Date: Sun, 06 Oct 1996 20:20:32 +0100

From: Armin Medosch <>

Siggraph 69

Armin Medosch

The following report is from this years Siggraph is a shortened English version. The long version with more exetended commentaries and URL´s will soon be published at Telepolis (German only) at

First of all I want to apologize for my poor English. There are probably some serious mistakes. Anyway, I will try to make myself understandable.

Siggraph 96 took place in New Orleans. It is still one of the most important, if not THE most importent conference on Computergraphics and Animation. In referrence to the swamps of Loisiana - in Creole called “Bayou" - one part of the exhibition was called “Digital Bayou". The organizers probably considered this an “interesting name". But if you interpret it literally and apply this to the content it means that this show was built on swampy terrain. In panel and paper sessions, in the main exhibition and in the digital bayou the newest technological developments in 2D and 3D were presented. But the content sometimes made the European visitor shudder, and these creepy feelings were not induced by voodoo ghosts. The Images and Animations shown at Siggraph proofed one more time to what infantility and monstrosity the human mind is capable if it is only guided by the motive to gain the highest profit. Two general directions can be abstracted from the stream of digital imagery:

A) Scientifically-grounded realism: The methods for the visual representaion of natural phenomena of all kinds are continually being improved. Although there have been no breakthroughs or corner stones achieved this year there are a number of improved methods to visualize water, clouds, particle streams, the growth of plants, human movements, facial animation...; today its not necessary that a skilled graphic designer is inventing all these things out of his imagination; programs are written in which the laws of physics are applied, like gravity, surface tension, body mechanics and so on.

B) plastic reality: all kinds of munsters, comic figures, ghosts, neo-frankensteins, chewing gum heads, heads without bodies and bodies without heads.

ad A) The term “Virtual Reality" is slowly getting a new meaning. It is not just a mere visual representation of the world anymore but a representation in a much deeper sense. The forces of physical nature are now taken into account. Once the model of a human person is designed, mathematical programs ensure that its movements look “natural" when animated. Movements of groups of people or animals are also animated in a natural style through “flocking" techniques (Craig Reynolds, Jessica Hodgins). Also, methods are created to improve facial animation. Besides motion capture processes to translate human facial expressions into 3D models there are new more scientific methods which take in account the forces of different muscles and the tension between the skin and the muscles of the human face. So, a change of one force (muscle) will change the behavior of all other forces(muscles) which are connected to or dependent on the first one. Such techniques are opening doors for interactive storytelling. 3D characters are connected to databases containing sets of rules and behavior. Autonomous 3D characters (often called “believable agents" after work done by Joe Bates at CMU) can interact with each other and with a character conducted by a user. With the above said, I am describing trends, not facts. Scientifically grounded VR is not a fact, yet. There are different methods and there are no models yet combining all these methods into one model. It is still a question of computing power. But every year the restrictions of computing power are decreasing (at least in this high tech area). So there still remains a quite profound problem. It is the question of scientific objectivity in itself. Can what we understand from nature in mathematical and formal abstractions, be understood as nature itself? Is the way how we understand nature with scientific methods objective or isn´t this objectivity spoiled by all kinds of social interference and influence? At Siggraph it was clearly visible that this industry and the research and development work behind it is very strongly influenced by its sponsors: the big film and special effect studios in Hollywood, the big computer and telecom companies and last but not least the medical and military sector. At Siggraph, of course, Hollywood is on the forefront, and you could almost smell the need for getting new software and hardware tools which are faster, cheaper and more efficient in manipulating the masses. The “R & D" done in and for Hollywood does not care at all about any humanistic principals, just about satisfying the goals of the studio moguls.

ad B) Plastic Reality: The “Electronic Theatre" introduced this years film and video showreel with the best animations from Film, Games and Ads. All the big shots in animation were in the program: Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar, Sony Image Works, Pacific Data Image, Digital Domain and others. To put it mildly, hardly any of the productions deserve any special coverage. Seventy or Eighty Percent of the movies featured monstrous figures of the comic strip variety. This cannot be just by chance. We know that the technique is to do other things as well. There were some examples in the program that showed other ways but they were by far the minority. Why this? Siggraph is not a pulp-film festival in just any province town. The most expensive Hard- and Software, the best paid script writers, directors, graphic designers and animators are standing behind these productions. How come that there is such a degradation of the image of the human that is shown in these productions? There is fighting and killing, synthetical blood is flooding the screen, spacecyborgs are haunting each others, monsters are raving in underground catacombs. And if it is not blood and action, it is speed that rules the screen: pursuits in outer space, in Antarctica, under the earth, monsters chasing monsters.... The 20 year-old film "Star Wars" looks like a work of world literature compared to this. So thats “progress" after 20 years of computer generated special effects in movies.

Speed, action and monsters seem to be a easy way of filling up cinema seats with a juvenile crowd. The domination of monstrous characters reveals an inherent trend towards the creation of monsters. Making Frankenstein-like characters seems to be the closest temptation for people sitting in these special effect studios in front of big computer screens. There must be some necessity behind this tendency which is grounded in the mechanisms of computer technology and Hollywood Entertainment. Besides the very flat and soulless image of the human in these movies, there is also a tendency towards claustrophobic worlds. Space is always dangerous or the existence of space - in which humans can live - is endangered. Not only are the characters all kinds of variations of Frankenstein, reality, too, seems to suffer from the Frankenstein syndrom. In this aspect the low-culture of pulp-animation and the high-end research fields of computer based vizualisation are coming together. They are both creating claustrophic worlds and Frankenstein monsters, either visually on the surface or internally as far as the model of their understanding of the world is concerned. But the difference is, that whereas at Mary Shelleys time the vision of life constructed with a scientific toolbox was clearly considered as “gothic fiction", this is not the case anymore. Today the abstractions are being taken for the real thing and the grid of VR is covering the world. “Humanity" is a functional model within a rationalist matrix. Gothic fiction is now being produced in the high-end scientific laboratories of the world and is spilled on the streets as consumer electronics and games for the young and the old.


The close alliance between pulp-entertainment, science and computer technology is not that “bad" if we were able to look at it in a postmodern, indifferent way. At least it is not directly killing people and sometimes it´s products might even be fun. Also many of the more high end applications for visualisation are strongly connected to the medical sector and can help saving lives. But as soon as we look on the social level it becomes difficult to not be “judging". To have the Siggraph in New Orleans was a good example. No one dared to have a look at the city beyond the Convention Center, the French Quarter and some river boat parties easily could see to what degree of dilapidation this city has come. The local evening news showed more from the backyards of “The Big Easy". Almost a third of the households in New Orleans metropolitan area can be considered poor, earning 15.000 USD a year or less. The numbers for armed robbery and simple robbery are rising each year by more then 10 persent (source: Gambit weekly). The Siggraph didn´t take any notice of that. Not even one panel was dedicated to any social issue. But there was a panel, where Mark Pesce (VRML-coinventor) and other high-earning people of the industry talked about their “religious" experiences and said sentences like “When I saw the sunset in the San Francisco Bay I knew the world is a beautiful place". Yes, for sure, the world is a beautiful place, especially for beautiful people earning 100.000 bucks a year or more. Whereas the whole world is talking about budget cuts for all kinds of social expenses including the arts, Siggraph didn´t suffer such a phenomena. Onyxes, SGI´s high-end computers, were there like pocket calculators in other places. Numerous data beams projected high resolution images on special screens and loudspeakers were blasting out sounds at disco level. In the evenings companies were competing with their receptions in all kinds of fancy places like river boats, penthouses and colonial style palaces. The reason for these receptions is mainly not to get new clients but to recruit new talents. All the big companies have a terrible need of programmers, designers and animators. As business is booming some companies have a need for 50 and more highly skilled workers to be recruited for short terms. Whereas most of these parties were relatively relaxed, Microsoft got very “topical". MS staged a party in the old colonial town house, a big white building with columns at the forefront. There, at both sides of a huge stairway guys in historical costumes were holding big torches. A long queue of people was trying to get in. Inside we found out that, how funny, the theme of the party was vampirism (get your byte! Haha!) And to let us not forget the history of New Orleans as one of the centers of the slave market Microsoft had hired coloured people who had to wear Rokoko-costumes and animate the the party. The crowd, 99% whities, were hysterically trying to have fun.

If anybody until then had not believed in the connection between neoliberal society, digital boom economics and slavery then Billy's party had made it all clear. The demographics of Siggraph add some further elements to this image. Most of the attendees are white and male. A small percentage are Asian. African-Americans or other coloured people were almost invisible. The paper sessions were 100 percent boys clubs with a very nerdy audience. It seems that Computer Industry is representing social stratifications in race and gender. My thesis is that it also is enhancing social power structures. Listen for example to this piece of advertising poetry, where a rendering software package is trying to get your attention: “It doesn´t feel pity. Or remorse. Or fear. And it absolutely will not stop_EVER_until everything is rendered." Other packages promise to be “Fuel for the Mind" or to give the User “the Power to rule the world". SGI had some ads on the radio cabs saying “3D for a New World".

In this New World it seems to be better to invest billions of dollars in an industry that mainly produces pulp faces and claustrophobic synthetic worlds, then to put any money into solving human problems. Social problems are highly visible and accumulating in the streets, whereas venture capital is fueled to Siliconwood so that it can produce more games and films and synthetic sitcom characters. Obviously these products have, like drugs, the ability to distract the mind from the confrontation with reality. Electronic entertainment has become the new relegion, the new drug for the peoples. The wealth shown by the industry at Siggraph was a strong and cynical demonstration. In the context of the real problems of the world the "scientific" research in 3D visualisation and animation is a very very decadent if not actually useless. The “digital revolution" of which some people seem to be so proud actually means social degradation in many ways, not only in a pure economic sense but also how people look at the world and what kind of “values" get represented in artifacts. The so called objective science, in fact, is doing some profound jugdgement by deciding in which direction research work is done. Whereas almost nothing is done in social areas, billions are shuffled into the 3D animation and visualisation stuff. A 3D model of the human seems to be more important then the real human beings. The research at Siggraph is significant for a kind of progress that nobody really needs. All this gave me a very “Californean Experience" in Louisiana. But we should not believe that this is just a North American problem. One of the biggest financiers of the digital golddigger business in Siliconwood is Germany. Most recently the German commercial tv moguls Kirch (Sat 1) and Thoma (RTL) have signed big deals with Hollywood studios. It is not about buying finished products but about prefinancing the production of the next 10 years. Then Kirch (more then 2 billion USD contract) and Thoma (1 billion USD contract) (Source: Hollywood Reporter) have kind of exclusive rights in Germany for using these products, which are, needless to say, entirely designed and produced in Siliconwood and without any German influence on the contents. This example shows how the big private TV companies are taking the cafe creme of german wealth and pumping it into Hollywood. 3 billion USD is a lot of money in Hollywood as well. This means that for 10 years a lot of well paid jobs for the “virtual class" are secured. It means also that these studios have the freedom to produce new pulp products for manipulating the globe. “Needless to say" that Germany suffers from a still rising unemployment rate, rightwing hooligan attacks on camping lots in eastern Germany (but that's just another syndrom) and an ongoing media campaign initiated buy the government and selling to the people why the social state has to be demolished to be competitive for the future.