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Elemental Magic Volume IIThe Technique of Special Effects Animation
By Joseph Gilland
Focal PressCopyright © 2012 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIntroduction to the Elements
For the last two years, since writing my first book, Elemental Magic: The Art of Special Effects Animation, I have been traveling a great deal, conducting special effects workshops based on many of the ideas I put forth in that initial volume. I have been bowled over by the warm reception that my first book has received, and I am deeply grateful to know that it has been inspirational to many animation artists, students, and fans around the world. I would like to especially thank you, the readers of my first book, who have made it a great success. I wrote it for you. Thank you for embracing it so wholeheartedly!
However, it frequently comes up in the conversations I have about the first book that the subject matter is so vast, that it was virtually impossible for me to cover everything in the kind of detail that I really would have liked to offer.
To really delve deeply into each specific type of effects animation in minute detail would have taken a book of a thousand pages or more. An entire encyclopedia could be written about special effects animation. Entire books could be written just on animating a splash, or a house on fire. Whenever I look closely at my first book, I always find myself wishing there was more. More specifics on how to actually animate effects, starting with a blank sheet of paper. More of the real stuff or the nitty-gritty, as it were, to borrow from John Canemaker's generous endorsement of my first book. I decided to take a cue from John, and from my actual teaching experiences in the past. The more I have tried to teach special effects animation by talking and showing students still images, diagrams, and whatever reference material I could find, the more I have realized how important it is to teach by example. After conducting only a few classes, I felt like I was wasting my breath, babbling for hours about something that takes action to actually do.
So I decided to animate "live" in front of my effects classes, starting with a blank sheet of paper and walking the class through the process as I drew. This was somewhat daunting at first, because I was putting myself on the spot, forcing myself to animate from a cold start, with a group of expectant, enthusiastic students staring at my every move, and every line I put down was open to scrutiny. It was nerve-wracking, but ultimately it worked out fabulously, as I was able to dig deep and draw on three decades of experience and spill it out on the pages.
As I took on animating a simple water splash, I limited the amount of time I had to one hour, to complete all of the drawings and then capture them digitally for playback. This way I was forced to draw fast, and with energy, demonstrating the very principles that I put down in my first book and was constantly emphasizing in my lectures: to always animate drawing fast, sketching roughly with energy and abandon, and not worry about making every line perfect but just going for it. From pages full of seemingly messy scribbles, the students would see a piece of flowing special effects animation emerge. Not flawless by any stretch of the imagination, but animating sweetly nonetheless, with all the timeless animation principles of energy, intent, exaggeration, and dynamics clearly demonstrated in real time.
And so, in this my second book, Elemental Magic, Volume II: The Technique of Special Effects Animation, I decided that while I would still try to write a lot more about specific details involved in animating special effects, the real deal is to teach by live demonstration. That is why, if you are reading this, you also have access to the accompanying website www.elementalmagicbook.com, complete with clips of me drawing and animating live. This is where the real magic comes to life.
I didn't animate complex special effects in feature films by talking about it. Where the rubber hits the road is when the animator flips the pages and quickly roughs in his or her next drawing.
I believe that that is what anyone who is interested in the technique of special effects animation really wants to see. I sincerely hope that by creating this second volume as such, I will be able to deliver to you an unparalleled and intimate look into how special effects animation evolves and emerges from the imagination of an effects artist to a blank piece of paper, in real time.
At various stages throughout this book, I will go through many of the very same stages of explaining effects animation that I did in the first Elemental Magic volume. There is definitely some repetition and overlap, but with every word and page in this book, I have strived to take another, far more in-depth look at a variety of aspects of creating hand-drawn special effects from scratch. There is also a great deal to be said for the repetition of key principles in any advanced learning process. The idea is to truly ingrain the intuitive feelings and detailed knowledge of fluid shapes, design, and animation principles into yourself so that they become natural and flowing, and can spill out of you as naturally as water spills out of a bucket.
Initially, I had set out in this book to try to cover the full range of elemental effects elements that are embodied in the very common "Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water" phrase. However, as this book has evolved, I have narrowed the focus of the material, and the elements I will cover in great detail in this volume are water, fire, smoke, explosions, and certain "magic" elements.
Chapters 2 and 3 cover water waves and water splashes, respectively. The written and illustrated pages in the book will cover for you in extreme detail the creative and practical processes involved in understanding how to approach animating these elements. Then in the accompanying video footage available on the book's website, I will animate and explain more specific and narrowly focused examples of these elements. For the study of wave animation, we will be looking at animating a cross-section of a wavy body of wind-blown water representing something roughly the size of a swimming pool, which is a great way to get a grasp on the most simple and fundamental principles behind animating a wave.
The splash we will study will be a medium-sized splash like one we would see if we dropped something roughly the size of a baseball into a calm body of water. I find this to be a great jumping-off point for someone learning to animate a splash.
Chapters 4 and 5 will deal with animating fire and smoke, and explosions, respectively, which can contain elements not only of fire and wind but also earth and water. In the written and illustrated sections of these chapters, I will delve into great detail on a wide range of variations of fire and smoke: not only with step-by-step examples of the animating process, but also with the underlying creative thought process, as well as the observational and research process that I consider to be the very cornerstone of my success as a special effects animator.
The fire I will use to demonstrate with in the accompanying live footage to be found on the website will be an "average-sized" fire, if there is such a thing, approximately the size of the average campfire. This is an element that most people are familiar with, and it's a great place to start for us to understand what goes into animating a fire. What child is not mesmerized by a campfire, staring for hours into its hypnotic dance of light and pure energy? The smoke we will explore animating, just to be practical and consistent, will be the same kind of smoke we might see coming from such a medium-sized campfire. For an explosion I will animate something relatively small and manageable, roughly the size of a large firecracker exploding.
Only Chapter 6 does not fall readily into the four elemental categories. In Chapter 6 we will play with magic, and I will attempt to cover as much ground as possible. But since magic is such an infinitely broad and by its very nature undefined creative endeavor, I will focus for the most part on some of the thought processes and practical considerations that go into creating the classical "pixie dust" magic featured in so many of our most beloved animated films in the history of the art form. On the book's accompanying website, I'll be animating pixie dust in the classical way, as it appeared in early Disney films, like Fantasia (1940) and Peter Pan (1953). These types of effects draw their inspiration from the elements, and understanding how smoke, fire, and water behave will help us to create far more dynamic and beautiful magic effects.
It is extremely important to note again here that when thinking about special effects, there is a great deal of crossover from one category to another. The elements are inextricably linked together in many respects.
Take wind, for example. Essentially, wind is invisible, and we see it only when it affects another element. Wind blowing in the trees, waves on a water surface, dust storms, the reaction of fire and smoke to wind conditions, all of these are wind elements interacting with other elements to create an effect. Another good example is a rockslide or avalanche crashing into trees or tumbling into a body of water. Another even more exciting and dynamic example is when volcanic lava flows directly into the ocean, a fantastic phenomenon, and one of the most compelling natural special effects on our planet, which can be seen on the big island of Hawaii on a fairly regular basis. This creates an incredible show of special effects, as the lava splashes hissing into the ocean creating heaving waves and belching out enormous clouds of billowing steam.
Under the water, bubbles and currents swirl wildly in the waves, with extreme temperature changes creating swirling eddies of activity. As the steam rises and dissipates, it is whipped around by even more swirling vortices of energy, caused by the super-heated lava and the cooler surrounding air.
For the moment, I'll take a preliminary look at the effects elements I will cover in this book, discussing some of their most important attributes, and keeping an eye out for when and where the different elements interact and overlap.
Fire and its by-products, like smoke and embers, are in my mind the most visceral and intense of all the elements, although as soon as I say that, the visceral intensity of a storm at sea comes to mind, and I realize that water, combined with wind, has its own raw and sometimes terrifying energy. And then there is the fact that, without wind, water is pretty tame, and without wind, fire rarely rages out of control. The energy that makes these elements take on their most ferocious nature is the wind, and its energy in turn is driven by the sun and the rotation of our planet, the ongoing cosmic battle of darkness and light, hot and cold. It is always extremely important to remember that when we are animating fire or smoke, what we are really animating is particles of combusting matter that are flowing and moving in the dynamic air currents caused by the intense heat of an ignited fire interacting with the surrounding cool air.
But fire, I must say, still holds a very special place in my imagination, and in the collective imagination of humankind. Even compared to water, it is impossible to get a grip on fire. You cannot pour yourself a glass of fire and hold it in front of you! As fire puts on its show, it dances and flickers wildly, and it is very difficult even to see it, much less touch it, or hold it. Getting too close to fire quickly becomes extremely uncomfortable, and it is only with careful control that we can harness it and use it for our own benefit. The impossibility of holding or touching fire, along with its potential for destructiveness, lends it its intensity, its mystery and allure.
There is, of course, a highly scientific side to how fire is created and how it works. Some knowledge of the science behind fire is nice to have, but it does not really come into play at all when we are attempting to animate fire. In Chapter 3, I will briefly discuss the science of fire, but the emphasis, as always in my work, will be on feeling and understanding how fire works in the most intuitive way possible.
Excerpted from Elemental Magic Volume II by Joseph Gilland Copyright © 2012 by Elsevier Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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