Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Who is Rocket Johnson?: Trick or Treat (part two)

And here's the conclusion to my story from our group comic book "Who is Rocket Johnson?".

From this part you can see where people might have felt that there was more dialogue than they wanted to tackle but I'll explain why I felt it was necessary to do it that way below. Anyway, read the comic first and then, if you want, check out some of the analysis below.

I always like to hear people talk about their process so I will talk a bit about mine. Hopefully it won't come off as self-serving navel-gazing, but if so, feel free to stop reading at any point...

If you never saw the published version and this is the first time you've seen it, you're probably experiencing it in a way that's closer to how I meant for it to be seen.

One of the things that I learned while doing it on the computer is that, obviously, the computer screen is backlit so as you're drawing it you're seeing it in a more brightly lit fashion than it's going to appear when it's printed on paper. While I was coloring my story I kept wondering if it was going to be too dark once it was printed. It turned out a bit too dark on the printed version and some of the background detail dropped out. It didn't hurt the story at all but it did make me wish I hadn't put so much detail into it. The other problem that I failed to grasp up front is, realistically, how small it was going to be printed. The small size it was finally printed (9 by 6 inches) made much of the detail in each drawing irrelevant.

Overall I do wish that I'd drawn the backgrounds simpler and spent a lot less time fussing over them. Maybe next time.

Another consideration that struck me right away was: how big to make the text? As I mentioned before, when laying out a comic book for the first time, how do you know how big to make the word balloons? I had a script that I'd written but I wasn't sure how to figure out exactly how much space the text would take up. So I typed some of the dialogue up and printed it out on my comic layouts, and I was surprised to discover how small you could go with the font and have it still be readable. In fact when the text font was too big it overwhelmed the drawings and made the story look more like a children's book or something.

When I said in the last post that people thought I had maybe used too much dialogue, I suppose it was this ending part they were talking about.

It was sort of necessitated by the structure of the thing, though: my idea was to use curiosity to keep the reader interested enough to read the whole thing. So I created several questions up front: why doesn't this guy decorate his house for Halloween?, why is this guy called "Rocket Johnson?", and why does he have a prosthetic arm that's too small for him?

So at some point you have to answer all of those questions and satisfy the reader's curiosity. I wish I could have had a way for the audience to find out all of these things without Rocket Johnson just telling us all this exposition, but with only eight pages to work with I couldn't do anything too fancy (like having the girl figure all of it out by herself) and I had to do it this way. The saving grace, I hoped, was that instead of ending the story right after Rocket barfed out all this information, I had the extra part where the bully kids get a bit of a comeuppance. Hopefully, the audience was surprised by that part and satisfied enough by it to make up for having to read all that exposition right before.

With all that exposition at the end I was running the risk of being heavy-handed, like I was forcing this heavy "theme" that I wanted them to get about not letting bullies ruin your life. Honestly that was not my intention at all. That's why it was important to me that she cuts him off by shutting the door and she doesn't react to or even acknowledge his story. I really wanted it to feel like his whole speech had no effect on her, at least not in the moment. If his story had actually impacted her it would have felt totally false. We all know what it's like to be picked on and no speech ever really makes us feel better (like it always seems to in bad movies). Also using the device of him saying "I missed out on a lot of Sugar Mamas" was an attempt to ground his whole speech, to make it specific and hopefully a bit funny. If he says "I missed out on my life", that's meaningless and feels like it's trying too hard, but hopefully saying you missed out on a lot of free Halloween candy feels more real and closer to something a real person might actually say.

In my mind the speech is more of a catharsis for him than anything, a chance to express himself to someone when he probably hasn't connected with anyone in a very long time.

Like I said it was never meant to be about the heavy-handed message of "don't let bullies get you down", because that's just a boring and obvious statement and therefore uninteresting. We all know that already and we don't need to hear that again. My biggest goal with the thing was to be entertaining and try to create distinct personalities within the limited format. If there was any underlying message it was more about the experience of becoming a father. Before I had kids I had a very small relatively comfortable world and didn't need to go outside of that comfortable zone too much (just like Rocket hiding out in his house). Once I had kids I was constantly forced to have experiences that were way, way outside my comfort zone but that made me a better person overall. Obviously not everyone needs to have kids to develop as a human being but I sure did.

Anyway I was lucky enough to have the idea for this story just sort of occur to me out of the blue, fully formed. It needed some trimming down - and lost some of it's meaning and impact by being shortened, I think - but I didn't have to wrestle with the idea much. The drawing was pretty easy too. Not all experiences are like that but this one was relatively pain-free. If you ever get to do your own thing my best advice would be to at least pick characters and subject matter that you will enjoy drawing!

Obviously I knew that comic books are usually about superheroes and I knew a lot of my compatriots in the book would choose to do great versions of superhero stories. So I made a conscious decision to avoid that, and also to pick a story that was a little quirkier in order to not duplicate what one of my co-workers might be doing for the book. I wanted a story where the staging would be very simple and not very dramatic to be the opposite of what you usually see in a comic book. But in a way I wanted to give a nod to the whole superhero idea so I made Rocket a bit of a superhero in his own right...after all, what's more difficult than leaving the house after years of staying inside and ultimately standing up for yourself and your friends? So I used the last panel to make his sheet look a bit like a cape in order to cast him in a subtle way as a bit of a superhero.

Anyway I really hope everyone enjoyed the story and I sincerely hope that reading about the process was interesting. I have roughs and alternate panels for some of these pages and maybe I will show those and talk more about the process next time.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Who is Rocket Johnson?: Trick or Treat (part one)

So for all those of you who were unable to get a copy of our comic book "Who is Rocket Johnson?", I thought I'd post my story for you to see. It's Halloween themed so now seems like a good time.

The only requirement for the book was that each of us answer the question "Who is Rocket Johnson?".

Maybe after this I will go through it and talk about the process of creating every page. I certainly made a ton of mistakes and there are a lot of things in the final product that drive me crazy, but the whole process was a great learning experience so it seems worth writing about.

Here is part one; part two to follow.

One of the things that surprised me was that a few people told me they never read my story because there was just too much dialogue for them to read. I actually tried to be very disciplined about paring my dialogue down to the bare minimum, especially because I didn't know how to plan the placement of my word balloons and how to estimate how big I needed to draw them to fit all of the words - that's definitely something you don't think about until you try drawing your first comic book!

I didn't realize people had such an abhorrence to reading words in a comic book. I know that pantomime is the heart of animation and we all know that you should never use dialogue when an action or visual will tell the story by itself, but at the same time dialogue is another tool in your toolbox and should be used when it adds to the story. I love the characters Dumbo and Dopey as much as everyone else does and I would never say that they ought to talk. At the same time I would say that, without dialogue, I don't think Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck would be the great personalities they are. There are so many great animation characters that wouldn't be as great without hearing their voices: think of Woody or Buzz without their voices, or Shere Kahn, Bagherra, Tramp, Trusty, Jock, Captain Hook, Jiminy Cricket or any other number of great characters for that matter.

When creating dialogue for a movie or a TV show, a good rule of thumb, as I mentioned, is of course to never use words when an action or a visual can put the idea over better. Another good rule of thumb is to make sure that every line you write either carries the story forward or reveals the personality of a character, or in the best cases, does both at the same time. If a line of dialogue doesn't do either of those things it's probably either exposition or a line you're keeping just because you think it's either clever or funny. Those are both improper uses of dialogue and you ought to find a better way to accomplish what you're trying to do.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Daan Jippes and Carl Barks

I've been a fan of Daan Jippes as long as I can remember. I was very excited when I found out that Gemstone as publishing a new treasury that included many of the Donald Duck stories Daan has illustrated.

However one of the most interesting things about the treasury was this page below.

It explains that Carl Barks drew 24 rough stories that he was unable to clean up and finish. So other artists were hired in the 1970s to do final artwork for the stories so that they could be published.

Now the first thing to note is that I feel really badly for the artists who were hired to redraw these and who are referred to as having done a rather poor job with the original Barks scripts, especially Kay Wright who is mentioned here by name. I'm sure they did their best to take on what would be a pretty daunting task. But it's true what the author here implies...the page represented here from Wright's version seems pretty bland.

Anyway the reason this page is so fascinating is that we can compare Bark's original rough with two different versions of the final page and see how it was interpreted by different artists: Daan Jippes and Kay Wright. That's such a rare treat - if anyone knows where there might be more of these Barks roughs online let me know.

Overall, Daan has worked a lot harder to get depth into his panels than Wright did. Just look at the first panel where Wright's wall is parrallel to the picture plane while Daan's version of the wall recedes in perspective to give more interest but it also gives the panel a better composition. The wall leads your eye back into the center of the composition and over to the left while the mountain on the left of the panel helps keep your eye from drifting off the left side of the page. Notice how Wright's version of the tree in that first panel is placed almost in the middle of the page, which always makes for a static composition. Also Wright's version is a very generic tree - with a very simply drawn version of leaves that is visually uninteresting. Also the way the word balloons separate the trunk from the leaves makes the trunk and the leaves seem separate from each other. That tree doesn't add anything to the composition. In Daan's panel, on the other hand, there is great care taken to compose the dialogue panels so that the transition from trunk to leaves is clearly seen. The tree is placed off to the side instead of right in the center of the panel. Also Jippes uses the leaf shapes to keep your eye pointed down towards the characters, the most important part of the panel.

Also in the first panel notice the placement of the characters. Jippes stayed pretty close to what Barks drew and he arranged the composition and perspective so that what Barks had made sense. Daan drew background elements like the hill in the foreground to accommodate the figures the way Barks had drawn them. Wright flattened everything out, making the ground plane flat and the fence flat as well, and then arranged figures on top of that so that the composition would feel "filled out", but the figures don't feel like they're really sitting in that space. The figure on the left is standing right on the bottom line of the panel (always an awkward choice) and the top of the head on the right looks funny because the ground plane is so flat. That character's head - if he were standing - should be blocking our view, otherwise the ground is staring to slope suddenly under that one guy. It would have worked better if Kay had drawn that head bigger but because it's the same size as the one just to the left of it (the pig head) it looks like the figure is standing on the same plane as the pig in space and that the figure is either really really short or standing in a hole.

In the second panel Jippes's addition of the top of the wall and seeing enough of the duck's bottom to see how it's sitting on the wall creates a more interesting composition and helps keep your eye from drifting off the right side of the panel, as well as adding depth to the panel as it recedes in space.

The other biggest overall difference between Jippes's and Wright's versions is that Wright's figures tend to be much more symmetrical in their poses and their expressions; Wright's are the same on both sides of their faces while Daan's are much more appealing and interesting because they are asymmetrical. Daan's figures are less straight up-and-down and seem more active and interesting because they tend to be more diagonal. Also Daan's have much more rhythm within their bodies. Daan's characters have more of a curve rhythm to their bodies while Wright's are more chubby and squat with a straight up-and-down feel.

Again in panel three we see that Wright has chosen to make the background flat, level and uninteresting. To create more depth Jippes has broken up the background into different planes, adding hills and mountains to breakup the spaces and add variety. Also notice the way he drew three different types of fences running along on the right back into the picture plane. The fences add a lot of depth, but beyond that, it's an interesting choice to make the fences three different sizes. If you think about it, what if the fence was all the small height of the stone wall in the foreground? It would quickly fade back into a very small shape right about the time it passes behind the bird's head. So transitioning to the tall green fence makes it into a larger shape that can be seen in the distance better. And if he had started by drawing the tall green fence beginning all the way at the right side of the panel, it would have been so big that it would have been too large and would have overwhelmed the composition, as well as creating a really strong diagonal shape that would have been way too dynamic and distracting.

I also like in that third panel how Jippes chose to cut off the figures around the tops of their shoes and just above their knees instead of how Wright handled them, cutting them off with their bottoms sitting on the bottom of the panel. Daan's approach is much more interesting. Look at how in Jippes's version the three figures seem stacked up in space and lead you over to the duck, who is the most important figure in the panel. Also the far left figure in Kay's version - the duck - has his bottom and tail so close to the left-hand border that it creates a tension when you look at it. In Jippes's version he pushed the figure's rear further to the right to make sure there's no annoyingly small gap to create tension there.

In Kay's fourth panel he's added a fence to the background that would seem to be a good choice but it's falling away so severely that it creates an overwhelming and distracting diagonal (just like it would have if Jippes had drawn the large green fence running all the way through his version of panel three). The flat ground plane that Kay has drawn doesn't make it seem like the fence would be falling away that fast in perspective, and the most confusing thing about his choice is that he drew all the fence slats the same width. He should have drawn them as seeming to get closer to each other as they move away from us into space. The end result here is that it looks like the fence is parallel to us but someone cut it in half along the diagonal.

In Jippes's version of panel four he has wisely left the background out so that the nephew's really active, dynamic dancing pose can be the featured attraction without background elements to detract from it.

In the final panel Jippes frames the school between two groups of foreground characters (just like Barks did in his rough layout). Wright chose to put the foreground characters in the bottom half of his panel and to put the school in the top half of the panel, which is a bit problematic in a panel that's as wide as that one is. To take a panel that wide and effectively cut it in half along the horizontal isn't using the shape of the panel to it's best advantage but Jippes and Barks use the wide stretched out panel to stack the ideas horizontally instead of vertically which feels better. And Daan's and Bark's composition is better because they are able to stage the characters in a more interesting grouping - one solo character one the left and then several grouped together on the right. Also the way Wright tackled the layout seems weaker than what Daan has done because - again - laying it out like this creates really strong diagonals in the sidewalk lines that seem to overwhelm the composition and make your eyes want to slide down out of the lower left hand corner and out of the frame, or to zip up and shoot out of the upper left hand corner. You can see again why Wright's approach of thinking of all the ground planes as completely flat at all times isn't as useful as Daan's approach of making the environment more uneven, creating little hills wherever it helps him create a better composition or staging. Kay's use of flat staging with the camera so high have also created a bit of a perspective problem; you can see that the two ducks in the center of the frame look much smaller than their counterparts in the foreground left and right. Daan's technique of adding little hills and rising terrain where he needs it allows him to keep the camera (and horizon line) lower and allows him to place his characters a little more freely without creating awkward perspective problems. A lower horizon line is always more forgiving when placing figures in perspective.

And Daan uses a favorite trick of Barks's here: he placed part of the frame in total silhouette to simplify it and make it all one element. Making the duck on the left completely in silhouette also helps make him look closer to the viewer than the rest of the frame and breaks the scene nicely into three manageable areas: Foreground, Middle Ground and Background (another favorite trick of Carl Barks's).

Also I love the flagpole in front of the school; in Barks's and Daan's it serves as a great vertical accent to the overall horizontal shape of the panel. In Wright's it wouldn't have worked because he chose to turn it into a more horizontal composition overall.

Now I should point out that I don't really know Daan personally and I will never be the draftsman he is, so take all this as just my humble interpretation (and best guess) of what he's thinking as he draws this stuff. I'm not speaking for him and I have no special insight into his process. Take this post as a basis to look at Barks's and Jippes's work for yourself and see what they are trying to do with the way they present their stories. Also looking at the work of artists who aren't quite as sharp as those two can be helpful; you can look at it and ask yourself how it could be improved.

For those interested in seeing more of Daan's artwork, there is a cool page here that has a nice gallery of his work. Click on the icons to the right to see many examples of Daan's work and to get a good feel for the artistic range he has.

Also there are a lot of great examples of his work here on Joakim Gunnarsson's blog.

Now this is going to get me into a lot of hot water with a lot of people, but to tell the truth, I was a little disappointed with the book when I got it. And the reason is that I never realized that Daan was actually not drawing in his own natural style, but instead trying very hard to imitate Carl Bark's style when he draws these stories. He does a good job at that, but for my taste it's too faithful of a recreation. Carl Barks drew a lot of stories and I don't really need to see more - I would rather see what Jippes would do with the ducks if he was let loose to do with them what he would!

I love Carl Barks and I am a big fan of his work and his storytelling, and I like his drawings very much. But Daan is a far superior draftsman to Barks. Daan's work has a fluidity and rhythm to it that is unparalleled. His sense of composition and staging is really dynamic and interesting. So I would much rather see his take on the Ducks than seeing him have to imitate what Barks did. He almost seems to be restraining his own draftsmanship in order to fit into Barks's more straightforward and simpler style.

In any case I definitely recommend getting the book. It's got a lot of great artwork and stories in it, and it's titled "Volume One" so hopefully we will be treated to many more of his stories, and let's hope they publish more pages like this in the next one; it sure was an education to look at.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

FAC Life Drawing (part five)

Here is the very last bit of the FAC "Simple Anatomy and Figure Drawing" chapter. There's not too much of interest in these last few pages but for the sake of being complete about it, now you've seen the whole thing, including the cheesy photographs of the male model wearing the mid-century jock strap. We all know it's funny so don't feel like you have to leave a comment to point out how silly it is.

UPDATE: I created a .pdf file of the whole chapter and Michael Holmes has graciously offered to host it on his site at Barnacle Press. To Download the whole .pdf click here.

Thanks Michael!

Plugs For Pals

I know I'm a little late to the party on this, but I gotta plug two new books from very talented guys I happen to know:

Bolt: One Ridonculous Adventure illustrated by Disney Story Artist Aurian Redson

and Bolt: The Little Golden Book illustrated by Disney Visual Development Artist Joe Moshier.