Monday, October 21, 2013

Why I Did Not Attend the Keynote Speech at SIGGRAPH 2013

When I declined to attend the SIGGRAPH 2013 Keynote Speech, a friend was surprised and concerned. The Keynote speech was a collection of talks by successful directors of computer animation as organized by the Academy (of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences). He simply could not understand why I would not want to listen to the publicity machine grind out more material about those chosen by the powerful to be successful, but I will try to explain.

The reason was not because I fundamentally believe that a Keynote speech by a healthy organization is going to be by someone in the field who helped to create it, and who has something to say about how the field is doing, where it has been and where it might be headed. SIGGRAPH has gone away from that years ago, in fact the last talk of that type that I recall was Ed Catmull, president of PIXAR, and even he might have been selected for the wrong reasons.

But I understand why we do not have a keynote speech of that more serious type, and instead usually have someone else who has nothing to do with the field.  The reason is that SIGGRAPH uses the Keynote speech as a way of advertising the conference to the people who might not attend otherwise. Its also a way to generate publicity for the conference, seeing as how our media could not care less about a computer science conference, but give them Hollywood and they jump to. So they choose people who have media appeal to give a "Keynote" speech that isn't.

But that is ok with me because I think that they do need to attract people and there are other ways to get the effect of a Keynote speech. In fact, I think that the Awards speeches which was initiated this year come very close to what I am looking for.

I did not attend because of something else entirely, something ineffable. Something about my past. Something about being in computer animation in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

Voice echoes and camera defocuses to indicate a flashback.

In the 1980s, I chose to destroy my life by working to help invent computer animation. (1) Being an intellectual out of water (any intellectual in Los Angeles is out of water) I attended no less than 20 or so courses at UCLA, the American Film Institute, and attended many lectures at the Academy. Had I not been a complete idiot, I would have enrolled in a degree program and gotten my terminal degree in some field, that would have done me some good. But instead, I decided to learn about the glamourous and rewarding motion picture industry from a series of continuing education classes taught by working professionals. Not less than 300 individual lectures by my reckoning.

And I had a wonderful time. I attended Robert McKee's story structure course when it was ten 4-hour lectures (and not the weekend thing it became). I attended classes with Lynda Obst, Debra Hill, Lauren Shuler, John Dykstra, Bruce Berman, the VP of Finance of Warner Bros, John Badham, Richard Donner, Joel Schumacher, George Roy Hill. Directors, writers, producers, and even a few "movie stars" (Jody Foster, Women in Film, etc).

Writers on writing. Producers on producing. Directors on directing. And I learned a lot, I think. But after a while one has a diminishing return from such things. Hearing Martha Coolidge speak at WIF is entertaining but it does not pay the bills. Hearing Douglas Trumbull talk about doing all the effects on 2001 is enlightening until you realize that he did not do all the effects on 2001. He just managed to figure out how to get the credit for the work (2)

Then, as with anything, knowledge and experience begins to show you the dark side of these innocent events.

So what do we have with these seven so-called "directors of computer animation".

First, very few of these people are directors in the way that term is used in the rest of the motion picture industry. They are at best managers of part of the production process whose creative content (e.g. script, design) has been created by a studio system that may have nothing to do with the director, who in general is partnered with another person to spearhead and organize the production process.

Second, the people chosen to be directors are chosen for a variety of reasons, of which talent and accomplishment are only two, and probably not the most important ones. The people doing the choosing are people who do not have a clue about computer animation, for the most part.

Third, how many of the people up there sacrificed anything to help bring computer animation into existence? None, I reckon. Why in fact, one of them is a stop motion animator who hates computer animation and was dragged into it kicking and screaming.   To glorify such a person at SIGGRAPH is at best ironic but probably worse.

Fourth, isn't it rude to have a presentation celebrating and glorifying people who had nothing to do with inventing a field at this conference while so many of the inventors of the field are unemployed and impoverished for doing so, are walking around outside?

I think it is rude.

There are two other reasons why I did not attend.  First, I do not have enough time at SIGGRAPH as it is to do the work I need to do there and thus consider it a waste of time to listen to talks I could just as easily hear at some other time or venue.   There was nothing about those particular talks that was unique to SIGGRAPH.    Second, I know, from vast personal experience, that while talks of this type might be entertaining, they do not lead to anything.  Ever.

So that is why I did not attend.


1. In order to do so, I had to turn down opportunities that almost certainly would have made me independently wealthy. Those opportunities are gone, they were part of that time. And being involved in computer animation did not result in being able to make a living. Therefore, since I did not come from a wealthy family and since being wealthy or being able to generate wealth is a sine qua non of our society,  I had destroyed my life by making this choice.

2. He was so egregious at this that Stanley Kubrick took out an ad in the trades reminding everyone that the credits for visual effects for 2001 had five names, the first being Stanley Kubrick.  I think the ad ran about 1982 but I am not sure.

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