The Animated Scene: “Elemental Magic”: The Classical Art of Hand-Drawn Effects Animation

In this months Animated Scene, Joseph Gilland gives readers a sneak peek at his upcoming book, Elemental Magic: The Classical Art of Hand-Drawn Effects Animation.

Joseph Gilland.

This is a sneak preview of Joseph Gillands upcoming book: Elemental Magic: The Classical Art of Hand-Drawn Effects Animation, to be released early 2007. It is taken from chapter two, The Art of Drawing and Animating Special Effects.

Given the amount of visual effects that bombard us on movie screens around the world today, you would think there would be at least one book dedicated to the process of effects design and visual physics from a more classical hand-drawn approach. My greatest incentive for creating this book is the complete lack of such information currently available. Both animation professionals and students have no reference describing in detail the classical approach to drawing and thoroughly understanding special effects animation. With the incredible digital design and animation tools we now have at our disposal, countless books are being written on that topic, with their primary focus being put on understanding how to use these relatively new digital tools, and less emphasis is being put on understanding the actual phenomena which we are attempting to recreate.

More time is being spent teaching young artists how to manipulate complex computer graphics software, and less time is spent teaching them how to observe, how to see and intuit the incredible subtleties of natures splendor in order to best represent it as artists. This may make them more inclined to depend on a programmers version of the natural world rather getting their hands dirty. Programmers are coming up with some fantastic simulations and programs that scientifically mimic nature with staggering accuracy and detail, and you can be sure that the people who create these visual effects simulations are out there researching natural phenomenon in order to break it down (much as the original Disney effects artists did in the 1930s).

In my experience supervising digital artists over the last 10 years, I have consistently come across individuals who have developed a high level of design skills as well as a high degree of proficiency with their digital tools, but who havent developed the sense of feeling the physics of what they were trying to animate. During the course of their schooling, the steps of understanding natural phenomena through the practice of research, touch, feel, personal interaction, and drawing had been all but left out. This is true of both the digital visual effects animators and digital character animators entering the animation business today. The top CGI studios and directors are well aware that the study of character animation through traditional observation and drawing techniques is the best way to master the craft. I dont think that visual effects animation is any different. Learning to see and feel through hand/eye coordination practice, observing, drawing, sculpting, animating by hand all of these are invaluable if an effects artist wants to get to that mystical place where time, space, physics and motion become fully natural and intuitive.

Get out there and research your subject, get to know it inside and out, be like a method actor who throws himself into a demanding role: if you want to animate something well, become intimate with how it works and feels. Touch it, taste it (so long as its not toxic), draw it, photograph it, sculpt it, analyze it, but most of all observe it as much as humanly possible. Attention and observation is key! I have spent endless hours at the beach watching the ocean, letting it fill in and around my senses. If you are attentive, and receptive, you can let the visual information inform your subconscious simply by being there with your eyes open. Sketching and taking photographic reference is beneficial, but I cannot stress enough the value of simply letting the information in. Balance this relatively inactive practice with lots and lots of drawing. The hand/eye coordination is of the utmost importance, whether you end up drawing or using a mouse or tablet to draw digitally. Remember that no matter how well you master your drawing technique, if you cant feel the effects you are trying to animate, they will not sing with life. An imagination that is full of life, must inform the well-trained drawing hand!

The practice of conducting experiments to see how things really work is one of the most fascinating aspects of understanding special effects animation. As the head of the visual effects department at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Florida, I took my effects crew on several very interesting field trips. On one such outing, we spent an afternoon drawing and cavorting at the beach, another occasion we went to Cape Canaveral to watch the space shuttle lift off. Sometimes the experiments and demonstrations were surreal (as evidenced by a fire chief who seemed to enjoy lighting things on fire a bit too much), and other times they were downright scary (as when the Disney theme park folks incinerated a giant cement bunker filled with expired fireworks). By far the most hilarious experiment was our departments annual Destructo Day, where all manner of objects were smashed, blown up, or otherwise obliterated. Some of us drew pictures, some took still photography or video, and the rest simply watched. Not only were these entertaining team-building experiences, but I believe every one of us learned more than we ever could have by sitting in front of a drafting table or a computer.

While on assignment in Hawaii to do visual development research for the film Lilo & Stitch, it was my job to get out there and study the waves of the beaches, rocks and cliffs of the Hawaiian shoreline. I watched surfers for hours, and shot hours of videotape. I got in the water and felt the swells moving me, I got under the water and looked up to examine the way the sky, clouds, mountains and trees distorted through the surface. While I was playing in the water, our directors, art director, production designer and animators were observing the Hawaiian people, the villages, the mountains, and the forests through their respective media, i.e., drawings, paintings, photography and video. This was not frivolous spending on the part of Walt Disney animation studios, or some crazy junket contrived by artists chained to their tables too long (and wishing they were in, say, Hawaii). This was because the company knew full well that observation of your subject matter is paramount if you want to imbue your art with soul and integrity. In a nutshell: know your subject matter. Get out there and experience it, even if its just as far as your own back yard.

Drawing dynamic effects, like waves from photos, can teach us a lot, but it is from observation of the actual phenomena, that we best inform our imagination. All images courtesy of Joseph Gilland, unless otherwise indicated.

Lets say we have done our research, our experimentation and our observation. How do we take all this information and get it on to paper? What drawing techniques do we need to embrace? How does one capture the extremely complex shapes of elements, like fire and water, and invest them with life? The answer is this simple: loosen up, and let your drawing hand flow. In the same way a good life-drawing teacher will encourage us to quickly draw a figures gesture, we need to spend a lot of time observing our model, which in our case is the natural phenomena we wish to recreate. Draw with as much abandon and freedom of movement as possible. Although the designs and patterns we wish to represent may be filled with intricate details, what we need to capture first on our blank sheet of paper is the energy and movement underlying the detail. Every wave, ripple, splash, lick of flame, or plume of smoke has beneath its details a natural energy form much like a humans underlying form of skeleton and muscle. Gravity, hot and cold air, and any number of outside forces may inform that energy pattern. Once in motion, these energy patterns play out in a uniform force, moving in a beautifully logical way, until the underlying energy dissipates.

Whether it is a house on fire, or a 40-foot wave rolling towards the coast of Hawaii, there is cause-and-effect playing out in the metamorphosis of energy patterns. That energy must inform our hand as we sketch our initial effects animation drawing. If we have studied our elements thoroughly, we will instinctively move our hand with arcs and paths of action that possess this very energy.

In the chapters to come, we will discuss these patterns in detail. The emphasis here is to understand that the underlying substance of every effect is pure energy. We will also discuss what happens when that energy collides with an object, or an opposing energy force. Here are just a few examples of this phenomena: light rays hitting an object and casting a shadow; a wave colliding with the shoreline creating splashes, then receding and colliding with the next approaching wave; smoke billowing upwards and spreading out across a ceiling; and raindrops landing on a sidewalk.

So if the structure of our effects drawings contains this energy, this thrust of pattern and motion, then what of the details? Where and how do they fit into the picture? This is the key to every great effects drawing. Every tiny ripple on an oceans surface, every droplet of a splash, every detail of a nuclear mushroom cloud, is informed by a similar energy pattern. Sometimes it is the same force that drives the overall effect; sometimes it is a subset of that energy, or an opposing force. As we finesse our effects drawings and add details, these energy forces must inform every stroke of the pencil. The droplets that break off of a splash are moving with the same energy of the overall splash. They move within a pattern of energy, and our hand, our brain, and ultimately our pencil, must connect with that energy and express its elegant logic.

A turbulent river flowing through a canyon is being driven by gravity everything it does is informed by that energy. However, along the shore of the river, rock formations may collide with the energy of the water and whip it into whirlpools and eddies, creating splashes and spiral patterns, mixing the water with air to create bubbles and foam. A gust of wind may be creating small waves on the surface of the river that move in the opposite direction of the rivers flow. All these forces, or overlapping actions, need to be taken into consideration when creating a special effects scene.

While some highly detailed effects drawings may appear to be filled with random details, it is very important to understand that if it is a good effects drawing, every detail in it is informed with a pattern of energy. Also intrinsic to effects drawings are natural design principles, which are best observed and felt rather than scientifically understood, though we will do our best to describe the more scientific aspects of these design principles in the following pages.

By carefully studying patterns in nature, one begins to discover a cosmic similarity in all the natural elements on this planet, which are at once perfect and chaotic, yet wholly unique (for instance, every snowflake has its own discrete design). The patterns in nature shift between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic, bridging the distance from the cosmic to the cellular. The spiral of a galaxy is reflected in the twist of our DNA, a budding fern, a snakes skeleton, and a snails shell. The branching out of pure energy as it flows from place to place is evident in a bolt of lightning, in the spreading branches of an oak tree, in the veins that run through our bodies, in a crack on the sidewalk, or in the arterial channels of a river delta flowing into the ocean. The fractal beauty of a mountain range that takes our breath away can be seen in ocean waves heaving in a storm, or in a single rock held in our hand. Even if we are animating supernatural phenomena, like pixie dust or flying spirit entities, there must be contained somewhere deep within our drawings these archetypal principles of natural design. They are everywhere around us, and yet escape the eye and the hand of a great many artists. Study nature, observe and feel the patterns of energy inherent in the world we live in.

The fractal beauty of a mountain range that takes our breath away can be seen in ocean waves heaving in a storm.

To accurately illustrate these patterns is one of the greatest challenges in creating beautiful, yet accurate, special effects design drawings. For some reason, there is a human tendency to create repetitive shapes and to err on the side of bilateral design. Our left-brain takes over and forces our drawing hand to repeat shapes whether we want to or not. This is an aspect of drawing effects, which confounds every practitioner of the craft. Even after all these years, Ive noticed this annoying tendency can still grip my drawing and turn it into a boring, often symmetrical affair full of repeating shapes and parallel lines, which then need to be reworked again and again. Sometimes the intuitive feeling of natural phenomenon flows from every stroke of the pencil, other times I find it is necessary to seek out and destroy those pesky repetitious shapes (or parallelisms). What is essential in most forms of architecture and technical drawing is the death of a successful organic effects drawing. (I say organic because effects that are inorganic, such as props, moving machinery, crumbling buildings, etc. require a more linear, pragmatic mode of thinking and drawing). Much of this tendency is a result of pattern recognition, and our equating certain phenomenon with clichéd images, like employing symmetrical repeating popcorn shapes to describe clouds. Iconifying an object may work for hieroglyphics and corporate branding, such as the CBS eye logo, but it has nothing to do with the true mechanics of the object it describes. An eye is not an almond shape with a circle in the middle, just as water is not a series of repeating scallop shapes.

If you were to take a single water splash and darken it in completely, we would only be left with its silhouette, which is to say its primary shape. Within the primary shape, there are secondary shapes, where most of the intricate details occur; this also happens to be where much of the twinning occurs. In hair, fur, and organic objects such as grass and leaves, it is common to unconsciously draw buzzsaw patterns. The solution is to make sure the spacing is not too even or that shapes do not tangent directly, and that there are a variety of big, medium, and small shapes. This creates contrast,and in every aspect of effects animation one is confronted with the need for it, whether one is drawing splashing water, magic particles, powdery snow, bubbles, a cluster of rocks, or a shattered object. There is a tendency for the new effects artist to noodle the secondary shapes, but neglect the primary silhouette. This often results in highly detailed drawings, which are confusing to look at and even more confusing to animate.

Sometimes the most complex phenomena happen right under our noses, when we rinse our razor in the sink, when we pour cream into our morning coffee, or when let out a large breath of air in the freezing cold when we reach for the paper. And yet we automatically default to a mode of non-observation, where these things have no particular significance. Every human being has an innate feeling of how the world works because of these rote, almost unconscious daily observations. Thats why even a car mechanic or a civics teacher could watch an animated film and actually sense whether or not the effects are well animated. Why? Because they know what water looks like. they drink it and shower every day! Therefore they have a built-in sense of what it should look like, even if they couldnt articulate why. But if you put a pencil and their hand and said, Draw water, most laypersons would simply draw the iconic representations they have used since childhood. This brings me back to the importance of observing nature rather than observing modern art or the graphic arts advertising world, which is filled with simplified representations and clichés (which do little to honor natures pure design). If you want your special effects to feel natural, observe the forces at work in the natural world, and put those forces into play through your pencil! Remember, water doesnt think about what its doing, neither does a ceramic bowl being dropped on the floor. All these phenomena are informed by the laws of physics and follow fundamental patterns of energy.

The same principle of avoiding patterns of repetition and symmetry can be applied to the timing of effects animation. Repeated, even timing quickly becomes apparent and unnatural; to make effects animation more dynamic, we need to overlap the timing of our elements and the directions of overall movement as well. There are endless ways we can practice the art of avoiding repetition (or twinning) in effects design, motion, and behavior. If a bottle smashes on the floor, some of its broken pieces will bounce, others will slide along the floor, some will fly off into the air, spinning. Yet if all the pieces do the same thing, if they all uniformly scatter and resolve at the same time, our breaking bottle will look very boring and unnatural. Animation appears stiff and mannered if there is no contrast in the shapes and their respective timing. We call this variety of movement choreography. Think of it as a magic trick, or ad copy: we need to direct the viewer at all times where to look. So even in moments of supposed randomness and chaos, as in an exploding planet or a huge avalanche, theres always an underlying logic to what is happening, whether one is looking at a single drawing or the a series of drawings.

It is interesting to note that in every crew, there are always those more disposed to drawing certain types of effects. Some specialize in organic elements, and others thrive drawing inorganic things. Both are critical for completing a film. I have always had an affinity for animating water and magic elements, and found that both came naturally to me, whereas to others more comfortable drawing explosions or props, the learning curve might actually be steeper. There are nuances of fire or smoke some might understand more readily than others, whereas Ive sometimes struggle with a simple smoke scene. If you desire to become a truly proficient effects animator, you should work extra hard on those effects which do not come naturally.

The single most critical yardstick for measuring success as an effects animator is how willingly we embrace the fine art of drawing rough (or ruff, as veterans are fond of saying). I mentioned earlier the importance of feeling the energy of a particular effect and allowing our hand and pencil to flow with the direction of that energy. If we are trying to draw with our pencil held tightly (that is, pinched in the classical writing style with the point of our pencil pointed directly down towards the drawing surface at almost a 90 degree angle), we cannot even begin to draw elegant, flowing effects animation. Heeding the sage advice from great life drawing artists and teachers, effects animators have learned to draw with the side of the pencil lead, holding the pencil lightly between the thumb and forefinger. This allows us a broader range of motion which originates with the shoulder, instead of the wrist. It also facilitates drawing with more flowing arcs and broader paths of action. Some effects artists who have honed their skills like to use a very thick, dull, and soft pencil to animate their effects. Working with the side of a stick of charcoal could be a very good way to break an animator of holding a pencil rigidly. The trick is to stop trying to control the tip of the pencil in order to create shapes and to let the energy flow through our shoulder, arm, wrist, and hand to create energy!

Whether it is a house on fire, or a 40-foot wave rolling towards the coast of Hawaii, there is cause-and-effect playing out in the metamorphosis of energy patterns. That energy must inform our hand as we sketch our initial effects animation drawing. If we have studied our elements thoroughly, we will instinctively move our hand with arcs and paths of action that possess this very energy.

In the chapters to come, we will discuss these patterns in detail. The emphasis here is to understand that the underlying substance of every effect is pure energy. We will also discuss what happens when that energy collides with an object, or an opposing energy force. Here are just a few examples of this phenomena: light rays hitting an object and casting a shadow; a wave colliding with the shoreline creating splashes, then receding and colliding with the next approaching wave; smoke billowing upwards and spreading out across a ceiling; and raindrops landing on a sidewalk.

So if the structure of our effects drawings contains this energy, this thrust of pattern and motion, then what of the details? Where and how do they fit into the picture? This is the key to every great effects drawing. Every tiny ripple on an oceans surface, every droplet of a splash, every detail of a nuclear mushroom cloud, is informed by a similar energy pattern. Sometimes it is the same force that drives the overall effect; sometimes it is a subset of that energy, or an opposing force. As we finesse our effects drawings and add details, these energy forces must inform every stroke of the pencil. The droplets that break off of a splash are moving with the same energy of the overall splash. They move within a pattern of energy, and our hand, our brain, and ultimately our pencil, must connect with that energy and express its elegant logic.

The sketchy, rough drawing on the left has a strong directional energy flow, and provides a strong basis for the elegant effects drawing design on the right. A quality effects drawing should always start this way.

A turbulent river flowing through a canyon is being driven by gravity everything it does is informed by that energy. However, along the shore of the river, rock formations may collide with the energy of the water and whip it into whirlpools and eddies, creating splashes and spiral patterns, mixing the water with air to create bubbles and foam. A gust of wind may be creating small waves on the surface of the river that move in the opposite direction of the rivers flow. All these forces, or overlapping actions, need to be taken into consideration when creating a special effects scene.

While some highly detailed effects drawings may appear to be filled with random details, it is very important to understand that if it is a good effects drawing, every detail in it is informed with a pattern of energy. Also intrinsic to effects drawings are natural design principles, which are best observed and felt rather than scientifically understood, though we will do our best to describe the more scientific aspects of these design principles in the following pages.

By carefully studying patterns in nature, one begins to discover a cosmic similarity in all the natural elements on this planet, which are at once perfect and chaotic, yet wholly unique (for instance, every snowflake has its own discrete design). The patterns in nature shift between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic, bridging the distance from the cosmic to the cellular. The spiral of a galaxy is reflected in the twist of our DNA, a budding fern, a snakes skeleton, and a snails shell. The branching out of pure energy as it flows from place to place is evident in a bolt of lightning, in the spreading branches of an oak tree, in the veins that run through our bodies, in a crack on the sidewalk, or in the arterial channels of a river delta flowing into the ocean. The fractal beauty of a mountain range that takes our breath away can be seen in ocean waves heaving in a storm, or in a single rock held in our hand. Even if we are animating supernatural phenomena, like pixie dust or flying spirit entities, there must be contained somewhere deep within our drawings these archetypal principles of natural design. They are everywhere around us, and yet escape the eye and the hand of a great many artists. Study nature, observe and feel the patterns of energy inherent in the world we live in.

Drawing in this unblemished, raw manner, allows us to create organic shapes and energy patterns that would otherwise elude us. From the sketchy-looking scribbles of a rough effects drawing, one can extract the most marvelous shapes and patterns.

Sensitivity to style is another crucial layer in the effects animation process, which determines how the look of the drawings fit in with the art direction of a film. Its also important to realize what purpose the effects are serving in any particular scene. In most cases, effects are used simply to add a subtle sense of realism to a scene, as with shadows, lighting, or reflection effects. A basic splash should never draw undue attention to itself if the audiences attention is intended to focus on a character in the scene. Its basic stagecraft: always know your part, and never upstage another character or story element simply because you want to demonstrate your skill. As a rule of thumb, effects should hardly be noticeable and should always complement the scene more so than dominate it. In some scenes, the effects animation may be driving the humor in a gag, and will therefore need to be more conspicuous. The effects still should play second fiddle to the character animation, where the viewers attention is focused.

The exception is the effects driven scene (or the money shot) where the effects are the primary focus and the most important driving element of the scene. These scenes include exploding planets, avalanches, forest fires, and collapsing buildings. The volcanoes and earthquakes of Fantasias Rite of Spring sequence are excellent examples of effects driving the story. In all of these different animation scenarios, every special effect drawing must embody the art direction of the film, so that ultimately they appear to have been created by the same artist who drew the characters, constructed the layouts, or painted the backgrounds. This attention to the artistic direction of the film can make the difference between merely adequate animation and truly great animation.

The effects in some of Disneys feature films like Mulan are painstakingly integrated into the overall artistic style of the film. © The Walt Disney Co.

It was a fascinating process to work on some of Disneys feature films, in which the effects were painstakingly integrated into the overall artistic style of the film. Mulan, Hercules and Lilo & Stitch are examples of films containing effects animation that fit flawlessly into the overall picture, a result of working closely with the directors and art director to make sure every element directly reflected the artistic style of the film.

Which brings us to the great importance of stylizing our special effects drawings, not only to better integrate our effects artwork with the style of the film we are working on, but simply bring our drawing to a level of detail which is possible to draw. Upon analyzing a single large wave or splash, you would quickly realize that the amount of detail it contains is staggering. If we attempt to draw every detail, we would be bogged down in no time. But this can work to our advantage! There is a wonderful design challenge to represent a highly complex element with a relatively simple drawing and there is a beauty in simplicity, as every great artist has discovered through the ages. Hokusais Great Wave painting is a gracefully simple representation of an enormous cresting ocean wave, yet it is powerfully effective. In representing our effects through simplified versions of reality, we are free to focus our attention on the forces underlying the effects, the patterns in motion, the timing and the physics. Details can always be added once our effects animation is working well in all these respects, but if we get lost in the details, we will have lost the natural physics of our effects animation. Stylize, simplify, and find the energy focus!

Lilo & Stitch contains effects animation that fits flawlessly into the overall picture, a result of working closely with the directors and art director. © The Walt Disney Co.

As far as creating scale and perspective in our effects, we need to exaggerate as much as possible. This can be achieved in a number of ways. If we want insinuate a massive size, it is necessary to create highly detailed drawings, which will be animated with a ponderous, heavy motion. This increases the amount of work involved exponentially: more details + slower speed = tons of complex drawings. In many cases, when Ive heard a director asking for some wild and crazy effect that is ridiculously grandiose in scale, I will do everything in my power to talk him/her out of it. Until you have hand-animated something like an enormous avalanche, with so much detail that you can only complete one drawing a day, it is hard to imagine how work-intensive these effects can be.

Having said that, always attempt to push your drawing designs a little further, to err on the side of the more dynamic. The importance of exaggeration cannot be emphasized enough! You can always scale back an overly-exaggerated drawing, but its far more difficult to breathe life into a stiff one. The most common mistake I see artists making when they try animating special effects for the first time is they dont push their animation far enough. There seems to be a fear of over-doing it, or an attempt to keep it all under control, but the best advice I often give beginners is to push their effects animation as far as humanly possible, exaggerating the physics, motion, design and perspective. It is easier to pull everything back if you have to, than it is to slowly and gingerly push everything farther and farther. The real payoff to drawing with this approach is the energy that you can get into your drawings by pushing and exaggerating. Remember, when you animate special effects you are animating energy! Therefore, animate with energy and exuberance!

If you commit to being a serious student of effects animation, be forewarned: it is an extremely difficult and time-consuming craft and it requires patience and a driving passion for understanding nature! On your journey, you will undoubtedly have moments of unmitigated frustration, but dont let it keep you from soldiering on. Its worth it, I tell you, to wake up one day and realize youve become one of those crazy people who are happy to animate crashing waves, incendiary firestorms, celestial cataclysms, and other acts of God! So perk up your imaginations, pick up your pencils and your surfboards, your paper and your pyromania, and welcome to the amazing world of traditional visual effects animation!!!!!!!!

In his 30-year animation career, Joseph Gilland has worked with studios as diverse as Walt Disney Feature Animation and the National Film Board of Canada. He has worked on all styles of animation, experimental films, television series, commercials, theatrical feature films, stop motion, title sequences, live-action films and documentaries. He is writing a passionate book about the art of animation.

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