When I was a much younger digital artist, taking classes in the early days of computer generated special effects, I had an instructor that insisted we would benefit from learning the ways of crafting special effects that were non-digital. Completely analog, if you will.
At first it sounded like the ramblings of an old man tenaciously clinging to the obsolete methods that would soon go the way of the telegram. But we humored him. It was a required credit after all, so we wanted to get our marks and get out. And some did just that. But I found the peek behind the curtain of the silver screen transformative. It changed the way I approach digital art. Learning the ways of these old-school effects not only gave me newfound respect for the art and craft of the masters that went before me, but instilled a sense of practical creativity and problem solving that I’m not sure I would have gotten in the purely digital world.
For example, in my Digital 3D Design class we’d inevitably take a more technical approach, like setting up particle generators and controlling their flow with dynamic expressions. But in the stage crafting class, the analog equivalent showed us how to ignite clouds of coffee creamer mid-air. Throwing actual fireballs! Maybe there was something to be learned from these guys who had never even heard of a pixel.
So when I set out to create an image to convey the idea of elemental forces of nature playing chess with each other, I knew I wanted to use natural elements, not simulations. I had my shot list: Fire (and therefore smoke), water splashes, and a chess set that would accommodate easy compositing of these elements.
The creative journey for this project included a variety of setups and different methods I only reached through trial and error. Here’s how it eventually unfolded: