Shay Willard

Themed Video Design and Writing

Magic Art

Elmora’s Request, a Magic Art animation by Shay Willard

Due to the personal nature of this project, the following page is written in first person.

During my time with Walt Disney Imagineering, I performed many different functions. A new skill I picked up – born of several different video talents I’d held previously – was that of creating Magic Art. On a few occasions, I was given a still frame by a concept artist and asked to make it move. Often, these tasks would include voice overs, and full stories told through rudimentary movement and some music. All requests included the phrase ‘add some magic!’

As I am unable to show my work from Imagineering, I decided to create something on my own. My friend, the very talented Andrew Carey, provided me with a still frame that I could animate. I knew I’d need a voice over to motivate my 90 second story; my goal was to include a time-of-day change, a bit of ‘magic’ at the end, and moving water. I was incredibly fortunate that Andrew’s work included water pools and falls!

I focused my narration on the figures at the middle and top of the mountain trail – I asked ‘Why are they here? Why is there one so far ahead of the others?’ From here I crafted the story of Elmora’s expedition, and their journey to ‘document the mountain.’ I wrote a brief script which was recorded remotely by voice over artist Fawn Quinn, then edited together with music and FX to establish animation timing.

My first step was creating a layered file – luckily, Andrew had kept his layers during painting and all I had to do was cut apart the water knowing I would want to animate them separately and clean up some highlights. The first animation was the 5 different waters – 3 pools, 2 falls. I was able to get the water to move through the use of shifting fractal noise filter overlays – and displacement maps motivated by another set of noise layers.

I would end up rendering the entire water layer separately for ease of the final export. The original art was created at an inedible resolution – and the only way to create a reasonably short final output time with my equipment was to create separate, pre-rendered layers such as this. Why keep the resolution full? I wanted to use camera movements, and by keeping the original art I was able to ‘zoom in’ over 4x without losing any image quality.

After finishing the water, I knew I needed mist. Andrew had provided static mist in the original art, but I wanted this to move – more than the water that evolved in a sophisticated wiggle! I wanted it to actually shift and change in an unpredictable manner. Using another variation on fractal noise and a clever blend mode, I was able to create a few layers of decent looking mist that shifted and looked different depending on the source. I didn’t love the look right where the waterfalls hit the pools, so I added a couple simple particle effects (rendered separately as well) to give it that little extra ‘oomph.’

To change the time of day, I built three separate color correction layers and transitioned between them motivated by the timing of the narration. The original art was set during the day, so I also created nighttime sky elements using real photos run through Photoshop so they matched Andrew’s style. I then added lights lining the path, shaping their cones using masks and turning them on individually. The yellow light coming out of the cave was given a ‘wiggle’ to randomize the luminosity and make it appear more organic – like maybe there was a campfire inside.

The ‘light streak’ effect was something I discovered accidentally during another animation as a byproduct of the Light Rays effect. By cranking up the intensity, tinkering with the radius, and holding the Center just at the edge of the composition, you can create these really interesting lines that mimic blazing sunlight, and can rotate/evolve in an eerie, dynamic manner. I combined this with a slight ‘dust in sunlight’ particle system (also rendered separately) to make the daytime and sunset scenes really stand out.

For most of my animations, I had ended with a big ‘wow’ moment, made embarrassingly simple with the use of particle effects and appropriate masking. The challenge here was creating the illusion of the sparkles coming from inside the mountain – a trick in the inherently two dimensional environment. This particle system comes with an ‘obscuration layer’ that allows an approximation of foregrounded concealment. However, this created an undesirable look at the edges of the cave which I tweaked using animated masks, creating a decent look to the magical emergence.

Finally, credits to give credit where credit is due. This was also rendered separately and tacked onto the initial animation, which was married to the audio in a different editing program. This was important because even with all the pre-rendered particle and water layers – the final animation took over 70 hours to render on my little laptop. Throughout the process I was exporting quarter resolution compositions to check blocking and timing – each of those ‘only’ took about 8 hours to export without camera movement. As someone who is relatively new to high resolution animation, this was important process for me to understand. It also gave me greater appreciation for the nebulous render farm.

Most of my animations also come with a request for a looping image that can run as a moving background, typically as an intro for a presentation. After the full animation, creating this loop was the logical next step. I’ll admit, it’s a bit of a cheat – a clever fade hidden in the middle, that you can probably spot if you look for it. You know what you can’t fade, though?

Particle Systems!

About halfway through the mountain animation, Andrew reached out to me with another digital painting he thought I might like better. I was determined to finish Elmora’s Request, but this image of a strange beastie under the water stuck with me, and I decided to do a ‘quick’ looping animation, just as an experiment. Step one was to add that requisite underwater indicator – bubbles!

I wanted to create a more challenging loop – bubbles that floated from the bottom and ended in a cone just off screen, to give the appearance they were disappearing through the cave entrance at the top of the painting.

This system was then reversed, so the bubbles would move towards their origin. The other systems were left in their original direction and added mostly for extra movement in the frame. But then there were the ‘beastie bubbles…’

The little spheres who would appear at the same time as the beastie rising from the depths. There’s 2 different systems running in here, both of which have very unrealistic physics in order to create the illusion that the bubbles are affected more by the creature’s movements than in reality. I threw some quick distortions onto the creature, for his mouth/arm/body movement – I let our heroic humans drift – and then concentrated on really selling the underwater location.

Another accidental discovery lead to the main source of passive movement in the animation – I started trying to make the included light streaks move a bit with a displacement map, but I found that using the divide blend mode created some really cool refraction simulations when paired with fractal noise. I then worked to build realistic, separate refractions in the sky, background, and foreground.

Finally, I had to build the loop. What did I learn from this experience? Don’t start building the loop after the animation is complete. In a composition like this, it was easy to forget how many different movements had to be restarted. Luckily the final export was only a half hour, so recreating the animation several times was an inconvenience instead of the odyssey it would have been, had I chosen to ‘properly’ loop Elmora’s Request. Eventually I tracked everything down: the swimmer who was pulled off frame by the beastie – the refractions that were actually using two stacked noise filters (both of which needed to be looped) – the 5 separate particle systems that had to be restarted in the middle of the timeline. And now? It loops – seamlessly!

By the way, you should watch this animation again. That guy hiding behind the ledge? Yeah, he’s taken away by the beastie. But he comes right back! What a resilient little dude.

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© 2022 Shay Willard