Vancouver – Over the past two days, we attended some of the many educational sessions offered at this year’s Spark FX festival where we made a few new friends and learned many interesting things about the visual effects industry. It is no longer much of a surprise to me to discover the many outstanding creations which are coming out of Vancouver studios, and Spark FX is most definitely a powerful showcase for the talent and technology in this city. Kudos to all of the ACM SIGGRAPH Vancouver volunteers who put in many hours of hard work to ensure that the rest of us had a great event to attend.
The first session we were able to attend was with matte painter Dylan Cole, who revealed many of the techniques and processes he uses to achieve his outstanding work. For me personally, this session was very inspirational, as Dylan encouraged attendees to think creatively to solve creative challenges. I definitely want to try some of the techniques he used in building ice scenes, vistas and fantasy cityscapes. Most surprising was the use of photographs in the mattes, and how those photographs are meshed into a painting along with hand-drawn work to create a back-scene which is realistic to the movie watcher.
Next on the agenda for us was the evening panel, Flesh – Bringing Characters To Life with moderator Paul Griffin and guests George Borshukov (EA Sports), Paul Debevec (Inst. for Creative Technology, USC), Christophe Hery (ILM) and Gordon Smith (FX Smith). What fascinated me about this panel was how they as artists and digital technicians have successfully melded the use of prosthetic make-up, molded bodies and computer graphics to achieve the amazing effects we as viewers get to see in the finished products. It is amazing at how far the industry of visual effects and interactive media have come in a relatively short period of time. While we have not yet successfully crossed the “uncanny valley” – the possibilities are definitely there. I am hopeful that at some point in the near future our Vancouver SIGGRAPH chapter will be able to put together a full evening session which will allow for further exploration of the points covered during the course of this panel.
Saturday’s sessions began with a presentation by multiple Academy Award winner Dennis Muren, Senior VFX Supervisor at ILM. Speaking to a sold-out house, Mr. Muren shared his history, humour and wisdom in regards to the visual effects industry. I always enjoy listening to these masters speak of how they got their start in the industry, as well as what processes in their lives lead them from childhood to where they are today. Mr. Muren’s session was riddled with honest humour about the industry and his own life – something which makes these sessions not only memorable but more personable. Mr. Muren’s presentation was another which I found to be very inspiring, and as with Dylan Cole, I learned how to look at many aspects of movies, artwork and real-life in a different way.
Next on the schedule was Shane Mahan, Effects Supervisor at Legacy Effects. Shane is one of the four artists chosen by VFX master Stan Winston to carry on the legacy of his studio’s work after his death in 2008. Mr. Mahan, whose background is as a key sculptor, shared an almost boyish-delight of creating animatronic gadgets with the audience. Shane shared with us the joys and challenges of creating believable creatures and a few stories about the things that can go wrong during filming. Shane has received an Oscar nomination for his work on Ironman, and I for one am looking forward to seeing what type of visual effects magic he and his team will weave for the upcoming G.I. Joe and Ironman 2 movies.
The afternoon sessions began with another insightful presentation, this time from master matte artist and effects pioneer Harrison Ellenshaw. The son of Disney matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, Harrison did not choose matte painting as his first career. I think that one of the most important messages I took from Harrison’s session was that parents need to allow their children the time to investigate their own paths and find their passions on their own. Peter Ellenshaw allowed Harrison to do just that, and in the end, the movie-viewing public was gifted with the works of one of the masters in this industry. Mr. Ellenshaw took us through a fleeting glimpse into the film styles of director David Lean and how he achieved the goals of film-making through his use of angles, timing and lighting. He also offered personal insights into the challenges met by a fledgling visual effects industry with the making of Tron and how new methods and achievements have been developed through the years.
The final speaker session on Saturday, which, sadly, was also our final session for this year’s Spark FX Festival, was a panel whose topic would be Visual Effects In Vancouver. Representing the Vancouver visual effects industry on this panel were moderator Jason Dowdeswell (CIS Vancouver) with speakers Michael Adkinson (MPC), Chris Harvey (Frantic Films), Ivan Hayden (VEABC), Winston Helgason (The Embassy Visual Effects) and Shawn Walsh (Image Engine). The panel’s discussion followed two lines of conversation – challenges and achievements by Vancouver studios, as well as the local VFX studios working together to bring more projects to the city.
It was stated that in tough economic times such as these, it is more important than ever that the VFX community works towards the betterment of local industry while balancing that co-operation with healthy business competition. In my opinion, this is something which all areas of our local digital media industry needs to work on – bring in the projects, co-operate for the better good, celebrate the victories and support each other while maintaining their proprietary properties, thereby fueling growth in the local digital media economy.
Once again our local SIGGRAPH chapter has proven that Vancouver is a digital media power city which can attract the top speakers in the industry. I am, without a doubt, looking forward to another year of top-notch speaker events and of course this fall’s second Spark Animation Festival. On other item of note, a big thank you to Monika over at DFAIT, one of the event sponsors, for providing us with additional session tickets, enabling us to attend more sessions than we would otherwise have been able to.
Events such as Spark FX could not be the success they are without the support of sponsors. This year’s sponsors include: DFAIT, as mentioned above, and BCIC, Electronic Arts, AutoDesk, Next Limit Technologies, Annex|Pro, Davis LLP, Pipeline FX, Vancouver Economic Development, Vancouver International Film Centre, Visual Effects Association BC, Visual Effects Society, Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, Big Fish Games, Sophia Books, and VanArts.