The SIGGRAPH 2005 Keynote Address
A first-hand account of George Lucas's SIGGRAPH 2005 Keynote Address.
We knew the keynote was going to be popular. But the magnitude of that popularity caught everyone off guard.
Walking out of a paper session, taking a breath of fresh air outside, or sipping a coffee, hours before the keynote even started, attendees were collectively confronted by a phalanx of red vested student volunteers directing everyone out the doors of the West Hall. None of us knew exactly what was going on, but instinctively we knew it had something to do with the keynote. Walking outside, we were each handed a small green slip of paper – our ticket into the event. Soon what initially looked like an unorganized mob of people came into focus, forming one massive line.
Somewhere towards the front of the line were attendees with their children. These were the chosen few who had obviously inquired further into the logistics of the afternoon’s keynote. That is to say, they knew to line up long before most other did. As for other attendees, who were caught off guard with the foreign notion of getting in line again for the keynote, they soon clued into the situation at hand, scrambling to get in line.
Lining up in the hot sun, standing somewhere in the middle of the throng of attendees, green tickets in hand, we could feel the excitement palpable around us. We were in line for the much anticipated, much talked about, keynote address by George Lucas. Never before (in memorable history) has a SIGGRAPH keynote address had this much buzz surrounding it. The excitement was contagious. If you weren't already engrossed in a conversation about George Lucas on your cell phone, the second most natural thing happened: you talked to someone next to you in line about the man of the hour. People likened the long (nearly 2 hours for some) wait to a slow day at Disneyland. Wi-Fi access or a refreshment stand outside would have helped make the time pass less painfully. However, even without these perks, most found means of making the best of the situation. Flexing creative muscles, some attendees shared tips on how to create the most effective paper hat, shielding themselves from the sweltering L.A. sun.
Fifteen minutes before the start of the keynote, the doors finally opened to let us in. Once passed the ticket takers, the pace of movement picked up. Suddenly it was every man for himself, as attendees ran to seats closest to the corner where the speaker's podium was located. Many were staking out their territory, trying to save five or more seats for friends who were still on their way in. Between frantically waving people off and emphatically gesturing and yelling directions (to the saved seat location) into the ubiquitous cell phone, people were starting to settle in. Soon practicality finally set in and people were at most only holding on to two or three seats for friends.
The room quickly filled to capacity as a constant flow of attendees filled the auditorium. At the front, there was a seat clearly labeled and reserved for the man of the hour, George Lucas. Beside his seat was a seat reserved for the massive man who was to serve as his body guard during his visit to SIGGRAPH 2005.
On a personal note, never before had we seen so many people attending the keynote session. The audience, filling the hall to capacity, provided an excellent cross-section of the SIGGRAPH community. Taking a glance around, you could spot computer graphic pioneers, students, current researchers and digital artists, to name only a few. It was amazing and inspiring to know that in that one room there were thirty two years of living, breathing SIGGRAPH history.
Opening Speech by Professor James Mohler
The event began with Professor James Mohler of Purdue University, this year’s Conference Chair, approaching the podium and speaking about this year’s vision for the conference. The basis of this year’s vision focused on goals regarding content, people, and experience. Prof. Mohler felt that after over a year of preparation, this year’s SIGGRAPH was on track in terms of meeting or exceeding the expectations he and his executive committee had set initially. After his introductory speech, he proceeded to introduce the various committee Chairs behind this year’s conference.
Often attendees do not see the people behind the magic and mayhem of SIGGRAPH. Prof. Mohler took the time to individually thank each of the committee Chairs who made this year’s SIGGRAPH possible. Once done, he invited Professor G. Scott Owen of Georgia State University, the President of SIGGRAPH, to the podium to speak about SIGGRAPH; the organization, its history, and its future. After Prof. Owen's address, Prof. Mohler invited Professor David Patterson of the University of California, Berkeley, President of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), to speak about the ACM, SIGGRAPH's parent organization.
The floor was then opened to Professor Eugene Fiume of The University of Toronto, this year’s Awards Chair. Prof. Fiume began by presenting the Significant New Researcher award. This award is handed out annually to a young and upcoming researcher who has significantly impacted computer graphics and interactive techniques since earning a Ph.D. Prior recipients have included Paul Debevec, Steven Gortler, Mathieu Desbrun and Zoran Popovic. This year’s award was given to Professor Ron Fedkiw of Stanford University. Prof. Fedkiw’s work in computational fluid dynamics has been influential in physically based models of fluid and amorphous phenomena and has been used extensively in visual effects. Most notably, he and his students presented a paper entitled "A Vortex Particle Method of Smoke, Fire, and Explosions". The underpinning research in the paper and in other works was used in Lucasfilm's “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” movie.
Prof. Fedkiw began by thanking his family for their help, inspiration and support over the years. He then recounted a brief anecdote about how he has worked in some form or another at Industrial Light and Magic and has yet to meet, let alone have his photo taken with his boss and idol, Mr. Lucas. While expressing his hope to someday get a photo taken with Mr.Lucas, he playfully remarked that he hoped George would not fire him for his off the cuff remarks on his regard.
The next award, for Computer Graphics Achievement, was presented to Jos Stam, a senior research scientist at Alias. Mr. Stam was given the award for his pioneering work on subdivision surfaces and fast algorithms for the simulation of natural phenomena (especially amorphous phenomena). He began by thanking his family, especially his older brother, who had sparked his interest in computer programming. He went on to thank Prof. Fiume who was not only his mentor while he was a graduate student, but the only one who was willing to take a chance on a Finnish undergraduate student from a little known graphics lab. Finally, Mr. Stamm thanked his wife for the unwavering support she has given him throughout the years.
Prof. Fiume then announced the third and final award, the Steven Anson Coons Award for Outstanding Creative Contributions to Computer Graphics. This year’s recipient was Professor Tomoyuki Nishita of the University of Tokoyo. Previous recipients of the Steven A. Coons Award include Ivan E. Sutherland, "Pierre Bézier":http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Bézier, Donald P. Greenberg, Pat Hanrahan, and other notable computer graphics pioneers. Prof. Tomoyuki was presented this award for his inspirational work on the rendering of natural phenomena.
In keeping with the Star Wars theme, Prof. Tomoyuki began his slide presentation with graphics reminiscent of the infamous Star Wars intro scrolling text. Bearing in mind that SIGGRAPH began in 1974, it is of notable mention that Prof. Tomoyuki's career began in 1972. His thank-you address effectively walked us through 33 years of computer graphics history.
Prof. Tomoyuki’s career began well before the availability of monochromatic raster displays. His graphics research began in the area of rendering with papers on hidden line removal (half-tone representations of 3D objects and shadows for polyhedra). Lacking enough intellectual stimulation to continue his research in graphics, he went to work at Mazda Motor Corporation for awhile. When Hiroshima University purchased a color raster display, Prof. Tomoyuki immediately returned to the university to continue his graduate work.
Prof. Tomoyuki’s significant contributions (from the 1980s, through to the 1990s) to computer graphics were all in the area of shading and natural phenomena. His shading work was featured on the back cover of the SIGGRAPH proceedings eight times between 1980 and 2000. Up until 1982, point light sources were the only sources of light in a ray traced scene. Prof. Tomoyuki’s rendered image of a linear light source was displayed at SIGGRAPH 1982. His animation of the Earth (taking into account atmosphere scattering) then astonished viewers at the SIGGRAPH 1993 Electronic Theatre. Prof. Tomoyuki quipped that the anonymous reviewers were initially skeptical of the animations quality; however, he had shown the animation to Japan's first astronaut Mamoru Mohri who said ”yes, that looks right.”
Prof. Tomoyuki and his students continue to impress SIGGRAPH attendees with their images of stunning natural beauty, faithfully recreated by computers. In all, he has published twelve SIGGRAPH papers and has published numerous others for international conferences and journals. Here, with the conference hall packed with such a diverse cross section of the SIGGRAPH community, Prof. Tomoyuki’s 34 year retrospective provided invaluable insight into computer graphic’s humble beginnings, and where it is headed.
George Lucas Keynote Address
Next, Prof. Mohler took to the podium to introduce the keynote speaker. As the words “George Lucas” rolled off his tongue, the crowd erupted in simultaneous heart felt cheering and raucous applause. Although we were all privy to multiple dire warnings prohibiting photography of any kind, the next five minutes were consumed by an overwhelming explosion of camera flashes, as Mr. Lucas walked across the stage. Once the crowd had composed itself, Mr. Lucas took his mark, settling comfortably into the sofa set out for him.
For an entire generation of artists, especially digital artists, Mr. Lucas's science fiction films were the impetus and inspiration for their life long pursuit and practice of art. From the mathematicians and scientists who began toying with computer graphics in the 1960s, to the youth of the 1970s who learned to use these primitive digital tools, and finally to the current motley group of up and comers, Mr. Lucas had been an undeniable source of inspiration to so many people. Undoubtedly, for many SIGGRAPH attendees, this moment in the presence of Mr. Lucas would be something to remember for years to come.
At this point, Prof. Mohler broke through the applause to introduce Bruce Carse of ‘Below the Line.’ In all the excitement of having George Lucas speaking at SIGGRAPH, many of us had overlooked the fine print (as we are liable to do when this level of excitement reaches the brain). If we had paid attention, we would know that this was not to be a speech, but rather, an address moderated by Bruce Carse (whose unfamiliar face was now gracing the large screens at the front of the conference hall).
It was easy to assume that, when it came to all things Lucas, those in the hall were willing to be flexible with the format of the presentation. As long as Mr. Lucas was sharing his wisdom (secrets and magic also welcome) all was well. The only slightly unnerving factor of this format was the odd fumble over question delivery and flow, causing hesitations in the conversation and detracting from Mr. Lucas’ casual style. Perhaps Mr. Carse’s was a little star-struck as well.
Mr. Lucas started the interview with the quipping remark that this was the first group he addressed to whom he did not have to define the meaning of digital art. The comment resounded well with the audience, many of whom (myself included) now sat chuckling at their own digital nerdiness. Mr. Lucas proceeded to tell us that he was not a computer-guy. What he is, in his own words, is a storyteller. Quoting Akira Kurasawa, he explained that he wants to tell stories in a compelling way, striving for immaculate reality in order to captivate and immerse audiences in his stories.
Continuing on the topic of storytelling, the conversation turned to digital arts and digital film making. Mr. Lucas was quickly lauded as a pioneer in the area of digital arts and effects by Mr. Carse. However, Mr. Lucas was quick to point out that he does not know anything about the underlying technology. In a comment that had some attendees shifting in their seats, he remarked that he is not interested in knowing about how the underlying technology works or how we create it; what matters is how he can use it to tell a story. For the more sensitive, George Lucas had just, in one swift breath, both applauded the SIGGRAPH community for its achievements and stated his lack of genuine interest in the technology and the people who make it happen. Looking towards Prof. Ron Fedkiw in the audience, and adding "and now I know who the water guy is" did not help the situation. One could argue that reducing one of the pioneers in the industry to the mere title of water-guy demonstrated either a fairly blatant lack of sensitivity, or a bad attempt at a joke. Does George Lucas still get nervous speaking in front of a large crowd? If so, perhaps we would be more open to forgiving such verbal slips.
Moving forward in the session, Mr. Carse asked Mr. Lucas his thoughts regarding comparisons of Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company. For those who are not aware of it, The Walt Disney Company was an early innovator in cell animation and has now grown into a multi-national corporation. Regarding company size, Mr. Lucas responded that Lucasfilm is large enough and that he has no interest in expanding the company further. He went on to say (jokingly or otherwise) that there were no plans for a Lucasland amusement park.
An outside viewer, I could not help but note the similarity between Disney and Lucas companies. That is to say, how they are both very well managed brands. The Lucas moniker brings with it a certain cachet. Where Mr. Lucas has succeeded, like Walt Disney before him, is to cultivate a certain identity which consumers can trust to deliver what they want. As much as Mr. Lucas is seemingly disinterested in anything more than a higher level interaction with the technologies/research for which SIGGRAPH stands, he needs this and the SIGGRAPH community that creates it, to help him manage and maintain his brand.
Mr. Carse spoke of innovation, and Mr. Lucas humbly responded that innovation is needed to push the envelope - to achieve immaculate reality. It is easy to argue that Lucas companies are forced to innovate due to something much more primal than that - competition. If Lucas companies do not innovate, the brand suffers and so does the Lucas fiefdom (dare I say Empire).
Ending the list of questions posed to Mr. Lucas was one asking his views on education. To train the next generation of digital artists, Mr. Lucas plans to open a school in Lucasfilm's Letterman Digital Art Center at the Presidio in San Francisco. He has also been spearheading an initiative to get digital technology into the classroom. It seemed almost as if Mr. Lucas was describing digital technology as a panacea which, when properly administered to our ailing public school system, would transform it. He ended his response to this question listing a number of other facets about his initiative (such as a website with tutorials and lesson plans to help integrate digital technology into the curriculum).
As a Californian who went through the public school system, I can not say that digital technology will do anything for our under-funded and over-burdened classrooms. However, the point made about digital film making was not lost. Digital film making has revolutionized film making and film making education. Let us recall that not too long ago $20 + processing would only get you 2 minutes and 30 seconds of unedited Super 8 film. With a digital video camera and inexpensive nonlinear video editing software, the options are truly limitless. The barrier of entry into the world of cinema has been drastically reduced. Case in point: the large number of home videos (tasteful and otherwise) now available via the internet.
Going digital, as Mr. Lucas put it, is the way forward. True, digital technologies have allowed us to do things that have become too expensive to do otherwise. However, going digital does not solve all our artistic and technical problems. Albeit, an army of clone soldiers can amass on the battle field for only 180 hours of CPU time, but it is still up to the story teller to make us care about what these soldiers are fighting for.
After the interview-style keynote wrapped up, Mr. Lucas was escorted out of the hall by several very large body guards (more akin to moderately fast moving barriers than mere men).
Once the applause in the hall finally died down, the mass exodus began. Pardon me; I’m stuck on an analogy. Just as fast as we had lined up to enter into the promise land, to hear our prophet speak, we hastily exited the hall.
Outside, there were mixed impressions about the keynote. Many attendees noted that next year’s SIGGRAPH conference was never even mentioned in the keynote (traditionally, the keynote is where the following year’s conference is introduced). Many others were left unsatisfied with the interview format (versus normal speech format) of the address. However, all things aside, being that close to Mr. Lucas, the reification of Star Wars, made it a worthwhile experience for most attendees.
The keynote is often regarded with ambivalence. For many conference attendees, the keynote is held too early in the week (by Thursday evening, many minds pass their capacity to retain any memories of the past four days). Seldom will you hear a SIGGRAPH attendee saying that the keynote address was the main or most talked about attraction of that year’s conference. This year’s keynote address, be it relevant or irrelevant (depending on who you speak to) to what SIGGRAPH represents, succeeded like no other in building excitement. Mr. Lucas was a bridge between SIGGRAPH’s past and its future. Whether or not it was consciously acknowledged, this may be the last time that the pioneers of computer graphics, the new practitioners, as well as such a revered source of inspiration, all shared the same perfect moment.