Siggraph 2010: The people behind the pixel, Part 1


For five days at the end of July, LA’s downtown Convention Center was entirely dedicated to pixels, those tiny technological wonders that enable us to enjoy movies, games, arts and entertainment. The people who create and manipulate those pixels were in high attendance at this year’s Siggraph 2010 Conference.This year, the annual conference, exhibition and festival of computer graphics and interactive techniques was titled THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE PIXEL. However, a second subheading could have been THE PEOPLE BEHIND AVATAR – as there were a number of lectures, discussions, and presentations about James Cameron’s latest and highest grossing media spectacle.

But let’s start at the beginning.

This year’s SIGGRAPH 2010 Conference Chair Terrence Masson opened the LA conference by introducing an inspiring keynote speech by Don Marinelli, leading Carnegie Mellon scholar, educator, maverick and colleague of the late computer scientist and visionary, Randy Pausch. Together Marinelli and Pausch cofounded Carnegie Mellon’s ENTERTAINMENT TECHNOLOGY DEGREE, a two year master’s program that brings together art and technology to develop new visions for the entertainment industry. Randy Pausch is probably best known for his book and lecture presentation THE LAST LECTURE – Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams – a life-affirming talk he gave in 2007 after he had just been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. (

Marinelli just completed his own book, titled THE COMET AND THE TORNADO: Reflections on the Legacy of Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture & the Creation of Our Carnegie Mellon Dream Fulfillment Factory about working with Pausch and setting up the ENTERTAINMENT TECHNOLOGY program (also called the Dream Fulfillment Factory). As Marinelli himself said in an interview, this book can be seen as a prequel to THE LAST LECTURE.

Years ago Marinelli, a former actor turned tenured professor of Carnegie Mellon’s arts department, decided to pay a visit to the computer science department. During the visit he proposed a collaboration, an idea that was immediately embraced – and so the ENTERTAINMENT TECHNOLOGY DEGREE program was born- designed and founded by Marinelli and Pausch. During his speech at Siggraph, Marinelli wondered whether the same result would have occurred if instead a computer scientist had approached the arts department.

A charismatic and captivating speaker, Marinelli was a most fitting choice to open this year’s conference: his artistic background in addition to his curiosity and interest in computer science and new technologies are the key ingredients that lead to groundbreaking ideas and developments. Marinelli in turn encouraged the audience to think outside the box – to combine structure with emotion – to dare and risk and not be afraid to fail but use failure as a challenge and chance to discover something new. Talking specifically to the educators and students in the audience, he advocated that the relationship between students and professors should be a partnership where both parties learn and benefit from one another. At one point, he even suggested that universities do away with tenure-track positions and deans streamline their bureaucratic practices to allow more space for creativity. His speech closed with a bang- as confetti rained from the ceiling. A poetic closing and an uplifting opening of the conference!

The following day’s keynote address was delivered by Jim Morris, General Manager and Executive Vice President of Production at Pixar Animation Studio. Morris offered a walk through his professional life and an insight into his career, supported by numerous clips from seminal movies he worked on during his tenure at ILM and Pixar. Excerpts were taken from films such as ABYSS. TERMINATOR, DEATH BECOMES HER, FORREST GUMP, PIRATES OF THE CARRABEAN, WALL E and others- all milestones in the development of computer graphics and visual effects. Just as memorable as this personal trip through the history of special effects was a short but significant remark he dropped along the way: no one sets out to make a bad film – it just happens.

Both lectures emphasized just how important team work, collaborations, and working across disciplines are to developing new ideas and furthering the art of storytelling and film making. Another theme could be said to be how much art, technology and science have to offer and benefit one another.

In a second report I will focus on another cornerstone of the Siggraph Conference, the Computer Animation Festival, which never disappoints with its well-produced production sessions featuring some of the latest and greatest in animation and live action movies. Presenters discuss the process from design to finish, offering screenings of topnotch animation shorts and clips from emerging and established filmmakers.

Next year’s Siggraph will take place between August 7 – August 11, 2011 in Vancouver, Canada.

For more information on Siggraph, Siggraph Conference 2010, Siggraph Asia and the upcoming Siggraph 2011 Conference in Vancouver, please visit:


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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