Marvel's Victoria Alonso Talks SIGGRAPH, Diversity
SIGGRAPH keynote speaker Victoria Alonso, EVP of production at Marvel Studios, on stage at the L.A. Convention Center (photo courtesy of SIGGRAPH)
Keynote speaker explains why she’s been coming to the industry conference for 24 years and counting
  • LOS ANGELES
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During her keynote remarks at this week’s SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles, Victoria Alonso, EVP of production at Marvel Studios, affirmed that she owes a debt of gratitude to the SIGGRAPH community.

Alonso explained that “nerds” played an integral role in her career given their natural inclination to share. She recalled early on at Digital Domain the generosity of artisans there who imparted expertise in Flame, Maya, Inferno and the like, offering an invaluable education to a woman who didn’t go to film school and was just starting out in the industry. Similarly she met more colleagues like these at SIGGRAPH and was inspired by the event’s sense of unity. That’s why, said Alonso, she’s been attending SIGGRAPH for 24 straight years so that she can give back to the community that helped her in the early going. She observed there’s much to be learned from “nerds”--Alonso considers herself one--because as demonstrated at SIGGRAPH they have an affinity for harmony, sharing knowledge and coming together with a sense of purpose and a willingness to help.

Alonso is also enthused over how SIGGRAPH has evolved, recalling that she attended the conference back when she was one of maybe a dozen women there. She noted, “We’ve come a long way since then” but at the same time it’s “the slowest race I’ve ever been in and we haven’t won it yet.” She noted that being inclusive of women, people of color, different races and ethnicities remains an important goal, a conversation that has to be “global and consistent.”

Marvel is doing its part as evidenced at the recently wrapped Comic-Con in San Diego where the studio announced an upcoming slate of features, only one of which has a white male director. Women and people of color are otherwise in the director’s chair for this lineup of the studio’s films.
 
Furthermore the superheroes themselves are becoming more diverse, with Scarlett Johansson starring as Black Widow in that character’s first solo film, directed by Cate Shortland. Next there’s The Eternals with a wide ranging ethnic cast including Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry and Salma Hayek. Scheduled for release in February 2021 is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in which Simu Liu will become Marvel’s first big screen Asian American superhero. Natalie Portman will play a female Thor in the new Thor: Love and Thunder, which will also feature Tessa Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, as Marvel’s first LGBTQ superhero. The studio is also breathing new life into the black character Blade, with the help of Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali. And, of course, earlier this year marked the release of Captain Marvel, the first Marvel Studios’ film to be centered entirely on a female character.

Role model
Alonso herself is a role model for women and those striving to attain ethnic diversity. A native of Buenos Aires, she has reached great industry heights and along the way has won such honors as the 2015 New York Women in Film & Television Muse Award for Outstanding Vision and Achievement, became the Advanced Imaging Society’s first female Harold Lloyd Award recipient, and received the 2017 VES Visionary Award (another female first).

Alonso’s film credits include productions such as Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, Tim Burton’s Big Fish, Andrew Adamson’s Shrek, and numerous Marvel titles — Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Captain Marvel, and Avengers: Endgame which recently crept past Avatar to become the highest grossing film of all time (at some $2.79 billion).

While she’s been a mentor to many, remarkably Alonso said she never felt the burning desire or need for someone to mentor her. Perhaps, she conjectured, that was because her mom was such an influential force in her life already. Alonso recalled her mother saying, “If it has been done, you can. If it hasn’t been done, you must.”

That strong spirit has informed Alonso’s life. She, however, acknowledged that the revered producer (the more recent Star Wars entries, Jurassic Park, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Sixth Sense) Kathleen Kennedy, now president of Lucasfilm, served as an early source of inspiration. When she was in Argentina, Alonso remembered seeing major movie posters on which Kennedy’s credit appeared, proving to her that a woman could rise to a high level in the movie/VFX/storytelling arena. Fast forward to when Alonso got firmly established at Marvel, she got the opportunity to have lunch with Kennedy. “I was ecstatic,” said Alonso who now has the privilege of having Kennedy as a friend.

Highlights
The 46th annual SIGGRAPH conference concluded with its highest attendance since 2013, boasting 18,700 global professionals in computer graphics and interactive techniques. 

Among other news and developments at SIGGRAPH, including on the exhibit floor, were:

--Vicon announced the upcoming release of Shōgun 1.3, the latest addition to its performance capture platform for entertainment, including games and VFX. Shōgun 1.3 introduces precise finger solving, enabling artists to create and see fully animated characters in real-time, saving both time and money. Users will also be able to stream their own characters directly into game engines, and support for the Universal Scene Description (USD) format has been added, opening the door to mobile devices and augmented reality. The addition of the new finger solving in Shōgun 1.3 means that users can record the entire body – from skeletal movements to the smallest hand gestures – for use in projects ranging from Hollywood blockbusters to AAA games. To create this highly sophisticated finger solving, Vicon partnered with Framestore, the Academy Award-winning VFX studio with film credits like Gravity, Blade Runner 2049 and Spider-Man: Far From Home. “For several years we’ve worked with Vicon on a host of projects, so the opportunity to work with their team to address something that artists have been waiting on for years was an easy decision,” said Richard Graham, Framestore’s virtual production supervisor. “We have already successfully deployed it on a number of projects, and given that it is part of the whole-body solve, it fits straight into our real-time and offline pipelines.” For more than 18 months, Vicon and Framestore worked to perfect Shōgun’s finger tracking, based on a dense 58-marker set capable of tracking finger and knuckle movements. Users can choose a reduced set to animate the fingers; that data can then be combined in real-time with a user’s digital rig, producing a fully animated digital character capable of intricate movements, from writing a letter to playing an instrument. A process that used to take weeks of painstaking animation can now be done instantly.

--Autodesk unveiled Bifrost for Maya, which became available July 31 with Maya 2019.2. Bifrost makes it possible for 3D artists and technical directors to create serious effects in Maya quickly and easily using a new visual programming environment. 
Bifrost for Maya highlights include:

  • Ready-to-Use Graphs -- Artists can quickly create state-of-the-art effects that meet today's quality demands.
  • One Graph -- In a single visual programming graph, users can combine nodes ranging from math operations to simulations.
  • Realistic Previews -- Artists can see exactly how effects will look after lighting and rendering right in the Arnold Viewport in Maya.
  • Detailed Smoke, Fire and Explosions -- New physically-based solvers for aerodynamics and combustion make it easy to create natural-looking fire effects.
  • The Material Point Method -- The new MPM solver helps artists tackle realistic granular, cloth and fiber simulations.
  • High-Performance Particle System -- A new particle system crafted entirely using visual programming adds power and scalability to particle workflows in Maya.
  • Artistic Effects with Volumes -- Bifrost comes loaded with nodes that help artists convert between meshes, points and volumes to create artistic effects.
  • Flexible Instancing -- High-performance, rendering-friendly instancing empowers users to create enormous complexity in their scenes. 
  • Detailed Hair, Fur and Fuzz -- Artists can now model things consisting of multiple fibers (or strands) procedurally.

--Maxon announced Cinema 4D Release 21 (R21), the next generation of its professional 3D modeling, animation, and rendering software solution. R21 introduces powerful new capabilities including a completely new Caps and Bevel system, new Field Force dynamics, interface speed enhancements and broader integration with popular hardware and software technologies. R21 also introduces Maxon’s “3D for the Whole World” initiative, which aims to put professional 3D software within easy reach of every aspiring artist. This includes availability of a singular version of Cinema 4D, more efficient installation and licensing, and new low-entry subscription pricing.

--AWS Thinkbox highlighted a complete studio in the cloud workflow, including rendering, virtual workstation, and storage solutions that help creative studios iterate faster and take on more projects. Cloud rendering allows studios to increase productivity since visual effects artists spend less time waiting for renders and more time creating and perfecting content. Using Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) Spot Instances, studios can achieve near-limitless rendering scale at up to 90 percent cost savings compared to On-Demand pricing, and pay only for resources used. AWS Thinkbox studio in the cloud solutions encompass the full digital content creation pipeline. By leveraging virtual workstations running on Amazon EC2 G3 or G4 instances, studios can enlist artists based in almost any location on a short- or long-term basis, broadening the possible pool of talent beyond local geography and removing physical workstation considerations. Artists work securely using a streaming application of their choice and the studio’s existing licensing for their preferred content creation tools, with content stored securely using Amazon S3 or Amazon S3 Glacier.

Award winners
Finally, here’s a rundown of SIGGRAPH 2019 Conference Award Winners:

Art Gallery
Best in Show – “RuShi”
John Wong, John Wong Art

Art Papers
Best in Show – “CAVE: Making Collective Virtual Narrative”
Kris Layng, Ken Perlin, Corrine Brenner, and Sebastian Herscher, New York University / Courant and Parallux; and, Thomas Meduri, New York University / Courant and VRNOVO

Computer Animation Festival Electronic Theater
Best in Show – “Purl” by Kristen Lester, Pixar Animation Studios (United States)
Best Student Project – “Stuffed” by Élise Simoulin of Supinfocom Rubika (France)
Jury’s Choice – “The Stained Club” by Mélanie Lopez of Supinfocom Rubika (France)
Audience Choice* – “Mayday – Final Chapter” by Muh Chen, Grass Jelly Studio (Taiwan)

Emerging Technologies
Best in Show – “Matching Visual Acuity and Prescription: Towards AR for Humans”
Jonghyun Kim, Michael Stengel, Ben Boudaoud, Josef Spjut, Kaan Akşit, David Luebke, Rachel Albert, Trey Greer, Ward Lopes, Zander Majercik, and Peter Shirley, NVIDIA; Jui-Yi Wu, NVIDIA and National Chiao Tung University; Morgan McGuire, NVIDIA and University of Waterloo; and, Youngmo Jeong, NVIDIA and Seoul National University

Immersive (Immersive Pavilion and VR Theater)
Best in Show – “Bonfire”
Larry Cutler, Eric Darnell, Wei Wang, Michael Hutchinson, and Nathaniel Dirksen, Baobab Studios

Real-Time Live
Best in Show and Audience Choice – “GauGAN: Semantic Image Synthesis With Spatially Adaptive Normalization”
Taesung Park, University of California Berkeley; Ting-Chun Wang, Chris Hebert, Gavriil Klimov, and Ming-Yu Liu, NVIDIA; and, Jun-Yan Zhu, MIT

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