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.


Week 04 Animatic, Feedback and Planning

Week 04 reflection on planning and team

It’s still tricky trying to find a balance between team work and individual contribution to the team, especially with story development. We seem to have a tendency to want to do everything together so that we all have an input and have our opinions heard. Over the summer we were writing scripts separately and then tried to sit together and write a script from the best parts. It made the process a lot more lengthy, and while everyone’s opinions were heard for every sentence, it also resulted in some important exposition being left out. For our second story idea, Alec suggested that we start with a less detailed skeleton of the story beats. We were able to do this relatively quickly as a team and then Sorcha was able to take responsibility of fleshing out a full script with character actions and dialogue.

Build a team skeleton —> one team member is given time to think and flesh out the skeleton into a script —-> the team gives feedback —> refinement

This is the script, wrote by Sorcha:


From the script, Sorcha made out a shot list with a list of boards for each shot and the progess. This made dividing the shots between us a lot easier. It also seemed better to divide the boards this time around as shots rather than backgrounds and characters.

Screen Shot 10-17-17 at 10.29 PM


We didn’t get to include the voice over dialogue for the intro section of the animatic, which maybe makes the opening a little redundant. The purpose of the opening with dialogue is to give a comedic retelling of the backstory but also to give a flavour of how it’s a nerdy fantasy show.




  • The characters need a lot of developing. Both Púca and Nami seem silly, Púca is not likable as a mentor and both of their actions are too unmotivated.
  • The characters need to create a harmony.
  • Give more purpose to their journeying. Why are these characters together?
  • Know the backstory of everything and create the illusion of a huge world. Look into post modernism. Research how the audience augments the story with their own story.
  • Give the audience enough knowledge about the rules of the world that they can make guesses but always be one step ahead of the audience.
  • Is a spirit possessing an object the common type of monster in this world? If not, then we need to establish the context for this to be a mimic with a lure that would be uncommon in this world. Otherwise Nami is silly to rush into danger.
  • Does Tato function as the translator of the knowledge which Púca is trying to pass down?
  • Know what you’re trying to say. Research symbolism.
  • Research cinematography more and apply it better!
  • Archetypes should emerge in the dialogue.
  • Reiterate the lines of dialogue continuously and be careful not to get attached to performances that aren’t working.
  • Go beyond just applying mechanical story structure/the hero’s journey. Make us care!

These are the boards that I contributed. Kerry edited all the boards and sound together along with drawing boards too.

Definitely need to research more cinematography and think more about what each frame is saying.

Story Development and Monster Sketches

We came together to take our Cassandra Cottage episode idea into a new direction. In the old episode the characters were trying to steal an amulet that would help them contain the stranglings/monsters. We felt that the concept of the amulet and the curse twist were weak in the plot and required a lot of exposition. We’ve decided to do away with Cassandra and instead are aiming for a more general example of an episode where our characters have to overcome the perils of encountering and capturing a monster. We tried to focus on Dan Harmon’s story structure 101 while going along – you, need, go, search, find, take, return, changed.

An overview of the plot: (witch – Nami, creature – Puca, potato – Tato)

  • A young witch is practicing her capture spell on a dummy. Her mentor creature gives guidance and her potato friend cheers her on. She messes up the spell spectacularly and the dummy explodes.
  • (Title) Nami – The Last Witch
  • The witch, creature and potato are walking along the moors. Creature is lecturing her about how she should study when they happen upon a tree shrine with pictures/offerings to missing people at the edge of a forest.
  • They see a glowing light in the forest and have reason to believe that it’s the cause of the disappearances. The witch rushes ahead, chasing it on her hover staff with potato in tow.
  • The witch pursues the light into an old house on a cliff side. The door slams shut and she sees that the light is part of the house. The floorboards turn into teeth that try to eat her but her hover staff saves her.
  • Creature turns into owl outside the monster house and tries to save the witch but is struck down.
  • The witch tries to do a spell while dangling from her broom but it fails. The potato falls into the monster floorboards. The witch throws her books at the creatures uvula causing it to gag and spit the witch, book and potato out.
  • They land on the creature. The witch takes a breath, concentrates and manages to do the spell. The house monster gets captured.

Sorcha wrote a script using these beats and also added an opening monologue which gives some context to the story.

I’ve been trying to develop what the monster house might look like. We wanted to keep the house-on-tall-stilts idea from the last episode. I started with some thumbnails to explore house shapes and how these could combine with monster features. The challenge is to make architecture that belongs to a fantasy world, make it recognisable as a house and then create a mimic and monster form.

I think that doing more architecture research will be of benefit. We thought of using medieval European stone houses as influence but this might a be a bit too traditional/overdone in fantasy. Sorcha and Matthew also suggested looking at more real world predators for influence, like the gelada baboon who peels back its gums drastically to reveal large teeth. I’m also considering how a shark’s mouth is designed.

Link to our Pinterest board Monsters Character Design

We also need to develop the mechanics/muscle movements of how the teeth floorboards work. We want the inside of the monster house to be fleshy.

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.”


Cassandra Cottage Concepts

These are some early thumbnails for trying to figure out the composition for Cassandra’s cottage. The idea was that we would start the episode with the characters arguing while the cottage is somehow framed in the background, either above or below the clearing that they’re standing in.

Matthew had some more pushed perspectives from directly below, looking up. Looking at these I could push the feeling of looking down from a height more also.

I tried to paint this concept while using the simplified shapes in Mikael Gustafsson’s work (instagram link) as inspiration. Christian also shared interesting ideas for rock formations with us (Kilian Schönberger Earth Pyramids).

I don’t think that I captured the feeling of danger and foreboding that the story needs with these. We’re also reworking how this setting functions in the narrative.

Technical – Plan

Even though we’re developing our Cassandra Cottage script to have a largely different twist than what we first planned for, a lot of the technical challenges and risks still remain the same.

Animation – We want to push how cartoony and energetic our acting is. I admit that I don’t even know where to start with doing this besides timing, squash and stretch and smear frames so there’s a lot of research and critical thinking to do! I feel like I need to recap on the basics of animation, from ball bounces to creating different characterful walks, as my focus for this past year has been on lighting, rendering, texturing, grooming, dynamics and concept art. Even if I don’t contribute a lot on the animating side of the project I’d still like to know enough to give constructive feedback, particularly on performance.

Rigging – So far we have our three characters who need rigged (two bipeds and one quadruped), Púca’s bird form and then the monster in our episode (which may be an angler fish like monster house or a bipedal sphynx).

Style – We seem to be gravitating towards more toony lighting and shading with sharp edges. This is something which we’ll have to experiment with across modeling, lighting, shading and texturing. We also want to capture the look of light bloom (if I’m using that term correctly, bright feathered light bouncing from edges) and we’re not sure how to do that yet. Regardless of what style we use, we will still have to consider how best to set up and composite the layers for atmospheric perspective, depth of field/z depth and color gradients in depth.

Sound – our short has a lot of dialogue. Not only do we need to make it look good on paper but we need to find and direct voice actors to get the best performance for our short. We’ve also been discussing how we can use music in our short and like the idea of adding more rock and metal elements.

Fur – I’ve used XGen before for grooming lots of fine fluffy fur. I didn’t get as far as making it work with zync or RebusFarm because of errors so this is something which we’ll have to troubleshoot if we go down this root. We’ll also need to consider how the fur design fits in with the overall style of the world. It could be as simple as abstract textures or as complex as shaped geometry. Looking into making the fur dynamic is also going to be a challenge, even if it’s just subtle movement to make the character more alive.

Shapeshift – Our Púca character is a shapeshifter and we feel that it would be cheating an important part of the show from the audience if we didn’t show it at least once in the short. We’re planning on looking into compositing tricks but perhaps there is an inbetween form that could be done with blendshapes. Maui from Moana shapeshifts in a frame which could also be a simple option. Aku from Samurai Jack is almost like dynamic black fluid between forms. It’s something that we’ll need to experiment and do concepts for. Our new idea may also involve a monster house with transforming parts.

Magic and explosion fx – We’re considering how we could stylistically fit in the magic visuals in our short. Will it be 2D shaded dynamics?



Art Direction

So far we’ve been so focused on story that our art hasn’t been tailored into a single style yet. I tried putting some slides together to get a better idea of what elements make a style.

Google Slides – Rendering and Shape Styles

For materials and rendering, realistic materials and fur can look stunning but it’s not what we want for our short. Instead we like when there is still a feeling of illustration in the materials and backgrounds such as in Avocado Man (2017) and Caldera (2012). We also like the quality of light in these.


For shape design, we like shapes that lie somewhere in the middle of hyper realistic and pure abstraction. We like the simplified units for fur and feathers in Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) and the simplified shapes used for backgrounds in Mikael Gustafsson’s renders.


Mike made good points with regards to our ideas for making fur on our creatures.

  • will it be distracting?
  • what does it look like when it moves?
  • is it achievable within the time that we have?

The art direction in Samurai Jack is inspirational.

“No green grass and no blue skies. Everything has to be special, everything has to have a point of view….If you saw a background from it, a frame, it can only be Samurai Jack.”

As much as realistic materials on cartoony shapes is beautiful, it’s art direction like this really makes me want to aim for something more unique. Tartakovsky’s Hotel Tranylvania (2012) didn’t impress me half as much (just talking about art direction) so I’m wondering how we can bring this level of artistry to 3D.