Bringing Elemental Magic to Harbin, China, January 2010

Adventures in the Frozen North -Bringing Elemental Magic to China, taking my special effects workshop to students in Harbin, Northern China, January 2010

Well, you could say January 2010 was a very busy beginning to the year for me. After flying to Philadelphia to conduct my ‘Elemental Magic’ workshop at the University of Pennsylvania’s PennDesign department, I flew back through Toronto, and then over the North Pole to Beijing and then Harbin, in Northern China, where I then conducted my workshop yet again, this time for a group of over 40 Chinese students, with extremely varying levels of English speaking skills.

Arriving in Harbin, which is in the Northern part of China, and extremely cold (famous largely for their massive ‘Snow and Ice Festival) I immediately fell quite sick with a stomach thing, the result, I think, of chowing down on a questionable meat stuffed bun on the flight from Beijing to Harbin. Damn, I was hungry!

This was the view from my hotel window, where I spent the fist 48 hours indoors with some nasty tummy symptoms. It looked so cold, I wasn't sure I wanted to venture out!

Luckily, I bounced back quickly, and within 48 hours, I was whisked to the school where I was to conduct my workshop. It is  the University of Harbin, and they have teamed up with the animation program at Capilano University (formerly College) in North Vancouver, British Columbia. The Capilano School has an outstanding animation program that they have been sharing with various other schools internationally for many years now, and the head of the animation program there in Harbin, Mark Gruneau, is an excellent instructor who shares many friends and much history with my animation career.

Presenting my workshop in a large, very cold classroom of 40+ Chinese students, was to say the least, interesting! Adding to the novelty of it all, was the fact that the students had all sacrificed a break in their curriculum to attend my workshop, which started on Saturday, and went right through till the end of the day Sunday. I had to squeeze three days into two, and at times the attention span of the students was understandably, strained. However, I have to say that as the workshop progressed, the students became more and more alert and engaged, as I poured on the ‘edu-tainment for all I was worth, in an effort to reward the students for their sacrifice! As always with my workshops, I try to read how well the audience is picking up on my message, and I will alter the course of the workshop accordingly, for maximum benefit to all involved. In this case, it was fairly clear that only a little bit of my more complex ideas and explanations were getting through to the Chinese students, so I leaned towards a more entertaining style of workshop, showing the students as many visuals and animation clips as possible. Explaining how important it is to understand traditional animation principles regardless of what we are animating, or in what medium, is the most important aspect of my workshop, and I don’t consider a workshop effective unless that goal is achieved. So, my next trick, was to offer the students a ‘live’ animation experience…

One of the most rewarding experiences I have been able to share in my Elemental Magic workshops, is when I have a chance to actually sit down and animate, straight ahead from scratch for an audience. This is not always possible, depending on the facilities set up for the workshop, and the time constraints of fitting so much material into two or three days. This time, in Harbin, I was delighted to find that there was a good old-fashioned animation table already set up with a video camera that projected onto a large screen at the front of the class. Since I felt that much of my verbal workshop was being lost on students with borderline English speaking skills, I decided to give it a whirl, always aware of the classic quote, “A picture is worth a thousand words”! (Or is it a hundred? Or maybe a million?) So I sat down and animated a water splash, from scratch, in just over an hour. The students ate it up. This was something they had definitely never seen, a grizzled old animation pro, attacking a piece of blank paper and bringing something brand new to life, right there before their eyes. As soon as I was finished my 28 water splash drawings, the students took over the artwork and quickly filmed the drawings using their digital pencil test machine, which I believe used Digicel software. I gave them some frame rates, likes a mini dope-sheet to work from, very simple with the first three drawings of the splash on for one frame each, the subsequent drawings all on 2 frames each, and then the last four or five drawings held for 4 frames each. Happily for me, the playback was extremely successful, and elicited lots of oohs and ahhs from the fascinated students. Now they knew for sure that I had some chops, and their demeanor changed completely. For the remainder of the workshop  I was swamped with students approaching me with questions and requests to stay in touch, after they had been extremely quiet, cautious and even standoffish beforehand.

Here is the final pencil test of the animation that I did 'live' during my Elemental Magic workshop in China

Overall, it was a wonderful experience. I felt like I had an opportunity to really make a difference in the education of the students I met there, and my hosts were wonderful. On the final night in Harbin, I went with Paul Johnson and Edwin Poon, colleagues of mine from Vancouver, and the University’s assistant, Ruby, to see the incredible snow and ice festival on the outskirts of Harbin. If you’ve never heard of this event, check it out! I couldn’t believe the size and scope of the ice-sculptured buildings. It is like Disneyworld made out of ice, completely amazing!

As I mentioned earlier, my hosts were absolutely wonderful and made sure my stay was as comfortable as possible. Ruby even came by my hotel room with some traditional Chinese medicine for my unfortunate bout of stomach trouble. (And a bonus piece of delicious cake for when I felt better!) Don Perro and Susan Watson who both work at Capilano University in North Vancouver, and were instrumental in setting up my trip, deserve big thanks as well. And Mark Gruneau was great to work with. Thanks to everyone involved in making this trip possible, and especially to the students in Harbin, you guys were great! Best of luck in your animated careers!

After dinner on my last night in China, with Paul Johnson, Edwin Poon Mark Gruneau and all the students