Making Comics


Quick Tips on Background Staging 3

 

Over at cartoonSNAP, Sherm Cohen has a bunch of stuff about story boarding and cartooning. I personally have his Character Design book to use while teaching my 6-12 year old students to break out of some of their drawing habits. His tutorials are, by no means, a replacement for some good, hard education in animation and drawing, but some of the tips work nicely for the comic artist just starting out. We all have to be reminded from time to time that staging brings a dynamic element to our storytelling.

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An Introduction to Graphic Novels: Character Design 2

by Anise Shaw

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

These lessons are intended for beginners, those just trying their hand at comics for the first time and feeling overwhelmed. Feel free to discuss more advanced concepts in the comments!

Lesson 3: Character Design

Old Woman, character design.

Storytelling is comprised of three main elements: a setting, a plot and some characters. In this lesson we will go over a working methodology for creating compelling and original characters for your own stories or for a collaborative project. Creating characters is a great treat, and often the favourite exercise of writers everywhere. There are many ways to examine, develop and refine characters, but designing them is a completely different subject. Before one goes down the path of character design, we must first understand the foundation of the practice: design.

Design is about developing a working method to suit a function or need, as each instance of your design method will be different. For example, you may be a character designer, but designing a character for a comic or a video game or a novel are three very different instances. The goal is to create one method that can serve all three best. Your method is what makes you an artist, not your skill, perceived talent or even ideas (we’re post modern, remember? All ideas are derivative anyways). What defines one artist to the next is how they work through the method of taking an idea and translating into their visual (or audio, or performance, or whatever) form.

In this lesson, I will provide a simple framework that is commonly used and you can build upon it yourself. This is where the whole “there are no rules in art” comes in. For every suggestion, the opposite, the negation or something slightly different will work as well. Never say to yourself “I have this great idea, but it doesn’t fit the framework I learned in that graphic novels class”. That’s bullocks. Frameworks are supposed to help drive, define and ground ideas, not limit their existence. Be flexible, and allow your method to grow and evolve. Self reflect on your method, write these reflections down and be observant. Like we briefly discussed in the first class, being an artist is not just a profession, it’s a state of mind.

So, without further adieu, the character design framework.

1. Identify and understand your design problem.

  • why are you making this character?
  • what are the restrictions you’re working in? Media, deadline, target age group, function, etc, are all restrictions.
  • Your design problem may be simple or complex, they are as different as snowflakes. Do be honest with yourself, and don’t make something more complicated than it needs to be.

2. Analyze the problem and break it down into simpler elements

Your problem is you need to make a protagonist for a graphic novel (of an undetermined genre), break it down into:

  • The character functions visually, therefore has to be visually appealing
  • The character will be seen and heard (through speech bubbles), and therefore has to display their personality visually and through dialogue.
  • The characters will be in a long form story, and therefore has to have a complex personality that can be slowly examined
  • The character will be in print and therefore must translate well into that medium, both aesthetically and conceptually (this is why I think 3D rendered comics tend to look strange, they don’t fulfill this need).

At this point it’s time to do some idea making, which will be covered later in this lesson. Remember how I said there are all sorts of exercises for examining, developing and refining a character? Now’s the time to use them. The framework assumes that at this point you’ve done some brainstorming and are then ready to:

3. Choose the best idea.

This needs to solve all parts of the original design problem you identified in step 1.

4. Draw the Character.

You should have already been sketching, trying out different things and playing around in step 2. Now it’s time to do a technical drawing of the character – the good copy. Draw your character from many angles, with different costume if necessary, and get a good feel for who they are.

5. Evaluate the results.

Ask others what they think. Get them to try and guess who the character is to see if your were able to accurately depict their personality visually. Talk to people you trust and who are thoughtful, not to people who will want to spare your feelings. This is not the time to get squeamish, you need a really good character.

6. Rework the design if necessary.

A very simple, yet important step. I often have students who skip this step because they are simply “ready to move on”. While that might be an accurate feeling for more completed work (like trying to resist the urge to go back and redraw the first 10 pages of your comic because you’re drawing has improved – that’s a “move on” moment), during the design process a small moment of reflection and reworking is necessary. Grab the red pen and make the changes that need to be made.

Now the process is finished and you should have a pretty good foundation for a character. In the next lesson we move into the hard part: making the actual comic.

Step 2 Expanded

The design problem in our class is simple. We need to come up with a character (or a few characters) that can be the cast of our comics. All of the above expansions that I outlined in step two still apply. While comics have a literary component, they are visual as well. The visual design of our character is going to be as important as their literary content.

When at this step of the design process, ideas are king. We want to have many of them and have the freedom to develop them in different ways. I have some exercise suggestions, but there are many more available online, in books and from other artists. Feel free to add these to your library of idea generating methods.

  • Observation. The goldmine of ideas. Wei and myself come up with great characters by just observing people in public, on transit or in cafes and letting our imaginations run wild.
  • Brainstorm with others. Get into the mode where nothing is unacceptable and no idea is too wild and just run with it. It’s amazing how differently two people think, and putting them together can yield fantastic results.
  • Locate reference materials. Pictures, clippings, movies, television, books, magazines. Everything is reference. It’s not just visual either, characters in other novels can start as the foundation for something new.
  • Use word play and mind mapping. Automatic writing is fantastic. We’re in idea mode, turn off your critical brain and let things flow. You can scrutinize later.
  • Fantasize about your characters. Daydream scenarios, think of how they would speak. You can even turn them into temporary imaginary friends. Anything to get the ideas going.
  • Look for symbolism and myth. Archetypes can make very solid character foundations.

Sketching Your Character

Character sketches

You need to get that pencil moving. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, stays in your head. That’s a terrible place for ideas. Write and draw on the same pages, don’t pre-organise yourself in the idea stage. Story ideas don’t need to start in a word processor on the computer and characters don’t need to start hand drawn (why not try some collage?). Here are some things to think about with the visuality of your character:

  • Shapes. Play with them, they are powerful tools. Their counterparts are scale and proportions, so play with those as well.
  • Expression exercises. Try the 25 Expression Challenge, a popular meme on Deviant Art. I use it all the time.
  • The five dot exercise: Get someone to draw five random dots on a piece of paper. You then choose two of the dots to be hands, two to be feet and one to be the head of your character. Now you have to draw your character in those constraints (you can get some great, twisted positions).
  • Add and subtract elements from a sketch. Either physically with an eraser, or by redrawing.
  • Shift elements, reshape, skew, squash, stretch, etc.

Character Design Exercise

We’re going to create a character for our graphic novel project that we will start in the next class. You may follow this process or a different process for other characters, but for now we’ll try out a pre-described method to see how the process works.

Our design problem: we need to create a visual, drawn character for a graphic novel that will serve as our protagonist. We need to finish this in roughly a week.

We break it down into the following elements:

  • Our character is visual and needs to be visually appealing
  • Our character will be drawn repeatedly, and can therefore not be too complicated
  • Our character will be the protagonist, so they need strong desires and conflicts and a concise history.

Example Mind Map

Brainstorming

Start with a mind map, starting with the character’s role in the middle: protagonist. Begin associating words and writing them down. Think with your senses as well as your imagination, and don’t censor yourself. When you are finished, it’s time to refine the mind map. Circle the words that stand out to you, that describe a character you would be interested in. Don’t worry if other will be interested at this point, if you’re not then there’s no point in choosing it.

Create the physical character, with words and sketches:

  • General physical description
  • Body type
  • Proportions
  • Material make-up (is your character flesh, robotics, alien, or anything else?)
  • Gender
  • Surface texture
  • Colour
  • Facial Structure
  • Movement (how does your character physically carry themselves?)

Create a character history. A character’s life never begins at the beginning of your story, and the most believable characters will act in ways that expose their past experiences. Character histories are important, but don’t need to be complicated. Look for elements that will create desires and conflicts, the essence of any plot. You need to describe the following:

  • Your character’s personality
  • a quick timeline of your character’s past, present and future.

Lastly we’re going to do two things – the 25 Expression Challenge for your character. Don’t be discourages if you don’t finish them all, just try as many as you can. Don’t pick expressions that you think will suit your character, pick them at random.

Then we are going to start thinking about character motivation. I want you to three short paragraphs. Each will a single event from the character’s life told from three different perspectives:

  • Telling the story to a stranger. How does your character want to be perceived? How much information are they going to reveal?
  • Telling the story to a close friend. How will they confide in them?
  • Telling the story to themselves. What would they never tell to anyone else.

After this, you should have a character that’s good to go for a final, good copy drawing! Feel free to post your work, sketches, mind maps, writings and finished drawings. I’d like to see how other people design their characters!

Part One | Part Two | Part Three


An Introduction to Graphic Novels: Basic Cinematography and Perspective

by Anise Shaw

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Lesson 2: Basic Cinematography and Perspective

Now that we have practiced going from panel to panel, now it’s time to focus on what will go in those panels. Let’s think of our panel as the frame of a photograph, and what we choose to put in is the same process as what we choose to take a picture of. Therefore, our frame is a camera. We want to use this camera to capture points of interest and to effect our story in different ways. We can accomplish this by using Point of View (POV) to our advantage.

Even though we are working with a two dimensional medium, we have to think three dimensionally. Cinematography is this process, and we need to consider three different perspectives (or axis).

Height

This is moving the camera on the Y axis, or up and down. In drawing, this is directly related to where we put our horizon line, so keep your shot in mind when you begin a drawing using one or two point perspective. The extremes of moving the camera in this way are:

Bird’s Eye View

When we look down on a scene like a bird, we are looking from bird’s eye view. This is a great way to show the layout of a space, but also carries with it the feeling of being larger than life. The bird’s eye view is both whimsical and analytical, and can quickly create a sense of dissociation with a scene. Bird’s eye view is accomplished by placing the horizon line around the top of your page, or even higher and off the page.

Worm’s Eye View

This view is from underneath, and allows the reader to feel small and overpowered. The worm’s eye view is effective for showing the impact of a structure or scene and it’s imposing nature. Using this perspective often will create a sense of foreboding and perhaps even helplessness. We can make a worm’s eye drawing by place our horizon line low on our page.

 

picture drawings!

Eye Level

Eye level, or anything around eye level, is a perspective that creates a strong sense of reader identification. This is how we see things everyday, and we feel like we’re a part of these scenes when we see them in comics, movies and television. Perspectives hovering around eye level are the most popular, as having an extreme feel to your scene is usually reserved for particular moments. We create an eye level drawing by placing the horizon line around the middle of the page.

Distance

This is moving the camera on the Z axis, or back and forth. We change the distance of our drawings by drawing elements larger and cropping them.

I draw fastThree different distances in sequence

There are different distances and different ways to use them. Choosing your distances will be of huge importance, so don’t be afraid to play with them. Here are the different kinds of distances:

  • Long shot: this is a shot that allows you to show a significant amount of background. Use these to establish location, positioning of characters and to distance the reader from the characters. Perhaps even to create a sense of isolation
  • Medium shot: a bit closer, we don’t see as much background and a character or object is framed as the focus of the drawing. Medium shots are great to show action, two or three people physically interacting, or someone interacting with the surroundings. Medium shots are one of the most common, I know I like to use them a lot.
  • Head shot: a picture or panel of a character or subject where it fills the whole picture. Usually from the chest up on a person. Background is minimal or non-existent, and you don’t want to cram too many people in.
  • Close up: focusing the camera closely on a person or object, usually for dramatic effect.

Rotated!!Rotation

This is moving on the X axis, or around something. We change our rotation to get a better look at something, to look at something from a character’s perspective, or a whole host of reasons. Changing the rotation of a drawing may help it to go from sterile to dynamic. In wondering why a picture or panel isn’t working, try to shift the rotation and it will most likely fix major composition problems.

Use rotation to your advantage in storytelling.

The Static vs the Dynamic Camera

Keeping the “camera” in one position for a series of panels is using a “static camera”, while changing height, distance and rotation from panel to panel is a “dynamic camera”. Using either method will have a different effect on your story and pacing. There are comics that use one or the other exclusively and many mix the two techniques together.

  1. The static camera: showing small changes, slowing down the story, and emphasizing detail. The static camera can help you avoid melodrama when a tense moment has arrived, and be used to help the audience absorbed dense pieces of dialogue
  2. The dynamic camera: shows large actions well, creates drama and movement and helps to give an otherwise bland bit of sequencing a bit of visual interest.

The point is to try to keep balance for your story. If your story feels like it’s dragging, add a few camera changes. If it has an “action film” feel where it’s completely unnecessary, slow it down with a static camera. There is no “right formula”. Do what feels best for your story and don’t be afraid to experiment.

Exercise 1

Draw a four-panel comic of a person ordering and receiving coffee from a barista. Keep the panels evenly sized and the camera static on a particular point of interest. Describe to yourself how you feel about the sequence, pacing and cinematography.

Exercise 2

Draw another four panel comic with the same story. Continue to keep the panels evenly sized. This time, change the camera angle every panel to use the dynamic camera.

Panel Size

Comics have a special relationship to cinematography that television and movies do not. A television or movie screen is uniform, but we comic artists have the option of changing our panel sizes.

You remember last class when we discussed going from panel to panel occupying time? The same principle applies here, except the single panel also occupies time as well as the transition. As such, longer, more horizontal panels feel like they take “longer” than smaller, more square or vertical panels.

It’s very common for stories to start out with a long, horizontal panel, usually in a long shot format. This is called the establishing shot, and it allows our reader to get a sense of the story setting before being thrown into what the story is all about.

Exercise 3

This time when we redraw our 4 panel sequence, I want you to focus on panel size. You may extend your comic into 2 or 3 rows if necessary. The choice of dynamic or static camera (or a combination of both) is also up to you.

Tips for Perspective

  • Buy a good perspective book, don’t try to memorize the rules. You might break your brain.
  • Consider your horizon line for a moment, where you place it has importance
  • One point perspective will connote a feeling of traveling, or having a road laid out for you.
  • Two point perspective doesn’t tend to connote movement, but more the weight of objects themselves.
  • Use perspective to draw characters as well as background, or your characters will look like they’re pasted on.

Good luck and keep drawing!

Part One | Part Two | Part Three


An Introduction to Graphic Novels: Sequences

by Anise Shaw

July 6th, 2011

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

These lessons are intended for beginners, those just trying their hand at comics for the first time and feeling overwhelmed. Feel free to discuss more advanced concepts in the comments!

Recently I was asked to teach an adult graphic novels class at Bonsor Community Centre in Burnaby. I jumped on the opportunity to work with an adult group, something that I don’t always get to do. As I was creating my lesson plans, I immediately had the idea that I should also put them on the Internet for others to follow along with the class. I also gave out my website address so my students could come back here to refresh their memory and look for supplementary material.  These lessons were originally posted to my website, Epidigm, but I thought that people who frequent the Cloudscape website might also find them useful.

Feel free to follow along with these lessons. I will be including the exercises and projects we did in class so you can do them at home as well. If you want to post links to your results, I may be able to come by and give critique (which is a hugely important part to learning, don’t avoid it!).

To see more tutorials about making comics, check out Cloudscape’s Comics 101 page.

Introduction to Graphic Novels

Before we get started on the actual learning, sometimes it’s nice to understand why you might be taking this course. I like to ask a few preliminary questions to find out what we already know.

  • Why are you interested in making graphic novels?
  • What is a graphic novel to you?
  • What do you hope to be able to do after these 8 weeks are over?

A graphic novel is a long form comic that can be about any subject your heart desires. The graphic novel has become a popular medium due to its breadth of content and long, involved storylines. Many graphic novels are one shots, like Craig Thompson’s Blankets, while others are serialized. In this class I will get you started on starting your own graphic novel, but we will not have time to do more that a short story.

In this class, I will consider you a comic artist and help you from that context. The next question, of course, is what does it mean to be a comic artist?

  • We think in sequence and pictures
  • We are prepared to show our art to a wide audience
  • We work in a reproduced medium, and must always have technical restrictions in mind
  • Our goal, no matter what kind of comic we make, is to make something clear, understandable and interesting.

Being a comic artist will take a bit of extra work, and there are things you can do outside of class to help improve your skills and get you into the mindset of making comics.

  • Try to do life drawing, I like to go once a week whenever I can.
  • Your sketchbook is your lifeblood, have one with you all the time. Having a pencil in your hand and actually drawing in this sketchbook will help too.
  • Spend time pulling apart TV shows and movies, comics’ sister sequential mediums, shot by shot. How do they deal with the camera, audience, story, etc?
  • Copy down conversations, listen to how people speak.
  • Read actively, especially comics, and pull it apart.
  • Start small. Short stories, one page comics and work yourself up to something bigger.

Sequence

We’re going to study six sequence transitions as discussed by Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics. The essence of a comic is its panels, and the magic between those panels is our sequence. All of a reader’s assumptions happen during this sequence in what is called closure. Closure is our ability to take similar looking images and create a relationship between them. I highly recommend picking up a copy of McCloud’s book, as it’s essential reading for all comic artists.

McCloud has conveniently categorized these six transitions for us, but it’s important to remember that all categories are meant to be broken. By learning how to use these transitions, you may warp them to whatever benefit they will serve for your comic making purposes. Our panel is time. The particular unit of time that the panel takes-up is dependent upon its transitions.

Moment-to-moment sequence from Alan Moore’s “Watchmen”

1. Moment to Moment

This is the transition that uses the least amount of time; changes in panels take only seconds.
Moment to Moment transitions help to give a “slow motion” feel to a comic, making each second an important one, and bringing each action into stark relief. A great use of moment to moment transitions is to slow down the pace of a comic, and allow the reader a moment to breathe (haha, moment).

Action-to-action sequence from some old “Iron Man” comic.

2. Action to Action

This is often the transition you may find yourself using the most. This is because it uses closure to show the action of the body while not being as painfully slow as a moment to moment transition. With Action to Action, our first panel is the beginning of the action and our last panel is the end. We may need to put panels in between depending on the complexity of the action.

Subject-to-Subject sequence. “Psycomm” can be found at http://ramandakamarga.com/sequentialart.php

3. Subject to Subject

We can push action in our panels one step further by using a Subject to Subject transition. Working within a singular subject or idea, this transition shows whatever might be necessary to get the idea across. This is also where we start to see subjective action, which is really prominent in Japanese comics.

Scene-to-scene sequence from “Watchmen”

4. Scene to Scene

All of the transitions up until this point have dealt with small amounts of time. However, Scene to Scene deals with jumps between large amounts of time and/or space. The scene to scene transition is a powerful tool that we can use to transport our audience to different times and places, with little to no explanation as to what has happened in between. Masterful use of the scene to scene transition even allows a comic writer to compress time, dealing with multiple moments at the same time, as shown by Alan Moore in Watchmen.

We know where we are, what has happened, and how we feel in this aspect-to-aspect sequence

5. Aspect to Aspect

Our fifth transition is a bit of an anomaly. While all of our previous transitions have dealt with the passing of time, Aspect to Aspect deals with no time at all. It effectively freezes time to establish a mood, feeling or emotion of a scene. Think of this transition as “the wandering eye”, looking around and taking quick snaps to understand what’s going on. Aspect to Aspect has not been a popular transition in most mainstream North American comics, mostly due to page count. Japanese comics and graphic novels, with their longer format, use aspect to aspect as a tool to help the reader become emotionally invested in what is happening. The master of the aspect to aspect transition will use it to help pace a comic, create a mood and establish something that has happened all at once.

6. Non-Sequitur

The final sequence places panels together with no relationship to each other. McCloud argues that the existence of non-sequitur sequences tells us something important: that no matter how dissimilar two images are, when we put them together we automatically start to look for a relationship. This is a crucial point to remember, because it means that during our quest for clarity, we don’t have to over explain. In fact, we can explain very little and readers will look for the understanding themselves.

Exercise

Today we’re going to warm up with a simple exercise. We’re going to write a short one page comic, in which something simple happens, and we are going to focus on using at least three of the above transitions. Extra credit for anyone that uses the first 5 and an extra point for anyone who throws in a non-sequitur. The story of this comic is not so important as mastering the sequence of the panels. For now, keep your panels a uniform size to help emphasize this sequence. When we finish, we will take a look at what everyone has done and quickly discuss it.

Basic Drawing tips

  • Hold the pencil loosely and at least 2 inches away from the shaved wood of the tip. We want to put little pressure on the pencil while we are sketching
  • Create the overall page first, the meta details like quick panel layouts, main foci, speech bubbles and general shapes. Then move into the details.
  • Your eraser is not for erasing mistakes, it is a broom to be used to clean up your sketching work.
  • Draw lightly, or you will absolutely regret having to erase anything
  • Use your whole body to draw. Sit comfortably. Use your shoulder and elbow for large details and your wrist and fingers for small details.
  • Stay loose at the beginning, refine later.

Recommended Reading for Sequence

  1. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  2. Bone by Jeff Smith
  3. Anything by Jamie Hernandez
  4. Nausicaa by Hayao Miyazaki

Good luck and keep drawing!

Part One | Part Two | Part Three


Cloudscape’s Top Ten Comics of the Decade 3

In true collective fashion, we over at Cloudscape headquarters put our heads together this week to come up with a master list of what we consider to be the top ten comics produced in the 2000s. Five of us each came up with our own independent lists (which can be found on the forum) and then those lists were compiled together through a top secret mathematical formula. The results are here! (more…)