Elemental Magic

Importance of Art/Animation Skills

Gilland stresses throughout the book that the artistic principals behind the effects are the most important thing, no matter if you are hand drawing or simulating though expressions.

“The success of these 3D films relies heavily on the experience and expertise of classically trained artists.”

“animation appears stiff and mannered if these is no contrast in the shapes and their respective timing”

“taking advantage of the classical animation design principles,,,will bring a fresh new look to any and all effects we endevour to create digitally.”

“special effects animation all too often is treated as an afterthought”

“we can take a cue from the masters of the art and bring that extra magic to every little detail of special effects animation”

“the vast majority of young artists getting involved in the creation of digital special effects are not spending nearly enough time learning about classical design and animation principals.”

“the results are cold, lifeless and predictable digital versions of special effects”

“Add to that a solid understanding of the underlying structures and energy patterns inherent in all special effects elements, and the well informed digital effects artists of today does not have to lean on the computer for inspiration, but rather to bring the inspired imagination and vision of a classically trained animation artist to the computer.”

“We can breathe even more life into it, bu going back to the classical animation principals we have ;earned, and injecting that energy into the mathematical equations of our digital fire.”

“Do not let the computer do your animating for you! If you do,k the results will be mediocre, lifeless and uninspired!”

“we can now go far beyond the constraints of pencil and paper, into the magical realms of unfolding fractal geometry”

“Not enough can be said about the human, or natural touch.”

“weather we draw on paper or fire up our computers, the magic we are looking for is in our hearts and in our imaginations.” – Aww!


Observation of Subject Matter

One of Gilland’s main points in the book is that the cornerstone of being a good artist is learning to observe and “feel” the art that you are creating. This can be done though observation, photography and drawing. In Disney Florida’s fx department, they often had “destructo days”, where they broke things to see how they broke, and went on field trips to cape cavena and the beach. He suggests doing a form of gesture drawing for your fx, keeping loose and feeling the motion and energy.

“Observation of your subject matter is paramount if you wan tot imbue your art with soul and integrity.”

“An enormous aspect of learning how to be an effects animator has to do with learning how to see, how to observe, and soak in the phenomenon of pure energy and life all around us. As with art in general, and ever form of it – be it acting, or writing or dance or painting or sculpting – we need to learn to be observers of life.”

You need to actually look at what you are drawing – using repetitive symbols is no use.

“After all these years I’ve noticed this annoying tendency can still drip my drawing and truing it into a boring, often symertfircal affair full of repeating shapes and parallel lines.”

“brings me back to the importance of observing nature rather than observing modern art of the graphics art filled adverting world, which is filled with simplified representations and cliches.” – This might be a disagreement to my project – I wanted to use modern art.

“we will have to cross reference many of the effects elements we will be discussing, closely observing their similarities, but more importantly, pointing out their no so obvious differences.”

“an effects animator needs to know what physical attributes lie under the surface of any material or prop he or she needs to animate.”


Energy and Motion

He stresses that understanding of physics is very important – not mathematically, but in which forces affect what energy and how. Effects are all about energy and the underlying forms that make up this energy. Forces and overlapping actions should always be considered when animating effects.

“deeply scientific approach, bringing artistic flair”

“fractal beauty of a mountain range that takes our breath away can be seen in ocean waves heaving in a storm…even if we are animating supernatural phenomenon like pixie dust or flying spirit entities, there must be contain somewhere deep within our drawing these archetypal principals of natural design.”

Example of How Energy Informs Fx – Dust Particles (using this since I just made it!)

Informing energy = small air movments, Resolving energy = gravity making them fall down

019- Joseph Gilland

Effects in a Scene/Art Direction

“In most cases, effects are used simply to add a subtle sense of realism to a scene, as with shadows, lighting and reflection.”

“Effects should hardly be noticeable and should always compliment the scene rather than dominate it.” – Essentially the opposite of my project, they won’t stick out for the wrong reasons, but should drive the scene in place of a character.

“effects should still play second fiddle to the character animation” – Not in a first person view they don’t!

“The exception is the effects driven scene 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.” Now this is more like it! Rite of Spring is used as an example here.

“Every special effects drawing must embody the art direction of the film, so that ultimately they appear to have been created by the same artist that drew the characters, constructed the layouts or painted the backgrounds.”

“attention to the artistic direction of the film can make the difference between merely adequate and truly great special effects animation”

“there was a unified look and a more unified set of principles being applied to all of the elements of a classically drawn, designed and animated cartoon”

“armed with the tricks of exaggerated animation timing and classical design principals, a digital effects artists can far better integrate his or her effects into a digital 3D or 2D world”

“our effects must always integrate themselves credibly with their environment, or else the viewer will feel that something is amiss, and their attention will be drawn away from the story”

“incense smoke in Disney’s Mulan is a more subtle example of linear smoke which takes on very particiular desin motifs inherent in the background and character designs.”


Simplification and Stylisation

“there is a beauty in simplicity, as every great artist has discovered though the ages. Hokusai’s Great Wave painting is a gracefully simple representation of an enormous crashing ocean wave, yet it is powerfully effective.”

“In representing our effects though simplified version of reality, we are free to focus our attention on the for forces underlying the effects, the patterns in motion, the timing and the physics.”

“Stylize, simplify, and find the energy flow!”

“Use exaggeration to add drama”

“I have come to believe that it is to a large extent the intoxicating power we have using digital tools, to closely mimic the overwhelming detail of natural special effects , that makes us tend to forget about the importance of stylizing, exaggerating and economizing our designs”

“it feels good to be able to make effects that look realistic – but do they really look great in a highly stylised cartoon world?”

“animation is, if anything, the art of exaggeration and stylisation”

“there is always room for quite a bit of personal design interpretation, even if you are bound by a film’s design to stay with some fairly strict design parameters”

“a bit of an artist’s personality goes into every effect”

“we always strive for striking silhouettes in our animation, an absence of repetitive shapes, or too much symmetry, an in our action we also strive to over lap and offset our timing as much as possible, exaggerating these principals to make our animation more dynamic and alive.”

“Animation is a world of imagination, where all of the elements should have more life, character pizzazz and zest than they do in the real world”

“we must also consider design and aesthetics though both line and shape”

“director Chris Sanders determined that the main style for all the props character, background and natural effects had to maintain a curvilinear simplicity…This solved the first problem of integrating disparate elements to make the appear as part of uniform design.”

“in most cases the effects artists will research design motifs and commonalities from a particular culture, or group of cultures and create an amalgam design – that is, an object which combines the best elements form a host of other designs.”


Effects and Personality

“effect integrating in the psychology of a character”

Examples – Cruella De Ville,Hades, Mulan

“All of his effects elements reinforce his paths of action, as well as his emotional state”

“her physiology is more graceful and mannered, and as such so are the smoke shapes she generates by moving the wick”

“props are extensions of the character’s personality”

General Fx Drawing Tips


Design elements and overall silhouette should be asymmetrical.

Distort realism and push the drawing whilst still staying faithful to observations.

Push the drawing.

Avoid parallel lines. This rarely happens in nature.

Avoiding symmetry and parallels in tone adds depth, weight and volume.

The whip and wave principal – effects start off fast and angular, become soft and slow.

You need the ability to show fx though thumbnails, planning each part of the fx.

Size of the effect is related to the length of the shot.

Match shapes in the effect with environment and characters.

Look for strong silhouettes

Use grids and arrows to determine energy flow before staring

Water and Fluids

Liquid is very common – like the fx artist’s walk cycle.

It is really just reflected light, as there as no lines in the actual water. Seeing it this way however helps us understand how it moves.

Since water is clear and colourless, we see reflected and refracted light.

“Even the most complicated water animation is highly simplified compared to the real thing.”

Study water tension and displacement.

Viscosity is important – thickness of the liquid. If its thin it displaces and breaks easier, if its thick, its moves slowly, is round and blobby and can hold together, resisting forces applied to it.

Smoke, Fire and Explosions

Without gravity, hot/cold air currents or excess fuel, a fire will burn as a perfect sphere.

We are actually seeing luminous gasses being release and rising quirky form their former state into the air as the burning material is heated to its point of combustion.

Air turbulence

Oxygen or fuel makes fire spread out in wind direction and pieces break off. Subtle turbulence.

A strong wind extinguishes a small flame. In its dying breath a flame flares out and becomes larger, then flickers out. Then we get a small puff of linear smoke.

When a flame is blown out, it streches then goes out.

A bigger scale = more detail, tears and bit breaking off. Larger fires have a pronounced bobbing motion and undulate from side to side. This is caused by one side of the fire cooling faster than the other. The hotter side will rise further, rolling upwards and causing a flame shape to break away from the main silhouette.

Fire can be though of as speherical masses moving upwards that deminish in size.

The overarching shape of a fire is a triangle shape. – Triangles = harsh, violent – like fire!

Interior shapes are used to describe the fire’s energy.

Fire cinders have some randomness but are generally dictated by structural arcs and forces that move within the main fire.

Glow, heat distortion and a strong rim light are important.

Number of smoke shapes increases exponentially with the spreading of the fire. Direction of mass stays constant but force gets more violent.

Lifespan of smoke is determined by its density, which is determined by the type of fuel being ignited.

Driving force for explosions are simple – travels directly outward from fuel source. As it expands secondary forces are added.

Steam is similar to smoke but has less contrast and dissapears as it goes.

Implied geometry – tone describes internal structure if the object.

Smoke is 1/3 shadow, 2/3 light.

Smoke has to come from the force that generated it, as well as from its own forces.

A mushroom cloud is generated when the explosion hits a ceiling of cold air.

“fire truly lends itself to being treated like a character”


Magic can defy physics but it needs to be based on actual penonmenon to be belivable. For example, pixie dust could use smoke dynaimics. It can also have its own set of internal rules.

“internal dynamic logic helps us to make the unbeliveable, beliveable.”

“I found out was that to create pixie dust as complex, variable and organic as what is picture here was extremely difficult using CGI particles.”

“If we want old school Peter Pan style pixie dust, we should just create it the same way we did way back in 1953” – Or maybe we could be pioneers and work out how to do it digitally! I take this as a challenge…


Types of Cloth:

Pipe – Pinched top, flares, robe on a hook.

Diaper – Hung from two points, folders meet in the middle

Zigzag – light, interconnected back and forth foldsm zigzag pattern, complec ribbon work, crimped dresses.

Spiral – Small, cylindracal folds that wrap around arms and torsos with lighter types of cloth.

Half Lock – When character bends legs or arms, inter connected folds at joints.

Falling – hanging cloth cloides with a surface, casuing the bottom part to bunch up

Inert – random, no forces, like an unmade bed

Leaves – similar to cloth, though a leaf has more tensile strength and doesn’t form folds. It will rotate, twist and bend in the wind. Overall mass follows a pattern, with each leaf having a discrete rotation and twist. When on a branch, it follows the branchs’ energy first. Always start from the bottom when animating something swaying in the wind.

Further Reading List/Responsive Actions

Though this book has some really useful information, it also brought up a lot more questions about traditional animation.

– Elemental Magic Volume 2

– The Illusion of Life

– The Animator’s Survival Kit

– Blue Sky’s Water Paper

– Watch prelude to eden

– Look for films and games that use stylisation well

Its made me want to do some other practical work as well.

– Fx Gesture drawing

– Fx Silhouette drawing

– Fx thumbnails

– Go on a reference gathering trip! (would help if I had a concept in mind though…)

– Using Gilland’s techniques in my current work, or creating work and then creating a classical version to note the differences

Gilland, J. 2009.Elemental Magic, Volume I: The Art of Special Effects Animation. Focal Press.



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