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The following is an excerpt from Elemental Magic, Volume I: The Art of Special Effects Animation by Joseph Gilland. This book breaks down the world of special effects animation with clear step-by-step diagrams and explanations on how to create the amazing and compelling images you see on the big screen. Here, Joseph teaches you the complicated art of drawing water.

In the same way that Richard Williams spent much of his energy breaking down walking and running characters in order to best describe the basic principles of character animation in his cornerstone animation book, “The Animator’s Survival Kit,” I will focus a lot of energy on the design and physics principles that come into play when animating water and other liquids— principles which apply to some degree no matter what kind of effects you are attempting to animate, and no matter what medium. A flapping flag, curling smoke, or a leaf flying in the wind—all of these effects contain principles that we will need to learn if we first master (or at least attempt to master) the natural principles of animating liquids.

Animating liquids, usually water, is generally considered to be one of the most complicated, difficult and specialized effects animation jobs. Water comes in a staggering array of shapes, sizes, and varieties, each one with its own unique set of physics laws, energy patterns and animation techniques. Splashes, ripples, waves, rivers or streams, waterfalls, containers filled with water or any other liquid, pouring liquids, fountains, rain, etc. And each one of these forms of water in motion has in addition countless variations. A seemingly simple classification like “waves” for instance, can take on an almost infinite number of shapes and sizes. Surging, spilling, rolling and plunging waves, ocean swells, tidal waves, (tsunamis), or choppy water whipped up by a brisk wind.

A wave kicked up by a boat or ship. Smaller waves may be traveling across the surface of a larger wave, and waves tumbling over on themselves create foam and bubbles. The wave variations go on and on. The same can be said about splashes, which vary widely from a single small pebble or raindrop landing on a calm flat water surface to something as immense as a several thousand ton glacier calving and falling into the ocean.

After over two decades of animating water I am still learning every time I animate another splash, no matter how simple. Imitating and animating such a sublimely formed natural phenomenon is a process that never gets old for me. It is important as always, to remember the basic golden rules of effects design: avoid repetition, twinning, and symmetry, and keep your silhouettes dynamic and interesting.

It is important to understand that what we are really looking at when we see shapes in the water is reflected light. Ripples, splashes, currents, bubbles formations, or droplets, do not really create any kind of lines in the water at all. If we learn to “see” water designs in this way, it is easier to understand how they undulate and move. The tiniest change in water surface shapes can radically effect how light bounces off of it. This is a big part of what makes water look so magical, ethereal, and difficult to describe.

Since water is essentially clear and colorless, what we are looking at when we see a water surface is a combination of reflections and reflected and refracted light. In this series of drawings, I have taken a piece of calm, rocky shore line and broken it down into four simple and distinct elements. The rocks and ground, the refracted light on the bottom, the reflective water surface, and the ripples reflecting light.

Here I have illustrated how the layers are sandwiched together to create the final image. This step of the process is what is referred to as “compositing.” In the earlier days of animation, these levels were actual pieces of artwork you could hold in your hand; the process was much as it is illustrated here, the layers were more or less simply laid over the top of one another, although there were tricky camera techniques to achieve certain transparencies and glowing effects. The same is true today, although the artwork is either scanned or is computer-generated and then the layers are sandwiched together using software specially designed for this task.

Excerpt from Elemental Magic, Volume 1: The Art of Special Effects Animation by Joseph Gilland © 2012 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved. Elemental Magic can be purchased,, and wherever fine books can be found.

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