Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

In the Octopus’s Garden

Anezka Sebek with Paul Debevec, Siegfried A. Fruhauf, Jürgen Hagler, Ivan Tsupka

This was the first time that I had the great pleasure to be one of the members of the jury for the computer animation selections at Ars Electronica 2008. Everything about the experience was new because I had not ventured to Europe for a few years. The town of Linz itself is a testament to the old and the new; not the least of which is the tremendous construction of the new Ars Electronica Center, which will open in 2009 when Linz will serve as the Culture Capital of Europe. This year’s jury was photographed with a 360-degree panoramic camera amid the piles of materials for construction.

The first evening, the Ars Electronica 2008 jury were graciously introduced by our hosts Christine Schöpf, Gerfried Stocker and Hannes Leopoldseder at the traditional Thursday evening’s dinner at the impressive and modern Brucknerhaus. The next three and a half days we would only see each other for meals and provocative conversation about such topics as human ity’s continued adventures with integration of technology and the body, our opinions about world affairs and the state of practice and theory in education. The mission of the Ars Electronica festival is to search out the innovators in the various fields of media art. This experience gives jurors the very honored opportunity to see, to discuss and to debate what the current state of the art is and where innovations may be going.

The computer animation and visual effects jury was carefully selected from a mixture of education and industry backgrounds. I had the pleasure of working again with Paul Debevec and Christine Schöpf, having served on juries with them for ACM Siggraph. Paul is known for his seminal work in image-based modeling and lighting techniques. Juergen Hagler was recruited from the ranks of previous Ars Future Lab and a career in computer animation although currently in education. Ivan Tsupka is a contemporary fine artist and director. Siegfried Fruhauf has an impressive international career in experimental filmmaking. And my own career has spanned the world of visual effects and computer animation since 1983.

Siegfried Frühauf and Christine Schöpf spent the days prior to the rest of the jury’s arrival winnowing down the field of entries from 556 to 220. Their criteria were based on keeping work that had any kind of merit, whether it was narrative or technological. We were grateful since this allowed us to use Friday to survey the entire remaining set of entries. By Saturday, we had narrowed the field to 60 selections and we took time to watch all remaining entries at their full length. On Sunday, we narrowed the selections from 23 to the final twelve Honorary Mentions, the Golden Nica and the hotly debated selection of the two Awards of Distinction.

Needless to say, the first days were the most critical as we set out to establish the filter through which we were considering the work. As jurors for Ars Electronica we feel responsible for examining the frontiers of what is technologically possible as well as innovations that inspire us. In our jury process, we discerned that any animation that did not innovate or inspire innovation in methodology, narrative structure or look was eliminated. Stop-motion, 3D computer animation, 2D compositing, and 2D vector animation techniques that did not use the tools in a new way were first to go. The main trends in the submitted animations this year were in dynamics for water, sand and character motion. These and other technological advances for digital actors, motion capture and photo-realism emerged in the content: an underwater circus, a tank of rapping fish, a love story between two octopi, a perpetualmotion scenario of fish in a room, the dramatic reemergence of wreckage from the ocean. Notably, the innovative works receiving awards and honorable mentions came from a wide representation of computer animation: feature films, independent shorts, commercials, music videos, student work and visual effects.

For the past decade, the ease of use and accessibility of computer and film techniques has set the bar for narrative content much higher. Evocative storytelling that addresses moral conflicts of chaotic confusion of 21st century life through imaginative characters is now a basic requirement. All animation and visual effects transgress the real and colors that we know to be a resemblance of life through the artists’ problematic. The demand we make of technology is to create audio and visual appeal that best translate the artists’ messages and vision. As such, we were highly critical of any kind of breakdown in the conceit of each work. For example, some work didn’t make it to the final round simply because of a bad walk cycle. Our three guiding principles throughout our three-and-a-half days of watching an impressive field of a great variety of animated media were a.) methodological innovation that b.) inspires the electronic animation and visual effects community to do further work and c.) examines the human condition through compelling characters and stories. Each of the three films we chose for the coveted statue of the Goddess of Victory represent these guiding principles in their own way.

The Golden Nica

Madame Tutli-Putli
Digital Compositing: Jason Walker, Directors: Chris Lavis, Maciek Szczerbowski / National Film Board of Canada

There was no debate about voting Madame Tutli-Putli for the highest Ars Electronica Prize this year. The effort and care of the execution of the film is unparalleled in the field of other contenders. In awarding the prize, our jury specifically singled out the work of painter Jason Walker, who painstakingly and convincingly tracked and digitally composited the eyes of live-action actors onto the stop-motion characters in the film.

The Technological Innovation and Inspiration:
There is the initial question that we all agreed on: how does technical innovation serve the narrative? Could the film have been made with liveaction characters and had the same charm? As digital animation technologies developed over approximately the past forty years, the popularity of stop-motion animation has made a comeback. Innate in every human child and adult is the attraction to the magic of dolls that come to life. The illusion of dolls coming to life is enhanced by the visibility of the animator’s hand in the creation of the motion. In Madame Tutli-Putli, the masterful attention to smooth motion, instead of the usually halting characteristics of puppeted motion, added to the eerie hybrid look of reality and puppetry. The fleshy and too-human watery sad eyes enhanced Madame’s relatively stiff texture of the cloth body. Jason Walker and his team encourage the animation community to look for digital tools to possibly establish his methodology for future productions. The innovation is in the eye-tracking techniques and the exquisite and eerie result of the halting and irregular stop-motion animation combined with the uncharacteristically fleshy and smooth quality of the live-action eyes of Laurie Maher. The tracking and compositing was four years in the making. Stop-motion and matching eye-movement went through careful analysis and manipulation that integrated live action eyes and puppetry. The small acting moments and gestures were exquisitely matched with make-up, lighting and direction.

The Narrative: Madame’s life has come to an end as she takes the Death Train to its final and unclear destination. Something has happened to Madame’s rather comfortable life filled with material possessions. The opening endless pan of suitcases and possessions of every size strewn in a long, haphazard trail are blown onto the train in a swirl of dust. Madame’s cabin mates are all rendered with the same human eyes tracked onto puppets. A patient and wandering camera brings us to two chess players whose game is determined by the jolting train, a sleeping Chinese man and his grandson, who is reading “How to Handle Your Enemies”, and the lecherous pervert who makes lewd signs of fornication with his hand. In the middle of the night, heavyfooted strangers come on to the train and pump a green gas into the cabin. Madame suddenly wakes up to find all her possessions and her cabin mates have gone. The night train sits on the track as Madame is left wandering to her dark and never-ending loneliness.

Finally, as was evident in other media technology categories that Ars Electronica explores, the combination of puppeted bodies with fleshy eyes speaks to the creation of humans as cyborgs: the erasure of the boundary between the mechanical and the biological.

Awards of Distinction

Links Digiworks, Inc., Japan, Director: Taku Kimura
The Technological Innovation and Inspiration: This impressive film was made by a large commercial studio as a work to demonstrate their skills for great character and world design, flawless character animation for both facial expressions and body and use of dynamics for the octopus-like monsters of the virtual nether world. These techniques would not have meant much if the story had not been just as strong. We are quickly drawn into the storyline of alienation between a father and his young son through the device of a virtual world where the father has to save the soul of his son. A simple and strong narrative arc underscores the moral message. Although we don’t understand the meaning of the type that floats from the boy to the father, the symbols are used as a communication device that is echoed in the pillars that hold up the virtual world.

Directors: Amaël Isnard, Manuel Javelle, Clément Picon; Music: Nicholas Baloche and Benjamin Fournier / Supinfocom

The Technological Innovation and Inspiration: Musicotherapie was not an instant favorite in the jury circle, although it survived to the final round because it had aspects of innovation that fit our criteria. Questions were raised and a heated debate ensued: Was the character design and rendering technique (for example, the white edges around the paper-cut-out looking characters) really innovative? Was the choice to make the surfaces reflective in a flat shaded world interesting? What about the soundtrack, which was custommade to underscore every wacky moment of the film? The integration of music and sound effects added a depth and dimensionality to the flatly rendered world. What about the character motion? The characters were rigged to use (what we believe are) blend-shapes with rigging dynamics. This is not an easy task and speaks again to the advances that have been made in this area. The characters all had elastic arms and legs that defied the constraints of a limiting rig.

The Narrative: Was the content too extreme? But are we not at a very extreme time in our development of the human story? The supervisor of an insane asylum wants quiet, something that we’ll never really get as noise pollution grows louder and louder in our modern lives. The animals in the kitchen want to make a consistent beat while making and eating food even if they eventually eat each other and kill the director—a comment on human cannibalism and cultures that eat the brains of live animals. It is not surprising that the animal that sets the main beat in this story is the knife-slinging octopus. As the octopus begins to slice and dice and the elephant grinds large snakes into small snakes, the turkey begins to peck rhythmically at the hanging pots. The storyline is appropriately taken from the crazy to the absurd and no detail is left unresolved. In the end, the unusual narrative and sound track of Musicotherapie won over the hearts of the jury.

Honorary Mentions

Director: Brad Bird / Pixar Animation Studios
Ratatouille’s brilliant story, character design and animation with Brad Bird’s direction continue to hold Pixar as the standard of excellence to which every animator can aspire.

Coke Zero “Liar”
againstallodds / Passion Pictures
This clever dialogue between very fleshy dismembered tongues is both jarring and funny. Creative character design was brought to life through excellent rendering, compositing, and character animation.

Directors: Jan Bitzer, Ilija Brunck, Tom Weber / Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg
It seems as if character-rigging dynamics have infiltrated all the corners of the animation world. This very short animation whips between two worlds, which juxtapose the mechanical and biological.

Farmer Insurance: Drowned Circus
Weta Digital Ltd.
The visual and practical effects of trapeze artists, girls riding elephants and the Circus Master are seamlessly combined in this tour de force of compositing and live-action photography.

Spider-Man 3
Visual Effects Supervisor: Scott Stokdyk / Sony Pictures Imageworks
The Sand Man character required developing a new sand-particle dynamics system that was consistent with how sand moves and looks while being able to take on human shape, perform numerous stunts and deliver an emotive performance. Digital cityscapes, photoreal stunt doubles and menacingly animated black goo complete this visual effects spectacular.

I Am Legend
Visual Effects Supervisor: Jim Berney / Sony Pictures Imageworks
Several innovations were accomplished in this film: the transformation of New York City into an uninhabited wasteland overgrown with weeds and the frighteningly realistic design and animation of the infected human monsters. We debated over the inclusion of several other films that included motion-captured digital characters and selected this film as the best in its field.

onde sonore
Martina Stiftinger
Making it to the Honorable Mentions circle as a student is no small feat. The innovation in this animation is the continuous fish-eye lens depicting a circular phonograph-driven fish world that subtly reminds us of our own precarious interdependence that perpetuates life on earth. The metaphor of the technology serves the narrative.

Smirnoff “Sea”
Framestore CFC
The theme of water is once again brought to life with computer animation and visual effects that depict the surprising rise of the past from the ocean.

LUX (Shine) Neon Girl
Framestore CFC
We unanimously liked the simple story of the neon girl and the cowboy. The look and execution of the animation stayed true to the world of the neon sign.

The Chemical Brothers “Salmon Dance”
Framestore CFC
As we continue on our watery ride, the fish (no, Sammy is not a salmon) in an aquarium lip sync, rap and swish to the familiar Chemical Brothers hit. All the fish, even the sea horses, know how to dance in perfect Busby Berkeley patterns. The boy, who is thoroughly fascinated by the fishy shenanigans, is well integrated into a convincing fantasy. Needless to say, fish skin surfaces, excellent fish lip synch, subtle water distortions and refractions convinced us as well.

Please Say Something 1–10
Director: David OReilly
A quirky set of identification spots that combines 2D and 3D in a very unusual and unexpected look. The humorous content was also a big plus.

Julien Bocabeille, Emud Mokhberi, François-Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier / Gobelins
This excellent character animation was a jury favorite and, yes, this time we again find two octopi fighting for their right to love before they are threatened with going on the sushi menu. The high-speed ramble through a seaside town complete with stair-stepped swimming pools pays great attention to classic cartoon animation gags that end in a hilarious win for the two lovers. Once again, great use of character rigging and dynamics—and of course, the ubiquitous octopus characters.

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