itself. Everything was open for change and
innovation. Each program chair worked with the others to build a cohesive
view of the total experience finding synergies amongst the venues and
suggesting many new features. When I go back over the initial vision of what
we wanted to do and look at what we actually did in an 18 month period, it
gives me a definite sense of wonder to see just how much we actually
What contributions to SIGGRAPH are you most proud of?
Helping Scott Lang to build his vision of the chapters. The chapters
have come a very long way in the 15 years that I've been an active ACM
SIGGRAPH volunteer, essentially due to the hard work and dedication that
Scott has put into building the chapters into a functional group that
presents computer graphics on an ongoing basis in close to 40 cities all
over the world. I'm proud to have been able to help.
I'm also proud of having worked on the 1997 and the 2001 conference
committees, each time on the international committee. I've strived to make
the user experience for non American attendees better by adding new services
directly targeted at them. In 1997 we added simultaneous translation in
Japanese for the panels session. In 2001 we added a presentation area to the
international center and invited speakers from various sister societies
around the world to come and share with the SIGGRAPH community all of the
exciting activities that they sponsor. We also added an English re-reading
service to the submissions process to allow potential contributors for whom
English may not be the mother tongue to have their submissions checked for
grammatical errors before being submitted to the jury for consideration.
This service has been extremely well received, especially by the Japanese
I'm also proud of all the work I did during my two terms as ACM SIGGRAPH
vice chair from 1995 through 1999. The most important for me were the effort
we put into strengthening the relationship between ACM SIGGRAPH and several
sister societies outside the United States such as Eurographics and
Nikograph (now called DCAj). We have evolved to a level of trust and
cooperation that I believe will be instrumental in better serving the needs
of the computer graphics community throughout the world.
I'm also proud to have been elected to the position of ACM SIGGRAPH
president. Being the first European president of this organization sends a
very strong message to the computer graphics community worldwide that ACM
SIGGRAPH is a truly international organization.
What's your favorite thing at this year or last year's SIGGRAPH?
I loved the proximity of the Riverwalk and the ability to find real food
within easy walking distance of the convention center. I couldn't walk more
than several hundred feet without running into someone I knew and wanted to
I also was excited to see the web graphics venue take place this year. It's
high time that we focus on delivery vehicles for CG other than film and
video to understand the particular needs and requirements of each,
particularly with respect to the web!
What near/intermediate developments in CG do you look forward to?
I'm personally interested in looking into ways to improve graphics
delivery on the web. My research focus echoes this as I believe that we have
a lot to discover in terms of how best to deliver graphical content
efficiently on a hugely distributed architecture like the world wide web.
Graphics account for what is probably the most costly and time consuming
aspects of web site development. I believe that we can address that by
looking at innovations like using dynamic image servers as a basis for web
imagery and hope to see substantial progress in this area in upcoming years.
I presented a paper in the web graphics venue this year covering this topic
and plan to submit further work for next year's conference.