My Experience with SIGGRAPH

As my various social media feeds update, I am continually reminded that another year is going by where I am not at SIGGRAPH. While the friends I’ve made from SIGGRAPH salt the wound with their photos of the beautiful waterfront Vancouver convention center, I am reminded that it’s my five year anniversary attending my first conference, and thusly, I want to share my experience with SIGGRAPH. It properly changed my life, and I am forever grateful to it and the people who give it life.

What’s a SIGGRAPH?

SIGGRAPH is a terrible acronym that stands for Special Interest Group in Computer GRAPHics. It’s–as stated–a special interest group from the larger organization ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) which is a giant computer club, a professional association if you want to get technical. SIGGRAPH focuses on computer graphics within that larger field. What started out largely as a very technical, academic conference for researchers has become a massive convention for students, professionals (technical, artistic and everyone in between), academics, and hobbyists alike. So how did I find it?

Starting a Student Chapter

In my junior year of undergrad (2010), I wanted to start an animation club. My undergrad did not have much of an animation program outside of two very basic Maya classes, and I wanted a place for students serious about it to learn and pool knowledge. I also wanted a place to geek out with other people who loved all types of animation.

With the backing of my friend Nate, we approached one of our teachers, Phil, asking if he would be the faculty sponsor for our group. He then suggested, “Why not start a SIGGRAPH student chapter?” 

That was my “What’s a SIGGRAPH?” moment. 

Phil Sanders was, to me, an OG in the world of computer graphics. He was making computer art when most people still didn’t think personal computers were useful. He’d exhibited at SIGGRAPH, and spoke highly of them. Quickly looking into the group confirmed everything.

Even as a junior in college, I was still so, so unaware of the extent of cg animation. I was such a late bloomer in terms of learning what the world had to offer. I hadn’t known where to look for resources or information, how to start learning anything about different roles or jobs or anything–I didn’t even know that there were schools with programs solely dedicated to CG animation1. But suddenly there was an entire conference dedicated to all that and more.

Following the guidelines, I applied to have our club recognized by both the school and as an official SIGGRAPH Student Chapter. From there we had meetings twice a week, and Phil told us more about the conference, encouraging us all to volunteer for it. Students, in exchange for working a certain number of hours, were given all-access passes (valued over $1000) to go and experience the conference during off-duty hours. It was a fantastic deal, and the program’s student volunteer program had special programs with studios focussed solely on students. 

I had applied and was accepted as a student volunteer that summer, but unfortunately could not afford the expenses to get there. However, during my senior year I worked two jobs on campus and had some savings. The summer after I graduated, I applied, was accepted, and went. I even got lucky and got the housing lottery, saving me some money. 

Becoming a Student Volunteer

The Student Volunteers (SVs) in red and the Team Leaders (TLs) in blue in front of the Anaheim Convention Center. I’m somewhere in there!

Student Volunteers are the red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the entire conference. Without them, things just would not flow as well. SVs are stationed throughout the entire conference, and do everything from give directions to the bathrooms, to serving as translators, to helping artists set up booths, or even running booths and demos themselves. They make sure people have the right badges, assist any conference programming leads with anything and everything. They are a large part of the man power that makes the nuts and bolts of a convention of that scale possible. 

That first SIGGRAPH–2013 in Anaheim–is one I will always look back on fondly. I immediately befriended the three other SVs I was sharing a hotel room with, and we embraced the conference together. My shifts were largely monitoring ones–which was very, very lucky for me. That meant that I actually got to be in many very interesting panels and walk around, making sure people weren’t illegally photographing or recording sessions.2 Because I was in the panels, I was able to listen and watch them while keeping an eye on the crowd. 

Two panels I specifically remember attending in this way were about Pixar’s short The Blue Umbrella, and a panel about CG use in anime. That panel prominently featured Pokemon. That conference, the “theme song” for me was the song from Blue Umbrella; between the panel, a special student session, and multiple screenings, I must have seen that short six times in the span of four days.

Another highlight for me was manning the Sphero booth. Sphero, best known now for the little remote-controlled BB-8, was a tiny start-up at the time. I was put with one of the founders, Ian. At that point, he wasn’t sure if they were going to last, which was crazy to me because it was the cutest toy! While Ian manned the table, every so often, I would take an iPad and a Sphero and I’d walk the floor on the convention, steering it around to attract attention. And it worked. It’s been a huge privilege have seen Sphero take off.

A slightly strange highlight was meeting Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar. His book had just come out, and I’d devoured it. Unfortunately, the new of the wage-fixing scandal across many larger studios had also broke recently. Considering that I’d practically barreled into him, I think I kept my cool and was diplomatic when I thanked him for the technological contributions he’s made to the field of computer graphics. 

As I mentioned, when SVs didn’t have any shifts, we could attend the conference itself. That’s the power of being an SV–your payment is that pricey full-conference pass. You had your shifts, but then you still had plenty of down time to attend the conference. Another panel I attended that year was Blue Sky’s panel about Epic. I sat in the front row and still remember seeing people like art director Mike Knapp and fur TD Dave Barksdale, who later became co-workers, up there in what felt like such an unreachable place.

The thing that I love about the SV program more than anything is the pure, sincere joy everyone has being there. Maybe that feeling has changed since then, and I truly hope it has not, but it was the first time I felt that I’d found my tribe. The enthusiasm was contagious. You didn’t feel self-conscious for participating, for geeking out, for going all-in. It was definitely largely thanks to the amazing Team Leaders (who are in charge of the SVs, and the SV Comittee for their dedication and energy.

Team Leader

Outside the Vancouver Convention Center. TLs in teal and SVs in orange.
I’m hiding in the front, behind the committee members (who are in regular clothes).

The following year, I applied and was accepted as one of around 14 team leaders whose job is was to wrangle the 300+ student volunteers. I was given housing and coverage for airfare, which was a big help. Because I was a TL, I got to fly out to the conference site–2014 was in Vancouver (same as this year!)–a few days earlier to learn the layout and get acclimated. It was a lot of ice breaker games and what was basically a leadership bootcamp for our team. I haven’t seen any of them in person since then, but I love and miss them all so much!

The TLs bust their asses for the SVs. You were the first ones in and the last ones out. Rather than shifts, we were each in charge of an area of the conference, and we managed the students who had shifts in the area. The area I got to manage was the art gallery, which was filled with all sorts of experimental and interactive pieces. It was my job to make sure students knew about and knew how to operate (if applicable) the piece to be able to talk to visitors about it and demo it correctly and safely. 

Two panels I was able to attend that year were Tonko House (before they were even Tonko House!)’s The Dam Keeper, and Disney’s Feast. I’d never seen a Nuke comp tree as elaborate as the one director Patrick Osborne showed us. Unbeknownst to me, a few years later, I’d get to work with Patrick at Blue Sky for two years on Nimona.

It was at this conference that I got my foot in the door at Blue Sky. 

Another perk of the SV program are special student sessions the conference has exclusively for the SVs. Usually talks from the bigger studios. They also have special times allotted for resume and portfolio reviews. A fellow TL covered for me so that I could sign up for one of the slots with Blue Sky. One thing to note: at this point, I had attended my first year in the MFA program at SVA. While there, I’d met a recruiter from Blue Sky who gave me advice for my production management resume. When I attended the SIGGRAPH review, it was that same recruiter–so there was a small bit of familiarity from a previous resume review. I came armed with new experience, and I left with optimism. A few emails back and forth, an interview, and I had a new job at a major studio–something I thought would take a few more years to get close to.

Today

I’ve been out of the game for a while, and it sucks. I didn’t make a lot when I worked at Blue Sky, so for me to foot the entire bill to get over to SIGGRAPH as a regular attendee, in addition to airfare, hotel, and food, just wasn’t feasible for me. Even as a general volunteer, with perhaps partial reimbursement, I couldn’t swing it. That on top of limited vacation days prevented me from going.

But now that I’m going back to school, I would be able to apply through their student program once again! I’m really hoping I can swing it next summer. I’d love to attend and re-experience everything. I’d also love to attend one year as a regular attendee and get to see everything. 

I think in the future I’ll do a more concise video on my YouTube channel about why I think students should apply for the student volunteer program. It’s a great place to network, to meet professionals, find mentors, and just see what’s out there. It’s invaluable, and I’m so lucky I’ve gotten to experience it the way I have. The friends I’ve made from SIGGRAPH are ones I don’t see often, but there’s a bond that just exists. It’s not something I or anyone takes lightly. Even if I don’t talk to everyone often, I know I could always reach out to them, and hope they know I’d always try to be there for them too.

TLs bonding a few days before the conference begins.
I’m in the second row, wearing a black T-shirt and green shorts. 

#ProudToBeSV

Annotations
  1. I’d kept my school search limited to in-state only (New Jersey) in order to keep tuition costs down. A private art school was totally out of the question for me back then. 
  2. Google Glass was still a thing then, and I actually caught someone recording a whole panel on a pair and had to flag a Team Leader. They then had to issue a warning throughout the conference to look out for Google Glass! Being a tech conference, it was probably one of the few places where that was even a concern.

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