Sunday, December 8, 2013

The City Of Lights

"You are going to love Hong Kong, Davide", I was told. "It's just like San Francisco". 

Well, they were half right. I did love Hong Kong. 

With over seven million diverse people living in a very limited space, this city has an incredible lot to offer. Because of its density, and because it cannot grow outwards, it grew upwards. So if I had to compare it to San Francisco - and really, do I have to? - the buildings would have to be at least 3 times as high. And half as thick. Enough to make an earthquake-weary mind such as mine, wonder how sturdy they could possibly be... and what if a Kaiju... oh never mind.

The view can be best enjoyed from one of its very large, very steep hills: Victoria's Peak. Perched on top of a beautiful lush hill, Victoria's Peak has a decent size mall, with a giant viewing platform on top. I could have spent most of the evening on it. On one side, the city.
On the other one, the south part of the island, where the sunset illuminated departing tankers. I wonder if any of them were headed for Oakland.
When it come to party life, the city knows what it is doing. Bars, restaurants and night clubs stay open late, public transport is good, and taxis are very affordable. There are several party areas, depending on what kind of place you are looking for. 

On my first night I was walking around Wan Chai. It was a Monday so it was pretty quiet. There were a lot of foreign looking ladies at the doors of many clubs that really wanted me to go in. "There is dancing", they said. Well, what kind of dancing, I ask, hoping for some good club with hip hop or salsa. "Girls dancing!", they said. So yeah, not the same thing. While Wan Chai has very diverse bars, they also have a number of night clubs, which seem pretty popular among western tourists and some expats.
Fortunately, I made a great friend in Hong Kong, Hui Ru, who volunteered to show us around to other party areas too. For example: Soho, an upscale neighborhood not far from the financial heart of the city, offers some of the most breathtaking views from its rooftop bars. Soho also has something I have never seen: a 800m long elevated pathway, made of walkways, escalators and ramps, all going in the direction of the commute, and all illuminated for the upcoming holidays.

Hong Kong is another city on a bay, like Sydney or San Francisco, and "on the other side" there is a lot too: Kowloon. There is a beautiful walk, that mimics the one in Hollywood. Lots of stars with hand prints on the floor, remembering and celebrating bygone and live Chinese actors, actresses and directors. From there, you may witness why Hong Kong is called the city of lights: every evening the skyscrapers of the city give a light show to remember. 

Kowloon also hosts some of the best shopping in town. Me and my friends all splurged a little, since a lot of this type of fashion is hard to find in the States, or even back home, in Italy. 
Of course, there is more to Hong Kong than the city itself. Lamma Island is a short ferry ride away. It is an interesting place to visit. Two little fishing villages, no cars (at all!), one long path between them, immaculate beaches. Great seafood restaurants. This place feels like it has been forgotten by modern civilization, and I really loved that. Except... oh wait... is that a power station??

There are many parks around the city and even more if you leave the Hong Kong island and visit the mainland side. There is a place called Monkey Hill, and rightly so, since monkeys were everywhere... walking around, staring you down, asking for food, or just minding their own business and not caring about us funny, tall, hairless distant cousins.

There are a lot of temples all around Hong Kong. We only got to see a couple. One is called the ten thousand buddhas monastery. If you climb a very long stairway guarded with hundreds of bigger-than life gold statues of bygone bodhisattvas, you will reach a remarkably quiet monastery. The temple itself is very big and smells like incense. But there was more. There were many sections holding large and small statues depicting a buddha, and after seeing it all, I started to wonder if the ten thousand was an exaggeration at all (according to wikipedia, that number is actually over 13.000+ statues). Underneath the temple, there are hundreds or thousands of what look cells holding the ashes of devout people. It was something like a cemetery. And the bathroom... well that was haunted... with monkeys! Beware the monkey attack - reads the sign outside.

Have you ever climbed a pagoda? Now I have! It is a spiritual experience really. Each floor you pass, you recite your prayers, and free yourself of one type of sin. Until you get to the top and you are purified.

Finally, a vacation isn't a proper one until you go to the beach. And surprisingly, Hong Kong has a number of beautiful, well connected and nearly deserted beaches. Maybe because it was November, although it wasn't cold at all... or maybe because it was a working day. Or maybe the name Repulse Bay put some tourists off? hahah... Not that we complained. Having practically a whole beach to ourselves, that was a great cherry to top our vacation's cake.

We didn't stay the whole time in Hong Kong though... we ventured beyond the border to another ex-colony: Macau. I'll write about it later.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Siggraph in Hong Kong

We did it. A three (plus) hours course went so fast that I wonder if it actually happened. Thankfully I have pictures to prove it!

We covered a lot of topics: REYES, Raytracing, optimizations for either, including most of our tips and tricks to get renders to go fast enough in the last 15 years. Then we moved on to Physically based rendering, and the new set of challenges we faced with it. As well as all the mistakes we (I) made. After the break, we moved on to pattern generation, along with all the techniques, old and new, that we use at Pixar. Finally, Paul covered the shading transfer topics, which have such a vast set of applications and problems, it is totally underrated.

While significantly smaller than its western counterpart, Siggraph Asia has a lot to offer. The papers were pretty exciting, especially the ones on the last day, which is pretty exciting since that is when I got over my jetlag and stopped fretting over the course we taught.

The trade show was cool. ILM Singapore was there, promoting the work they did on Pacific Rim and Battleship, and hiring of course. Pixar was there too, but we didn't have a booth. We (and with "we" I really mean the Renderman team) gave multiple presentations on the advances in Renderman 18 and upcoming changes to how we shade. Lots of schools and small and large asian production houses were represented in the show. I was most excited to see more and more competition in the motion capture field. Hopefully that will make the technology more accessible to lower budget productions.


The emerging technologies area was actually pretty large. They had a lot of cute ideas on how to use current technologies for unexplored applications. Like the haptic system to make you feel like you have the squeaky joints of a robot, or a giant mech. Yes, that's an Oculus Rift I am wearing. 

...or like the visual led cues that show the muscle fibers being contracted during an arm wrestling match. Hint: I did not lose this one.
And of course: the Electronic Theater. It is always beyond inspiring to see how much schools and students can achieve with a limited set of resources, time, and experience. I love it. It is also great because it is revealing, every year, how much film and game industries converge little by little. Our field is definitely still moving ahead. Just not in the same direction it did years ago. It is good to be reminded of that.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Siggraph Asia 2013, here I come

When my friend and colleague Paul Kanyuk casually asked me if I wanted to participate in a curated course in Hong Kong, I think he was a bit surprised that I said yes before even hearing the details.
I have been to China before, but Hong Kong and Macau have escaped me so far.  I plan to extend my stay so I get to spend some time there with my good friends. 

Also, I was really excited to see Siggraph Asia. I know it is smaller than Siggraph but it is also very interesting for the variety and type of content.
I will report what I find, and if you are around, come see our course on Physically Based Rendering for Monsters University, on the 20th. Or come say hi at the Renderman Booth!

Monday, September 2, 2013

40th Telluride Film Festival

It was only a few months ago that I heard about Telluride for the first time. I hosted at Pixar friend of a friend, a remarkable moviemaker and entrepreneur. I gave him a tour and we started talking about movies and festivals. He says: 'If I had to choose one festival, that would have to be Telluride'. 
It is very small, intimate, and yet the movies being shown are great. It is about the simple joy of sharing good movies in an amazing high-altitude setting.

And at the height of 9000 feet, Telluride in the Summer is just amazing. Nested at the bottom of a deep valley carved by the Saint Miguel river, surrounded by the rocky peaks of the Colorado mountains, this little town is a real gem. The views are breathtaking, even coming from a beautiful place such as the Bay Area. I stayed up in Mountain Village, a tiny town a couple of gondola rides away from Telluride. It allowed me to meet great people on the way, and to discover gradually the valley, which ends into old mines and stunning waterfalls.

Locals are incredibly friendly and interesting too. Telluride only has about 3500 inhabitants (up from 2200 in they year 2000), few of which were actually born there, but there are double that during this festival. It seems like most people came here to ski one day, and decided to never leave. I can see why. After a day or two, it was hard to walk around without crossing at every block with someone I met from the festival, or just in a bar. I was offered many drinks, just in exchange for some stories of my adventures around the world and at Pixar.

This year was the 40th anniversary of the Festival, and they extended it by one day, allowing visitors to see more screenings. There were around 50 entries, and it only physically possible to see about a quarter of them, so I had to carefully plan every day and night, asking for recommendations, trying to squeeze in as many as I could, and still be able to catch the happy hours and the late night parties. 

There were a number of actors, writers and directors here. I had drinks next to Penn and Teller. I crossed Ralph Fiennes (it was weird to see him without the digital nose we gave him when he played lord Voldemort). I watched and cheered Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor playing pool, I had a long chat with Michael Pollan and his lovely half, I hugged Alice Waters after the screening of Slow Food Story, and sat at a screening next to Michael Moore. I saw Brad Pitt and Robert Redford chilling and walking around town. No paparazzi showed up, which is why the atmosphere was so relaxed and friendly.

So what did I see? I was able to see a few features:
  • The Unknown Knowns: a documentary about the Rumsfeld doctrine.
  • Blue is the Warmest Color: a stunning 3 hours long story about a maturing teenager and her discovery about her sexuality and her feelings. Absolutely beautiful photography, lighting and camera work.
  • Under the Skin: a sinister sci-fi featuring Scarlet Johansson as an alien.
  • A Tribute to Robert Redford: a collection of clips from the movies Robert worked on.
  • Palo Alto: The first movie of Gia Coppola, about teenage life in the suburbs. 
  • Tim's Vermeer: a wonderful documentary about the attempt by a technologist to achieve the same lifelike paintings as the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. One of my favourites in the festival.
  • 12 Years a Slave: a true story, by Steve McQueen, about a black free man from New England and his life as he is kidnapped and enslaved.
  • Tracks: another true story, about a lady who crossed the deserts of Western Australia with nothing but four camels and one dog.
  • Out of Love: a short documentary about a woman trying to understand her father and his five failed weddings, and to discover if and how that is going to mark her life and her own marriage.
  • Una Chanza Mas: another touching documentary about a troubled young man, seeking redemption through attempting to become a firefighter
  • The Lunch Box: here is another favourite of mine. A touching story set in India, about a mistaken lunch box delivery and the deep implications on the lives of the sender and the receiver.
  • Calling Cards: a heterogeneous collection of funny, heartbreaking, and thoughtful shorts.
It is Monday already. I cannot believe this is over already, it went so fast. 
This festival might well become a tradition for me.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Gearing up for siggraph 2013

It is in Anaheim this year... sooooo Disneyland here I come!
I will be down starting tomorrow, and I hope to see many of you.

This year I have a lot going on: Pixarians are presenting Monsters University on Thursday at 12:45. I worked a lot on the illumination technology of that show. We nickname it GI, although Global Illumination is something we have used for years. What is really new for us, is physically based lights and surfaces, and the way they are integrated in Renderman at Pixar. I will be presenting some of our work at the Renderman Booth on Wednesday at 11:00 - just before the teapot distribution.
On the Blue Umbrella, (session on Sunday at 10:45), I was mostly involved in the integration/evaluation of the early release of Katana, from The Foundry, into our very specific pipeline. A big task given the limited time, budget, and total lack of experience on this fenomenal package. The results are pretty amazing though, I hope you had a chance to see the short.
Finally, years after I was done with my part on it, our research on the "New Looks" project is published as a Paper. Come see our presentation on Wednesday at 3:45, given by Forrester Cole. Here is the abstract, and here is the list of papers we published. The full paper PDF is here.

Enjoy Siggraph 2013!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Pixar at the WWDC

After working on it for weeks, and not being able to talk about it, here is the result of the joint efforts of Pixar (myself and Jonathan Hoffman), The Foundry (Jack Greasley) and Apple.


Painting the future is a demo of some of the work we put on integrating the latest cuts of Mari for Monsters University, as well as providing new advanced workflows and, cherry on top, making it all work on the new Mac Pro, the latest computing monster Apple is releasing.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

New Trailer for Monsters University

Check this one out! Here is a new trailer for MU, aired in the UK. A lot more giveaways here. 

Makes me wonder what I have missed out on, by studying in Europe. The fraternity world is something I have seen only on movies. And these frat boys? man, they are monsters...

Monday, January 7, 2013

Wonder what I have done last year?


Sometimes I do too... time flew so fast. But now that it's no longer a secret... here's a clip of "The Blue Umbrella", a short I worked on with Saschka Unseld, our young and talented German director.

Enjoy this clip, while waiting for the full short. It will be out in theaters ahead of Monsters University.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

What if...

What if the cataclysmic asteroid that forever changed life on Earth actually missed the planet completely and giant dinosaurs never became extinct?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Imagine you at MU

Makes me want to go back to college. My Italian campus was not nearly this cool.