Interview with Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann

Animators in Singapore had the privilege to speak to Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann, chair of the Computer Animation Festival about her involvement in Siggraph, the curation of the festival, and her research in Singapore.

This is your first year as Siggraph Asia Computer Animation Chair. How has it been so far?

At the beginning, I thought of developing some methodology to select the films. We had received more than 450 films this year, and from which we had to select 31 films. So the first thing I think of is what is the criterion I will use. And what is the methodology. Coming from a computer science background, I thought I will take some methods of evaluating, not just purely through discussions. I wanted to respect everybody's opinion, so I made a table, an excel sheet with a lot of criterions- how they evaluated the film, if it is a film that should be selected or not, is it violent, does it have meaning, and then a grade from 0 to 10. During the evaluation, the jury was not allowed to speak. After 10 to 20 films, we would break for a coffee, and during this interval scores were tallied. From that, we can see films that had majority of the votes, and we only have to discuss films outside of the mean. Fortunately, very few films needed discussing. The jury who came for the preselection and the selection said it was very efficient. It went pretty fast, and at the end, people were very happy about it. I felt it was a objective way of selecting films. We discussed the award winning films, for that needed a 100% agreement.

It was very interesting for me, especially since I have submitted my own films, and they were to subjected to being accepted or rejected.

Is there a particular direction of the Siggraph Asia Computer Animation Festival?

I don't like violence, and thought that we should bring this festival towards an art festival. So I asked the jury if they agreed not to have films with real violence. I was afraid that some might oppose, but it went very well. I feel that it is not because we use a computer that it cannot be art. Films that were violent, had superhero content were not selected, and we focused on films with more meaning. We hope that the audience would leave thinking about life and it's problems.

Thus the audience leaves with a nice feeling…

Yes, I am eager to see how people will react to it, as audiences of Siggraph are used to super effects. We did not take all the super graphics out of the festival, but we had much fewer. One of the awardees did the film by himself. So that was the idea. It will be very different as compared to the Hong Kong Siggraph Asia.

A lot of the films in the line up are narrative driven…

Absolutely, this was one of my concerns. I don't like effects for effects sake. I like that people are truly bringing meaning to screen that the audience can think about. Let's see if the audience will like it, I don't know. It is interesting. I don't think we need violence, we need films that express human views.

How is the standard of submissions this year?

You know what I was astonished about? We did not have so many technical new development films. This year, most of the films were done by designers, or artists.. There were almost no submissions by professors who have developed a new technique. I think the competition is too strong. Now, nobody likes it in the festival, because they prefer films that tell a story.

There are other avenues for these new technologies to be shown, like the posters and booths.

Yes, that's true. I have been involved with Siggraph for 20 years, and I would run there to see the technological novelty- water falling, some incredible rendering, or deformation of object. And that was great. Nothing of that came this year. Films this year focused on bringing a message forward or aesthetics, beauty concept. Several of them have a strong message.

How are the submissions from Asia?

8 from Asia, 5 from America, I think the most accepted films were from Europe. Some from Australia and New Zealand. In the shortlisted 80, 26 were from Europe, Asia had 9. There's not even a quarter of the submission from Asia.. Last year there was no Asian films. This year's selection took into consideration independent film makers works, and because of that, more Asian films were able to be selected. I took a very international jury, and because of this diversity, the tastes were interdisciplinary and international. We moved away from the super productions to give opportunity to the local independent talents. The commercial aspect was not taken into consideration.

I am very happy to have had the capacity to bring this to the Festival. I came from a computer graphics background, and when I see these films, they are simple looking, but I don't mind because they did something fantastic out of very simple things. This was what was valued this year. I am happy I could bring that.

What is your mixed reality fashion show about?

I have been working for 20 years in, and pioneered the field of clothing special effects. My first fashion show was in Siggraph is 1991. It was very small, without real models. It was the first time, and it was very new. Now that I am spending more than half of my time in Singapore, I decided to prepare this fashion show for Siggraph Asia. The idea is we do the clothes from A to Z- with a fashion designer, we design and make clothes. Then we simulate on computer, so that we can compare clothing in reality and in the virtual. We have the real person with the real clothes, and we have the virtual as the counterpart on the screen. Susanto who is our Chair was very open to the idea to make a fashion show in Siggraph Asia. It was something different.

To have the virtual next to the real, what kind of story were you trying to tell?

Well, it's more technical in this case, the idea is to have the real, and the virtual one. And at least people can see the wrinkles on the virtual model is similar to the wrinkles on the real model. It is to show that today we are more or less capable to simulate clothes. Clothes are very complex; as soon as we move, they deform. And these deformations are physics based. Depending on the equations and the methods one uses, deformation can be more or less accurate. Now we are at the point that when you see a real piece of clothing on a real model, and you see the virtual one, you'd see that they behave the same. It is also to open avenues of research, with the fun behind it.

And also the fanciness, to bring some life into the parties. (laugh)

You moved to Singapore in 2009, and you've been working at the Nanyang Technological University since then. What kind of projects are you working on now?

I am working partly on fashion, but also on 3D telepresence using social robots and virtual humans. My main area is virtual humans and social robots. We have a booth in Siggraph Asia which shows how a robot can recognise you, recognise your gesture, recognise who you are, and put you on his Facebook. But a virtual human can do exactly the same. So in fact, what we try to do is to develop awareness. And the third thing I am working on is on medical simulation, if we can get MRI data from any body part, we can reconstruct and see how the soft tissues deform according to our own motion. We are working very hard now. We are working at the institute of which I am chairing- the Institute for Media Innovation.