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MASTER CLASSES - Elemental Magic: Special Effects Animation Workshop with Joseph Gilland

Back in Febuary of 2011 I attended a tour de force 6hr Animation Effects master class given by Joseph Gilland at the NFB Mediatheque in Toronto.

The event was presented by TAIS (Toronto Animated Image Society) and the NFB Mediatheque with funding provided by The Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Council.

The funding for this workshop was key as the tickets were $10 for TAIS members and $15 for non-members, which made it affordable for anyone to come out and learn from Joseph, who is a veritable fountain of animation wisdom.  So thanks to the all the people involved in making this workshop happen!

The workshop started with each participant drawing fire, splashing water, smoke, and an explosion.  Then Joseph explained in detail the best way to make each of these effects believable.  One of the key parts that I picked up on was just how important knowledge of the forces acting on elements is to creating believable effects.  If you don't follow the rules of physics not only does it look wrong, but it looks like the elements have a mind of their own.  Now, that can be okay if it's your intention, as in the fire demon Calcifer in 'Howl's Moving Castel', but generally you don't want to have the effects defying the laws of physics.

To follow on that, when you animate a wave you're not animating water per se - you are animating the forces acting on the water.  So, you're animating the effect that those forces/energy have on the water.  If it's a stormy day people say 'that water looks rough', but really what's making it look 'rough' is the wind hitting it, which is in turn being moved by hot and cold energy in the atmosphere.  Also, if you see something happen in the real world that doesn't follow the energy/physics principles that you know - it probably means there is another form of energy causing that effect.  If you want your own animated effects to be the best they can be then you need to do the research to figure out what the anomalies are and the source causing them so that you can use it in your own animation if there is a situation where it would apply.  However, even if you can't find an explanation for an anomaly sometimes you can still apply it in your animation if it always happens, such as the fact that every thirtieth wave or so that hits the shore is rogue wave, meaning that it's larger than all the other waves.  That's something that always happens and if you take the time to observe it and then apply it when you have to animate waves then your animation is going to look better than the work of animators who don't take the time to apply that principle in their own animations.

Joseph also pointed out that there are micro phenomenon happening all around us every day that can inform how we animate macro effects like huge waves or large explosions.  Some great examples he pointed out are smoke from a candle, water splashing off our hands as we wash them, even skipping/dropping stones in a lake can be a great exercise for exploring how these elements interact with forces and most can be applied to larger scale versions of the same thing.  The main trick to indicate large scale effects is by slowing down the animation.  In stop-motion animation, which is the majority of what I do, the main rule of thumb for slowing something down has been to increase the length of the event by four times.  If you film something for reference that is 1 sec long, like a small splash, when you increase the scale animate it over 4 seconds.  That's just a loose reference and for each effect you'll have to experiment to find out how much longer it has to be to look convincing.

The final thing that I'm going to mention that was hammered home by Joseph is the power of asymmetry for creating beautiful effects.  The best example for me was that splashes look way better when they're asymmetrical, but it applies to every effect whether it involves water, fire, smoke, or explosions.  There are several ways to create asymmetrical animation, but the best way by far is to use overlapping action by changing the rates at which the components of the effect occur.  So for a splash, vary the rate at which the extremities of the splash cone animate away from the source.  It makes for very beautiful animation.  For an example of that just check out the cover of 'Elemental Magic' Volume 2 on Joseph's blog:

In conclusion this book and the workshop were both amazing eye openers for me and this review barely even scratches the surface of everything Joseph explained.  In the past I've muddled through the areas of my work that needed proper effects animation until I found materials and techniques that would produce a decent result.  Now, after reading Joseph's book and taking his workshop I've probably just saved myself hundreds of hours of muddling about and experimenting. If you're interested in special effects animation do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of Elemental Magic: The Art of Special Effects Animation.

Joseph also gave us a sneak peak at Volume 2 of Elemental Magic: The Art of Special Effects Animation during the workshop and we got to see an in-depth look at all the forces that are acting on objects as well as how the material makeup of the element or object acting on the element can greatly affect their interactions and thus completely change how an effect needs to animated.  It's very cool stuff and there is no other book in existence that even comes close to explaining a fraction of what this book will.


P.S. Joseph graciously agreed to a short interview with me after the workshop and I have several short segments from that interview posted on the Canadian Animation Interviews YouTube channel ( 

Joseph's Website and Blogs:

(TAIS!) Toronto Animation Image Society Website:


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