Earlier this week, we brought you an excerpt from Elemental Magic, Vol. II, by former Disney animator, Joseph Gilland discussing the advantages of creating pixie dust special effects with hand-drawn techniques over CG. Today, Gilland will walk you through creating pixie dust special effects by hand.
Now I’ll look at how I might go about animating a pixie dust scene, from scratch. In most cases, an effects animator working in a studio will get a scene that has already been finished by the layout department, and if there is any character animation, it will usually have been completed before the scene gets to the effects department. So chances are, in the case of a pixie dust scene, there will already be a clearly defined path of action for the effects animator to follow.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s imagine that the character that is generating the pixie dust is a tiny fairy, who only appears as a shining, sparkling light as she flies into and around the screen. This would be considered an “effects only” scene (a scene in which there is no actual character animation, only effects), but the path of action would still be previously defined by the layout department, and then the character animation department would probably animate the point of light, at least roughly, for the effects department to follow.
Before starting to animate, I will usually do a few sketches, and maybe a couple of clean, finished drawings, to get an idea of the look I am trying to achieve. At this stage, I would be working closely with the director, to make absolutely sure I get a clear idea of what he or she is thinking of, both design- and animation-wise. There are a lot of different ways to approach a magic scene of this nature, and it is important to make sure that you are on the same page as the director, art director, and others, before getting too far into the work at hand. This stage is one of my favourite parts of the creative animation process, for it gives me a chance to come up with fresh ideas and techniques, and possibly to pitch a unique way of animating pixie dust to the director.
Even if the design and look of the animation have already been predetermined, this is still a fun, creative part of the process, and thumb-nailing the way the pixie dust will unfold is a good way to get started. This is also when an effects artist can think about the physics of the magic he or she is going to create. As the trail of magic particles is created, they can behave in an infinite variety of ways, as mentioned earlier in the chapter. I like to invent a new set of physics, particular for the film I am working on. Even if the director is looking for typical, traditionally animated pixie dust, there is always room for a little variation or customization of the magic effect, which will give it some originality and set it apart, if only slightly, from the the rest. Adding that special something to your special effects animation should always be your goal, if you wish to excel in this field.
It is important at this point, to determine the complexity of the pixie dust. One of the most common mistakes that I see effects animators make is making pixie dust overly dense. A really elegant pixie dust design does not necessarily need to have millions of densely packed particles to look good. In fact, far fewer particles can look far better in many cases. A much cleaner and more subtle design overall is also far easier to manage timewise, so I always try to economize as much as possible, although I am as guilty as anyone for getting carried away and going over the top from time to time.
As a general rule for either a novice or experienced professional animator, pixie dust, like most fluid special effects elements, is usually animated straight ahead. That is, without many key frames or poses, but rather just animating one drawing after another, forward through time. As always, I start the animation out with very rough drawings, just to get a feel for the scene. Flipping pages is important at this phase of the scene’s development, to see how the flow of the animation is working.
So what does this rough animation actually look like? Well, it can be as messy as can be, mere scribbles on the page initially. What is most important is that we create a series of drawings that flow into each other elegantly. As the path of action meanders and the pixie dust magic turns corners and moves through space in perspective, we must take great care to assure that there are no abrupt changes of trajectory or direction in our animation, if we are to create a flowing piece of animation. The smallest awkward bump in our animation will kill the magical feeling that we are attempting to portray.
As pixie dust flows around a corner, it is of utmost importance to keep the directional flow moving smoothly and following through elegantly in its path of action. Failure to do so will result in a stiff performance, so flip your pages often and make sure you “go with the flow!”
This brings to a close this small chapter on animating pixie dust. I invite you to take a look at the examples of me animating pixie dust in real time on the Elemental Magic II website, as well as many other clips of well executed magic effects animation. This is where the true value of this volume will spring to life, giving you moving examples in real time rather than relying entirely on a series of images in a book. While I am sure this book will be helpful, I am excited to be introducing an interactive website as well, and I welcome your input and comments wholeheartedly! And if there is anything I have missed in this volume (I know there are tons of things!) that you would like to see, drop me a line and I will do my best to get it up on the website www.elementalmagicbook.com as it progresses!
In his 32+ year animation career, Joseph Gilland has worked with such studios as Walt Disney Feature Animation, Don Bluth Animation, Productions Pascal Blais and the National Film Board of Canada. At Walt Disney Feature Animation, he served as Supervisor of Visual Effects for the Disney features Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear. At Disney he also served as Head of Special Effects Units for the Disney features Kingdom of the Sun and Tarzan, and was Special Effects Animator on such notable titles as Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, James and the Giant Peach, Hercules and Mulan. He served as Designer and Supervisor for all 2D and 3D visual effects on the television series Silverwing, and Chaotic at Bardel Animation in Vancouver. He has also designed and directed a wide variety of television commercials. Clients include General Motors, CocaCola, Honda, MacDonald’s, Gillette, Players Tobacco, Larrouse Dictionaries, and Radio Quebec. For almost three years, he was the Head of animation, and Digital Character animation at the Vancouver Film School. He lectures at animation schools in Canada, Europe and Asia, and has conducted workshops at animation festivals and schools around the world. he is a professional musician and performer as well. He has been writing professionally for over three years now, and has a bi-monthly column in the online Animation World Magazine, entitled ‘The Animated Scene’ which has an enormous readership around the world. He has also had articles published in Animation Magazine, the world’s foremost industry magazine, as well as well as an article in ‘Cartoons’ The International Journal of Animation.