Behind the Magic: Disney Artists on Making Effects for "Wish"

animation industry vfx Dec 05, 2023
Behind the Magic: Disney Artists on Making FX for Wish - Featured

All images courtesy of Disney.


Walt Disney Animation Studios mixes its legendary 2D FX with new tools like Neural Style Transfer to create stylized effects for Wish. The Heads of Effects tell us about the new tools and how they used the Disney archives for inspiration.


Following the release of Disney's latest animated feature film Wish, we sat down with Erin Ramos and Dale Mayeda, Heads of Effects Animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios, to get some behind-the-scenes insight.

The two have worked on effects for several Disney animated films, including Moana, Encanto, and Frozen II. They and their effects team, including the legendary Dan Lund, Daniel Clark, and Jake Rice, developed new ways to take 2D FX inspired by the Disney archives and blend them with pyro simulations. All while using traditional animation to add imperfections and even hand-drawn flourishes. 


Left to Right: Dan Lund, Erin Ramos, Dale Mayeda, Jake Rice work on Disney's Wish.


You’ve both been at Disney for quite some time. What can you tell us about this job that makes it so enjoyable for you?

Erin: I’ve always found effects animation interesting - it’s a discipline that’s constantly evolving and with each show we’re presented with different challenges. What I love about working as the Head of Effects Animation at Disney is that I get to start working on a project as the story is still taking shape.



At that early stage in the game we can pitch different ideas for effects, help design the shape language for the film, and work with the other department heads to come up with solutions for not just complexity management, but clarity of story. It’s incredibly rewarding to see our ideas come to fruition and be a part of the storytelling process at that level, especially at a studio like Disney Animation which has such a long and storied legacy. To be able to contribute to that legacy is truly a dream come true. 

Dale: I really enjoy being in the Head of Effects Animation role at Walt Disney Animation Studios because, along with my co-head Erin, we get to make a big creative impact for the effects animation we create for the film, as we get to regularly interact with our directors and production designers throughout the process.



Another exciting part of the day is spending time with our crew in effects dailies which is a very collaborative environment, where a good idea can come from anyone. Our discussions are always talking about how our effects animation in a given shot elevates storytelling and emotion through design, composition or timing. The amount of creative input we have, makes the role very enjoyable and fulfilling. 


What major or interesting changes in effects animation pipeline and software have you seen over the years? 

Erin: Not to age myself too much (haha) but I’ve been working in visual effects for 20 years now and I’ve seen things evolve quite a bit. Fluid simulations that took over 24 hours back then will finish in about an hour or so (depending on your machine) so it’s cool because we can get way more iterations and really work on the art direction of a given shot.

In the last couple of years, we’ve been playing around with temporal neural style transfer to infuse a more stylized look in our more physically-based simulations. For a movie like Wish, this was really fun to play with since our movie went for a graphic, illustrative look as opposed to being more photoreal. In terms of pipeline changes, any efficiency improvements are always a blessing. First and foremost we all consider ourselves artists, despite whatever our background was. Anything that will allow us to spend more time on the creative!



Dale: Having been at Disney Animation for 24 years, I’ve really seen a lot of evolution in the tools and software we use at the studio. Our main software package we use is SideFx Houdini, so much of the evolution I’ve seen is related to how the software has progressed over the years. Many years back most of the effects used particle simulations, sprites, and procedural animation. A big advancement was the integration of pyro and flip fluid simulations.

The introduction of the VDB volumetric format opened a lot of flexibility with manipulating levelsets and volumes. In terms of volumetric rendering, our proprietary renderer, Hyperion added volumetric rendering with efficient nearly infinite bounces so the shading of clouds became a much easier task. On Wish, we used Neural Style Transfer, a machine learning tool developed by Disney Research allowing us to provide a style image and it would imprint that design into pyro simulations. This gave us the ability to create very graphic and stylized pyro simulations to match the aesthetics of the show.


Classic Disney films have memorable and stunning 2D FX animation. How has the studio approached preserving and recapturing the magic created by those 2D effects masters?

Erin: Disney Animation has a very vast, very illustrious legacy and we are so thankful to still have many traditional 2D animators on staff. On Wish, we worked incredibly closely with Dan Lund (Effects Designer) who is a 2D effects animator who has been working at Disney Animation for decades, on movies that I myself grew up with.

Dan would do presentations for us outlining the 12 principles of animation and how it applies to effects. These are principles used by Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men. I learned so much about timing and squash and stretch and path of action. While working on this movie, I made sure to always keep these principles in mind and it’s definitely changed the way I give notes or approach a shot.  



Dale: For Wish, because we wanted to look back at our studio’s 100-year legacy while looking to create something fresh and unique, during pre-production we took a trip to our Animation Research Library to get inspiration. Being able to see the physical hand-drawn pencil artwork right in front of us was truly astounding. We looked at the original effects animation artwork of Cinderella’s dress transformation, Tinker Bell’s fairy dust trail and Maleficent’s dark magic. We were amazed with the sheer craftsmanship and also noted the subtlest detail of the imperfection of each sparkle which gives the magic the characteristic warmth.



We wanted to incorporate that same imperfection and warmth in Star’s magic dust which would otherwise have the precision that CG particles would typically deliver. We also created a workflow making it easy for artists to add shot-specific 2D animated flourishes to their shot to add extra personality if they had the inclination. Many of our effects artists jumped at that opportunity to intermix their own 2D animation combined with 3D effects components. We hope that our effects in Wish live up to the effects animation in our legacy films that inspired us.



How does the effects team at Walt Disney Animation Studios approach education and continued learning to keep their skills fresh and current?

Erin: I’m proud to say I work with a team of artists who are really close-knit and incredibly supportive of each other. We’re constantly sharing different ideas and techniques that we come across. We have regular meetings where we share tips and tricks and if anybody comes up with new and exciting solutions for things, people are happy to do a quick demo for the team. Things move so fast in the technology world that it’s easy to be left behind.

To work at this level, we understand it’s important to keep current and share knowledge with each other because it only makes us better as a team. As Heads of Effects we try to encourage our team to find opportunities to learn and be inspired, whether it’s taking a class or taking a team field trip to a museum. 

Dale: At Disney Animation, we are fortunate to have a diverse team of talented artists. We have some effects animators who bring their wealth of 2D knowledge of timing, composition and design from our legacy films, to very technical artists who bring an expertise of our Houdini toolset. We often do presentations and classes so that this wealth of knowledge can be collaboratively passed on and around our effects animation team.

On Wish, we also had an effects designer, Dan Lund, who was instrumental in defining the design aesthetics for the film. He often helped artists with 2D draw-overs and pitching to the directors and production designers to establish the look and feel of the effects. Dan was amazing at sharing his 2D experiences with artists to add flair and personality into every shot of the film.


Wish has some stunning 2D and 3D FX blending together on the screen. What were some of the hybrid approaches to achieve these beautiful visuals?

Erin: Most of our effects on the movie started with 2D animated draw-overs - it helped to define the path of action for the effect and map out where the important beats and flourishes needed to be. The cool thing about working this way is that we could iterate quickly on the concept and design without having to go through the overhead building a whole setup in Houdini. 

There were times however when we’d look at the design of 2D animated effect and be completely wowed by it but then realize recreating the same thing in CG would be extremely difficult. In those instances, we would take the drawings as they were and place them in the correct 3D space on a card and render that out. That way if we needed the 2D element to be emissive it could cast light on its surroundings.  We wanted to make sure we designed the effects in a way that you wouldn’t be able to tell what was hand-drawn and what was CG. 



Dale: At the start of the show, we needed to work on a test shot for D23 Expo, Eric Goldberg animated the character of “Star” while Dan Lund, our Effects Designer, animated all of Star’s magic in 2D. This set the bar for how Star’s magic would convey emotion and perform.

Our Effects Supervisor, Jake Rice, worked tightly with Dan to create a Star magic trail rig which captured the same type of performance as in the D23 piece. The rig had the same imperfection in every sparkle we saw in our legacy reference while also establishing a large library of 2D cross glints that our effects artists specifically placed and timed to heighten Star’s emotions. Jake also created a pipeline allowing artists to easily add any custom hand-drawn elements they might create and place them amongst CG elements so they combine seamlessly.


Wish Effects Flow Shapes Design for Magnifico's Forbidden Magic by Dan Lund


During our pre-production phase, we did a test using Neural Style Transfer, which is a machine learning tool developed at Disney Research that can take a style image and imprint aspects of the image into a moving pyro fluid simulation. We were curious to see if a style image of graphic shapes used in Magnifico’s dark magic book might look like applied to a torch simulation. The results were very graphic and inspired Dan to come up with the shape language of Magnifico’s dark magic.

Dan did a 2D animation test of Magnifico igniting from his staff in his atrium green flowing magic comprised of hooks and straights. This impressive test became the template and goal for Magnifico’s dark magic. Our Effects Lead, Daniel Clark, in tight collaboration with Dan, created a library of procedurally animated geometry shapes that matched Magnifico’s shape language. Artists used these tools to choreograph and time the magic to accentuate and escalate Magnifico’s rise to the finale.



For Magnifico's magic, Dan designed many animation cycles of what we called “swoops” which were turned into procedural geometry assets that artists could use and choreograph to accentuate Magnifico’s emotions and magic. I think that the escalation of Magnifico succumbing to dark magic was especially memorable. The components of his magic were controlling light, smoke, and mirrors. Early in the film, Magnifico’s magic lives in the cyan hues consisting of lens flares, magic smoke, and light chips which he uses to dazzle the audience during the wish-granting ceremony. Once he gives in to dark magic, we see an escalation of his magic becoming more aggressive and hues going from cyan-green to acid-green at its peak.


For the Star character, what was your approach to give personality to its effects, both from a 2D and a 3D perspective?

Dale: Because the character Star is a completely pantomime character, emotion and communication would only be possible with the character’s gestures and star magic. During every effects issuing, we always discussed the character’s arc of motion, the emotion of the moment, and what beats we could use to accentuate a point or add a flourish using magic.



We would start by running our 3D star trail rig which usually got us about 90% there. We would make sure all the star trail arcs were appealing, if not we’d tweak them until they were. The star dust within the rig created imperfect sparkles peppered with hand-drawn cross glints. Then the effects artists would look for specific frames and locations to add custom 2D cross glints from our library to convey the emotion or story point. If there wasn’t a cross glint that fit the occasion, it was easy for the artist to animate and add a new one to the cross glint library.

Then if the artist wanted to do some shot-specific 2D animation, we always encouraged it if it would heighten the emotion or story point. By really focusing on emotion and storytelling while providing our effects artists tools to create star magic using 2D and 3D methods interchangeably, we hope the audience will feel that Star’s magic was unified and just enjoy the performance.



Erin: Early on we decided what the rules of "star magic" should be and built a rig based on those rules. But as you know with rules, they’re made to be broken. The output of the rig out of the box gave us a decent starting point, but after that was when we allowed our artists to be artists.

As Dale said, we had a library of hand-drawn cross glints that we used depending on the mood of a shot. And if we felt Star's performance needed something extra that wasn’t in the library, we’d draw something new and add it. 2D animation is something that much of our team wasn’t super comfortable with at first but by the end, people really enjoyed adding their own 2D flourishes. 


Are there any sequences that were especially memorable for you to work on in Wish? What can you tell us about the process involved in creating them? 

Erin: There is a song sequence in the first act of the movie that required choreography of our magical elements. Our effects needed to “dance” to the music and with our main characters. For me, this was such a cool sequence to work on.

Dale, Dan, and I spent one late night together in our office choreographing the entire thing and mapping it all out shot by shot. We gathered a small subset of our team and assigned them shots, and every day we would look at the entire sequence in continuity. Together, we got to see what was working and what wasn’t and we encouraged our team to chime in and add their input. It was such a collaborative effort and honestly, those few weeks we worked on it were some of the most fun and most memorable times I had on a show. As someone who grew up with Disney movies and loves musicals, it was the coolest thing for me to work on this sequence. 



Anything else you’d like to share? What would your advice be for anyone hoping to get into effects animation?

Erin: I’ve worked on a lot of movies in my career, and a lot of movies at Disney Animation but Wish is one that definitely stretched my brain in a way I haven’t before. In terms of effects work, this movie allowed us to flex our creative muscles 

Dale: I’m excited for people to get a chance to see Wish in the theaters. On the big screen, you can see all of the details and feel how much care went into making the film feel like a moving watercolor illustration storybook come to life. It was fun for our effects crew to dive in and create performative effects animation that could integrate into this more graphic and stylized world. 

In terms of advice for anyone interested in getting into effects animation, I’d say always study the world around you, take pictures and video when you walk by a fountain, a waterfall, waves along a shoreline, or clouds in the sky. If you want to create effects, always capture reference yourself if it’s possible because you will always find something unusual or unique when you witness it in person. Study your reference before you even open your software or put a pencil to paper.

You want to know how the real effect looks like and moves before you can try and caricature the motion or design shapes within it. If you’re trying to create some effects animation for your reel, make sure the effect is telling a story, making you feel an emotion or just appealing and captivating to look at. And I think if you’re passionate about the craft of effects animation, you will find a way to succeed.



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