The following is an excerpt from Elemental Magic, Vol. II by Joseph Gilland. This book will help you design beautiful, professional-level animated effects with detailed step-by-step tutorials. Filled with beautiful, full-color artwork, Elemental Magic, Volume II, breaks down the animated effect process from beginning to end-including booming explosions, gusting winds, magical incantations, and raging fires. Here. Joseph defines an explosion…BOOM!
When we think of explosions, the first thing that generally comes to mind is a big, violent, cataclysmic, and usually fiery event like a bomb exploding. But explosions truly come in all shapes and sizes, and it often surprised people what constituted an explosion in my first book. And it may surprise them in this book too, for that matter. So first, let’s look at what I consider to be a real explosion, and then we’ll take it from there.
A description of an explosion is simply a rapid and abrupt outward expansion of energy. Another definition from a dictionary is as follows: “A violent expansion in which energy is transmitted outward as a shock wave.” In both cases, at the heart of the description is a rapid and violent outward expansion of energy. It does not specify the material, or indicate that there needs to be any heat or combustive materials involved. Thus an explosion, it would appear, does not need to be an incendiary event.
I was very happy to read this realistic definition of an explosion, because I have maintained throughout my special effects career that explosions come in a great many sizes and shapes, and that a raindrop landing in a puddle constitutes an explosion. I arrived at this deduction because I realized that when I was animating small splashes, the very first drawings of a splash are always very explosive and would not look a whole lot different than the first drawings of any other explosion, except maybe in scale. In fact, I realized quite early in my career that a great many small special effects events in our day-to-day lives that we don’t think of as explosions are in fact explosions.
A ceramic coffee cup falls out of our hand and lands on the floor, shattering. A match is struck to light a candle. A car drives through a puddle of dirty water. A child bites on a fresh grape. An acetylene torch is lit. An axe is used to split wood into smaller pieces for the fireplace. The dry wood in the fireplace crackles and pops as it burns up. A champagne bottle is opened. A revolver is fired. A speeding car crashes into a telephone pole.
All of these events contain explosions within them; however, very few of these events are generally thought of as explosions. But according to the dictionary description of what an explosion really is, these phenomenon all qualify perfectly as explosions, because they all contain within them “a rapid and violent expansion of energy.”
When my ceramic coffee mug hits the hardwood floor there can actually be quite a substantial little explosion. Depending on just how a ceramic object collides with an unyielding surface, it will sometimes explode quite violently, sending broken shards shooting outward at an extremely high speed. In lighting an ordinary match, when a sulphur match head reaches its flash point temperature of combustion, there is a sudden violent expansion of energy, however small and subtle, as the match actually lights. A car driving through a mud puddle at an adequate speed shoots water violently outward from the point of impact of the muddy water with the car’s tires. A child biting down on a fresh grape is surprised when the grape actually pops in a wonderful explosion of flavor!
Every event I have just described contains within it that rapid expansion of energy that qualifies it as an explosion. And if we think about it, it is easy to add to that list of explosive events. Small explosions are all around us. When we walk in the rain, each raindrop that lands on us explodes on impact. When we turn on the tap to brush our teeth, even the water coming out of the tap and hitting the sink is creating an explosion. Pay close attention to the description of an explosion, and then look around you in your day-to-day life, and you will find many commonplace explosions that most of us witness on a daily basis.
One of the most important lessons in this book is my simple illustration showing how many different special effects events start out looking like an explosion, but soon afterwards the materials involved return to their natural state. It shows us that all matter, in the grip of an explosive event, takes on the same shapes. And that is the shape of an explosion, that is to say, energy and matter expanding outward at an extremely high rate of speed. Because the speed of this phase of an effects event is so quick, the naked human eye does not necessarily see the shape as it occurs. But it is absolutely essential to be aware of these explosive shapes and to use them when animating any explosion.
The first frame of an explosion looks exactly the same, regardless of the element that is involved. In this first frame, at the point of the explosion’s most energetic expansion, all we can see is the speed and force of the energy. But as the energy decreases, the molecular make-up of the element in question becomes more apparent, as we see in the drawings on the following page. Smoke, water, or fi re all start off with the same explosive design. This is also true of a great many other elements. The initial force of an explosion always looks extremely similar, if not in fact the same.
A very good example is that of an animated water splash, and I always emphasize the importance of the first few frames of a splash looking as explosive as possible. If we very carefully analyze a rock colliding with a water surface in a slow-motion clip, we will inevitably see that in the very first frames when the rock actually hits the water, the water shoots out so rapidly that it does not have typical fluid characteristics. The water is moving much too fast to display its normal H 2 O water molecular behaviors and shapes. In the moment of that “rapid expansion of energy,” the water simply looks like an explosion. It is shooting outward so quickly that our eye can only catch the directional energy of the movement and not the subtle characteristics of the exploding material.
But this explosive energy is of course relatively short lived, and as soon as the energy of the initial explosion has subsided, within the blink of an eye, in a fraction of a second, the water, in the case of a splash explosion, will quickly return to its fluid state and take on the shapes that we generally recognize as “water.” The farther the water molecules get from the point of impact, and the initial explosive energy, the more they return to their fluid state.
Getting out in nature and playing around with the natural elements around us, we can come up with a multitude of ways to stage small-scale explosions, which can be filmed and analyzed. Use your imagination, and you will find endless ways to create explosions—and in the process, become an expert!
Excerpt from Elemental Magic, Volume II by Joseph Gilland ©2011 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved. Elemental Magic can be purchased at BN.com, Amazon, or your preferred online retailer.