Friday, March 12, 2010

Bioshock 3 Game Infarcer cover!

[click on images to see a larger size]
It's that hilarious time of year again, at least as far as magazines are concerned. The April issue of Game Informer magazine, out this week, has a small section inside called Game Infarcer, which mercilessly mocks all the games that they stare at all year. This year: Bioshock 3. HA! Take that, 2K games! We love your game enough to mock it!

This issue marks our fifth year drawing the cover to the section (Thanks, GI!), and to celebrate, we'd like to go through the process of creating the cover, from concept to delivery.


At the beginning of every February, I start wondering when someone from Game Informer is going to call for the Game Infarcer cover, and sure enough, Bryan Vore calls up and sets up a meeting, and asks if this cover can be "in a more realistic style". Naturally, I say sure thing, then end up drawing it the way I draw everything. Professional secrets revealed!

When I get to Game Informer World Headquarters (about 3 miles from here), the guys all sit down with me and give me the pitch: Bioshock 3, with Big Grandpas. But the best part is: they give me a sketch.

[notation added by me]
I love it when people do sketches. Sometimes people think I'm going to laugh at them or are embarrassed to show what they've done, but I love seeing what people have in mind visually even if they "can't draw a straight line", because it saves me from trying out all the composition pyrotechnics at my disposal. Any artist knows there are millions of ways to lay out the same picture, but the simplest ones are frequently the best, and if that's what the client has firmly in mind, it's usually a good idea to go for it. In the process of making the sketch, the client can also see some potential for ideas and put them down, instead of just making a list or having to remember them. It also lets them see if they can even envision a visual way to communicate the joke, which is a good indicator as to whether I can, as well.

During the meeting, since everyone could see the sketch, we could jump off into ideas a lot faster, and we quickly came up with things like the daily pill container, the Fiber valve (that was Joe Juba), Android Ryan (also Joe), the idea of being at a Denny's-like breakfast place, the Rapture background, and the Prune Juice syringe. These sorts of "list" drawings--ones that contain subtle in-jokes around a given topic--are always my favorite because they're very information-heavy, and are less concerned with rendering, which I enjoy, but is not my particular forte.

Also, Joe lent me a Big Daddy doll--er, action figure at the meeting, which was very helpful in drawing details.


What I like to do when I start a job is to try to ride the wave of enthusiasm as much as I can, and frequently this means I can really make some headway. When I come back from a meeting with the guys at Game Informer, we've been brainstorming and joking about the image, and the game, and other funny obscurities that could make it in there, and so I'm bursting at the seams with ideas. So even though it was late in the day and I needed to get home, I quickly sat down and sketched out what was in my head for the Big Grandpa and the Little Sister Nurse.

This gave me the chance to distill down some ideas, cement some gags in there, and think of some new ones when a corner of the drawing is looking kind of lonely. As you can tell, it also allowed me to basically lock in the general "camera angle" of the drawing. This was a pretty lucky break--it doesn't always happen that way--but just dashing stuff down without overthinking it often gets the simplest (and best) results.

The next day, I took another sheet of paper and drew around all the other elements of the drawing: the environment, the signs, the greeter, etc. I married these two images in Photoshop and dropped in a Game Informer logo and Bioshock 3 graphic for placement so that I could send it off to the guys for feedback.

This part also allowed me to add more jokes--the Denny's-like Ryan logo, the sign advertising the specials that looks like the Plasmid upgrade graphic, the Little Sister ornate escape hatch, the detailing on the seats and host stand that are similar to the doors in the game, and the gold-glowing rose in the tonic container way in the background. If you look closely, there's even a cash register on the far right, just like in the game. But then I realized host stands don't have cash registers. This drawing will be nothing if not accurate!


The sketch is relatively tight, as you can see from how similar it is to the final drawing, so the next step is to blow it up in Photoshop and print it out in 10% cyan on a big sheet of paper. From there I can go in with pencil and brush and create the final linework.

Now, normally, people pencil the whole image before inking, but I'm kind of impatient, and sometimes if you're sure about a section of the drawing (that is, you're sure it's going to be in shadow or something), it can be useful to go ahead and ink it. It can frequently give you better ideas on how to pencil the rest of the page, and it sets a certain style.

When I was finished with the foreground inks, I sent the image to Game Informer again, just to show them some progress, and it yielded a valuable addition. While I had added jokes to the sign and the menu, I had entirely neglected the "Please wait to be seated" placard. If you've played Bioshock, you know that there is a perfect addition to make to this sign, and Jeff Cork pointed it out. "Please..." was changed to "Would you kindly..." and our drawing was now officially stuffed as full of jokes as we could make it.


Coloring is difficult for me, particularly things that have to be relatively atmospheric. I tend to like to color with flat colors rather than with a layered, textured look, but I tried to blend the two for this illustration.

For the background, I drew outlines of the buildings with dots for windows, then made several layers, each with a layer of blue to indicate distance. Here was the final opportunity to make jokes, so I threw in a few Ayn Rand references (the signs saying "Roark" and "Galt", two Randian heroes, and the Atlas-shaped building (pre-shrug). In case you don't know, Ayn Rand's works, particularly Atlas Shrugged, were a major influence on the philosophy of Bioshock and Rapture, its underground city.

Gloomy blue and glowing gold were the basic colors for the game of Bioshock, so I created a warm gold light spot in the lower right to focus attention, then colored all of the figures with gold highlights coming from that direction to unify the scene. The background could stay a largely uniform neutral blue that would pop out the figures. As a final consideration, I did something I rarely do--I added a glow to certain things: the Big Grandpa's eyes, his lightning bolts on his hands, and the Little Sister's eyes. When put into an image that is mostly flat colors, effects like that can be quite striking.


When the image makes it into the magazine, I always hold my breath a little, hoping that it will look okay. These days you can be pretty sure that what's on your screen will print out okay, but you never REALLY know. I was thrilled when I got this one in the mail. As you can see, they moved the image up and zoomed in a tiny bit, overlapping the top of Big Grandpa's fiber tank with the logo (I provided another layer of just the top half of that figure in case they wanted to do that), and they extended the shadow in the lower left to get in the copy for the joke, which I'm glad they did. I feel like the image is solid, and a good joke, but it does need a little explaining.

So go out and find the April issue of Game Informer! It's the one with the Portal 2 cover. Ah, not only a drawing in an issue of Game Informer, but one about the sequel to my favorite game. It's the icing on the cake.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

Lettering Essentials: the Character Chart

If you letter on the computer you know how much fun it is to dig for those special characters that are hidden somewhere on your keyboard. Through sheer will I've been able to remember where the ellipses (option semicolon) and em dash (shift option dash) are, but after that I'm lost. Fortunately, the nice people at Blambot have created a character chart showing you exactly what to punch when you're in need of an O with an umlaut or the highly prized fraction with one zero in the numerator spot and two zeroes in the denominator spot.

There are several charts like these floating around the web, but I like Blambot's clear PC/Mac distinction and their bold use of the color red. You can find it here.


Friday, October 31, 2008

Tips and Tricks: "It's Who You Know"

When speaking with young cartoonists, at some point the question inevitably comes up, "How do you get work?"  Usually, by the time I draw breath and start talking, they follow up with a sigh and a resigned "...or is it just who you know?"  Well, let me make two things clear.  

One, yes, it is who you know.  
Nearly all of the work that I've gotten and that we at Big Time Attic have gotten together has been through someone one of us knew, worked with previously, met at a convention, was related to, lived or worked close to, or who somehow recommended us out of all of the millions of cartoonists out there.  

Two, that's not exactly that strange.  
People who need work done can't be expected to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every cartoonist out there; they only typically remember at most a dozen off the top of their heads.  If you know them, you instantly jump into that dozen.  But you need a couple things if you want to actually do the work.

Be Ready.
Being thought of is not the same as getting the job.  Everybody gets considered for jobs all the time, but the question is, are you ready for it?  And almost as importantly, do other people KNOW you're ready for it?  When they come to you and say, "Can you draw this many drawings in this style by this deadline?" you have to be able to honestly, and credibly,  answer yes.  

Deliver the Goods.
And then you have to make good on your promises.  This is an important point:  most of the people we work with we work with several times.  So that means you have to turn in work that is good and on time, and you need to be easy to deal with.  Doing this means you stay in people's heads as the right person for the job.  A lot of clients out there will go with someone whose style is ALMOST right over someone whose style is JUST right if they know that person is fast, good, and easy to work with.  This frequently makes the difference between working constantly and bitterly grumbling about how no one appreciates you.

Be a Known Quantity.
I always tell people that when it comes to drawing style, focus on depth rather than breadth.  That is to say, rather than be able to pencil a comic in every style from scary vampires to fluffy ponies, it's better to work in a relatively narrow range (say, just humorous illustration) but be able to pencil, ink, letter, color, and, if necessary, do design and prepress work in that style.  That 1) makes you jump to the top of people's minds when they think, "Who could draw this funny comic?" and 2) makes you an easy choice, since you can take care of everything from the word go.

When you can draw pretty well in every style, you have the problem of never being the best at anything (and, of course, never being KNOWN to be the best at anything).  There will always be a better vampire guy or pony guy than you because that's all they do.  

There's no question that literally only having one style would limit you in what jobs you can take, and so it's important to be able to have a certain range.  If you do humorous stuff, you need to make sure you could do a funny superhero story or a funny vampire story or a funny fluffy pony story, all within what people recognize as your style.  The main thing is that people, when they think of you, can imagine how you would draw the book.  That's how you get the job.

So yes, it is who you know.  But it's not some kind of old boys' network that just gives jobs to people's sons.  It's about preparing your skills so that they are top notch, and then getting out there, whether it's on the internet, at comic conventions, or even at the comics store and showing people your work, so that the next time they need someone to draw something, they call you.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Zander's Tips for 24-Hour Comic Day

Kevin did his tips last year for 24 Hour Comic Day, and so this year I'll do mine.

Some caveats-- I've finished 3 24-Hour Comics in the last 3 years, and every year I swore I'd never do it again. Twelve months has a tendency to make one forget one's swears. But the point is-- I have no secret to avoiding misery. So don't expect me to make it easy on you; it won't be. That's why you can be so proud afterwards.

1. WORK SMALL. Every year I see people bringing in great big sheets of bristol board to work on their 24-Hour comics, and every year I see some or all of them drop out. Why? It's not like they're putting in more detail, it's just the sheer amount of real estate they need to cover. God help them if they set something in space or at the bottom of a well-- that's a good 15 minutes per page of filling in black areas right there. I always work at 8 1/2 by 5 1/2-- half a letter-sized piece of paper, and then reproduce it at 100%. That's a good mini-comic size.

2. WORK CHEAP. Kevin and I have spoken before about the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. I use that and cheapo HP laser paper from Office Max. With the amount of half-assed drawing that gets done at these things, it would make me feel sick to be using up nice paper, and the cap-it-and-forget-it nature of the PPBP works really well for these extended sessions, much better than a Windsor & Newton brush would. Similarly, Kevin uses a flair pen for his 24-hour comics. That's probably an even better idea because you don't have to rotate the page around when you ink, like you have to with a brush.

3. WORK OUT A DRAWING STYLE. It'll happen anyway while you're working, but it's nice to go into the event with a sense for how to draw simply and effectively, while still being able to communicate things like depth and facial expressions. You'll find that your patience for cross-hatching details on faces will dwindle by about hour 10.

4. KEEP YOUR DESIGNS SIMPLE. No-nos for characters: stubble, Hawai'ian shirts, tentacles, the Jack of Hearts. No-nos for settings: outer space, the middle of a jungle, a junkyard, a balcony overlooking New York City. Don't think that these details will just give you mindless things to do. They will, but you'll hate yourself for it. Your hands are going to hurt by the end of this thing; you don't want to have to put in any detail you don't need to.

5. DECIDE THE GENRE BEFOREHAND. I think it's nice going into the event knowing basically what kind of story you're going to make. If you've decided on a Western, for example, it gives you a bit of time to think about the sorts of things you want to have in your story, the basic structure, and some thoughts on what kinds of characters will populate it. But you should ONLY decide the genre, and then when you start...

6. USE A RANDOMIZER TO GIVE YOU IDEAS. I use a Pictionary card, which has five words on it that are pretty random, but at the same time fairly ordinary words. This is nice because then you have a bunch of unrelated ideas that you have to put into a story, but aren't making a story about yellow-bellied snorklewackers, or something else completely loony, which is exactly what you'd get if you asked your friends. Randomization has several benefits. One is expectation management. Because you can't plan out your story, you don't build it up in your head to be the most interesting story of all time. Drawing a page an hour all night is going to make some pretty shoddy-looking stuff, so it's good if you're not butchering your all-time favorite tale that you've been waiting years to accomplish. Another benefit is that it gives you ideas. When you have a bunch of completely unrelated words, you are working full-time just to create a story that makes sense, which frees you from having to be terribly creative and/or hilarious. You're bound to make some funny jokes or clever plot twists just getting your characters from A to B, so it's nice to not worry about what ingenious idea you have to put in next.

7. PAGINATE YOUR PAGES BEFOREHAND. I like to use this template for paginating 24-page minicomics. It means that other people can't really read your book while you're doing it because when they've had no sleep, there's no way they're figuring out a pagination guide. But it saves you a lot of cutting, pasting, white-taping, and whatnot when you get the thing printed. I always make a mini-comic of my 24-Hour comics, and not having to worry about how to arrange the pages makes me much more relaxed.

8. DO NOT GIVE UP. C'mon, would you rather be exhausted and miserable and finish a 24-page comic or exhausted and miserable and not?

9. BRING A LUNCH. There's always a snack table at our event, but at about lunchtime, people are always having to go to the bar next door and burn valuable time ordering a Reuben sandwich. Just make a sandwich and put it in your fridge the night before. And for God's sake, don't just pig out on the chips. You've got to stay alert and smart for 24 straight hours; Pringles won't do.

10. GET SOME SUN. Just go outside and let the sun wake you up a bit. You won't be that tired when it's still daylight, but it still gives you a little boost to have some real, full-spectrum light getting into your eyes.

11. SHAKE OUT YOUR HANDS A LOT. Give those guys a break. They're working hard. A five-minute break will make them a lot happier than they were.

12. BALANCE FUN AND WORK. If you're too serious, 24-Hour Comic Day can be a real grind. Chat up your fellow cartoonists. Make fun of the panel you just drew. Discuss the music choices that were made at your location. But also remember this: if you're not working, stay out of the way of people who are. 24-Hour Comic Day is a pretty quiet affair, with a few people taking a valuable minute or two to say something to someone, but it's mostly nose-to-the-grindstone, drawing-as-hard-as-you-can work. If you gave up two hours ago and went to the bar to get loaded, don't come back and laugh it up with your buddies, dammit; people are trying to draw here.

Have a good time-- and put your comic online, would ya? They're fun to read.

UPDATE: Number 13. Rereading Kevin's post from last year, I wanted to second his point about not pencilling the whole book, then inking it. One, it sets you up to do a lot of hand-crampingly hard work right at the end of the night. Two, it's hard (especially when sleep-deprived) to truly determine how much pencilling you need to do in order to ink it well. Three, as Kevin mentioned, it makes it far more complicated to gauge your time-usage.  It's far easier, and more useful, to finish a page an hour.  Now, while I keep to this schedule for the most part (probably 75%), my work process is a slow movement from small increments to large.  In the first hours, I do whole pages, written, pencilled, and inked, before I move on to the next page, even to write it.  That break in time (to letter and ink) gives me some time to reflect on what I want to happen next, and it also keeps me from rewriting.  When it's done, it's done.  I have to move on.  As I get more familiar with the story later on, and the plot points are rapidly converging on the end, I will frequently start pencilling three pages at a time before I go back to inking.  Since the story is kind of writing itself at this point, it's good to get a lot of writing done at once, and from a practical standpoint, I have few enough pages left that this deviation from the schedule is not as terrifying.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Tips and Tricks: Constructive Criticism, Part I

Being a creative person frequently puts you in the position of critiquing someone else's work, either because you're collaborating, or because you've been asked, or simply because you are part of a group of creators and you're invited to express your opinion here and there. It's easy to go one way or another when criticizing, either becoming a joyless, cynical pedant whose approval is an ever-moving (and possibly imaginary) target, or an airy-fairy omni-acceptor who gets teary-eyed whenever anyone suggests that the undiluted fruits of someone's creative mind are perhaps not up to snuff. Neither is much fun all the time, though the best aspects of each can sometimes come in handy. There are numerous situations you'll find yourself in, criticism-wise, and often you can save yourself a lot of headaches if you keep in mind who, what, when, and how much you are criticizing.

Part I: Collaborations

In collaborations, the two main times that critiques are solicited (or you think they might be) are in brainstorming sessions and while fine-tuning a concept in readiness to start the work (what I like to call "Nuts and Bolts"). These two sessions are distinct, and it's important to make sure that their purposes are not confused.

Brainstorming: Just Coming Up With Ideas
This is pretty widely known, but DON'T criticize an idea when people are brainstorming. C'mon, you're just throwing things at a wall. You're looking for half-ideas and quarter-ideas that you can sew together later into something halfway decent. So some of the ideas are going to be lame. You think people are coming up with dumb ideas? Then come up with something better. Because if you keep cutting everything down, the room is going to start getting eerily quiet.

For the most part, the reason that brainstorming sessions go awry is not that people don't know that you're not supposed to criticize at a brainstorming session, it's that they aren't aware that this is a brainstorming session. They think that the final answer has to be arrived at by the end of the meeting. This is not productive. If people think you're settling on an idea in this session, they start getting worried. When people get worried, they get critical. So it's good to make a general announcement at the beginning that you're all just brainstorming, and someone's writing down the ideas, and they'll all be digested later. Nothing is decided at the end of the meeting; there are just a bunch of half-ideas and quarter-ideas lying around for someone to figure in the Nuts and Bolts session.

Nuts and Bolts: Filtering Through the Ideas.
This is when you can start being critical. If you're getting down to brass tacks, and starting to figure out how something's going to be done, you've probably already narrowed the big ideas down to one or two. This is when ideas start getting implemented if they're approved, so you want to start getting choosy. While in the Brainstorming session, you have only a vague idea of where it's going, here you are thinking about the actual experience someone in your audience is going to have. Now, a key element to this part is that you decide who's doing what. That could mean dividing and subdividing the work into departments so that everyone knows exactly who does what, or it may be as simple as merely defining one person as the "funnel" through which everything goes. Usually this funnel is the person who cares about it the most, and it should definitely be the person who wants to take responsibility for it.

Once the Nuts and Bolts session starts, there should be a moratorium on new ideas that are not basically implementations of existing ideas. This keeps things from becoming disorganized, keeps people's egos from being kicked around, and it keeps the process narrowing down until it gets to the core idea.

This is all tricky stuff, but it's worth it when you create a brainstorming atmosphere in which people are shouting out funny ideas and even the most bizarre, out-there stuff will contribute a germ of an idea that leads somewhere. And when people feel like their ideas are being heard, they bring better and better stuff into the mix.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tips and Tricks: Coloring Comics to Look Old

First, some props where props are due to Les McLaine at Jonny Crossbones for his tutorial, How To Color Like A Little Old Lady, which we've adapted and added stuff to. Please visit his site, read his wonderful comic, and buy his stuff.

Coloring Comics To Look Old


1. Get Scan where you want it in Bitmap mode. No gray, just black and white.

2. Convert image to CMYK. Image>Mode>Grayscale, then Image>Mode>CMYK.

3. Select All, then Cut (Ctrl-X).

4. Paste (Ctrl-V) image into the Black channel.

5. Select the C, M, and Y channels.

6. Flat the image, using the swatch colors in dcswatch.tif. Use the regular lasso. Don't worry about being slightly sloppy.

7. Save the image as "[initials of project]_[page number]_flats_[resolution].psd". For instance, page 4 from the BTA Comic, working at a high resolution would be "BTA_04_flats_800.psd". Put this in a flats folder.

These should be the final colors to continue.


8. With only the C, M, and Y channels selected, go to Filter>Pixelate>Color Halftone...

9. Make the dots' max radius 6 pixels if working at print size, and 12 if working bigger.

10. Select just the Cyan channel. Nudge it out of alignment, just a little.

11. Do the same with the other two color channels (not black) all in different directions.


12. Get a scan of some blank newsprint that's old, yellowed, and textured. If its from an old comic or newspaper, that's ideal. Otherwise, get the texture right, from some old paper, and you can adjust the colors to make it look yellowed. Anyway, get the newsprint scan to the same resolution as the image, then paste it into a layer above the background layer, setting the mode to "Multiply".

You might want to save here, but don't overwrite the Flats file. Save as "[project initials]_[page number]_halftone_[resolution].psd" e.g. "BTA_04_halftone_800.psd".

This should look like an old comic, but a little too nice.


13. Click on "Create Quick Mask". This will create a new temporary channel in the channels palette.

14. Go to your newsprint image again and select all (Ctrl-A).

15. Drag or Paste the newsprint image into the Quickmask Channel. This will give your image a slight pink sheen.

16. Go to Image>Adjustments>Levels (Ctrl-L) and put all three pointers near the center of the curve. This will make the image very red, and textured.

17. Click out of QuickMask mode and there will be a million dancing ants on your image. Hit Ctrl-H to hide them, if you want, but don't forget they're selected.

Select only the Black Channel.

18. Hit Shift-Backspace. This will bring up a window, where you tell it what color to use to fill these spaces. Choose white. This will make the black ink look way too light.

19. Go to Edit>Fade Fill... right away, before doing anything else. Move the slider down to about 35, or until the ink on the page looks nice and faded and old, with some texture, but still reads as an ink line.


At this point, the Art should look faded, but the colors are still too bright, so we need to do the same thing to them that we did to the black line, so don't deselect all those dancing ants.

20. Go back into QuickMask mode. It'll look red again.

21. Select all (Ctrl-A), then Transform (Ctrl-T). This will give you a square with handles around the image. This will only affect the Quickmask.

22. Right-click in the square. Select Rotate 180 degrees. This will make the red texture pattern rotate.

23. Exit QuickMask Mode. You'll get the Dancing Ants again.

23. Select the C, M, and Y channels.

25. Hit Shift-Backspace again. Use White.

26. Go right to Edit>Fade Fill... and move the slider down to about 75, lighter than the black lineart, or whatever looks best.

27. You're done!


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tips and Tricks: How To Align Objects in Illustrator

Here's a neat trick that I just learned in Adobe Illustrator. When I'm putting stuff together, I make liberal use of the Align function. It allows you to make sure your objects are lined up with mathematical precision, saving you the hassle of eyeballing the whole thing. But the problem has always been (or so I thought) that the align function takes the average horizontal position of all of the objects and aligns them all to that. That's great if nothing is integrated as part of a larger plan, but if you have placed one object perfectly, aligning other objects with it throws it completely out of whack. If I wanted to put all of these objects dead center in the panel, I could do that, but it puts that panel itself out of line with the other panels.

But don't worry. It turns out you can designate one object in the bunch that you've selected to be the anchor and make all other objects align to it. After you've selected all of your objects, single-click on the anchor (in this case, the middle panel), which will appear to do nothing whatsoever. Then hit one of the align buttons. Voila! They are all aligned to that one object.

This might seem to you like a monumentally insignificant post, but once I realized this, it practically changed my life. Not having to realign all of those panels saves me a huge amount of time.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Tips and Tricks: Boredom and Laziness

Boredom and Laziness: Your Friends for an Improved Aesthetic.

They may seem like an unpleasant state of being and a negative character trait, respectively, but boredom and laziness and the forces behind them play a valuable role in an artist's growth. No, really!

Any time you ask people how to get better at any artistic discipline, they always hit you with the old "practice, practice, practice" saw horse. By the time someone has been told that ten times, they think, "yeah, yeah, I'll do that," and no longer hear that suggestion at all. They want to hear something interesting. I mean, practicing is BORING.

That's exactly why it's useful. Whenever you figure out how to do something logically, you are doing every single step and putting in every single line, and your drawing may look okay, but your overly-thought-out process is going to show in the drawing's stiffness, its tentative line, and its overall lack of confidence. Now, he next time you draw it, you might look ahead a couple steps and say, "Oh, those three lines could be smoothed out to be one long line" and then swoosh! you have one smoother, more dynamic, and more confident line in your drawing. What is that strange feeling that compels you to change your drawing process in order to make it more interesting? Aha, you guessed it: BOREDOM.

Boredom is a powerful force, and so when, instead of fighting against it, you leverage it and use its strength, you take some of the pressure off of your conscious mind. Forcing yourself into a situation in which you have two options-- be bored or create something interesting-- can result in some great ideas, drawings, stories, or what have you.

The other natural habit that practice makes use of is laziness. You may notice that when you see an cartoonist's style evolve over the course of many years, their work tends to take on a smoother, simpler quality. The early work tends to have a lot of wasted lines and extraneous detail that is dropped out once the artist gets a sense for exactly what is needed and what is not. Is he thinking consciously throughout his career, "should I keep this line? Should I simplify this style of rendering?" Almost certainly not. He's LAZY. He's drawing the same things over and over again, and he's getting sick of putting in every last line. He wants these drawings to look just as good, but to involve less work, so he organically developed a way to draw more simply. Our instinct to save ourselves some effort drives us to innovate, and those innovations allow us to spend less time and effort on run-of-the-mill illustrations, and focus our energy on creating something new.

Reinhard Engels, in his Everyday Systems website, posits that will is weak and habit is strong (he refers to it as the "800-pound mega-gorilla") and so the basis of all of his self-help programs he's created on that site is this: Leverage your willpower to make habit work for you. This works for the mega-gorillas of boredom and laziness, too. Put yourself in a situation where they are the forces that drive you, and you almost can't help but improve.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tips and Tricks: How To Come Up With Ideas

Everyone wants to know how you come up with ideas. It's certainly the least quantifiable aspect of creating stories. But while there are certain x factors that you could never really tell someone about, I feel like there are 10 basic things that if I try them all, I can get some decent ideas out of it.

How to come up with ideas.

1. Practice. I know, this is lame. But if you create things, draw characters, write stories, scribble down notes for comics or screenplays, you will get better at it. You will come up with ideas faster, you will notice what's good and bad about other people's ideas more clearly, and you will be able to refine a single notion, like a visual image or a line of dialogue, into a concept for a story without nearly as much heavy lifting.

2. List. Some time when you need to come up with an idea for something, just start listing every idea you can think of, even if it's not really an idea. Write lists of words, thoughts, lines of dialogue, lyrics from songs, objects in the room, random things that come to mind, and after about fifty of them, you might start to get some real gems. As you loosen up your mind, you start making connections between your fifth idea and your fiftieth idea, and all of a sudden, you're coming up with some cool stuff.

3. Write it down. Always have a notebook that you always put stuff in. If you're at a computer, send yourself an email. If necessary, write it on your hand. Don't wait. If you think that it's such a great idea that you'll surely remember it when you are over at your desk later, I must tell you that you are almost certainly mistaken. This goes double for dreams. You'll forget those in 30 seconds if you don't write them down before you get out of bed.

If you're nowhere near a computer, pen, piece of paper, digital recorder, or cave wall, and you're coming up with some real doozies, think of one word that represents the thought, assign it to a finger, then keep going. With luck, this real-world reminder (the finger) and its corresponding word will help you remember the idea when you get home so you can write it down. This sort of thing always happens to me when I go for a run, so it's good to have a way to remember up to 10 ideas.*

4. Do research. When I'm looking up information on, say, the middle ages, for, say, my comic The Replacement God, I also am finding about ten million ideas, not only for that story, but for completely unrelated stories and images that I might not use for ten years. It's nice also to feel like if you find something really interesting that doesn't quite fit into your current story, that you don't have to shoehorn it in; you can write it down, save it for later, and launch a whole new project out of it.

5. Listen to, and frequently mis-hear lyrics to songs. I feel like every time I listen to a song, particularly one where the lyrics are well-crafted, I'll hear a phrase or couple words that give me an idea for a story. Sometimes it's a story that would be related to the song, sometimes it's using the phrase entirely out of context. Sometimes it's not even what the singer says. Those are the best, by the way, because then it's an original idea, even though it feels like someone gave it to you!

6. See crummy genre movies. One of the great things about bad genre movies (sci-fi + fantasy ones in particular) is that they usually got greenlit based on some pretty decent idea. So even though they may be lousy in terms of an actual experience, they sometimes have an idea that, if you just took the basic concept, could be made into a cool story with a different setting and better dialogue. Don't steal ideas, of course, but sometimes you just happen upon a bare concept that gives you a million ideas, and then some joker just wastes it. Change the setting, change the characters, change the genre, and see if it doesn't look completely different while still being able to use the one good idea.

7. Remix concepts. One way to make great ideas that's pretty easy is combining two different concepts into one. Take an old story structure and put it in a futuristic setting. Take something small and make it big. Take something organic and make it synthetic. Those three templates cover nearly every science fiction story ever told. Combining two very different things is not only good kick-off point for ideas, it's also intrinsically fascinating to readers. What if a little lizard were a thousand feet tall? Boom, movie franchise.

8. Randomize. Draw a Pictionary card. I've mentioned this as a way to randomize ideas for a 24 hour comic, but this and other randomizers are great for juxtaposing two words that you never thought would go together. Another idea would be opening to a random page in a dictionary or novel. Do that a couple times and look at the words you have.

9. Do something mindless. I get most of my best ideas when I'm going for a run, going for a walk, shoveling snow, driving on the highway, or anything else where you kind of have to pay the barest bit of attention, but your mind can just wander. Just think about one thing, let it lead to another thing, and before you know it, you're thinking about something really weird.

10. Extrapolate. This may be the most important one of all. Most great ideas are actually just halfway decent ideas that someone extrapolated very, very well. For example, the idea around the Harry Potter novels: there is a secret population of wizards. Ho hum. However, once you start saying, "oh, then there are some wizards who are born to Muggles, some who are full bloods and hate the Muggles, and there's a secret wizard boarding school, actually several of them, and these are the classes they teach, and..." and so on. Getting good at this skill not only helps you create cool things once you have an idea to start from, it also helps you recognize a good idea when you see it. If hearing the idea makes your brain explode with ideas about "oh, then there must be this, and then there must be that, and these people could do this other thing...", then you know you've got a good one.

These are some of the ways that I've come up with ideas in the past. They're all basically the same concept, though: take the various random signals that come to you from the world and apply meaning to them with your mind. With practice, it becomes second nature, and you'll soon have more ideas than you have time in your life to execute them. Hooray for that.

*more than that and I have to take off my shoes, which is a terrible idea while running.


Friday, December 21, 2007

City Pages: Twin Cities Rock Atlas

Between now and Wednesday pick up a copy of City Pages and turn to page 50 to be magically transported to a land of rock and roll. This map was a huge undertaking -- one that I'm thrilled to have been a part of -- and for fun I thought I'd jot down some notes on its production.

So ... here is way more than anyone should ever want to know about the Twin Cities Rock Atlas:

Nick Vlcek of City Pages approached me for this project based on the style he'd seen in the Comix Issue in July. For the rock atlas, Peter S. Scholtes wrote captions for over forty venues around the Twin Cities, several of which had to be cut due to space constraints.

Drawing the map was easy compared to the front-end work, namely making sure that all of the venues on the list would fit on the map. I made an InDesign document with the dimensions (12 x 20.5") and pasted in the text from the Word document. A year ago I would have hand-lettered the whole thing, but fortunately we made some handwriting fonts recently (roman, bold, lowercase and title) with FontLab. Using the fonts allowed me to get the lettering part of the map nailed down on the front end, so there was no guesswork later. If I didn't have a font, I would have hand-lettered everything separately, scanned it in, and moved each caption around as a separate object in InDesign.

My main balancing act with the lettering was how to get it as small as possible while still making it legible. I learned from the Comix Issue that small lines tend to bleed on CP's newsprint. Nick and I wanted the captions to be small enough to be able to show as much art as possible, but not so small that everything's illegible, thus ruining the whole point of the map and disgruntling everyone who tries to use it for navigational purposes.* We eventually settled on something small but conservative. The main risk was with the addresses, which use the smallest font size -- the thinking being that the address is the least important part of the caption.

Initially I put huge balloons around each caption (see above), worried that black and white text, especially handwriting text, would get lost against the final artwork. The Comix Issue had used a lot of white space under the text, and that seemed to work well. The problem with the rock atlas was that with forty captions, all that white space on the edges of the captions added up. We eventually dropped the borders and brought the font size down, thereby clearing up space for more art.

This was complicated, trying to place these pretty disparate venues on one landscape template so that they made some sort of geographical sense, but ALSO find room for their captions. My first go at this had all Minneapolis venues on the left, and every thing else (title, St. Paul, and outlying cities) on the right. I would have liked for the title to be on the upper left but there were just too many Minneapolis venues to make that feasible. To make this initial set-up work I had to bunch up captions so that arrows were hiding under other captions to reach their destination. It was crazy busy. Thankfully Nick nixed this idea, and also wanted Paisley Park to be in the lower left so that it was more geographically accurate. Good call, Nick.

I made a layer in InDesign with lots of little boxes representing the venues (see above). Using blank boxes let me move them around without getting too precious about their placement or about how each venue interacted with one another -- I knew that level of magic would happen at the pencil stage. In retrospect I should have made the boxes more horizontal, or at least have known what all the buildings looked like before making the boxes. There's almost nothing vertical about Orfield, for example, but I didn't know it at the time.

Eventually Nick came back to me with a revised venue list which let me pull a few venues and their captions. I also stopped being precious about having all Minneapolis venues on the left and pushed everything from Cedar and east of Cedar to the right side. That worked out because I was finally able to put a caption next to each venue.

One of the first things I did, even before making the InDesign file, was to plug all of the addresses into a personalized Google map. Turns out CP did the same thing -- good thinking, guys! Right off the bat I was able pick out patterns in the map, such as clusters of buildings that should be close to each other. For example, from an artistic standpoint I don't like that the Capri is isolated in the upper left, but it makes a lot of sense geographically.

The Google map also came in handy when I went out to take photos. The biggest mistake I made during this project was assuming that I would be able to find most of the reference photos online. Nope. Most of what I found online were indoor shots of the clubs (for good reasons) or outdoor shots that zoomed in so close on one part of the building (a cool sign for instance) that I didn't have enough context for knowing how that sign fit in to the rest of the building.

Anyway, I paid my price for procrastinating. I went out on two photographing journeys, two traffic-free Saturday and Sunday mornings from 6-11 am. It was FREEZING and there was a lot of snow (there would have been no snow had I gone out a week before). But worse yet, the Church was gone! The initial copy for the Church caption said that the building was in danger of being razed. Well, the copy had to be changed because the whole thing was gone. Fortunately I found a photo online, but it was only of the top of the church, which is why the bottom and sides are hiding behind trees in my drawing.

Finally, with 240 photos in hand (and many more from Google Image Search), I was able to start getting my hands dirty.

I wanted to draw at 150%, which meant a canvas size of 18 x 30.75". I bought a pad of smooth Bristol, 19 x 24", and divided my drawing in half. Nick asked me to leave a dead zone of about an inch in the middle of the map to allow for the magazine's gutter, which meant that no venues or captions were affected when I split up the art.

On the final art pages, I ruled pencil borders at 18 x 15.375".

Putting the final art pages aside, I ruled out two more sheets of bristol. This was for the rough draft of the map.

Next, I made a jpeg of the InDesign map, bumped that up 150% to final size, split that in half and printed it out. I was using a letter-size printer, so I had to print out the map in eight sections (above, left). I drew black boxes at the corners of each section so that lining them up on the page would be a breeze.

On the rough draft bristol pages, I taped down the oversize jpeg of the rough draft map (above, right).

DIY light-table

One side at a time, I taped the rough draft of the map onto my ultra high tech light table, and then taped the final art bristol on top. I pencilled in the outlines of the boxes where the buildings should go, as well as the outlines of where the text would sit. Once all that was done, I had my final art pages ready, complete with the live areas for each venue. Now the fun begins.

Rough draft of the map:

TOOLS: Bic #2 mechanical pencil with multi-colored foam grip

Creatively, this is the hardest step. I set up my workspace so that I could easily flip through the photos on my laptop. I started at the bottom of each page and worked up, because I knew that often buildings and elements would hide behind the buildings below it. Essentially, the bottom venues became the foreground, and the higher up on the page a venue was, the more it sat in the background.

Workplace set-up

Without having a ton of room for each venue, I had to choose which details would make each drawing recognizable. So in most of the drawings -- which are essentially caricatures of the buildings -- certain elements are blown way out of proportion and other elements are left off completely. Some buildings had only one interesting face while others -- like Blue Nile and Intermedia Arts -- had great murals that wrapped around the whole building. I tried to squeeze in as much of the good stuff as possible.

All told, pencils took about 3 days to do. Fortunately Nick got back to me with only a few minor changes.

TOOLS: Rapidograph, #2 (red) and #3 (green)

Inking can be tedious because most of the creative hard work is done, although seeing your pencils become final is pretty satisfying. One trick I've started using since Shanks is to have a wool cap (preferably dark blue) under my left elbow while I'm drawing. I got this one at the Rainbow in the Quarry for about two bucks.

All the linework was done using a #2 (red) rapidograph. I was using a brand new one because I broke my last one on Bob Lipski's project. Right away I could feel that I was using a new pen with fresh ink. Flow wasn't a problem at all. To help save the wire I used a green rapidograph to fill in any black areas and to do the heavy crosshatching on the river and streets.

As much as I wanted to relax (read: collapse) after finishing the inking, I still had to scan and color the map, and I had only two days left until the deadline.

I scanned the art in piece by piece using an oversize scanner (ScanMaker 9800XL) and pieced together the bits in photoshop. For archival purposes, I saved a 1200 dpi bitmap version at original art size (150% of print size). Next, I dropped down the whole image to a print size 300 dpi CMYK file and started playing around with colors. I spent six hours specially coloring each venue with their actual palette before finally realizing that a blue/red scheme would look a lot better. Nick and I went back and forth about the red because while I wanted a deep red behind the black, like on Julie Doucet's "My New York Diary" cover, Nick knew that what I had would print really muddy. So we ended up lightening up the blues and changing the red to this lighter, salmony color. I'm not thrilled with the digital red, but the printed version looks great.

Knowing that nearly half of the drawing would be covered by text, I took some liberties with the elements that appeared underneath the text. Some are buildings that I have a personal attachment to (Diamond's, Handicraft Guild) while the rest are just recognizable or make sense geographically.

Here are some parts of the drawing that you won't see in the City Pages version**:

My dad on the stone arch bridge The evergreen building on Snelling
Craig Finn sticker Craig Finn's guitar
The Metrodome, may she rest in peace My cousin's boyfriend's band
Local pub Quillan Roe's and Adam Wirtzfeld's band
The ultra-creepy "You Otter Stop Inn" mural The Handicraft Guild, 10th & Nicollet

For the FULL UNCENSORED version of the map, come see the original art at the Lutefisk C show at Altered Esthetics this May. Stay tuned this spring for more details on the show and the submission process...

* Not recommended
** Here's what I WISH I'd hidden in the picture.

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