Audience versus Magic

This article talks about the thought process behind the magic in Doctor Strange (2016) and highlights a good point in relation to the audience’s engagement with the narrative of the magic.

Doctor Strange’s magic is more real than you might think (and is based on Tutankhamun)

The audience likes to reenact and imagine doing the magic themselves e.g. the specific wand movements and special words in Harry Potter. This was also talked about in the Writing Excuses episode on magic systems (blogged about earlier: link). It’s not just important to explain the rules so that the audience can play along in solving conflict, but it’s also a way of letting the audience unleash their imagination as to what could happen in a world with these rules of magic.

Scott Derrickson, who directed Doctor Strange points out that audiences “love the idea of magical objects and they like learning the rules of those objects and what they do”.

Derickson looked to the art of finger tutting as a way of visually showing the process of making magic.


With this in mind, we have a challenge of establishing our magic system in either our opening sequence or opening act. However, in an earlier episode of Writing Excuses on ‘Beginnings’ (blog link), the importance of starting and leaving as close as possible to the action was stressed. The audience doesn’t want to be bombarded with a boring log of worldbuilding. The first line/moment of the story is a promise of what the rest of the story will be e.g. a comedy or horror etc and if an establishing shot is made then it should contain conflict relevant to the story.

The Lion’s Blaze and Samurai Jack openings are examples that we’ve been looking at for inspiration.

They’re short (20-40 seconds) and don’t get boring. These two openings establish the conflict relationship between world and character. For us, this would be how Nami accidentally released her granny’s holdings of dangerous spirits who are able to possess any inanimate object with a face, but perhaps we should also give clues to how Nami produces magic? Looking back on reading about amulets (blog post link), this could be how symbolism is tied to the materials that Nami uses (e.g. different animal faces and motifs), the symbolism of color, how Nami implements offensive versus defensive magic e.g. adornment on weapons versus armor and cloaks, the variety of magical instruments that Nami carries e.g. different amuletic faces for different functions, the effect of recombination of materials e.g. faces composed of different symbols (our version of teeth of wolf, eyes of owl) how evil is symbolised in our world of faces e.g. the evil eye, how superstition is manifested in the non-magical people/denizens of our world e.g. removing faces of statues, making dolls without faces and wearing masks etc. We’ve also been considering how we can visualise magic using forms from either sacred geometry or the more fluid look of magic Tao calligraphy but this all needs developing.

Another (overlapping?) topic of research, mentioned by Yuan and Conánn, is the postmodern audience which I have a feeling will influence how we think about all of this!


Top 10 Cinematographers

This video gives a great overview of important cinematographers over the last century. Seeing theory done well is very inspiring! We’ve been advised to find similar shots to what we want to achieve so that we can examine and understand the language of framing what’s on screen more effectively. I admit that I’m a bit ignorant of the work of specific cinematographers, apart from Roger Deakins who was another team’s presentation topic in first year, so this is a good place to start.

CineFix (2010) Top 10 Cinematographers of All Time

Worldbuilding: Amulets and Magic Research

The most recent logline idea for our short is:

In a world filled with strange, ancient carvings of worship, a young glyph-witch (glyph-mancer?) accidentally unleashes a realm of strangelings which can possess any object with a face. She must now travel her world and trap the most powerful strangelings who seek to conquer and spread terror.

With this rule that the spirits/strangelings are made solid in Nami’s world through faces in inanimate objects e.g. statues, masks, armour, skulls, tree faces, etc. it opens up more specific possibilities for designing the monsters, environments and costumes. Also, while some spirits are malevolent and need to be captured by Nami, others could form part of Nami’s magic system where she imbues different spirits into faces in her staff.


Looking to some real world research for inspiration, this book on amulets has lots of ideas that we could incorporate around our use of the face as a design and narrative device. The world ‘amulet’ could be replaced with ‘face’ for ideas. Some of the main points from this book that we could think of when developing our magic system and concepts:

  • The materials and forms of the amulet dictate its purpose.
  • People of different professions would require different amulets e.g. pilgrims, hunters, fish catchers.
  • Sometimes specific amulets were connected to certain Gods.
  • Amulets and amuletic decoration were used for both offense and defense. E.g. animals symbolic of fierceness and strength would adorn the hunter while decorations on shields and cloaks could be defensive.
  • The evil eye is commonly warded against. Like against like is a common way of amuletic protection.
  • The amulet commonly takes on the symbolic properties of the animal parts it contains e.g. strange, of the night, strength, ethereal, fertile, of the netherworld etc.
  • Multiple amulets are commonly carried for multiple purposes.
  • Ancestors held in amulets would answer questions and advise.
  • Faces would be left blank on certain Russian dolls so that demons would not be able to animate them.
  • The symbolic colors used in the amulet are important to the amulet’s function. e.g. red, black and white.
  • The sky is seen as the spirit realm, and the ground the nether realm. Therefore animals (birds, insects, reptiles) associated with these areas are linked symbolically.


Notes from the book: 

“An amulet is a device, the purpose of which is to protect, but by magical and not physical means.”

“A charm is something believed to bring good luck, health and happiness.”

“A talisman is something thought to be imbued with some magical property. It can both protect and radiate power and is often used in ritual.”

“The origin of the fetish was as a West African amulet but the word now describes an object believed to contain a spirit. Fetishes are found in Polynesia, Australasia, West Africa, North and South America and the Arctic. Once magical rites have been performed over it anything can become a fetish, especially if it is something unknown or not understood, but most fetishes take the form of a doll or statue. The spirit they contain is usually fed.”

The power of/belief in amulets thrive where there is rampant disease and pestilence which are caused by unknown forces in the eyes of the people.

Each amulet has a specific function which is symbolically tied to the materials and forms that make it.

Recipes for amulets were published in Le Grand et le Petit Albert by the thirteenth century alchemist and philosopher Albert le Grand.

Pilgrims of medieval Wales carried small ampullae or models of saints.

Bears were hunted in Finland, not just for food but for their mystic properties. Different parts of the bear and bronze replicas of bears could give the hunter protection.

To protect the fisherman, two pieces of birch bark are “stapled together and carved into a face with cut-out eyes and mouth and incised nose. Such amulets are pinned on a stick and set on a trap of branches where roach and dace spawn.”

“Eyes painted on Japanese (boat) bows watch for spirits of the river in the torrents ahead”.

Some amulets invoked the protection of specific Gods.

Warriors and Weaponry

Paper charms were used for protection in battle in Japan e.g. printed in red with the character for Fudo, the war God.

The King of Foumban in Cameroon wore an amuletic robe of hessian with leather amulet pouches sewn all over it.

“…for many headhunter of south-east Asia – the Nagas of north-east India, the Nias of Indonesia – it was the life-forces in the trophy skulls of their slain enemies that protected them as they went again to war. “

The decoration on a shield was thought to be as protective as the shield itself.

“As in hunting, where the power of a slain animal is invoked in its claws or teeth to help kill the next one, for the Baule of the Ivory Coast it was the faces of their enemies killed in battle and reproduced in small bronze masks that were worn or carried on their swords as amulets.

Highly revered monks can make amulets and sell them for large sums of money.

Seams, hems or any other opening on clothing is decorated or stitched with particular colors as these are vulnerable places for spirits to slip under clothes and cause disease.

Talismans are used to protect houses and their inhabitants e.g. “white hawthorn or white paint, patterning in brick, heads carved in stone (a device of Celtic origin), crosses, floral designs”.


Crossroads are widely seen as a place of supernatural dwelling.


Enter a caption

“In Romania, wooden shrines sheltering a crucifix are erected at crossroads to save the wanderer from taking the wrong path.”

An amulet made specifically for the wearer is more powerful.

The Evil Eye

“The evil eye is the most powerful of superstitions throughout the Indo-European and Semitic worlds, and its power is based on jealousy.”


“..the Greek word for amulet, khalitikhi, means eye, the Italian jettatura, the eye that throws or casts spells.” The strongest amulet against the evil eye is the eye itself “and the mirror from which the evil eye flees in horror or lingers in self-admiration”.


Like protects against like. The symbol of the eye protects against the evil eye.

“Mirrors have an element of mystery: they show the true image of both human and demon, and yet reverse it. The soul can escape through them, and they are thus covered at death, or during a storm, or even for the vulnerable forty days after marriage.”

Reflections can act as a diversion to the eye or demon as it might stop to admire its own reflection. Mirrors are often in amulets, house gables, and sewn into clothing and fetishes for this reason.

Capture Magic

There is universal symbolism attached to the materials and forms that the amulets take. Specific materials are usually dependent on what animals and resources are local.


Amulets are often made of magical materials encased in some sort of container. The shape and material of the container is connected to the type of contents and also to your status e.g. a rag would be associated with poverty.

“The talismanic scrolls of Coptic Ethiopia are rolled into snakeskin; the paper charms of Japan are tied in red thread and sold on a piece of card, or wrapped in brocaded silk”.

The cimaruta of Italy is an amulet made of a combination of amulets. It consists of a silver sprig of rue with an amulet on each branch.

“In Morocco, a clustered pendant of amulets would include miniature guns and daggers to fight the jinn, a candle to see them by, a hand to protect from the evil eye, a goblet to represent water as the source of life, and stars to protect against darkness”.

The two broad functions of the amulet is to attract or repel. If something sparkly attracts the evil eye then it is diverted from the wearer.

Goddesses and Dolls

Many human shaped amulets personify ancestors and would not only protect from wizards and invisible danger but would also answer questions and advise.

Grotesque masks, such as Medusa’s face during strangulation, are used to frighten away spirits.

Russian dolls were sometimes made of linen and clothed but their faces would be left blank to prevent being animated by demons. The place of their heads could be stuffed with different items to protect different members of the family e.g.linen for women, masticated bread for children.


Dolls are frequently used in black magic but are also believed to be “vehicles of evil spirits”.

Buttons, beads and blue

A single bead e.g. painted with an eye or a mass of beads e.g. arranged in a sunburst are often used as protective amulets.

Red, White and Black

These three colors are said to be basic to the human state for their traditional symbolism.

White traditionally denotes purity, black denotes chthonic creatures and decay, and red denotes the vibrant life force of blood which can repel darkness, demons, witches, wizards and the evil eye. These symbols are usually why these colors are used in amulets. Decorating thresholds with red rags, outlining doorways and windows with red (Welsh) and sewing red thread into the hems and seams of garments are a few example of using the amuletic properties of red.

Teeth Claws and Paws

“Animals can be jinn in disguise or an actual witch , as the hyena is known to be; they can be inhabited by evil spirits, as in the case of the jackal; they can be people killed by witches and turned into lions, dogs and bush animals, as in Cameroon, or – as for the Ostyaks of Siberia – they can be totemic protector animals like the bear, from whom the family is descended.”

Animal teeth are common as an amulet for strength a warning to stay away.

The teeth of wild boar and pigs are also associated with mental health and absorbing evil directed at the wearer.

Horns and Bones

Antlers are associated with the power of regeneration, while pointed horns are capable of piercing evil, especially the evil eye.

Horns and horseshoes are a classic favourite for protecting houses.

“The Uzbeks of Khorezm kept a ram in the courtyard of their house, knowing that the evil eye would be attracted to the horns and so lose its potency”

In Tibet, human bones are made into flutes and are played to keep evil spirits away.

Bones are often inscribed with incantations.

Birds, feathers and hair

Birds are almost everywhere considered part of the spirit realm, a link between man and the heavens. In Slavic belief, witches and also girls who died before bearing children turned into birds.”

“Loose unkempt hair is a symbol of the chthonic world and an attribute of witches and sorcerers, while neat hair, particularly plaited, is a symbol of belonging to organized society.”

Snakes and fearful creatures

“As birds link man with the spirit world, so snakes, toads and various bizarre creatures remind him of his closeness to the nether regions and waters of the earth.”

Insects are thought to be metamorphoses of jinn and are used in amulets to protect against disease or cure illness.

Amulets made from chameleon’s are popular among thieves for their ability to change color and swivel their eyes.

Water and the moon

Frogs are associated with rain and the rain Gods while toads, being nocturnal, are associated with witches, the devil and the dark side of female sexuality.

Seahorses, being delicate and beautiful, divert the evil eye.

The Gods, both benign and evil, are said to dwell in water.

Week 04 Art Direction

We’ve narrowed in on Scott Wills and Jamie Hewlett as artists that we would like to take inspiration from. We’re at first drawn to them just for the pure visual appeal. Their art is stunning and we want to get this level of appeal into 3D! This is a pin board of their art and influences.

I looked a little into their influences today to see where their art is coming from. In an interview on Consequence of Sound, Jamie Hewlett talks about being influenced from artists in Mad magazine – Brunel, Mort Drucker and Jack Davis, and also the satirical cartoonist Giles.



There’s a lot of caricatured anatomy and simplified comic shapes. Going from this, we shouldn’t be afraid to push our characters’ anatomy but we should also examine Hewlett’s work for how it creates appeal.



Jamie Hewlett

Looking into Scott Wills, this book has some useful information:

Makin’ Toons: Inside the Most Popular Animated TV Shows and Movies

Some parallels that are very obvious between Samurai Jack and our show, but didn’t hit me until I read about it,

The backgrounds were such a key point of Tartakovsky’s vision – after all, it’s about a guy who travels from place to place; in many ways, it’s all about the environment – that the art direction and painting were absolutely crucial.

Our show is very similar to Samurai Jack in that our three characters are travelling to new places every episode, so of course we need to make sure that the art direction for the environments is as beautiful as possible too!

I didn’t know that the artist Dan Krall contributed to a lot of the line work which Wills would paint, so both of them should technically be credited with the art direction on Samurai Jack. Wills loved the direction from Tartakovsky who would push him to be “much more inventive with color…be crazier”. He also cites the graphic designs of Charley Harper to be an influence.


Charley Harper

“…real isn’t necessarily better, he says: ‘I like design. I like reducing things to their essence and simplifying things – stylization and design'”

“I can paint totally realistically, like photo-graphically – and then, totally on the opposite side, is full blown UPA-type stylization. I try to combine everything that’s good about realistic painting and feature painting, and everything that’s good about stylization, and bring it together…..have cinematic lighting, with mood and depth, but at the same time have it feel stylized.” – Scott Wills

Wills was also influenced by Bill Wray who was a mentor to him while working on The Ren and Stimpy show and he also cites Hana-Barbera and Japanese prints as influence.


Backgrounds from Samurai Jack (2001 -2017)

Mike Mignola’s work on Hellboy also incorporates the sharp line work that we like in Hewlett’s work. Alec shared this 3D model of Hellboy by Alexandre Collonge which I think has nicely translated the sharp line work into hard edged modeling of organic forms. The shading and texturing is great too. We’ll have to decide how much of the black ink we want to translate to 3D.


Images from Alexandre Collonge’s tutorial

Going on Yuan’s advice, we also need to consider how our style and story work together.

Writing Excuses 1.14 Magic systems and Rules of Magic Systems

In my head I’ve been struggling to allow Nami to use magic to solve her problems as it seems like too easy of a way out. This podcast gives a good indication of why this is the case and how to overcome it.


Sanderson’s First Law: Your ability to solve conflict with your magic is directly proportional to how well your reader understands your magic system.

Your character can only explore the magic once you’ve laid down concrete rules so that the reader knows what’s going on. If you can just do anything, then there is no tension. If you know the mechanism beforehand, then the audience can put 2 + 2 together and say that this problem is going to be solved this way! Don’t just let the solution surface at the last moment or it will be a cheat.

Make the magic feel like a strength in your world. Make it believable.

Not all books have magic rules laid out. It depends on who’s perspective we see from. E.g. in Lord of the Rings, the characters solving the problems aren’t always those who use magic but when Éowyn kills the Witch King it is only after Tolkien has given us the 2 + 2 of how this can be done.

You can purposefully not explain the rules so that you’re tapping into the collective unconscious of being a fish out of water and feeling like you don’t understand how things work. This means that the hero is not going to be able to solve conflict with magic. Lord of the Rings is about normal people, the hobbits, trying to make their way in a magical world.

The Harry Potter series lies somewhere in between. It is not always rule based (which gives ease of access) but certain books have their own rules e.g. the rules of the time turner play a large part in The Prisoner of Azkaban, (portkeys, polyjuice potions, the floo network etc. in others) but elsewhere it is just like they’re shooting magical guns at each other.

What do you gain by explaining the rules? Knowing how the magic works is world building. Explaining the rules is a separate decision you need to make. In X-Men, the mutant gene is world building. The rules of what wolverine can do is explained so that he can play a role as a shield. Similarly Superman has certain rules and limits to what he can do (depending on which comic). Gandalf on the other hand is not explained but it is established that he can’t destroy the ring.

By explaining the rules early on, you can use magic to solve problems. You can make your character seem clever by manipulating the tools that you’ve given them in ways that you would not expect. Capture the imagination of your audience with your rules so that they can imagine what they themselves could do with them. This also allows for foreshadowing – the surprising yet inevitable.

Explaining the magic also gives you the opportunity to create an apprentice character. This can let you show off the magic system and create a sense of wonder. Let the audience think “wow this is cool, I can imagine myself doing it!”.

Once the rules get very solid then your start to appeal to another audience by taking on another form of the fantasy genre – hard fantasy.

Writing Excuses Season 12.31 – Monsters

12.31: What Makes a Good Monster, with Courtney Alameda (link to podcast)

This episode of the Writing Excuses podcast raises questions that we’ll need to consider for our project. Considering our world is full of monsters, this podcast highlights how useful it will be to:

  • do more research on our chosen mythology.
  • know enough about our monster so that we can subvert expectation.
  • research more about symbolism and how the monster relates to our theme.

Notes from the podcast:

What makes a good monster?

“Monsters are the best when they subvert the status quo and remind us that we are not on the top of the food chain.” The Xenomorph from Alien is a great example of this – it’s almost impossible to kill. 

Hannibal Lectre is a good example of subverting expectation. His introduction is about how dangerous he is. Then once you descend into the dungeon cell and see him, it’s not what you were expecting, he’s calm and well kept.

The monster is only frightening if it poses a threat to your character or society.

Great monsters surprise, they subvert the status, your expectations. The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth subverts the zombie trope. He is inspired by the tenome, a Japanese monster.  The Pale Man is also a metaphor for everything else that is happening in the film. The monster reflects other angles, ideas and themes of the story. When Ophelia takes from the monster, the monster fights back. This is reflected when Ophelia takes from her father. Be cautious with too on-the-nose parallelism.

A knowledge of folklore is necessary for creating great monsters e.g. Japanese folklore, African, European. How do we construct our fears? Find patterns and universal, Jungian fears.

Always look at the monsters’ roles. Consider the monsters’ symbolism within mythology.

Start with asking – what type of things frighten me? e.g. being alone and incapacitated in such a way that something could eat me.

“I like the character to be super competent but I want their super competence to have no effect on the monster… the monster is powerful in another way.”

“The monster targets their weakness.”


Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

These are a few simple points that we could use to question ourselves to see if we’re on the right path.

  • Know your ending, your punchline.
  • Make me care.
  • Don’t give the audience 4, give them 2+2. The unifying theory of 2+2.
  • Every character is driven by an itch that they need to scratch, the spine of their character that drives them. It doesn’t always drive them to make the correct decisions.
  • Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.
  • Have you constructed uncertainty? Have you made me want to know what will happen next?
  • A strong theme is always running through a well told story e.g. identity in Lawrence of Arabia.
  • Can you create wonder in your audience?

Writing Excuses Notes Season 01 Part 01

Out of all the animated shorts that I’ve seen on YouTube, story is definitely the biggest let down. We (the team) seem to share a liking of shorts that quickly show character and conflict. This seems obvious, but so many shorts very quickly loose engagement through poor storytelling. The artistic, visual appeal of the short can also influence whether we like a short or not but this is because we tend to watch the start longer if it’s ‘pretty’ and often the story will be present already in the mood and atmosphere if the art direction is strong.

Season 01, episodes 01 – 10 of Writing Excuses so far has made some useful points on making original ideas, cutting what doesn’t work, beginnings, heroes, protagonists, villains, and pacing.

Episodes 01 – 10 notes:

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Character Trees RocketJump Film School

Character Trees (2015) RocketJump Film School

The following description prompts, starting from the feet up, could be a useful way for us to build a picture of our characters. The exercise is meant to help you figure out the psychology of your character which will impact what decisions the character makes within the story. The example below is from Video Game Highschool.

The following is FILM CRIT HULK’s outline of each part of the tree:


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