Tracking the numbers

SO I built a spreadsheet to track progress of most of the aspects of Encoding Bushido – it’s a simple assignment of an integer value to discreet tasks with a definite deadline. Sounds all math-y right?

I know of project tracking software and apps that make such things supposedly easier but they do manage to complicate things easily for the sake of attracting whales – those large scale important projects lurking out in the wild that could transform their product into the b2b must have accessory.

All I needed was a telling and easy way to manage the following steps:

Those are the global steps – the spaces in between are not really worthy of a trackable number, but the broad strokes, when calculated give me a simple way to report progress in terms of percentages. It’s a simple way to mentally forge ahead without tons of database management or “fly by the seat of your pants” management.

The last field – Deadlines – is something I need to keep fluid, and I wasn’t ready to commit to any exact deadlines.  But the simple field calculates the number of days to a deadlines against the current date so updating those is a matter of entering a new date. Basically each deadline field is a countdown. But there are few fluid events in my professional future which aren’t quite settled yet, so as a gamble against that uncertainty I put out some feelers.

Updating the spreadsheet on weekends keeps me on track without going a bit mad at the sheer size of what I set out to do – I think I exceeded the level of complexity of any book I have ever done easily and I’ve never been more happy with the writing I’ve done lately. All that said, I feel like I am on track. And the numbers are encouraging.

From Foam to Digital to home

SO – I start a lot of blogs that way. But this is a first:

For the first time in twenty years of working in visual effects, and tons of rubber monster types of movies I get to KEEP one of the creatures I worked on.

Previously at Sundance and then the GO90 network, Snatchers is a teen comedy/horror series.

Technically the little rubber critter was ordered after we finished production on the second season of the show it belongs to but it was the first thing I built for this particular show.

The second season was a really big project for the company I work for in terms of scope and scale. Full digital creatures, combined digital AND practical creature shots and the prerequisite gore and mayhem for a horror comedy.

I think I personally touched more than 70 or so shots with digital creatures – full animation lighting and compositing of shots – or “soup to nuts” as some of the old timers like to put it.

The result I hope will be airing soon on an internet connection near you.

But for the meantime – the little package of foam, paint and wires turned into solid creature is on its way home.

I made a 3d print of the model I made and will likely set them on some honored spot near my desk.

 

 

The Incrementals

So, here’s a page from the latest book. It marks what I feel is a certain newfound comfort with Clip Studio Paint, having made the switch away from Gimp earlier this year:

There’s a lot going on there production-wise. I’ve been an open source advocate for a long time, and I have not disposed of Gimp in the workflow entirely. I still use it for various tasks – particularly anything that requires a higher bit depth since Clip Studio is still only and 8-bit application.

Changes in my workflow have been both by leaps and increments, but Gimp’s 2.0 launch left me wanting better hardware. On my current Surface Pro 4, with only the standard RAM and processor, Gimp 2.0 runs too slowly to be usable. I love all the new features, but I exceeded the maximum resolution at which my hardware and Gimp were able to handle very quickly.

Speaking of switching applications, Siggraph was this week – snooze. Just kidding. Plenty of software news floated around but nothing really ground breaking, just tons more VR related buzzwords and usability tweaks from – well – everyone. I’m playing this off as usual, because for the most part the real nuts and bolts of the artistry of everything at Siggraph is mostly old hat by now.  I think most people in CGI feel that most of the big problems of image creation have been solved and everything is just focused on “make it faster and easier” as well as more affordable.

In the meantime I’m having fun with my favorite app – Zbrush – which has been updated to include my favorite formerly free sculpting app – Sculptris. Sculptris was never really taken very seriously – but its ability to add resolution while sculpting made it a terrific solution for picky sculptors like me with slower hardware. Thanks, Pixologic.

Bit by bit, I am changing nearly every aspect of my workflow as a digital artist. The opportunity presented by different tools always leaves me asking “why not try it.” Whether it’s speed, experimentation, user experience, or old fashioned problem solving – I have tried different tools as the default asking the questions – does this help, hurt? Is this better or just different? Is this adding or subtracting from my process and results?

Incrementally.

All this heat is making me … busy

The company I work for has just finished another season of Snatchers, a comedy horror series which debuted at Sundance in 2017. It’s a goofy and sometimes slapstick mixture of monsters and gore that manages to be cheerful. It basically feels like I went back to my roots – creature features.

Season 2 coming soon to Go90.

I spent most of my middle career working on those schlock-y Saturday night spoofy movies on the Sci Fi Channel before it changed its name. That’s kept me pretty busy for the last few months, and from what I’ve seen of season 3 – well, that’s down the road a bit. But I can say from an animation point of view, it changes tone dramatically and in the service of the story. In other words, the change was motivated by something in the story, always a plus.

In other news, I had been working on a project with friend and fellow comics creator, Jamie Gambell. Just like me, we both work full time in jobs that REALLY don’t care about your free time, thus making that time tremendously valuable. Anyway, I am happy to report that almost three years after merely talking about it, we have actual pages. Suffice it to say that he pitched it to me as “Metabarrons … but British.” That was it, I was in.

A snippet of “High Imperialism” – from Jamie Gambell and myself. Click above to see his other work.

As always, I have been making progress on Encoding Bushido, having blocked out the cover. Making a cover on this series is an experiment in a long standing pet peeve I have with comics. I think too many comics disappear into a sea of noise in most comic stores – every mainstream comic tries to “SMASHBOOMPOW LOOK AT ME” – screaming at customers.

I get it. And more recently, cover designs have tried to leverage this with good graphic design and less art – negative space, less clutter. And that works .. sometimes. My biggest pet peeve is that many modern covers have absolutely NOTHING to do with what’s inside the book. And you can tell when someone did a cover last minute or too far ahead of time, or – my favorite – it seems like someone DELIBERATELY misleads you about what the issue ACTUALLY  contains.

I have taken an almost collage approach to my covers for Encoding Bushido – taking panels from the artwork I’ve finished and composing them into something which directly represents both the issue itself and some of those less cluttered approaches. I’m not going to say my covers will stand out against the sea of noise, but you will definitely see relevance.

I am basically treating the cover as another page in the story, taking my favorite moments and saying something about what you are about to see. So at the end of seven issues I hope the overall effect is close to telling the story on it’s own.

Revisions and Tempo

Finding a pace to finish everything on Encoding Bushido has been kind of mixed bag. I set up a decent schedule to work daily for at least 1-2 hours per night, nearly a full 8 on weekends and made one of those internet-guru sounding life-hack discoveries.

Some background work to fill out page 2.

I had optimized my work habits within that time frame so well, it was mentally difficult to work at any other time of day. Call it the power of habit, wait – that’s taken. Crap. Just kidding.

But it was a problem like any other in trying to finish a project while also working a full time job. Interesting first world problem to have, eh? Call it the Angelino Crisis – everyone here has a side hustle, as a matter of fact, maybe I should have called this blog the same but it sounds too much like a dance move.

When it comes to being prolific, I don’t make any hard claims. I don’t feel particularly prolific but I know I have produced more pages this year than at any other year before of comics work. So when added to the work I’ve been doing in visual effects it REALLY starts to sound like a lot. The producer on the last few shows I worked on said that the company finalled over 500 shots between the three shows we had been working on in the same time period. I touched probably a good third of those shots myself.

The numbers sound like ego puffery, but to be honest I just wanted them to get some perspective on the real goal – to finish Encoding Bushido before a certain deadline. Seven issues doesn’t sound as daunting when I’ve already started issue 3, mostly because the last few years have been single issue years for me. From 2014-17, I had only been able to final one full color issue of anything.

I wanted to change that having been seriously disappointed with the performance of Pages of Eight the last two shows I worked. I put an enormous amount of work into those issues, which really ended up as expensive practice for the latest book.

So, before the end of summer there are details to wrap up but issue 2 should be well into colors and issue 3 should have complete layouts.

Thanks for watching!

Reduction

In the most literal sense, that title is about gear reduction. I had to design a tightly packed and working but also aesthetically pleasing gear reduction set for a model I am going to 3d print.

It’s the simplest possible gear reduction scenario – it doesn’t require a calculation of torque, even though I could probabaly come up with one easily enough. But the aesthetic part is a funny way to engineer parts.

I have resurrected a long dormant project – the steampunk Xwing fighter I designed ages ago as an experiment in genre mixing. It became the most popular post I have ever made on DeviantArt. After getting a 3d printer, and being a 3d modeler, it didn’t take long for me to build a version in 3d with the goal of 3d printing it.

Unfortunately, it also became one of those projects that took a backseat for a very long time. And that brings me to the “meta” part of the the title of this post.

One of my overall rules for deciding how to spend my time is the aspect of ownership. Way too often I see artists making decisions based on authorship instead of ownership – it’s the chief problem I have with spending too much time on fan art, into which this Xwing project would fall. I authored this version of the XWing , I do NOT own the Xwing as a concept. Therefore, I will give preference in time expenditure to projects which I BOTH author and OWN.

I spent far more of my limited free time working on my comics projects – wholly owned and authored by myself. I spend an occasional day on a weekend on fan projects when I see an opportunity or merely want to experiment.

Luckily, the hardest part of the Xwing project is done – and for cgi enthusiasts or professionals, I used Lightwave and Sketchup – Lightwave for the aesthetics and main shapes, but Sketchup for the CAD portion and gearing work.

The two programs appeal to different sorts – Lightwave can be extremely forgiving of the user being – well – messy. Sketchup will eventually punish you for being less than tidy. And while it is true there are CAD plugins for Lightwave, I prefer using Sketchup for anything engineering related – just being in another application helps to put me into a different mode.

Or gear.

Issue #2 inking and Issue #3 progress

So far this year, still working full time, I have finished more comics pages than any other time in my life. I also feel I have kind of reached a new level with all this comics business both artistically and professionally.

I have to credit my professional work as a visual effects artist for this – quite the opposite frame of mind I hear so many other independent comics professionals talk about their jobs.

The problem is not just the mindset but the structure and culture of work as we know it in comics. The conventional thinking is that if you have made the transition to full time comics professional and have left your other less glamorous career behind you – THAT makes you a success.

I think too many people have this backwards. But I am lucky enough to have a professional daytime job that SOME people think is kind of glamourous. Working in visual effects, right outside the Warner Bros. and Universal Studio gates (literally – I can see both from my office window) is a bit reality altering. In Los Angeles, people I know in the indie comics scene also work in pretty “glamorous”industries – at least to other nerd culture pop culture fans.

Two of my friends work closely with toy companies, others work for other pre/post/and daytime television and film production, still others work as PA’s/accountants/runners and other support for productions around the city. But every last one of them has made the confession that they want to make that WHOLE living with comics.

Plenty of people write about this, but I found a rhythm that works for me and seems to be sustaining me for the moment and AT the moment when I have become the most productive. But most of this newly found productivity doesn’t just come from some rah-rah Gary Vaynerchuk, no complaining Jocko Willink pep talk.

Working all day on one thing compresses the time I have to work at home every night on my own projects. I have restructured how I eat dinner – a veggie smoothie and some lean protein, usually chicken breast – just to maximize the amount of time I spend eating before getting to work on my book. I try to select any media before I start working so I don’t waste time browsing for something to watch while I work.

Even the usually 1-2 hour drive home is spent preparing mentally for working on pages – I run through the page I am working on mentally, “priming” as some call it before I get home and start.

And I honestly have to credit some of the work I do during the day with helping organize my work at home – it comes in a familiar 3 part process much like comics. Visual effects can often be compressed into three overall stages – Animation, Rendering, and Compositing (plenty of people will argue about this being TOO simple, but on most shows I work on these are the easiest broad strokes in the process  to write about).

Comics feels almost as compartmentalized – Writing, Art, and Production. I found a relationship in process between the two that makes them feel more seemless in my head – so it doesn’t feel like the hard snap of jumping into cold water when I do one or the other.

Some productivity experts claim that multi tasking degrades work quality because the work and time lost switching between processes takes time and energy. I think that’s partially true, and the best way to not let that happen is to organize things in more similar ways.

Well, that’s the most long winded way to explain why I haven’t been blogging and tweeting – things which I consider work “related” and not really my true work. So thanks for sticking around out there if you have read all this. I promise I always do my best work when things kind of go silent for long periods!

Parachuting into the project

Fans of Tim Ferris tout many of his learning methods and concepts. One of the more popular methods is low stakes practice. If you can take the pressure out of the learning process and spend enough time practicing, you can learn something quite easily.

But that isn’t always as easy when you realize that you are under a deadline, a real pressure to deliver and are faced with the cold fact that only a particular new skill will solve the present issues and reach the goal.

That happened to me this past week.

It shakes down like this. A new project had arrived and had been greenlit in a very short period of time – a new show, going in a new direction, made the decision to hire the studio where I work. It was completely out of the blue, as this client hadn’t been active in a few years.  But, at the speed of television, they made the decision to move ahead.

This coupled with a software pipeline upgrade that – as is fashion these days – was a ground up rebuild of the previous version. Many of the most important and esoteric features have been rewritten, moved or removed in some cases. Add this to the already busy docket of shots from other shows and here we have the perfect pressure cooker of time, schedule and structure.

This was the perfect OPPOSITE of low stakes practice. Like the now famous quote, I was learning to make a parachute AFTER jumping from the plane. So it became a compression of priorities, starting from the first principle of intensely discussing what is required. Part of me knows that the final product I WANT to see and what the client wants to see can be very different things.

And therein lay the advantage – in a nutshell, the client actually has no idea what they are going to see until I actually show them. Sure there were storyboards, sure there have been shots like this in other movies and shows, but until they get footage of some kind – previz – into their cut of the show it’s really experimental.

When there are no real expectations, the stakes are still rather high, but they transform in a weird way into something more familiar. Every previz artist knows how what they are doing could turn into a much larger or smaller expenditure with just a few keyframes. They also understand that until someone sees some footage, no decisions can be made responsibly.

Other than storyboards, it’s be best form of low stakes practice available to an otherwise expensive business of crews, cameras, trucks and shutdown city blocks. SO. About that software upgrade …

Maybe next time.

Switch hitters of software

I’ve been open source for a really long time while producing my comics. Nearly 10 years. And I just bought Clip Studio Paint – the artist tool formerly known and Manga Studio Pro.

Page one of issue 2 of Encoding Bushido, now inking. Didn’t take more than 10 minutes after downloading it before jumping right in and inking.

There’s a Prince joke in there, but no typeface that supports it on WordPress in my current theme.

I had been using a batch of open source applications to make and publish my comics and they have been doing the job happily for free for the whole time. But I needed a change of scenery. I also needed to speed things up a bit as I want to finish the latest graphic novel in less than a year if possible.

So the first casualty of that lineup was Gimp. In it’s current release, 2.10, Gimp has finally added higher bit depth workflows and some other common features found in paid apps. But like many releases of this magnitude, the kinks have yet to be worked out – I started to run into performance issues that even in paid apps were going to take too much time to address.

The second app to take a dive was Inkscape – the vector illustration app I use for lettering, various graphics and any vector needs. I love inkscape.  Ever since the death of Macromedia’s Freehand, I have been at odds with Adobe Illustrator. I even used CorelDraw in impotent protest JUST to NOT have to use Illustrator.

The next app on the list is more problematic and not completely cut. I have so far only purchased the Pro version of Clip Studio –  the version which doesn’t included the project management features of the software meant for comics production. That addition and upgrade may finally put the nail in the Scribus coffin – as I had been both a Pagemaker and Quark Xpress user for decades. But as It stands, Scribus is hanging on, waiting for the inevitable.

SO the first comparison is in speed – specifically the speed Clip demonstrates at the exact same resolution and page dimensions I had been working in while in Gimp. Gimp 2.10 exhibits extremely long load times on multiple layer pages while Clip breezes through the same layouts. This alone shaves days from the total time of production and did more to save my nerves than anything.

Lastly the issue of price is beyond consideration – Gimp might be have been free and perfectly usable before, but Clip Studio Pro is priced so affordably it makes no sense to NOT buy it even if just to play around. It’s full EX price during their seasonal discount is less than what I spend on COFFEE in a year. Makes no sense not to do it eventually, but I am happy with the Pro version – until I want to start animating some of the content in my comics – which was always a wishlist thing.

So eventually Clip Studio will overtake my entire Open Source approach as ONE application – impressive stuff.

Thanks for hanging around, please share or shop!!

 

Chasing the tail and making graphic novels

In the course of making the latest book, graphic novel, whatever you want to call it – I have been working in a leapfrog sort of fashion to get ahead of the rest of the issues.

All 24 pages are layed out, and often I find a cover image in this part of the process.

When I started writing the whole thing, I wanted to leave some wiggle room for things in the later chapters in terms of character beats and dialogue. TO that I end I have only been fully scripting dialogue in parallel with the layouts.

The goal was to give writing and art equal time and importance – which is something I have watched writer artists around me struggle with. The visuals become too important and the “adults” in the piece suffer from it at times.

I know at least one creator with whom the opposite issue occurs – his writing and dialogue are where his work truly shines and it’s the art he tends to struggle with in the end. At least that’s how it appears as I watch his work evolve.

I had been giving the art in my books much more weight to carry the books, the earlier books especially. I like atmosphere, environment and composition sometimes to the detriment of readability but to the benefit of beauty in some cases.

And there’s the rub – and I think any artist fan of Blade Runner might run into this when creating their own work with this influence in mind. The films are truly bleak but also beautiful because of it. That’s a dichotomy which a storyteller has to deal with because darkness in cinematic form is extremely seductive.

A viewer can get overpowered by the detail and atmosphere – sort of like actually walking through smog. It’s the kind of thing that would choke you in real life. But in film, or in this case – comics, it can be alluring.

I worked in a really strong atmospheric nod to Blade Runner in my work – but it’s especially isolating in the way I used it in the latest book. I wanted to use it to quiet things down – very little is said in the pages where I amp up the atmosphere. The dialogue is mostly internal. There are no sound effects, the stillness and therefore the loneliness are center stage.

And now I am actually blogging about something it takes a ready to gloss over in a few seconds. But hopefully the impression is left correctly.  And all the blogging I do about it just makes me feel better about spending an inordinate amount of time on making these things.

If you’re interested in my other work, below is the last full color book I finished. Thanks for your support.