C-U praises computer imaging at Electronic Theater Festival

Many images like this have been created by SIGGRAPH to be displayed in films and will be featured in the Electronic Theater Festival on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Paul Debevec

Many images like this have been created by SIGGRAPH to be displayed in films and will be featured in the Electronic Theater Festival on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Paul Debevec

By Bonnie Stiernberg

Can’t stop thinking about that scene in “Spider-Man 3” where the Sandman rises up out of a pile of sand? Or maybe you’re just dying to see Pixar’s latest animated short. Whether you’re a computer science major or an English major, the Electronic Theater Festival claims to have something for you.

The two-hour festival will be screened in the National Center for Supercomputing Applications building on Thursday after originally running in San Diego in August. Festival Chair Paul Debevec, an Urbana native, said this year’s show features an array of films from a variety of genres.

“I asked the jury to really look for the best of the best across all the categories that we had, to add some diversity to the show and weave it together into a single experience,” he said.

While the festival honors achievement in computer graphics, anyone will be able to appreciate it, according to Brett Jones, a senior in Engineering and chair of the University’s in-formation chapter of the graphics organization SIGGRAPH.

“I definitely think anyone can appreciate it,” he said. “Some of it is definitely really accessible to all sorts of people, especially the narrative stuff which everyone loves. The other half is like the equivalent of watching the behind the scenes of a DVD. It’s not the main movie, but I think most people enjoy watching the behind the scenes at some point.”

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AJ Christensen, junior in Engineering and outreach officer for the in-formation chapter of SIGGRAPH, agreed that the festival has universal appeal.

“They’re just good stories, and it has nothing to do with whether you like graphics or not,” he said.

The Electronic Theater Festival received a record-breaking 905 submissions this year, and is a qualifying festival for the Academy Awards. According to Debevec, this year’s Best-of-Show winner “Ark” is being considered for an Academy Award nomination.

“Shot after shot, this thing is just beautifully lit, beautifully textured,” he said.

Aside from “Ark,” the festival will feature a visual effects reel from “Spider-Man 3,” which uses the light stage technique that Debevec helped develop. The light stage technique mimics the way light reflects off an actor’s face, allowing for more realism.

“It’s a way of basically capturing a real actor and making a computer-generated model of their face or even the costume that they’re wearing that is realistic enough that it reflects light the same way that the real person reflects light,” Debevec said. “No matter what our superhero needs to do, they can match the lighting on the character to the scene and you can get a scene where people don’t know it’s a fake person. You don’t get pulled out of the story that you care about.”

Effects like these often go unnoticed by audiences, and few realize the enormous role of computer graphics in film, said Christensen.

“A lot of dramas and things that don’t have special effects, they go out shooting and they think, ‘Wow, the sky looks really gray today,’ so they just paint out the sky and put in their own sky,” he said. “It’s all computer graphics and no one really realizes it. That’s the point, right? It’s this great tool for being able to invent your story and tell it the way you want to tell it.”

Jones said his experiences with computer graphics have given him a new perspective when watching films.

“I’m always amazed because I watch movies differently at this point, and I find myself looking at things that I know my friend next to me isn’t seeing,” he said.

The festival is a homecoming of sorts for Debevec, who was raised in Urbana and attended University High School. In addition to being from the area, Debevec said he was pleased with the computer graphics work going on in Champaign-Urbana.

“As it turns out, the University of Illinois has a very impressive effort in computer graphics going on there,” he said. “I was aware of the fact through John Hart (a professor in computer science) that there was a significant UIUC student computer graphics organization for those who are interested in computer graphics. The leader of that, Brett Jones, is doing an amazing job there. … U of I is definitely a great place to do an encore of the professional screening for the Electronic Theater.”

Jones’ organization is in the process of becoming an official SIGGRAPH chapter, and he said the club’s goal is to bridge the gap between the technical and creative aspects of computer graphics.

“We’re one of those computer science clubs that kind of involves everyone in the process, and I think computer scientists and artists in general, when you separate yourselves completely from each other, you really lose a lot,” he said. “I think it’s important to see that other side of things.”

Christensen hopes the club will be able to supplement the University’s curriculum.

“You’ve got your graphics classes which are really good at the technical side but don’t tell you anything about art, and then you’ve got the art classes that tell you the bare basics of the technology, like ‘Here’s a button, click this to make this happen’ and you don’t know what the button is or does, but you know that when you click it something cool happens,” he said. “We’re trying to fill in that gap.”

Debevec said he hopes the festival will spark new interest in computer graphics.

“If there’s somebody that comes to the show, maybe they didn’t even know that much about computer graphics beforehand but were a little bit interested, and they end up getting interested, then that makes it worth it,” he said.

The Electronic Theater Festival will be in the auditorium of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Food will be served starting at 6:30 p.m., followed by an introduction by Paul Debevec. The screening starts at 7 p.m. Registration is preferred but not required to attend today’s festival. To register, head to the group’s Web site, http://www.acm.uiuc.edu/siggraph/, or its event page on Facebook.