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SIGGRAPH 98 History Project

Vol.32 No.3 August 1998

How We Made SIGGRAPH 98

Walt Bransford
SIGGRAPH 98 Conference Chair

The SIGGRAPH conference is unique among conferences its size. From the beginning 24 years ago, the founder’s values and principles have inspired a process resulting in an event that has become an enabler in the evolution of computer graphics and interactive techniques. Through this process the conference strives to meet the needs of a very diverse and changing constituency of researchers, artists, inventors, craftsmen, users, entrepreneurs, educators and vendors — indeed everyone who has a stake in the evolution of computer graphics and interactive techniques. This very brief personal overview shows the application of this process to the making of SIGGRAPH 98.

By way of introduction, I’ll first present some context. The core principle is that free exchange of information is the catalyst for all progress. Constant striving for quality in content ensures that the information is relevant. This content is chosen by leaders in the industry who volunteer their time to shape a vision and strategy, and nurture a process of selection of contributors. Quality in presentation is essential to create a forum the content deserves. Professionals in the conference management and services industry bring the quality management, presentation and conference services expertise necessary to build this complicated one-week event. This dynamic combination of industry leadership and professional support produces a conference that is relevant, exciting and able to take the risks necessary to meet the unique needs of this community.

SIGGRAPH 98 got off the ground in New Orleans at SIGGRAPH 96 where I began a three-month process of recruiting 18 program chairs. I wanted to form a team of people who had the passion and vision to shape a SIGGRAPH conference, for this time, and as part of the continuum of SIGGRAPH conferences. They needed to be able to commit — volunteer — substantial time, have the ability and desire to manage complex portions of the conference and work both with me and with each other. My personal strategy and vision was broad: at 25 years, we owe it to the future to signify our accomplishments and plant the seeds of an archive. Our strength is in our diversity. We must strive to give equal balance to the needs of each constituency, but try to open it up, spread it around and diminish the boundaries between programs — we are all rowing the same boat. The look and feel of the conference is secondary, but an important catalyzing element. Let’s keep it bright, bold and simple, no shadows in the dark. Finally, we should consider “leaving something behind” in Orlando. But to be the best, SIGGRAPH 98 must blossom from the vision, creativity and insights brought by each individual on our committee into a group vision and strategy, with much pride of individual ownership.

Our 40-plus person committee consists of program chairs and professional staff representing conference administration, conference management, exhibits management, audio-visual services, document and Web design and editing, copy coordination, merchandise coordination, marketing and promotion and conference decorations and construction.

We first met over a weekend in January 1997, to bond as a team and form a strategy for SIGGRAPH 98. We had small group discussions, speculating on the technology in 2005. We also took a pause and considered the possibilities and challenges of incorporating the history angle into an event that serves a community creating the future. We agreed it was important to emphasize people and their individual and collective accomplishments. The history is living around us in the form of increasingly creative applications of this technology, by a blossoming community of creators. In the state of the art in this maturing technology, the shift is toward accessible computing, increasing reality in computer graphics and increasingly transparent interfaces. It’s accessible, exhilarating and important but only as it serves our quest for an improved future. We would try diminishing barriers, flattening it out, opening it up and encouraging contributions that embody the power of multidisciplinary creation. Simple: SIGGRAPH 98 will emphasize people. We will create a conference of programs that celebrate the exchange of information and energy. And the results of this? Build it, and they may come with their goods

From January through meetings in April and June, we developed the defining elements of SIGGRAPH 98: our conference identity and the SIGGRAPH 98 Call for Participation (CFP). The bold, simple and colorful identity, and the joyous figures and “SIGGRAPH 98 Scrawl” logo set the tone for the human element. For the Call for Participation, each program chair contributed their strategy, goals and criteria for selection, and these were edited together into the final document. The CFP celebrates, and invites the openness and the flattening, in statements signed by the program chairs and in program descriptions using words and phrases such as: collaboration, sense of touch, show us what’s needed to feel who we are, childlike wonder, spirit, expression, etc. The SIGGRAPH conference history initiatives were developed, and we also built an ambitious electronic submission system.

SIGGRAPH 98 was introduced to the world at SIGGRAPH 97 in Los Angeles. By this time, program chairs had produced “program plans,” descriptions of strategies for getting their job done. At SIGGRAPH 97 our committee could meet potential contributors, subcommittee members and others that wanted to be a part of our conference. We were also exposed to the mechanics of assembling and running each program, working with the SIGGRAPH 97 program chairs and our professional support colleagues.

The fall of 1997 was a defining time for SIGGRAPH 98. Chairs finalized subcommittees and juries and organized support structures necessary to manage the complexities of collecting, selecting and shepherding contributors to the conferences. From the program plans we developed program budgets, and began to identify operational challenges and issues. In the late fall the entire SIGGRAPH 98 budget and plan were built. This is a very tedious process, involving thousands of line items, financial and accounting expertise, projecting expenses, many that change yearly, and a lot of “black art” based on experience.

Walt Bransford
Thrillistic LLC
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The turn down the road to reality occurred over the winter of 1997-1998 as conference content was chosen by juries and reviewers in weekend meetings held around the country. More than 1,500 submissions from around the world, a record number, were considered in choosing the final content, consisting of around 500 contributors and their colleagues.

Around this time, the conference layout and design also took shape. Building on the principles established a year earlier, we tried to organize the functions logically and in consideration of the needs of each constituency. For example, one end of the conference center is for technical sessions, comprising large session rooms, the Creative Applications Lab, Speaker Prep Room, email access, ready access to exhibits and a spacious lounge area for discussion. We placed the Art Gallery, Emerging Technology and sigKIDS areas together in an exhibition hall in the center of the SIGGRAPH 98 exhibition. This placement encourages the flattening and, hopefully, the creation of many new networks and connections between constituencies and the exhibitors. All of this would be tied together with colorful, exuberant and clear signage throughout a huge building loaded with places to stand, lean or sit down for impromptu discussion. Human networking and information and energy exchange are encouraged and supported at SIGGRAPH 98.

To meet the reach of the vision of SIGGRAPH contributors, the conference relies on the generous support of the industry. Soliciting this support, in the form of loans of equipment and services, for minimal recognition, is a yearly challenge. A huge amount of many program chairs’ time goes towards garnering donations of services and equipment. Over the winter, we revisited our donations policies and procedures, and decided to keep the current policies in place, but to be more diligent in process, and strive to be more professional and personable in our interaction with those whose generous support makes much of SIGGRAPH possible.

As I write this, we are in implementation mode. There are two thrusts at this time: producing the record documentation, and getting ready to produce the conference on the ground in Orlando. Creating the record documents (Conference Proceedings, Electronic Art & Animation Catalog and Conference Abstracts and Applications Catalog) is a phone line burning, Internet straining, courier business enriching process. Each contributor (more than one third outside of North America) must provide some text (and usually graphics) describing the program. At minimum, this is a name and affiliation — usually, it is an abstract or entire illustrated document. The process proceeds at high speed (relatively speaking). It’s intense, and it takes time and a lot of volunteer and professional support. The process is shepherded by our professional staff and involves the very frequent participation of the program chairs. We conduct the majority of our business via email and telephone and must get information from several hundred contributors from around the world, as well as work with our prime contractors who work with dozens of other services providers (catering, busing, printing, security, fabricators, etc.) In the spring, before the conference, we meet three times to have face-to-face sessions with our professional staff, to transfer knowledge and discuss the specifics of each program. An international marketing and media relations effort comes together during this time. The final months are also spent managing the budget and making decisions — lots of decisions.

It is the evolution of the process itself that presents one of our greatest challenges: marrying industry needs and trends with the complexities of managing an event of this size and scope, while creating the environment, for one week, every year, where information exchange is king. Volunteers (new blood and seasoned veterans) with vision and industry perspective, but little or no conference management experience, work with our professional staff to create an event that brings the population of a small town to a different city each year, on a multimillion dollar budget which must be enhanced by industry support. Each committee and conference has its own personality and is a microcosm of the computer graphics and interactive techniques community worldwide.


To call this an overview of making SIGGRAPH 98 is almost like saying, “the overview of the lunar landing is this: we put some guys on a big rocket, pointed it in the right direction, got out of the way and pushed the button.” Of course there is much more to making a conference. It’s really hard work. It takes a lot of time. It costs a lot of money. There are head cracking challenges, frustrations and problems. But this is what’s important: the SIGGRAPH conference is forever kept in the future as an interesting and important piece of the culture of technology. It’s a community, a living laboratory of information exchange, copy and transmission. It is a place for any individual from anywhere on this planet who has the energy and vision to shape a piece of the evolution of computer graphics and interactive techniques. It’s where each person is a part of a community of kindred spirits, believing, sustaining, advancing and sharing in the thrill of creating this forever improving future. We made SIGGRAPH 98 on the soul of the previous 24 conferences. We placed people at the center of our identity. We made some big moves towards fostering interaction and serendipity. Our two years are done and the SIGGRAPH conference regenerates anew. There really is nothing like SIGGRAPH.