Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

What exactly is Computer Animation? What are Visual Effects?

By Ines Hardtke

How are these different? How is excellence in these defined? Which pieces of computer graphics work best reflect these "definitions?" And how exactly does one compare work coming from a high-end production house to a six-week student project to an independent artist''s piece?

I have spent half of my life working with computers - always related to computer graphics (even if only in "intent") and always for the purpose of animation. "So what?," you ask (and "Rightfully so," I say).Well, I am 41.

Granted this additional, small piece of information isn''t interesting in itself either (unless you are a friend of my still young children and enjoy the thrill of imagining someone so "archaic") but, together with the first line, this changes the perspective on me and on my comments. It provides "context." It allows perhaps an openness, an understanding, thought possibilities that weren''t previously there. Half of 41 is 20 years (in integers). That''s a long time in the history of computers. There have been many changes.

I write all of that not because I think it''s important to know about me, but because I do believe that understanding the importance of "context" is essential. What is the Prix Ars Electronica? What are the categories? What are the works? How are they compared? How are they judged? What results are being presented here?

The Prix Ars Electronica was created to gather, acknowledge, honor and make accessible to others (through the Ars Electronica Festival and the Ars Electronica Center) the current state of digital media creativity. That''s a sentence packed with intent. Gathering work is in itself a huge job, but it is a worthy one as it is exactly through this collected body of work that the re-definition of the medium and the re-evaluation of excellence within that happens.

The methods and means of "computers" makes them at times a medium, at times a tool, at times a process and at times a result (and often all of the aforementioned rolled into one). That means that these "media" evolve continuously. As do the categories and judging criteria of the Prix Ars Electronica honoring the "top work."

This statement discusses the "Computer Animation" and "Visual Effects" categories, submissions, jury and results. So, first and foremost, what exactly is computer animation? What are visual effects? How are they different? Which pieces of computer graphics work best reflect these "definitions?"

Although most of us have at least an intuitive response to these questions, a proposed redefinition of their answers is exactly what is asked for of the world at large when the annual Prix Ars Electronica competition is opened. It was also the wonderful task set before the jury serving both these categories, in the form of a large and widely ranging body of submitted work. These written words are in many ways a reflection of my view of the three day "conversation" that transpired within and through this body of work amongst jury members Maurice Benayoun (France), Rob Legato (USA), Barbara Robertson (USA) and myself, Ines Hardtke (Canada).

The definition of computer animation can be large, small or somewhere in between. For me (implicitly and explicitly on the "larger" end of things), "animation" remains "the art of giving life to something that would otherwise not have any". Adding the word "computer" to this obviously implies the use of a computer somewhere in this process of "animation." But, for a computer animation competition honoring top work in the field (as opposed to an animation festival doing "the same"), a computer must not only be implicated but must be an essential (and so irreplaceable) component of the achievement or manifestation of "result." Although "visual effects" are often animated, this category can loosely be defined as being driven by pre-determined (existent) "action" (as opposed to the "animation" category which determines "action"). Perhaps "adding" life as distinct from "giving" life. This definition moves the judging away from "content" and towards the more "technical" given that the effect itself and more so its integration into the action is what now, by definition, is "important". Notably, the word "computer", although not explicit in the title, is almost exclusively implicit to this "adding" - although there do remain some optical printers out there in the world, their numbers and use (sadly in many ways) are dwindling. The visual effects here are assumed to be digital.

Does this split of giving versus adding life, computer animation versus visual effects make sense? I suppose so. It is another way of "seeing" and comparing work in this very large computer graphics field. Do I think that this split will remain valid? Not likely. In computer graphics there will hopefully remain movement and evolution. There will always be trends. There will always be a mass of effort around the "limitations" as well as around the newly provided, boundary-breaking tools and methods. And, often our limitations are exactly our current day definitions, our understanding, our implementations, our ways of thinking and perceiving. Soon, with all of the work being done in the integration of sound and visual, the categories of "music" and "animation" will not be sufficient. With all that is happening in the "interactive" world we will soon be obliged to widen and re-define our notion of "life" I think. Let''s hope so.

For now though, the categories of Computer Animation and Visual Effects stand as they are. And we the jury screened almost 300 pieces in the former and 65 in the latter. We did move a couple of pieces between the categories based on the nature of the work.

What are the prizes for? What is the "result"?

The Prix Ars Electronica Computer Animation and Visual Effects category each have a top award/first prize - the Golden Nica, two second prizes and up to twelve honorable mentions possible. What, then, are these prizes for?

The prizes and honorary mentions are for excellence in the field, in the category. Period.

What is excellence? Well, excellence is certainly something that everyone has access to - conceptually, technically, through its application, through the content. And all of this together is in order to achieve excellence of result - the actual manifestation of the original idea or concept."Excellence" always (always!) is suited to context. And, any context can be mastered. Any context can have its boundaries pushed on. Any context can serve as a springboard for creativity (and for excellence within that).

What is the selection process?

So, how does one identify, determine, compare and ultimately judge "excellence" in this? For the jury we agreed that true excellence is one that begins with excellence of idea and is carried through to excellence of result. This is tough. It is certainly a tall order. And, no, perhaps contrary to popular belief, this notion of excellence is accessible to all. It is not limited or defined by "means." There actually is no such thing as excellence of "means" - excellent application within means yes, but not excellence of means. That necessarily implies, in order to rightfully compare a commercial product from a top production house to a six-week student project, that contexts of submissions cannot be judged and/but must be made "clear." And, if the idea was "wonderful" but the means were not there to manifest it then perhaps there was no excellence of idea in the first place.

What were the results?

Only "content" is not enough. Only "design" is not enough. Only "idea" is not enough. And, doing for the sake of doing, is not enough.

The idea has to be for some content - unless the idea is one of pure research (and even then it must be made accessible). Rendering or execution can be limited by "means" but not by care or manner. Anything that anyone does can be done well or not. This may sound simplistic but it obviously isn''t "simple" (otherwise more people would "do it").

The pieces that truly are excellent are - again - excellent in idea, in technique, in application of technique, in content, in presentation. The piece is integral with itself. It is consistent with itself. It starts, is carried through and ends "excellently."

Notably, some people drop the ball along the way (putting it bluntly). Notably, some people have ideas that don''t match the rendering, execution, means, ability and/or capacity. Notably, some execute well and present it not at all. Work can''t be narcissistic. People can''t stop and say "What this is so wonderful that everyone will obviously ''see''." Well, if it isn''t accessible, it can never be "obvious."

Notably, some do not have a sense of the history of the field. Although relatively young in itself, it is old enough now to have seen much innovation and creativity - many excellent ideas and manifestations thereof. I have never understood working in a void. I always want to know what has been done in order to go and do what hasn''t. Some people obviously don''t share this notion and at times throughout the screenings, redundancy of idea was obvious.

Notably, some assume - perhaps given that this appears to be a "visual" category - that sound or music are not important. This is wrong. They are important. They are actually essential. They must be integral to the piece.

And, most noteworthy, many did things "right" … resulting in wonderful discussions and debates around the submissions and, of course, an amazing list of prize winners and honorable mentions. For the computer animation category, the jury was actually able to get to the point where individual members "mattered." Differences in definitions, interests, aesthetics, understanding needed to be presented, explained, defended, and accepted. This results in the "appropriate" (correct?) range of pieces being selected as "winners". This results in the "correct" distribution of prizes. The list or prize order can never please only one person or even any person ("personally"). All jury members need to be able to live with it, to find it "fair", and to be proud of the whole. All people responsible for the pieces on the computer animation list truly can be proud.

For the Visual Effects category this unfortunately wasn''t the case. I in no way mean to take away from the prize winning and honorably mentioned submissions - which certainly deserve their merit - but, in general, the quality of the presentation of the submissions (more than the submissions themselves) was poor. People often, usually falsely, assumed understanding of context, of whole, of idea, of purpose, of method when it truly wasn''t apparent.

So, that said, here are this year''s winners ...

The Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica for Computer Animation

"Bunny" directed by Chris Wedge and produced at Blue Sky Studios (USA)

The Prix Ars Electronica Computer Animation Awards of Distinction

"A Bug''s Life" directed by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, produced by Pixar (USA)

"Snack and Drink" directed by Bob Sabiston and Tommy Pallotta, produced by Flat Black Films (USA)

The Prix Ars Electronica Honorary Mentions in Computer Animation

In the Computer Animation category, the jury chose to award all honorary mentions. Actually choosing to do this wasn''t difficult, given that we had more pieces that we wanted to honor than "mentions." We ended up coming up with quite an elaborate "system" to describe our choices, preferences and sense of import for the pieces allowing for a list of work that felt "fair" - meaning reflected each member''s participation and resulted in an overall "jury" list.

This year the honorary mentions go to ...

"Bad Night" directed by Emre and Lev Yilmaz of Protozoa (USA)

"Bike" directed by Dietmar Offenhuber of AEC Future- Lab (Austria)

"Bingo" directed by Chris Landreth of Alias|Wavefront (Canada)

"En D‚rive" directed by Patrice Mugnier/Heure Exquise (France, a student work)

"Fly Band!" directed by Seiji Shiota and Tohru Patrick Awa of Polygon Pictures


"Ghostcatching" directed by Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar and Bill T. Jones of Riverbed (USA)

"Polygon Family" directed by Jun Asakawa and Toshifumi Kawahara of Polygon Pictures (Japan)

"Ronin Romance Classics" directed by Bruce Pukema of Ronin Inc. (USA)

"Stationen" directed by Christian Sawade-Meyer (D)

"Tightrope" directed by Daniel Robichaud of Digital Domain (USA)

"Ultima Forsan" directed by William Le Henanff (France)

"Un Temps pour elle" directed by Erwin Charrier/Heure Exquise (a student work, France)

The Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica for Visual Effects

"What Dreams May Come" produced by Digital Domain, Mass.illusion and POP (USA)

The Prix Ars Electronica Visual Effects Awards of Distinction

"A viagem" by Alain Escalle (France)

"Guinness Surfer" by Computer-Film Company (GB)

The Prix Ars Electronica Honorary Mentions in Visual Effects

This year the honorary mentions in the Prix Ars Electronica Visual Effects category were awarded to ...

Alaris "Aliens" by Juan Tominic Muller of Daiquiri Spainbox (Spain)

Lottery "Fantasy" by Manuel Horrillo Fernandez of Daiquiri Spainbox (Spain)

"Photoreal Digital Cars: Metal Desert and Metal City" by Ray Giarratana of Digital Domain (USA)

"No Way" by Geoffrey Guiot, Bruno Lard‚ and J‚r“me Maillot / Heure Exquise (France, a student work)

"Original Copies" by Miles/Murray/Sorrell of Fuel (GB)

"Virus" by Phil Tippett and Craig Hayes of Tippett Studios (USA)

In conclusion

If an idea is worth realizing, then it is worth realizing well. If you don''t know the work in the above list, please try and see it. These are ideas exceptionally well realized. Individually and together, they currently define computer animation and visual effects. They are our top-of-line present. They point towards our future. And they will become part of our wonderful history. It was an honor and a pleasure to have been on this year''s jury - to have had access to such a wonderful body of work; to sit, discuss, debate with my distinguished co-jurors; to have had the chance to meet firsthand the amazing group of people responsible for the Prix Ars Electronica competition. To all of you I say thank you and congratulations.

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