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.