The Formal Elements and FX Animation

The Formal Elements and FX Animation

The shapes and motion found in abstract animation can be compared to fx animation within computer games. In abstract animation “…there are no characters with which to identify, there is no dieresis to transport the viewer to a different time and place”.(Furniss, 2007) This is also true of fx animation – the desire is to convey the idea of a howling storm or a magical spell, ideas rooted in emotion, but without the representational aspects of character or environment. (Blizzard Entertainment, 2012)

To successfully bring across their themes, fx artists can use the formal elements to great effect. One of these is shape association, which plays a huge part in our understanding and perception of visual arts. “because reality is so visually complex, professional artists conceptually reduce objects to simple lines, shapes and volumes, to simply the task of rendering reality.” (Gamastura, 2013) Curved lines are safe and dynamic, straight lines are sophisticated and stable and angular lines are edgy and violent. (Cite) This “shape spectrum of emotion”(gamasutra, 2013) can be used to evaluate and understand artwork as it is a “timeless feature of art”(gamasutra, 2013), this can then help us “find relationships between seemingly disparate artworks and better understand the aesthetics of video games.”(Gamasutra, 2013)

An example of this in classical composition would be Diana and Her Companions by Vermeer, in contrast with Massacare of the Innocents by Rubens. Diana is calm, showing a soft continuous motion. This is created through the use of a circular composition. Massacre is violent, turbulent, full of energy, created though an angular and sharp composition. This fits well with the shocking, violent theme of the piece. In computer games, this can be seen in the spell fx of “Diablo III”’s monk character, who is supposed to be calm, peaceful and holy. “The monk is very round shaped, peaceful shapes, circles, spirals” (Blizzard Entertainment, 2012)

Colour schemes are also used in art to communicate feeling. “Renewed interest and research into this area during the latter half of the twentieth century have proved that colour has profound effects on the emotions, behaviour, and body”(Withrow, 2011) JMW Turner used colour extensively within his expressionist works to communicate emotion and the non-representational idea of landscapes.(Bookemul, Mallord, 2000) For example, the colour in his “Phyrene Going to the Bath”,  “though broken in general effect, is incomparably beautiful and brilliant in detail”(Ruskin, Turner, 1857). Using Olafur Elission’s “Turner Colour Experiments”, his schemes can be broken down and compared to other works, in this case the computer game “Journey” a game that explores various stages of life. “Colour experiment #57” is based off of “Burning of the House of Lords and Commons of 1837” (Hudson,2014), a piece which depicts an energetic and violent fire. This can be compared to the second part of the sand level in “Journey”, in which the developers are communicating the idea that being “a teenager is risk taking and adventurous and fun, exhilarating.” (Ohannessian,2012)

The idea that colours depict emotion or theme is also true of the “Diablo III” example discussed earlier. “So when we sit down and design a class, we do talk at a really high level about what kind of themes we want to evoke with that class. And inevitably, there are certain colour schemes that come out of that. And so we do end up with a little bit of a mental chart of colours that we would rather not have associated with a certain class.” (Blizzard Entertainment, 2012) When designing the holy monk character, the team chose whites, silvers, golds and blues; liturgical colours associated with the Byzantine Rite in Catholic traditions(Woodfin, 2012) and the colours of the Buddha and the Buddhist flag.(Chaudhary, Vyas ,2013)

This concept can be applied throughout an interactive experience, with the changes to the colour scheme being used to donate changes in mood, theme or pace. Baiyon talks about this whist discussing “Pixel Junk: Eden”. “We decided on an approach that required the growth of plants be determined dynamically by the actions of the player, while suggesting an emotional quality through the use of the shifting color scheme.”(Silconera, 2008) This is also used in “Diablo III”, with the changing rhythm of the environment and colour used to show the player that they are progressing though the story. (Lichner, 2012)

When these formal elements are arranged in a purposeful way, they come together to create symbolism and meaning.(Gamasutra, 2013) In the past, painters encouraged their audience to actively find meaning when interacting with their pieces. For example, in a vanitas still life painting, each object is imbued with religious or symbolic significance, overt to the viewer of the time through the use of emblem books. These books contained symbolic pictures with accompanying text that explained their meaning and significance, and were very popular in the 16th-18th centuries. Along with the vanitas paintings themselves, emblem books promoted a particular life ethic. A well-known scholar of art history states that “…together with other forms of popular literature and prints, [emblem books] encompassed the prevailing ethic in words and pictures. The stern Calvinist sensibility is exemplified by such homilies as “A fool and his money are soon parted” (Janson, 1997)

As interaction is an inherent part of games, symbolism is well suited to this medium. This can be seen in “Ico”, where the player receives a magical sword that crackles with “spiritual electricity”.(Tavinor, 2009) This sword is used to make demonic beings avoid the player, symbolising new found power.(Tavinor, 2009) The colour and shape of the sword’s electricity are echoed in the magical powers of Yorda, another character in the game. These similarities show that the player and Yorda are now one in the same, and belong together. “So the sword symbolises two conditions: the boy’s attainment of power and his attunement to the girl’s soul. Because the boy uses the sword to accomplish his final tasks, this is a usable symbol, serving double duty: working to deepen the emotion experience but also playing a role in the gameplay.”(Tavinor, 2009)

A slightly less obvious use of symbolism is icons for goal setting. The opening of “Proteus” has a “wow moment”, where the player opens their eyes in first person view and wades towards a large mountain. The eyes communicate an awakening, the start of the player’s experience and personal journey, and the mountain shows the scale of this journey, and the destination they must aspire to. A mountain symbol is also used in “Journey”. The idea of the player’s emotional voyage is much more explicit here, with the wish to complete the journey and reach the top of the mountain the goal of the game.

Given “Diablo III”’s success with this approach, it is surprising that fx animation is often constrained to highly realistic simulations. Joseph Gilland, an effects animator on well renowned Disney films such as “Mulan” and “Hercules”, describes the visual effects seen in today’s 3D animated features and games as “cold, lifeless and predictable.”(Gilland, 2009) He suggests that modern artists disregard the classical roots of their craft, relying on software and simulation. “Do not let the computer do your animating for you! If you do, the results will be mediocre, lifeless and uninspired!”(Gilland, 2009) This leaves little room for stylisation or artistic expression, being “limited in its ability to incorporate stylization and other special animation considerations beyond realism or surrealism” (Thornton, 2006) This can be true of the AAA games industry, with James Watt leaving Codemasters and Rebellion due to being “fatigued of making muzzle flashes.”(Gamespot, 2014) He is now perusing more artistic and emotionally based work with indie The Chinese Room. “pollen and butterflies and other bits and pieces… I’ve been feeling my way through them to a certain extent”(Gamespot, 2014)


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