How I Make 2071

  • On May 17, 2010 ·
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Today I’d like to walk you through the process I use to create my comic 2071. Once I’ve written the script and done a thumbnail of the page to lay out the panels I move onto penciling.

Penciling

I settled on this size so I can use half a sheet of 11×14″ bristol board for the finished inks and regular printer paper for the pencils. Then I can redraw a page as many times as I need to to achieve the proper composition. I sketch with red and blue col-erase animation pencils and like to go over things with mechanical pencil if I have time so they’re easier to see on the lightbox. Also this constant going over evolves the details as I get more confident with the finished drawing. My pencils these days are pretty tight as I want to develop the page as much as possible. Lots of artists keep their sketches loose and save details for inking to keep them spontaneous. I feel more free to change things while penciling as ink feels more permanent, even though I could always touch the inks up digitally later. (I usually have to, anyway)

Penciled Page

The next step is to tape the pencils and some bristol board to my lightbox and go over it all with drawing pens.

Inking

Pens give a colder feel than brushes because their lines are more solid and mechanical. Brushes create more organic lines with varying width. Since the story is set in the future I wanted a fairly streamlined and technical feel. Plus I’m kind of heavy handed and split the tips of brushes pretty easily.

Raw Scan of Inks

At this point I was still trying to white out mistakes before scanning. I usually have to go back in and fix them even after the automated cleanup process so I might as well save corrections for that stage.

Cleanup

Scan After Automated Cleaning Process

I made an action that follows the steps laid out in How to Make Webcomics. I run it to convert everything to straight black or white in bitmap mode and save in .tiff format. Then I go back in and clean lines up.

Page of Inks After Fixing

The changes at this stage are mostly for the print version. When it’s shrunk down and in this jaggy format you don’t see a lot of the things you would once it’s printed. (Save the occasional redrawing of a line or something) I save this and then convert it to grayscale and copy the panels into a template with proper page margins.

Coloring

Initial Flood Fill of Colors

I duplicate the panels onto a multiply layer and remove all the white so only the inks show. Some folks just leave it a normal layer, which is fine. I’ve just had issues with non-black spots getting onto my ink layers in the past and setting it to multiply keeps that from becoming an issue. Flood fill with the paint bucket and pencil in any hard to reach spots on the lower layer.

Layer with Shadows

I then duplicate the colors layer, set it to multiply, create a layer mask and invert it, painting out areas for shadows. Lower this to about 50%.

Layer with Highlights

I duplicate the colors again, set it to screen, create a layer mask and invert it, and start drawing highlights. I keep this layer at 100%.

Layer with Benday Dots

The colorist for Evil, Inc. had an article on Webcomics.com (Before it became subscription based) about making a strip look like a newspaper comic. I came up with a variation on that I liked.

Layer with Aged Paper Texture

Next I add a layer with the aged paper texture. I lower the opacity of the colors layer so some of the splotches bleed through them.

Layer with Lighting Effects

Before I render the intense light of futuristic jet engines I focus on the effects of the falloff color on the rest of the objects in the panel.

Layer with More Lighting Effects

Some things would probably be easier to render if I didn’t draw them in the inking stage (Like shapes for flames, highlights) but I like having them there if I decide to color their lines or just paint over them entirely.

Layer with Even More Lighting Effects

Finally I paint in the white-hot areas of the flames. I like layering the effects to give them a more developed look rather than just dropping a simple effect in. I’ll play around with layer modes, opacity, and layer effects until I find something I like. It’s important to me that the overall page looks balanced. The drawings need to be developed and detailed enough while the rendering needs to be subtle enough to work. It’s very easy to make effects look too “Photoshop-y” and stand out glaringly on a page.

Layer with Panel Border Enhancement

I make a one-pixel stroke around the panels and add a stroke effect to the layer. It frames them better and differentiates the panels from each other. Some people use rules about how wide your borders should be based on your thickest line in a panel. I find a setting that works and leave it.

Layer with Text

After laboring over the art I hate to cover it up with text so I tend to wittle the script down to absolute necessities. Dialogue placement impacts how you read it and I like to think the shape of a sound effect changes how you hear it in your head. It’s also a visual element so I want to compliment the drawings underneath. The fonts add to the aesthetic I’m going for by being simple yet elegant.

Layer with Word Balloons

Keeping with the slightly mechanical and less organic idea I made the word balloons rounded squares rather than oval shapes. (Automated voices use sharp square balloons while voices being broadcast use another closed balloon shape) This harkens back to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and other early 20th century strips as well as conserves space. Copper influenced me to make the panels rounded so making the word balloons match makes sense.

Page with Saturation Layer

This is the last step before flattening, resizing, and adding the URL for the web. I fill a layer with black, set it to saturation, and lower the opacity. This makes the colors a little less pronounced and adds to the aged feel. Movies today tend to desaturate their color palette, too. Compare the original Superman colors to the ones in Superman Returns. I was originally planning on rendering in color and then dropping it down to grey for print but the color version is just too superior.

Laying out a story

  • On April 22, 2010 ·
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2071 started out here on the home page as a text story. I decided at some point to work on it as a comic project. The story evolved considerably over a short time. The characters came pretty quickly, then the story, then a whole lot more as their world opened up. I started thinking of ways their society differed from ours – both in their future and in their history. I also started thinking about bits and pieces of things I’d always been fascinated with. I love early 20th century newspaper comics, scifi/adventure serials, anything archival. Something about peering into a piece of film from another age is like having a time machine. And when you watch speculative fiction where people from the past try to guess at the future, it adds a weird layer to that. Thumbnailing I decided to start with a prologue to set up the story and to introduce the main characters, both to the readers and to myself. In the past I rarely scripted any of my comics ahead of time. I might’ve outlined a few story arcs but dialogue and actual panels got worked out as they came to my drawing table. It just felt redundant to me since I was the one working on it on every stage. Since the Prologue had to function over-all I thumbnailed it on 24 Hour Comics Day.

Thumbnails for the Prologue to 2071

I’d learned before when animating a scene to lay it out and break things down into manageable tasks. Here I gave myself page layouts to work with every day so I didn’t go crazy having to come up with them. Instead I could focus on filling up the page with interesting art. I still changed a few designs on a couple of pages where some shots didn’t work, but it was a load off my mind to have it done beforehand. I found if I had to straighten something out in the story while I was working on the page art I would have trouble switching gears mentally. One problem I ran into with these thumbnails is they’re way too small. I did that intentionally to keep myself from detailing them and wasting time. (You can see the first page where I still tried to go over it with a mechanical pencil before I convinced myself it wasn’t worth it) However being able to read them later was a real issue. I’m sure in my work stride that day they made perfect sense. But the further away from that day I got the harder it became to make sense of my lines. Sub-chapter 1.1 is going to rely on a different thumbnailing system, I’m just not sure how it’s going to work yet.

Thumbnailing Ideas

When I set about telling a larger story than what I was used to doing, I looked to the flickr gallery of Bryan Lee O’Malley who does Scott Pilgrim. Over the years he’s shared scripts, thumbnails, pencils, inks, and various scraps from working on his books. Originally I was trying something like a looser version of thumbnailing as he did here. I agree a multi-value thumbnail like this would be a bit too involved for something nobody would ever see aside from a “behind the scenes” kind of thing. Thumbnails need to be clear enough to get the point across but they also have to be simple enough to not eat time away that would better be spent working on the actual pages. Something closer to this technique might work if I can keep myself from detailing too much. Maybe if I limit myself to working in pen or marker, which would keep me from doing too many passes. (I hear Cathy Guisewite only draws in pen)

Scripting

As I fleshed out the differences between the world of 2071 and our own I would dump them into a text file. There’s an assortment of different text editors that offer branched and threaded file structures. For bulk brain dumping I liked Journler on my Mac (Which has since ceased development) while I’m also a fan of Keynote on the PC. (Which has also ceased development by the original creator. It’s since been picked up under the name Keynote NF) Eventually I wanted a system that made smaller chunks easier to manage. Lately I’ve been using JustNotes for it’s simple menu bar interface. I know folks like Merlin Mann are big fans of Notational Velocity, which is equally pretty awesome. I just like being able to click an icon, drop in an idea, and click out. I took classes on mass media in college so I’ve had some experience with scripts. My own are pretty slim as I don’t see much need for exhaustive descriptions or formatting for syntax sake. Here’s an example of a script for Sub-chapter 1.0

Page 3 Panel 1 Rocket rollerskating waitress approaches the Blitz

WAITRESS: What can I get ya, hon?

MAX: I’ll have one jumbo cajun crawfish burger, seasoned steak fries, and the large chocolate supernova milkshake.

Panel 2

WAITRESS: Coming right up. And for you, sugar?

VIRGIL: I’ll have the Nigirizushi #3 and a small iced tea, please.

WAITRESS: Sure thing, darlin’.

Panel 3 Max watches the waitress rocket away as Virgil continues typing

Panel 4

MAX: Our last meal on the planet and you order Nigirizushi #3!

VIRGIL: I like Nigirizushi #3.

MAX: That’s beside the point!

Panel 5

MAX: We should be going all out! You should’ve ordered a steak or something BIG! There’s no Buckaroo Bayou Ted’s out in space, you know!

VIRGIL: Not true. They just opened one up on Lunar Colony.

Panel 6

WAITRESS: He’s right – been open ’bout 2 weeks now.

MAX: No foolin’? Lunar Colony, eh? *sips his drink*

The final version came out a bit different due to space restrictions but is pretty faithful to the script. I also like to write at least a week’s worth at a time. I like to do the same with pencils and inks as well, though coloring and rendering needs to be done on a page by page basis because steps get missed if I try to work on more than one at a time. Plus it’s a mental block to have a bunch of half-finished pages waiting to be colored/shaded/lettered. Penciling and inking a batch at a time is it’s own process. Working out all the layers per page is another.

Drawing Backgrounds

  • On April 16, 2010 ·
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The bane of many a cartoonist’s existence is drawing backgrounds. Some don’t draw them at all. They can add hours to working on a page and usually take about 2 seconds for the reader to glance at before moving on. So why include them? Because when they’re done right it’s the difference between having a comic in a featureless void and building it a world. It’s the stuff that makes a reader’s eye go back over the panels once they’ve already read it just to admire the details. So how do you handle backgrounds? Here’s some of my thoughts on the process.

Research

This is an important step many people gloss over. Consider what sort of world your characters live in. Does your comic take place indoors or out? If they live in a specific city during a specific point in time then you can narrow down your search. Of course then you invite people who know that area to pick apart any inaccuracies they find. Even if you decide to make your world it’s own unique place, I still recommend doing research to find places that look similar to your location. It’ll give you ideas for the final layout of your setting and it’s good to have something to go back to.

Google Image Search

This is my weapon of choice when it comes to finding reference. It’s not perfect since it feeds on what’s out there based on the parameters of your search, but it’s a very useful tool. I like to search for certain styles of buildings, certain locations, then use a number of images to put together a scene. Like the sky scrapers of one city and the concert halls of another? You can combine them to form the city in your mind.

Freehand sketch of some buildings

You might recognize this scene as I cropped it and used it in the first page of the prologue to 2071. I found some buildings I liked and started drawing them. Notice the entire image didn’t make it into the final panel. I narrowed down the things that worked about the sketch and focused on them. Architecture isn’t my strongest skill or my deepest love, but I tried to keep my attention on things I liked. The more you can connect the ideas in your head with objects in the real world, the more your readers will feel like they’re part of the story.

Floor Plans

A real challenge of drawing the same space over and over again is consistency. It’s easy to throw a room together once for the purpose of a panel. It’s entirely something else to draw it again from multiple angles. Doing simple floor plans can help when staging a scene and figuring shots out. How much of the furniture is hidden behind other furniture? How does the lighting change depending on what’s in the room?

Quick floor plan of Max & Virgil’s workshop and Commander Kane’s study

Floor plans are simple diagrams which lay out where everything is in the room. Windows, doors, furniture, what have you. I sketched these a few pages into the prologue when I realized I had no real idea where everything was. When I have the time I’d like to try doing them in Google Sketchup to make visualizing different angles easier.

Background Studies

Sketching is something I encourage everybody to do as often as possible. I know when you’re on a production schedule you lose the time to let your mind and pencil wander. I like to look through reference images and doodle designs for props and settings.

Studies for the interior of the Poplicola

It’s usually a good idea to drop some people in your studies to keep scale in mind. The drawing on the left was influenced by some photos of art deco factories with wide open ceilings and arched railings along the walkways. The other drawing, a closeup of one of the passage ways, is a nod to classic scifi corridors.

Simple Techniques

I spent some time working in black and white trying to shore up my drawing skills and my use of light and shadow. Even if your backgrounds don’t contain much detail you can still use them to move the comic along. One technique I stumbled upon was spotlighting. I’d fill the entire background of a panel with black and then white out a circle behind whoever was speaking. Sometimes I’d get more elaborate and cut out lines to hint at walls or use two spotlights if both characters were talking in one panel. I use it a bit more subtly now in my shading. It’s a narrational device for focusing attention on the important object in the frame and occasionally conflicts with the light source in the image so it can cause problems if you’re trying to work in a more realistic style. If you’re going for simplicity, however, it’s a useful technique.

Example of spotlighting in conjunction with a simple background

In this example I was really attempting to limit my palette to something manageable. There’s only a handful of grays actually used here and their opacity is lowered so the characters stand out. I was going for an aesthetic similar to Seth’s work on the Complete Peanuts. There was a lot of copy and paste going on here and the layering sort of got out of control eventually with different objects taking up different layers of different blending modes. Of course I was also doing like 3-5 comics in one file at a time and that’s a lot to keep track of even for a style this simple.

10+ Tips to speed up/improve your digital art production

  • On April 14, 2010 ·
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1. Start with print resolution files first

Yes I know web res is smaller and easier to work with. But if you want to use something again for print you’ll thank yourself later if you have a print-ready version. Having to recreate art you’ve done before eats time and sometimes you can’t remember what you did to make the magic happen that first time.

2. Work larger than the final piece

This is an old artists’ trick for tightening up your work. When art is shrunk down for reproduction it looks slicker. Also drawing things at actual size is a pain because smaller details can require a smaller brush that’s difficult to work with. If you’re working traditionally before scanning in there’s only so small you can draw.

3. Don’t over-saturate your color choices

The first time you select colors you may be a bit unsure of the palette. Don’t use the most saturated colors because those won’t translate well into print later if you have to convert to CMYK from RGB and they can look really amateurish. One way to avoid this in Photoshop is to make a saturation layer, fill it with black, and adjust the transparency.

4. Use layers

Photoshop and most image manipulation programs today offer layers. This lets you focus on detailing one element without changing another. So you can color a file on a lower layer without running over the inks on an upper layer.

4.1 Use different layer types

When you render something play around with the type of layer and it’s opacity to give a more subtle effect.

4.2. Use layer styles

Creating effects like a uniform glow or stroke around an object can be tedious. Use layer styles to do this for you. They can recreate the same effect again and again and be easily changed/archived for later use.

4.3 Use layer groups

If you’re using a lot of layers after awhile even labeling them doesn’t help much in keeping organized. Use layer groups, folders of common layers, to organize your art structure

5. Flatten before you resize

If you’re using layer styles or text it’s really a good idea to flatten files before resizing them. That way dynamic effects won’t change with the different versions you save. It’ll also take less time than resizing multiple layers at once.

6. Use actions for repetitive tasks

Actions are little recorded tasks you play back on a file. They can be as simple as flattening an image or adding a watermark to automating a majority of your workflow with batch files. Just be careful because actions don’t think. It’s always a good idea to save your starting point in one place and the result of an action in another.

7. Make and use template files

If you know you’re going to need a lot of something, make a template. This can hold preset layer styles, fonts, guides for ruling things out, and anything else to make your life easier.

8. Use keyboard shortcuts

In Photoshop you switch between tools with certain keys. The ones I use most often are “B” for the brush/pencil, “E” for the eraser, ( with “[” and “]” resizing either one up or down) “G” for the paint bucket/gradient fill, “I” for the eyedropper, and “W” for the magic wand. When using the lasso or marquee tool you can hold down Shift to add to a selection or Alt/Option to remove from it. There’s plenty of other shortcuts that can easily be found online.

9. Use photos for reference and creating palettes

If there’s an image with a specific color scheme you like, use the eyedropper to pull colors from it. One trick in Photoshop is to run the Stained Glass filter to make blocks of the most prominent colors. I’ll bookmark images I find online all the time. I keep them organized in folders and use XMarks to synch them across my browsers and over the web.

10. Use the proper filetype for the kind of art you’re doing

Making something with a lot of blurs in it? That’s a .jpeg. Using limited colors in flat fills on black line art? That’s a .png or .gif. (.png gives you more colors – both will give you a transparency layer using an alpha channel – .gif is popular for animations though .png has some abilities there as well) Saving print-quality black and white line work? Then .tiff is your friend. It’ll even handle layers.

Team Coco

  • On January 25, 2010 ·
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“Nobody in life gets exactly what they wanted – but if you work hard and stay positive, amazing things will happen.”

Those are some of Conan O’Brien’s parting words on his final episode as host of The Tonight Show. As I watched it on Hulu the other day, I was reminded what a class act he is. He refused to compromise the integrity of a show he loved doing even at the cost of leaving it. It’s a shame NBC didn’t give his show the chance it deserved. He grew his fan base over the years on Late Night and put in a lot of work to earn Leno’s seat. Jay Leno’s a decent guy, too, but I’ve always found Conan’s show funnier. Maybe it’s because he was the underdog working hard to make you laugh and having fun. (A reason why I enjoy catching the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.) I know I and the rest of Conan’s fans look forward to following him onto whatever project he pursues next.

Something I like to take from all of this is try to be happy with your lot in life. Don’t settle, keep working hard to reach your dreams, but don’t forget what you do have and appreciate it. Some people let what they could have been in life overshadow what they are and it bums them down. Your dreams should be a goal you strive to obtain, not some specter of failure to haunt you. Rather than being bitter about his situation O’Brien chose to be happy that he got to host a show he dreamed about hosting his way and had no regrets for it. Now that’s the way to live.

I put this blog on the main page to share and learn from my experiences. Some of it’s technical concerning software, tools, or skills, and some of it’s philosophical and life lesson-y. Lately I’ve had a lot on my mind. Drawing/inking is usually a quiet zen-like experience where it’s just you reacting to the work and you can dwell on things. So I’ve jumped into other projects that have been more about problem solving and keeping my mind occupied. I’ll share some of these in future posts but right now I’m trying to focus on cartooning again. I’m almost done inking the section I’m working on. Once it’s scanned I’ll be streaming the digital side of the work and I hope some of you can join me. I really recommend you follow me on twitter so you’ll get the updates from the site, any links or other stuff I put in the feed, and if you’re on twitter you can comment on the blogs I post here.

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