Mark Elendt on 25 Years at Side Effects Software and the SIGGRAPH Dailies

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Mark Elendt, Senior Mathematician of Side Effects Software and 2013, 2014 SIGGRAPH Dailies Chair, gives us an inside look into the art of visual effects, as well as some of the challenges faced by artists in creating that perfect shot. In this interview, Mr. Elendt and Steve Waskul discuss the usability and flexibility of Side Effects Software’s visual effects and 3D animation package, Houdini. Mark also shares his experiences as Chair of the Dailies for the past two years at SIGGRAPH.

As the interview opens, Mr. Waskul invites, “So, you’ve been working on Houdini?” Mark’s work on Houdini, recently earning a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in February 2012, signifies the passion that has surrounded his employment with Side Effects Software for the past 25 years. Yes, Mark replies, Houdini is a procedural animation package that allows for greater flexibility in both timing and creativity when developing 3D content. “Let’s say you are making a forest,” Mark continues, and you decide you don’t like the original look of the tree you had cloned to make that forest. With Houdini, you can alter the original tree and the software will apply the change to the whole forest.

So, Steve suggests, can Houdini randomize select objects, in, say, a crowded baseball stadium? Yes, Mark explains, you can alter a particular spectator in your crowd to give the shot a more realistic feel. But what Houdini is really known for, he continues, is effects work. “So you like blowing stuff up,” Steve simplifies, eliciting Mark’s laughter. “Yes, blowing stuff up is a lot of fun.” To do this, Mark explains, he creates the necessary coding to allow artists to design the explosion they’re envisioning. “We look at the small tools,” he continues, like how to move particles through a volume; these tools allow artists the flexibility to create a variety of computer-generated effects tailored to their unique needs.

“I’ve always heard from people who use Houdini that people just love interfacing with your company,” Steve avows. Fortunate to have a great support staff, Mark readily shares how passionate their staff is about problem solving. They direct questions to the developer who worked specifically with that content, streamlining the tech-support process.

“I was interviewing someone who worked on ‘Tron’- the original one,” Steve prompts, and the difference between how graphics were created then and now is amazing. Owing part of his career path choice to inspiration drawn from “Tron,” Mark explains that although coding is still the essence of computer graphics, the difference now is that artists can take the tools Houdini provides and not have to deal with the coding. It used to be, Mark elaborates, that an animator had to be a jack-of-all-trades. Now the industry has become more specialized. When you watch a film, Steve impresses, you don’t realize the passion behind each shot. Mark whole-heartedly agrees; “That’s what the Dailies program is about.”

Continuing in this direction, Mark shares that the Dailies are about recognizing the challenge of creating that perfect shot. SIGGRAPH has a lot of exhibits catering to the production community, like the Electronic Theater, but you only see the final product. The Dailies give artists a 90 second spot to talk about what they did to make that scene happen. For example, Mark continues, in Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, there is a scene of a droid being blown up. During production, Blomkamp made it clear what he wanted in this shot: 3 bullets fired, a droid blown back, and nothing recognizable when it landed. It took animators 10 weeks to get that shot done and it only lasts 10 seconds in the film. “It’s a beautiful shot, and it just goes by so fast in the movie you don’t have a chance to appreciate it,” Mark pauses.

The Dailies are 2 hours long and very fast-paced, with everything from NASA speakers to the animators of “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” With so much variety, Steve wonders, how do the pieces get chosen? In reply, Mark says he created a “battle-hardened production people” to help him out. He had over 70 submissions and had to narrow it down to 40- a difficult task with so many creative pieces.

So, Steve inquires, was the experience Mark had at SIGGRAPH worth all the hours? “I’d highly recommend volunteerism,” he smiles. It’s great to be a part of the SIGGRAPH community, to network with the people here. Nodding in agreement, Steve highlights the value in getting involved at SIGGRAPH. Although Mark admits he felt a bit jaded after attending SIGGRAPH for 10 years, his mind-set changed once he began volunteering. I realized, he shares, that there is so much more to this than I’d ever imagined as just an attendee. Steve concurs, commenting that just the papers alone present an astounding amount of research that is key for the industry. While the papers can be a little intimidating to this audience, Mark laughs, there are so many other things accessible to us, like the emerging technologies, hands on experiences through the studio, and even student research poster sessions.

Wrapping up Steve asks, “Are you going to be signing up for another tour of duty, so to speak?” Mark will be taking some time off from SIGGRAPH next year, but expects he will be back in the game at some point in the not-too-distant future.