There is nothing worse than boring film. As my favorite animation instructor (who was a creative director in the Disney Studio) had said, “You cannot save a film with special effects!” He and I had many discussions around the subject of the use of special effects within a film and the circumstances in which a special effect furthered or dragged the advancement of a storyline within a film.
The Role of an Animator: An animator can be many things as well as the writer, producer and director of a film. If an animator is working for a studio, the role can become more defined and limited. There are character animators, where the task is to design and animate one or more characters on a project. This also means that the look, the walk and the mannerisms of the character are in the hands of the animator. A key animator takes the character and basically defines the poses for the action of the character. The in-between artist or animator takes those poses and literally does the in-between drawings of the motion. If the production is CG based, then this is achieved using animation software.
The Role of a Special Effects Artist: A special effect artist creates the look or what I call the universe of the film. This includes things like lighting effects, water effects, reflections, flames, lightning, as well as the motion of smoke, clouds, grass, hair, fabric and clothing. It is very detailed and patience challenging work. You really have to understand photography and the behavior of light and materials. In the old days, special effects involved a lot of miniatures, fireworks and wires. With the advancement of CG and the extra special effect programming a lot of that wonderful art went away except in the tradition of films like “Caroline” and “Nightmare Before Christmas”.
It has to be a Blend: One of the biggest obstacles an animated film faces (as do fantasy, horror and sci-fi films) is the temptation to overuse special effects. Since a feature film usually is 90 to 120 minutes in length, for fun just sit with a stop watch and time the length of each special effect in the film as opposed to actual character interaction or dialogue. If you have a film sparse in script you will find extended chase scenes, multiple repeated views of explosions, extended panoramic views and so on. In my discussions with my mentor, who was very old school, the script was the foundation of the film. In this I agree that if you don’t have a script that has all the key elements of storytelling, you might as well wrap the whole thing in toilet paper and call it “art”. However that said, there are times where you have to show or dress your character in some special effects to communicate the abilities of that character and do advance the story. One of my favorite examples of animators and special effects artists working together well is “Spider Man”. After all what would “Spider Man” be without the web slinging and the gymnastics through the downtown skyline?
Using the Best of Both Worlds – Creative Decisions: Whenever you create an animated film or one heavily loaded with animated special effects, you should always ask yourself as to why you are using one technique as opposed to the other. It’s not just a question of budget. It’s not about eye popping experiences. It is the way you tell the story and how you get into the heads of your audience that makes it really great stuff. Make every frame count because every frame does count.