29 May 2009

Step 4: Post-production and preparing for the printers (a.k.a MacGuyver phase)

Why is it also known as the MacGuyver phase?

Because when I was chained to my desk for those couple of years drawing, I was unaware of how much effort and money I really needed to get almost 200 pages of art print-ready. Or perhaps I was in denial, but either way the pages needed to be scanned, cleaned up, laid out and converted into a print-ready PDF.

But during the drawing process I was far away on a cloud being blissfully unaware, smiling and daydreaming about books rolling off the presses and floating off into bookstores like a scene out of Harry Potter.

Okay, so denial had me in a choke-hold there, and when I phoned for quotes about how much it would cost to get all those stuff done by the people who do them stuff, denial released its grip and I coughed my lungs all over the floor! IOW, I had no choice but to channel my inner Richard Dean Anderson.

So instead of having the pages drum-scanned and cleaned up all nice-like at a repro house for a small fortune, I had to be resourceful, which meant inquiring if I could actually do this myself somehow, and if that would be a wise move or would it mean my book ended up looking like green and yellow sputum.

I was told that going with the repro house would be the best thing for my pages as their drum scanners are of a higher quality and their people also clean up any stray marks and broken lines on the pages. But I was also advised that since my book has no greyscale art and was strictly line art, I could conceivably get away with using a home scanner set at a high resolution, between 900 – 1200 dpi, but then I had to do the clean up myself, a very laborious process which is the reason why many folks (with rich uncles) end up going with the repro people.

But, at least there was hope, so all I needed to do was brace myself for a couple months of scanning each page in three parts (A3 pages, A4 scanner, oy!), stitching them together into one page and spending hours photoshopping the pages into a shiny sheen.

And I have to admit, I was quite pleased with the way it turned out - I dare you to compare the original pages with the scans and find the scans wanting (yes, admit it, I’m a genius!).

All that was left was laying each page out in Freehand and finally creating an EPS file that the printing company would use to convert into a print ready PDF.

Yes, I said laying each page out in Freehand, as in the vector-based drawing software you use for creating logos and such. Look, I couldn’t get my hands on the typical layout software like In Design or Quark (don’t ask why) and necessity being the mother of no choice, I went with what I had available. But hey, even though it meant more work for me (yay!), to my surprise it actually ended up working, barring one or two computer crashes. (okay, several!)

And if that wasn’t enough, after all my researching about book covers and people advising that not only shouldn’t you design your own book cover but you should ask a professional cover designer and not just any graphic designer, I went and gave them all the finger and decided to actually create (all by myself) my own book cover.

And guess what, I don’t think anybody else would’ve done a better job than the author who knows his creation better than anyone else and therefore knows what the most appropriate image would be to convey what the book is all about. I think it was a job well done thank you very much!

Having said that, however, don’t EVER do what I just did there! Rather ask a professional cover designer to do you it for you. I’m sure as hell going to next time because I’m not going through that again. I think that experience shaved a few years off my life, I swear.

Finally, I have to give all due props to Arthur Attwell over at Mousehand for answering some of my more challenging questions about how to get my book print-ready. It’s just good to know that there are still some people out there who’s got game.

So with my entire book scrunched up into an EPS file, I sent it off to the printers and waited like a child on Christmas Eve for that first book to arrive.

Next time: Trying to sell the damn thing!

22 May 2009

Step 3: The Drawing

I think it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t write a ty
pical comic or graphic novel script. My script was written in the format of a film screenplay, from which I then did thumbnail page breakdowns.

The reason I think this was a better way to do it was because a film screenplay is more versatile and streamlined for general reading than the more technical and dense comics script, and I wanted to get feedback from people on a script level where changes could easily be made before embarking on the more permanent illustrating phase, and to me it seemed that a screenplay would be far easier for people to read than a normal comics script.

Also, having it in the looser film screenplay format instead of the rigid, panel-for-panel comic script format made the process of page breakdowns more fluid, allowing me to play the scene out like a movie in my mind and then pick snapshots that will then become panels. I think it makes for a better flow of action to make all layout decisions at the thumbnailing stage than at the scripting stage. For me the script is more suited to plot structuring, scene setting and dialogue, which should be the main areas of focus.

Illustration was draining as hell, the longest and most exhausting phase of the entire creative process. But my sheer passion for this project and dogged determination to hold it in my hands as a completed product shepherded me through this laborious task.

This is where I was grateful for the drawing (particularly life drawing) instruction I picked up during my graphic design course. But because this project was so important to me, I felt I needed to deepen my understanding of all aspects of my craft, and that included a more intensive study of both perspective and anatomy, of which I immersed myself in via several books on the subjects.

Once I had a competent grasp of anatomy and perspective, I was ready for battle, so all that was left was weapons acquisition and training. Since I knew I’d be going old school on this project, my arsenal included, amongst others, a dip pen (for lettering), sable brushes (general inking) and technical pens (hatching).

I always read of rookies being intimidated to ink with a brush and therefore tended to avoid it, but I knew that mastering this much-favoured tool amongst old school professionals would result in a better quality of line and therefore a richer final product, so I relished getting to grips with this often unpredictable apparatus.

But above all my most treasured tool, and perhaps somewhat controversial amongst certain artists, was the digital camera. I used it at every opportunity and I believe it was invaluable in completing the book without me going certifiably nuts! To me, the most important thing that I wanted to capture in Project H was absolute authenticity, whether it was capturing the locations in accurate detail or depicting an authentic manner of movement in the characters.

Instead of fussing over getting a pose to look right, I just shot the pose with the digital camera and instead concentrated all my energy on the most important aspect: good visual storytelling. So for me, the camera was a means to an end, i.e. to visually communicate the story, which was vital above all else.

Plan B, of course, would have been to take a few years to develop the skill and confidence of an accomplished draughtsman, spending my time drawing projects I didn’t want to do so that I can eventually gain the experience to draw my own book without the need to supposedly ‘cheat’. Nothing wrong with that really, and pre-digital cameras I probably would have had no choice. But I think it’s a bit unfortunate that there are certain artists out there who think that a tool that would radically improve their storytelling ability would also be considered cheating.

For me, the art is a means to an end and not the end itself, which I think is probably part of the reason why comics cannot lose the ‘stink’ for most people. Because when all people see are muscle-bound, spandex-wearing superheroes in confusing and pseudo-creative layouts, they will always consider comics not worthy of serious consideration.

Those who criticise the use of digital cameras in comics art may argue that it results in stiff and overly fussy illustrations, and they may have a point, which is why I don’t think it’s a good idea for artists to rely too much on the camera. You still need a good foundation and grasp of fundamental drawing principles such as anatomy, perspective and composition and the camera should only be used once these fundamentals are properly in place. A digital camera cannot, and never will, turn a bad artist into a good one.

Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun but also quite a challenging experience running around Cape Town photographing locations, especially since I had to sometimes squeeze myself into awkward angles and positions to get the shots exactly the way I wanted them, not to mention taking my camera into one or two dodgy locations and also having to click-and-run to get certain shots I didn’t quite have the permission to get. Hey, whatever it takes!

So, after all the reference photos had been collected and the entire book had been storyboarded, I set about spending the next two years plus with the not-so-simple task of illustrating Project H.

Next time: Post-production and preparing for the printers (a.k.a MacGuyver phase)

08 May 2009

Step 2: The Writing

Like I mentioned before, I don’t consider myself a writer, but in order to have the story of Project H actually make any kind of sense when it was completed I had to get to grips with the craft of writing and all that goes with it. And that meant books on writing.

I have to admit that reading (long form work, like novels) didn’t come as naturally to me as it should have. Call it the result of a terrible upbringing, a bad education system, the lack of vegetables or Double Dragon, I used to find it somewhat of a drag. But that’s until I actually found myself with a story to tell, and I felt this story was just too damn important for me to be a slouch in the technical department.

So I’s went and gots skillz!

My heart belonged, and always will, to the silver screen. It’s what I blame for managing to just about scrape through tertiary education barely clutching my diploma. So when this deluge of stories began raining down from Heaven (literally), one of my hobbies became screenwriting, which I totally and seriously immersed myself into, right down to the requisite three-hole punched paper and the brads needed to bind them. And just ask anyone in Hollywood, if it ain’t got brads, we ain’t reading it. And if you don’t know what the hell brads are, then flippin’ google it, and good luck trying to find them in South Africa as readily as you would in the US.

Needless to say, getting my hands on those brads were the pits!

Well, when I said screenwriting became a hobby, it was perhaps the wrong choice of word because I was unemployed at the time, so it technically became my non-paying job. Screenwriting helped me to get to grips with craft of telling a good story and what it takes to get an audience to be like putty in your hands.

In theory anyway. To actually get to that point you need talent, a good story and the will to craft it, and then craft it, and then craft it some more, and then do that another twenty times, put the thing away, come back a few weeks later and do more crafting.

Like I said, your audience need to be like putty, which means they will start out human and will morph into putty, and craft is what enables the process of puttyfication.

But for some reason I felt I needed to learn more about craft beyond the discipline of screenwriting, which is how I found myself (during my lunch breaks away from the crummy job I had no choice but to work at) sitting inside the nearby bookshop and reading books about the craft of writing novels.

Yes, as in them regular ol’ prose novels. Even though I knew I wasn’t going to be writing a good, old-fashioned novel, I felt that I would greatly benefit from the insight those books had to offer regarding stuff like characterisation and dialogue, and so I tried to absorb myself as much as possible in what lessons they offered up. It was a well rounded education which I thought made Project H so much the better for it.

What I learnt is that no matter what the writing discipline, having a good story to tell is of paramount importance, not how wonderful you can put words together or how pretty you can draw. There are different ways to express a great story, and many different kinds of people to express it, not only those who fit the archetypal (snobby, highly-educated, witty, etc) notion of a writer.

But I definitely take my hat off to prose novelists and the sheer talent and craftsmanship they possess to string words together in such a way that you can’t help but turn the pages until the very last. Well, the good writers anyway. The rest need to go to a place where you need a license to write, and then have their licenses irrevocably revoked!

So after I felt I had soaked up enough education, I chained myself to my chair in front of my then brand new computer, uninstalled Need for Speed: High Stakes, cranked up the word processor (thanks Bill) and started writing Project H.

Next time: The Drawing

03 May 2009

Step 1: The Idea

I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. I was born on the 1st of July 19 … okay, maybe we should skip ahead to what’s really important – the genesis of the crazy, insane, totally stupid notion that a normal, average guy could create his own graphic novel without having any substantial experience in writing or drawing comics and not having published anything before in his life (unless you count the movie reviews I wrote for the college paper.)

So why would I embark on something that promised nothing other than copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears, not to mention several large helpings of prejudice and mammoth spoonfuls of outdated notions from which I have yet to reap any benefits, if ever?

Good question - and something I don’t completely have the answer to, because if I did I probably would’ve done what I usually do – hit the snooze button and pull the covers over my head. I don’t think any sane person would enthusiastically leap out of bed with a smile on their face and brave the big nasty world if they knew the result would be a large and embarrassingly obese zer0!

The only possible explanation that springs to mind is one Honda commercial and that classic (and often covered) song The Impossible Dream.

Not only did I have to face the task of creating this totally new thing out of thin air, from a blank page, with no prior experience whatsoever, but I had to convince people to take a chance on this strange thing they’ve never even heard of before called a graphic novel. I can’t begin to explain all the gasps and clasping shut of children’s ears I've experienced when I mention to folks what it is I’m peddling. But hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself here…

This is probably a good time to mention that as far as writers go, I’m not one! Although I wrote the story, I don’t really consider myself a writer. If there’s a title I feel more comfortable going by, it’s probably that of storyteller. A writer to me conjures up images of really intelligent, sophisticated, witty people who always seem to be quoting other intelligent, sophisticated and witty people. Unlike those writers, who were born with pens in their hands and dreamed of one day having their name on a book like their favourite author, I had no aspirations to be a writer.

I was over there just minding my own business, when out of nowhere I just became overwhelmed with all these stories - sometimes ideas, but many times fully formed plots - that used to come to me usually in the middle of the night on the coldest night of the year when I was unable to switch the light on to write the stuff down because I shared a room with someone, so I had to go into the damn cold kitchen or bathroom.

And that’s (more or less) where Project H began - as this story that refused to let go of me until I got it all out of my head and onto paper (the little bastard!) But looking back, it was probably the most electrifying period of the entire process, the rush of excitement of all these heady ideas and characters and situations, moulding them scene by scene into this living, breathing and complete story bound together within this thick stack of paper where before there was nothing but an idea.

There’s absolutely no experience like it in the whole world (so I’m told).

Next time … The Writing.