Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

Looking into the Future

Barbara Robertson

This year, for the first time, Prix Ars Electronica chose to offer two Golden Nicas, four Awards of Distinction, and as many as 24 Honorary Mentions in the categories of computer animation and visual effects.

And this year’s jury, Maurice Benayoun, Larry Cuba, Mark Dippé, Rudolf John, Peter Kogler, Barbara Robertson, and Michael Wahrman, chose to grant all the awards. The jurors did not find a break-through piece among the entries, nor did we discover a new aesthetic, but we caught exciting glimpses of new aesthetics being formed. As juror Mark Dippé put it, "We could see pieces of the future."
Fortunately, the changes in the rules and the generosity of the Prix Ars Electronica benefactors afforded us the opportunity to honor many of these risk- takers, although not as many as we wanted. It wasn’t long ago that the use of computer animation in feature films was rare, wonderful, pure, and simple. No one had seen anything like the liquid, metal man in the movie Terminator 2, and it could not have been created without computers. Then two movies which relied heavily on computer graphics, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) became enormous successes. Hollywood’s opinion of computer animation and visual effects was elevated from risky to possible, and the floodgates opened. Each year brought another break-through in computer graphics. Until finally last summer it seemed that nearly all the action/adventure/science fiction movies released by Hollywood studios relied on computer animation - from the "invisible" visual effects in Speed 2, to the outrageous characters in Men in Black and Spawn. This year, the effects in every movie on the long list of films nominated for an Academy Award in special effects were created largely with computer graphics imagery.

Reflecting this evolution, during the past few years the entries to Prix Ars Electronica from the amply-funded professional studios have increased to the point that they have threatened to completely overwhelm the efforts of independent animators, filmmakers, and researchers. Indeed, the last two Golden Nicas have honored computer animation and visual effects in the feature films Toy Story and Dragonheart, and justifiably so. But it was becoming clear that soon it would be nearly impossible for a short, experimental work from an independent artist to compete with the work being done by commercial studios. And yet, each area is crucial to the evolution of this art form; each has its own impact; each needs to be recognized.

Thus it was decided this year to equally honor the highly-commercial and the less-commercial entries without pitting one against the other. And with this freedom in mind, the seven-member jury began the task of winnowing the 350 entries to 30 selections in three days, and then to select from those 30, one Golden Nica and two Awards of Distinction to represent the independent artists and researchers, and one Golden Nica and two Awards of Distinction to represent the commercial, high-end productions. How did we choose those 30? Sometimes, it’s easier to explain why we did not choose the others. We ruled out works that seemed like catalogs of effects. As Maurice Benayoun said about one entry, "First I show you drops of water, then I show you lens flare." We didn’t need to have a story and characters, as our Awards of Distinction demonstrate, but we wanted to see a strong design, a good idea, and a complete film. We fell in love with a few entries that we later ruled out because, although they had wonderful stories and were undoubtedly edited with the help of computers, they included almost no computer animation. Too many entries started out well, and then, about three- quarters of the way through, got lost. We held our breath as we watched, hoping the animator would hold on to the story, or hold our interest, but alas. We saw far too many rubber chickens, tunnels, fans, animated shadows, and eyeballs - so many that these can take their place in our minds alongside flying chrome logos as examples of computer graphics clichés. In looking back, we see that we eliminated all the animations with low-relief characters in high-relief backgrounds. Similarly, even though the seven members of the jury have come from disparate backgrounds, we have all grown tired of seeing anthropomorphic toasters, beans, pencils and so forth. "We now expect computer animation pieces that are not just silly," says Dippé. "They can be dramatic, action-oriented, dark, dramatic, powerful. I want to find something that pushes the boundaries in some way." And in fact, we found some boundary-pushing examples - some pieces of the future, if you will. We honored several excellent motion studies. We found a few animations with an effective use of depth-of-field and other film-making techniques. We saw high-energy pieces that pointed to a future filled with animated Babes - Babes with guns, Babes wrestling, Babes on scooters, and Babes boxing. We discovered other wonderful trends. "We had some quite good human work," notes Michael Wahrman, "some of which we turned away. Many of the pieces I’m going to think about and enjoy are not winners." We all remember, in particular, a short animation with a young woman who was brilliantly realized, a man with remarkable hands, and one of the first realistic computer-animated geriatric women. Unfortunately in many of the entries with human characters, the work was incomplete in some way - the character was beautifully designed and rendered but not animated with the same degree of expertise, or the story fell apart. "You can’t do only a good picture, you must try to do something with it," says Benayoun. Also promising indicators of an interesting future were several animations created with stylized rendering. These animations ranged from lyrical abstractions in which the filmmaker was more concerned with creating an atmosphere than in reproducing reality, to animations with characters rendered with cartoon shaders - in sum, what one juror called a purposeful revisualization of the world from a painter’s perspective.

"Animators are no longer simply imitating Walt Disney," says Dippé, "they’re creating a new world that’s believable because it’s compelling."

We were disappointed to see only a few entries in scientific visualization, only a few satirical pieces, and only a few political statements. On the other hand, we were pleased to find some excellent examples of abstract works in computer animation.

We selected "The Sitter" for the Golden Nica, a work by Liang-Yuan Wang of the Pratt Institute. It was the first entry to receive a unanimous vote from the jurors and the consensus held through all the rounds of voting. "The Sitter is an example of a complete film, non-commercial, surprising in its ideas, and an interesting one-person film," says Wahrman.

For Runners-up, we selected the aptly-named "Runners", a film from Kazuma Morino about form and motion, and "Landscape", a poetic work in black and white created by Tamas Waliczky. "Tamas Walicsky’s piece is the perfect continuation of his previous works in which he explores the limits of time and space. Landscape is a stop-motion 3D space that combines live-action film and CG rain to create a poetical view of a frozen world," says Benayoun. "Runners’ appeal is in its use of repetitive elements (running men made of cubes) in an abstract choreography that plays with rhythm, space and motion. This is not only a formalist essay, it also provides a more Sisyphus point of view of the computer graphic world."

When we turned to the entries represented by high-end productions, we found remarkable examples of visual effects with a total of 10 feature films entered, each outstanding in its own right yet none, arguably, as ground-breaking as "Jurassic Park" was in its time, or "Toy Story" in its time. In the end, we agreed by our votes with Mark Dippé who said, "Probably the piece that will have the biggest impact on the filmmaking world is Titanic." We believed Lost World to be one of the best efforts in visual effects, but it suffered from being a derivative work, and we admired the seamless effects in "Red Corner".

"The classic rule is that the most popular film with visual effects gets acclaimed as the best visual effects because in the eyes of the audience they truly are the most powerful visual effects," says Wahrman. "And often, the really seamless visual effects get ignored because the real difficulties are not understood."

For Awards of Distinction, we chose "Men in Black" submitted by Rob Coleman; and "Spawn", submitted by Christophe Héry, both of which blend creature animation with live-action footage. "In ''''''''Titanic'''''''', they’re recreating something existing, but these movies are trying to create things that are different," says Benayoun. "I think this approach is more interesting." Adds Wahrman, "''''''''Men in Black'''''''' was an example of splendid animation and visual effects in a commercial setting. The jury was predisposed to favor slime and blood this year, but I am not sure that this is a trend that will be continued."

As for the Honorary Mentions - drumroll, please:

For Pure Geometric Beauty: "A-Light"

For a Wonderful, Well-designed, Well-made, Well-thought-out Animation that’s Like a Really Good Joke: "CPU"

For Making Eggs Look So ...: "Ellipsoid"

For Being So French: "Fifth Element"

For the Best Performance by Green Goo: "Flubber"

For really nice motion - It’s Not a Winner, but It’s a Good Bet: "Gallop Racer II"

For the Absolutely Exquisite: "Geri’s Game"

Because the Proof is in the Filling: "Homage to Hilbert"

For One of the Best Reconstruction Animations in Centuries: "La Tour de Vésone"

For Going with the Tide: "Le ressac"

For Excellence in Jurassic Technology: "Lost World"

For Brilliant Animation which Proves We had More Winners than Awards: "Migrations"

For the Best Rodent Simulation: "Mousehunt"

For Being Happy. An Animation to Watch Several Times: "Pinka"

For Amazing Stage Sets: "Monsters of Grace"

For Being So Original: "Replica"

For Moments of Brilliance in a Short, Sweet Work: "Roccoco #506"

For Advances in Bug Technology: "Starship Troopers"

For Good Taste: "Sweet Extreme"

For a Virtuoso Use of Motion Capture to Animate a Human Character: "Trade Secrets from the Violin Masters"

For Special Effects as Art: "U Man"

For Achievements in Sensuality - Because Not all Synthetic Actresses will be Good Girls: "Virtual Actress Move Test"

For a Truly Original Idea in Ride Films: "Virtual Museum of History"

For the Wild All-CG Scooter Chase Through in a Crowded, Exotic Street Scene: "Zaijian"

"This year was much better overall in my opinion than the previous two that I was associated with because I think we really had some decent dynamics," says Wahrman who served on the jury in those years. "But like the other years, there was no formal procedure, the jury was free to do whatever it wished. Which is good in the abstract. And has the following results:

(1) the overall the body of work seems very strong if you examine all the winners in an unranked way

(2) there are some excellent pieces that are as good as the honorable mentions but didn’t make it and I can’t explain why,

(3) as happened two years ago, we had a very strong use of visual effects for politics, but there was less interest among the jurors this year, and

(4) a single juror with a strong opinion can have a big influence."

"I can tell you why we loved the two second prizes in non-commercial animation but not the first prize," Wahrman continues, "and why we loved the first prize in commercial animation but not necessarily why we loved the two second prizes. To me, this ranking was a convenient artifact of the formal method that was used to reach a result in the time frame. What is most hard to explain to people is that we spent most of our time just getting the list down from 350 to 90, then from 90 to 50, then from 50 to 30, and very little time on anything else."

In all, the jury was pleased with the change in rules that allowed such a diverse selection of films to be honored, and we were honored to be the first jury to be given such a large assignment. Although at the end we were still uncertain where short films from commercial studios should fall in terms of awarding the highest honors, we believe that in being able to offer the two sets of awards we truly had the freedom to honor both the highly successful examples of visual effects as well as those smaller glimpses of the future from the independent filmmakers.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at