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Elemental Magic - An Organic Approach to Visual Effects Animation goes to the University of Pennsylvania

My ‘Elemental Magic –An Organic Approach to Visual Effects Animation’ workshop is not just a cute little tip of the hat to traditional animation principles. This is vital stuff, that cannot be left behind, in the rush to embrace ‘cutting edge’ digital technology.

Last October, at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, I was a guest lecturer, presenting a one-hour version of what is usually a workshop spanning at least three days. The workshop is my ‘Elemental Magic –An Organic Approach to Special Effects Animation’ workshop, versions of which I have been conducting since 2004. It is a direct spin-off of my book ‘Elemental Magic, The Art of Special Effects Animation’ or rather, my book is a direct spin-off of my workshop. It works both ways actually, my book and my workshop having been developed simultaneously, and feeding off of each other. Since I started doing my workshops about six years ago, and started writing my book about five years ago, the two embody the same animation ideas and principles. 

My presentation in Ottawa was well received, the small auditorium was standing room only. Afterwards during my book signing, many eager students, animation school faculty, and animation professionals came to tell me how much they enjoyed the lecture. Far more than I expected, or have yet to become accustomed to! I might expect such a warm response from close friends and aficionados of my work, but this was different. I was quite frankly, blown away, and more than extremely pleased. It was almost overwhelming.

One of the people who made a very special point of making a positive connection, was an energetic and extremely enthusiastic young lady from the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Design department, Erinn Haggerty. She was attending the Ottawa festival with a small group of students in tow, and they were all practically jumping up and down with joy to meet me and express how much they enjoyed my little one-hour talk. And, how much they wanted to hear more! (Perhaps this is an advantage to doing a one hour  abbreviated version of my workshop) Erinn asked me if I would be interested in visiting the University of Pennsylvania to do a full-length workshop……

Having never been to Philadelphia except for passing through on a train bound for a Christmas in Montreal ten years ago, I was intrigued not only by the proposition of doing my workshop there, but visiting such a historic city as well.

The entrance gate to Addams Hall at the University of Pennsylvani

So, on January 18th I flew to Philadelphia, to do a three day ‘Elemental Magic’ workshop. And the entire experience was absolutely first rate, to say the least. Staying at the Inn at Penn Hilton, directly across the street from the Addams Hall building, where my workshop took place, http://www.design.upenn.edu/about/addams-hall, was extremely convenient, and made for a mere two minute walk to the school every morning. The building is named after the famous American cartoonist and satirist Charles Addams, whose work appeared frequently in the New Yorker, and whose characters eventually became the infamous ‘Addams Family’ we all know and love. 

My workshop was offered on a sign-up basis, to all students of the University of Pennsylvania’s ‘PennDesign’ programs. These programs include Architecture, City Planning, Landscape Architecture, Fine Arts, Historic Preservation, Digital Media Design and Visual Studies, so the group of students I worked with were an extremely talented and diverse group of individuals, with probably the majority of them being Digital Media and Design or DGM students.

Over a period of three days, I immersed the students at Penn in a world of visual effects that lies not in the screen of a computer, but at our very fingertips, and in our infinitely powerful imaginations. Walking through some of the real history of visual effects, and the core principles that have not changed with the advent of digital technology, I encourage and challenge the students to think about visual effects from ‘outside the box’. We explore and analyze a broad range of visual effects elements, actually, anything they can dream up, we tackle. With creative energy and imagination I, in the immortal words of Michel Gagne “encourage a whole new generation to carry on the swirling, smoking and sparkling torch of classical effects animation” into everything that they subsequently create. It breathes new life into a generation of artists who have been brainwashed to think of themselves as ‘digital’ artists.  

Workshop in action at PennDesign

We are not ‘digital’ artists, any of us. We are organic beings using digital tools. I pray that the academic as well as the professional world of animation can see this, and change the creative language that we use to describe what it is as animation artists, that we actually do. Must we drop the word ‘digital’, in front of everything we do? Me thinks not.

In my four years of conducting this workshop, this was by far the most engaged, disciplined and involved group I have ever had. Especially considering that they had to sacrifice a weekend in order to partake in the workshop! We started on a Friday morning at 8:30 and Ended on Sunday night, and throughout, I was thoroughly impressed with the punctuality and attention of the students. Also impressed at how interested they all were in the topic of my book, ‘Elemental Magic’. And herein lies the most important aspect of this little blog. 

Young people are intensely interested in ‘traditional’ techniques of animation. It never fails to amaze and delight me. Regardless of the prevalence of 3D in the animation market place, there is an almost overwhelming thirst for knowledge about ‘classical’ animation. I could stand up there and talk about CGI and digital magic for days, but put a pencil to paper and actually draw something, and students light right up. I see it again and again, and it is consistent wherever I go. America, Europe and Asia. Students around the world just love good old animation, and the old school techniques that are frequently all but left out of their curriculum seem to interest many of them the most. Here I am at PennDesign, with their cutting edge ‘digital’ programs, and the interest in 2D animation is strong.

And of course, this is one of the reason that I started doing my workshops, specifically with visual effects in mind. While many of the top school’s animation programs still rightly focus very much on traditional animation technique, the vast majority of so-called ‘visual effects’ programs rarely touch on traditional special effects animation techniques, if at all. In the digital VFX world of today, it is all techno-worship, and students are deprived of learning anything about the history of visual effects, and the extreme importance of really studying, through drawing, and artistic experimentation. For the most part they are weaned directly onto the computer.

Elemental Magic Workshop in action at PennDesign

My ‘Elemental Magic –An Organic Approach to Visual Effects Animation’ workshop is not just a cute little tip of the hat to traditional animation principles.  This is vital stuff, that cannot be left behind, in the rush to embrace ‘cutting edge’ digital technology. Nor is it a techno bashing exercise. Without a doubt, we must embrace digital technology, it is the most exciting and wonderful thing to happen to our art-form since the visual effects ball got rolling, some 100 years ago!

 My workshop experience at PennDesign was a wonderful attestation to the idea that we must embrace both traditional and digital principles to bring the very best chops we possibly can to everything we animate, regardless of medium. The students and faculty at Penn, were extremely aware of the value in learning to see through eyes fueled with an organic understanding and a hands on approach, to imagining and bringing to life our visual effects dreams. 

Elemental Magic Workshop in action at PennDesign

Allow me to reiterate once again; We are not ‘digital’ artists, any of us. We are organic beings using digital tools. I pray that the academic as well as the professional world of animation can see this, and change the creative language that we use to describe what it is that we actually are and what we do, as animation artists. 

And so my thanks go out to the faculty and students at PennDesign, for helping facilitate  such a wonderful workshop! Special thanks to Erinn Haggerty, who was instrumental in making it happen, and to Julie Saecker Schneider, the Director of the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, who was a most gracious host, and made my short stay in Philadelphia extremely comfortable and enjoyable.

Me and the students pose for a 'post workshop group shot' at PennDesign

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