Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Siggraph 2009

How did changing department affect me in the short time?
I had started on a Monday. On that Tuesday I was told I really should go to this year's Siggraph. On Friday I was supposed to go to Vegas (see previous posts). And on the next Monday Siggraph was already on!

Since I had already paid and committed to go to Vegas, I decided to find some flight from there to New Orleans, where the conference took place this year. I took a red eye on Sunday night and slept a few hours on the plane and at the airport. I arrived to the conference just on time for the Siggraph 2009 awards. It was important that I could make it there on time because two out of three prizes were awarded to my coworkers: Rob Cook and Michael Kass.

If you work in my industry, Rob really needs no introduction. Among his great achievements, he was the co-architect and primary author of Renderman. He is also Director at Large for ACM. Michael is also a very remarkable man. I got to know him a little better during the conference and at the parties that took place in those evenings. His award shows again how some individuals can excel in completely diverse skills. Other than being an eminent research figure, he is a world-class ice dancer and a juggler. As a side note, Michael is also working on my same project at Pixar.
I was thrilled to see the talks that would take place after the awards. In their acceptance speech, both Rob and Michael faced head-on the apparent crisis that Siggraph is going through. Less and less people showing up year by year, and some say less interesting publications too. The main issue is: has almost everything been discovered already? are all the new discoveries going to be just slight improvements on the established techniques? 

The points that were brought up were very relevant. Perhaps also because of Pixar's achievements, Siggraph conference in its history has deviated from its original scope, computer graphics and interactive techniques, to just computer graphics. According to Rob Cook, Siggraph crisis is an identity crisis. He quoted how physics were thought to be almost entirely discovered at the end of the 1800s, before the theory of relativity, quantum physics and other very major discoveries. He finally listed a number of unexplored problems that may and will keep researchers busy for the next three decades at least. 

Michael focused on what the attitude of the panels that select the papers to be published could/should be. There is a delicate and sometimes arbitrary balance, between being strict to avoid watering down the quality of publications, and being relaxed to catch original approaches and not restrict the field Siggraph spans, otherwise missing out on the next great discoveries. Not an easy task.

Vegas baby, Vegas

Who among you have never been to Las Vegas? Right. Until a couple of weeks ago I would have raised my hand too. But then one day I was covered with urgent work, and I get a call: 
- Hey we're going to Vegas in 2 weeks, you coming?
- Err.. I can't talk right now, I'm kind of b...
- We're booking now, or the offer will expire!
- Sigh... ok whatever! *click*
So after agreeing with all this enthusiasm, it took me about five seconds to forget I had agreed. And that I had received the call at all. But at night I get an email with the confirmation. And at that point I actually realise I am going! To Vegas, baby, Vegas!
All right, so what is there to be so excited about? I was not quite sure myself. All I knew about Las Vegas is that there are lots of Casinos, rivers of alcohol and people waking up hung over, married and not knowing why or who is the other person. Have you seen the movie "Hangover"? Well.. that's as much as I knew.
The day came and... ok so what do you do once off the airplane? You gamble of course! Or at least that's what some people do, since the airport is stuffed with slot machines. Once outside the terminal you also get to realise that the shade of the night does not involve cool temperatures as it does in San Francisco. It is hot. Really hot. 107 degrees at night - I quote the Fahrenheit because it looks more impressive than Celsius. Two things seem to mark most things here. Air conditioning and ads. The taxis are freezing and are covered with retro lit ads inside and out. The hotel receptions are. Even the people working there cannot escape being living ads, their name tag is belittled by big commercial tags they seem to need to wear at all times.
Despite the good deal, we got very nice connected rooms. Coming from the Fog City, a lot of things seemed pretty affordable there actually, except probably clubs. The illumination is almost day-like everywhere on the "Strip" - the main hotel-casino street - and in downtown. Near our hotel, there is even a street entirely covered with l.e.d.s performing shows of light and colour.
Our hotel, called "The Golden Nugget", may not have been in the heat of the action of the city, but it sure had an interesting swimming pool. It had a water tank inside with big fishes and sharks. And a transparent slide going right inside it. Here is what it looks like.
We spent two days and three nights in Las Vegas. Yes, we did gamble, and my favourite game is the Roulette. No, I did not lose money (right on!). And no, I did not wake up in a room with a tiger and without a tooth. What will I remember the most of Las Vegas? I know it is probably not what you would expect but it is the Stratosphere: A 400 meters-tall tower with a little Luna Park on top. I did not get to go on the summit, but just looking up from the bus gave me shivers. Next time, I will have to try!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I have a solution. I just need a problem.

A few weeks back I wrapped my role on Toy Story 3. I should say my roles since I moved departments a couple of times. I worked in Sets Shading, and in GT, which stands for Global Technology. The name is not entirely appropriate since GT departments only write and maintain tools for their own show.
My new assignment is in the research group of Pixar, also called R&D. Each company has a department called like this, but in Pixar it takes an unusual meaning, for a Computer Graphics company. The role of R&D everywhere I have been in contact with or worked at was to write and support the tools and the pipeline used in the current and future productions. 
At Pixar, part of R&D actually makes time to explore new solutions to problems that have not come up yet, publish papers, experiment. What is done there is not guaranteed to be applied to any production, depending on a number of factors, besides how successful the results of the research was. The members of the department are among the most famous and respected fathers of CG as we know it. We have some undergraduate and graduate students, and even professors taking a sabbatical year at Pixar.
So what am I doing now? Well, I am working on a project I cannot talk about, and if it is successful, it might be applied to an undisclosed future production. That was a very unsatisfactory answer was it not? Unfortunately that is all I can say at this point.

Monday, July 20, 2009


California has some beautiful parks. And in over 8 months I had not seen any, other than the Muir Woods. That was until my good friend Benedetta finally decided to organise a trip. There were five of us, and despite the our good intentions, we did not hike that much. We woke up early but we always had a slow start up, not to mention that Yosemite is pretty huge, and to get anywhere you need to drive for a while. In the evening, we enjoyed our lodge. It had a very nice looking restaurant and lounge. We also perused the beautiful swimming pool with view on the mountains, which had a bar serving all sorts of drinks.

We did see something though. We did a few trails and we climbed on rocks trying to reach the end of the enchanting Bridal Veil waterfall, where little water snakes breed and slither near the calves of tourists. I was surprised to see people climbing those slippery and sometimes sharp rocks with months old babies in their arms.

We finally saw the majestic sequoias, the size of some of which made my head spin. We spotted a few deers, and lots squirrels and chipmunks. Actually, it was the squirrels who spotted us, and came begging for food. However, I should say fortunately, no bears seemed to spot us or come to try to force their way into our car trying to get our lunch.

I have posted a few pictures on Picasa.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Oz and Back

It has been about 10 months already. I have missed it a lot. But most of all I have missed spending time with my lady. So there I went, back to Australia, back to the familiar Sydney I have loved so much.

Some people say San Francisco is a bit like Sydney. Or, depending on who says it, the other way around. I don't see that much resemblance other than memorable bridges, a beautiful bay, and lots of hills. They are both fascinating in very different ways. Sydney does not have the most enticing and loathed atmospheric events of the Fog City. Had I not lived in both places, I wouldn't have believed who told me that leaving San Francisco (same latitude as Rome, or Madrid) in the Summer, and landing in Sydney in the Winter, would have involved exactly no change in my wardrobe.
I was delighted to see so many friends went out of their way to meet me. But being very sociable in a full-flu season involves some risks. I got sick the second day after I arrived. And, unfortunately, I did not heal until the very end. Besides, it was not really planned to be a quiet holiday.

We drove about two thousand kilometres up the coast and inland. We visited plenty of cute little towns, beaches and cliffs. We saw kangaroos relaxing along the road and whales migrating off the cliffs of "Northern New South Wales". We went to the most famous surfing spots of that coast, Byron Bay and Surfers Paradise, but the bad weather did not provide much motivation for two rookies such as us. Eventually we stopped a day in Brisbane. In the middle of the winter, we enjoyed some chilled white wine along the river wearing but a shirt, before having a delicious Turkish dinner. Hey, this sounds like another place I would enjoy.

Sadly, the holiday lasted way too short. Back to Sydney, and then back to San Francisco. Tired, yes and a bit sick still. But also deeply refreshed, and very spoiled by Suzie's cooking, again. Certainly ready to get straight back to work.