In this excerpt from Elemental Magic, Vol. II, former Disney animator, Joseph Gilland discuses the advantages of creating pixie dust special effects with hand-drawn techniques over CG. Stay tuned for the continuation, where Gilland will demonstrate his techniques for hand-drawing pixie dust.
Cinematographic masterpieces like Avatar have completely blurred the lines between what is “real” and what is “animated,” and what constitutes an actor as opposed to an animated character. Using motion-capture technology and extremely powerful new tools to build artificial environments and create mind-boggling visual effects, today’s filmmakers are unfettered by any limitations, except maybe what they can afford to do, depending on their budget. But the sky is definitely the limit. The only limit to what we can do with visual effects today is our knowledge and imaginations.
However, what I am covering in this chapter has absolutely nothing to do with the sophisticated digital wizardry seen in our modern-day animation filmmaking industry. In this chapter I will delve into the art of creating beautiful pixie dust animation, similar to the magic effects in Disney’s Cinderella (1950) or Peter Pan (1953). This magic has been thoroughly rooted in my imagination since childhood, and it has much to do with the fact that I always wanted to be an animator, for as long as I can remember. Although the stories in the early Disney films certainly captivated me, and the characters had their wonderful appeal, it was when I saw actual magic on the screen that my jaw dropped opened, and I felt my imagination swirling with the idea that absolutely anything is possible.
Suddenly, a pumpkin being transformed into a garish gilded carriage was not a long stretch of the imagination, and children flying out of their bedroom window and out into the starry night sky made perfect sense. And it was the appearance of the magic sparkling fairy dust that carried me into that state of complete suspension of disbelief.
The “classic” pixie dust that first comes to mind for most people is probably Tinker Bell’s trail of magic dust that she leaves behind wherever she flies. And this is reinforced by the fact that even if you haven’t seen Disney’s original Peter Pan in decades, Tinker Bell continues to grace countless Disney television shows and commercials. Although much of the Tinker Bell pixie dust we see these days is a cold computer-generated version that is a far cry from the whimsical, light, and playful pixie dust of days gone by.
Some readers may remember that in my first volume of Elemental Magic, I touched on the fact that in my early days at Disney I was saddled with the job of attempting to recreate perfect Tinker Bell pixie dust with CGI technology, using Disney’s own proprietary particle software. It was an arduous task, far more difficult than it sounded at the time. And it still is to this day, which is why the CGI pixie dust that we frequently see in films and on television today somehow lacks that special something that makes the old hand-drawn stuff look so darned magical. This is really a damned shame, because it is still feasible and could actually be substantially cheaper for an animated production to create pixie dust the old-fashioned, hand-drawn way.
But our 21st century obsession with all things digital has narrowed people’s creative toolboxes, and at this point the mere suggestion that something could possibly be done better and cheaper by hand would be summarily dismissed by most folks in the animation industry. Be that as it may, I have found in my travels around the globe conducting my Elemental Magic workshops, that students and professionals from all arenas of the animation world are still very interested in how these magical effects are (or were) done, back in the day.
I can’t help but look back on my computer-generated pixie dust work at Disney in the early 1990s, and I’ll never forget telling my boss at the time, “You know, I’ve been working on this digital pixie dust for weeks, and I could easily have animated it all by hand by now, and it would look spot-on perfect!”
And I contend that learning just how it was once done will benefit any animation artist immensely if he or she intends to attempt to create pixie dust of any kind, regardless of the technique being used. Animating magical pixie dust by hand, one gets to see it unfold frame by frame on a piece of paper in front of one’s eyes, and subtleties become apparent that are sadly missed when digital tools are used to splash pixie dust recklessly across the silver screen. When animating pixie dust by hand, each sparkle, every tumbling twinkle, can be infused with character and a mischievous magic all its own. The level of control one actually has over the general “feel” of the pixie dust is far and above what one has using digital tools.
When I am animating pixie dust, I take full advantage of the fact that each individual particle can be tweaked in its own special way. Some sparkles will glimmer, starting from a small, barely perceivable dot, and then expanding and contracting in size. Others will twirl and whirl, also growing and shrinking in size as they do. Still others will twinkle randomly, with no rhyme or reason, creating a fluttering kind of chaotic energy in the pixie dust. Many particles can be allowed to appear randomly out of nowhere and then disappear, winking in and out of existence and creating a shimmering effect to the overall look of the pixie dust.
Another consideration is the lifespan of each individual particle; the lifespan being the amount of time any given particle of pixie dust actually appears on the screen. When we are creating particle pixie dust using CGI software, one must control each particle’s lifespan using fairly broad tools that affect all of the particles in the same way, with only a modicum of control over the randomness of the particles’ lifespans. This can be pushed farther using mathematical expressions, and some software allows the artist to introduce additional chaos to the lifespan of the particles in a number of different ways. But it is still a far cry from being able to tweak each individual particle, on the fly, making decisions intuitively and immediately as we animate straightforward in time.
When animating pixie dust by hand, an effects artist can add or subtract the number of particles at will, customizing the final design of each 24th of a second, and playing with the lifespan of the particles to suit the needs of each individual frame. The decisions being made can be purely esthetic and utterly random in nature, and this kind of frame-by-frame creative freedom gives hand-drawn pixie dust a personality that is nigh impossible to match when software is being relied upon to generate this effect.
Another fascinating thing about animating pixie dust by hand is the effects artist’s ability to change up the overall design and/or physics of his or her pixie dust at any time. Let’s say a “fairy” flies into screen left, leaving behind a string of sparking magic dust that falls elegantly in dripping curtains of twinkling particles, in the classical style of Disney pixie dust. But then, when the fairy does a series of loops or sharp turns, the trailing magic powder can suddenly spray out and away from its source, much like a beautiful wake of water spray from behind a water skier. Or it can billow out elegantly in turbulent smokelike waves, or perhaps it can animate upwards away from its source like air bubbles trapped underwater.
For an effects animator using CGI tools to match the extremely chaotic, random, and sometimes absurdly imaginative changes that a traditional effects animator can bring into play at whim is, in my estimation, absolutely impossible. And I welcome a healthy debate on this topic, as I know there are a great many 3D artists who will probably vehemently disagree with me. But before anyone out there gets too upset with these ideas, at least try animating some pixie dust by hand before forming an opinion, and read on, as I do honor all the great things that CGI technology is capable of.
I will concede that yes, of course it is possible to create some utterly amazing looking pixie dust with CGI tools, and that yes, of course there is a place for it in the industry as well. In some cases, if a director is looking for a very dense, or large-scale kind of magical pixie dust effect, I would be the first to recommend creating the effect digitally. In addition, when working in a fully 3D CGI environment, with complex 3D camera moves and sets, sticking with CGI tools is probably the best bet to ensure that everything is working together well and integrating into the 3D space seamlessly.
Please, keep in mind that the pixie dust I am referring to here is the classical and much simpler Peter Pan or Cinderella style of magic, that to this day has never been matched by an animation artist using CGI software, at least not to my knowledge.
Check back in later this week for part two, where Gilland demonstrates his technique for hand-drawing pixie dust.
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.