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.

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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.

The Reconstruction

So I could say there’s been a ton of changes made to this website. The focus is narrowing quite a bit and one of the biggest changes is how much I have been focusing on 3d printing.

The fact is, I’m not. I haven’t given up on it, I still completely enjoy making things. But the fact is, I’m just not making any money or getting any traction with it. It’s a distraction on my table when I take creations to conventions. Sure it gets people over to the table, but contextually it just doesn’t fit into the lives of the audience yet.

SO for now, it’s going to sit on the back burner. I still have design plans, ideas, too many figures I want to build, but all of that has to fit into the schedule already made very full by Encoding Bushido.

Other than that, I finished layouts for issue 2 of Encoding Bushido, started on a line of prints that did very well at Wondercon and started a project at the day job that promises to be both challenging and fun. Monsters, slime, guts. It’ll be a hoot for sure.

Wondercon wrap up

So this Wondercon, I sold out of my newest book – Encoding Bushido.

That has never happened with any of my books. I also sold out of one of my prints, and sold some of each print I took to the show. That never happens to me either.

Apparently I managed to get into the flow of the moment and was mostly prepared for the wave of people who flocked to the show this year.

I think many artists who do shows like these manage to ride the wave of periodic regularity – one year, you do great, the next, not so much.

I never had a wave, as a matter of fact most shows seem to deliver the same flat results for me no matter what. Breaking even seemed to be a long running theme and this year the ONLY thing I changed was a more vertical display of my products.

One thing I am definitely going to look into is a hotel room – even though I don’t live too far from Wondercon, beating traffic on those first days is just too brutal for me now.

So thanks to everyone who showed up, bought a book or print – there were so many familiar faces this year it was kind of comforting.

This year was the first time I set up before the show started – I usually just register, show up on the day of and set up in a few minutes. My setup is incredibly simple so I didn’t see any benefit to spending more money on another day of parking. It was more for experience points, I guess. But in the future, should I ever expand to a booth, I know a little more what to expect.

Some customers surprised me – there are always new artists earnestly searching for advice or wisdom – which I can provide in the form of stories and warnings from the front lines. I guess you could call that wisdom – but I spoke to a newly minted editor with impostor syndrome, a cartoonist looking for new creator friends, and an aspiring comic artist soon to graduate and possibly making a pivot into concept art. Lots of stories.

My favorite stories I told in a set of tweets:
Started the cons with this:

Spread out, and do math

It’s not rocket science, plenty of people use spreadhseets BECAUSE they hate the math of figuring out and tracking data. You simply can’t do all of this mentally or you’d be buggered.

I use  a simple spreadsheet to keep track of printing costs, pricing, impact on sales and aspects of planning for shows.

And all of it comes from the MOST basic equations in ANY spreadsheet. Some people a re better at this than I am but nearly every analysis I make starts with this:

Sum(RowA x RowB).

Everything about that “x” or “/” or “-” makes the difference between total cost, cost per unit, and profit margin. Ooooh, really artsy terms eh?

It’s not sexy at all, it’s especially dirty to some artists who are just starting out and perfectly happy making a few bucks pressing the flesh at a con an not worrying about the fact they only made enough money for the Uber to get back home. To be honest, I’ve been there (I have my own car, but I’ve been busted at a few cons).

So open a google spreadhseet (my preferred cloud solution for business – there’s an advertisement in there somewhere – pay me Google) and give it a try if you haven’t already.

One of my favorite things to do is simulate the sales figures before a show by altering a few numbers here and there to see manage my expectations before a show – changing figures and seeing totals update in real time really helps planning what to buy for the next show, what to dump, and seeing what small changes can do to the whole picture.

So have fun with your numbers, they’re not so scary when you can see them all at once in a way where they’ll behave.

Prints, profits and preparation

So when it comes to conventions I seriously over-prepare. I always want to have a new book out every year, maybe some new prints. Compared to other artists who do the convention circuit full time, this is a drop in the art bin.

Even with Wondercon looming I want to create something – I finished editing both my sketchbook and new comic so I guess I just needed to do something different.

But the truth is I still work full time when possible and don’t have that imperative to create for a marketplace. But every day and night before a con I am doing something related to creating, preparing, practicing or testing ideas before the show. And as they say, it’s all fun and games until the show starts.

Watching some of those artists hustle through the con scene sort of reminds me of old lectures on ecosystems – top down predatory hierarchies, etc. The people who are really making the big money don’t follow the con scene, they MAKE the cons. Cons being kind of the operative word.

I could never do a con scene unless I had a larger and more profitable business to tour with. I appreciate some artists are able to make that work, travelling and selling at every stop. But that just doesn’t make sense to me as a business. Cons are what I would do in support of a business, not as core to business itself.

It’s like a new band that goes on tour without an album, it just doesn’t make sense.

I don’t make big money at conventions, but I have been able to make a consistent amount of money. That amount of money needs to adjust with the costs of doing the conventions and it’s become clear that it isn’t enough. I’m having to raise prices, cut costs, just like any businessperson should do when confronted with a lot of these “environmental” conditions.

So yeah, “it’s hard out there for a pimp” is the operative phrase. Same as it ever was is probably a lyric closer to my wheelhouse.

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80/20 Writing/Drawing

So the whole process for my graphic novel is kind of upside down from my usual process. I love comics as a medium – and in another life before freelance art, I spent an enormous time writing.

I used to be a student journalist – spent the last years of my college life writing and editing the campus newspaper. It was my most important training for self publishing because I basically did most of it myself.

I took my own pictures, wrote most of the stories, wrote the editorials, and even drew the editorial cartoons. As an interesting side, I even managed the campus radio station. But that was more because I loved getting new music for free than any desire to become a professional radio professional.

My usual process is to block out pages in basic text, then go straight to thumbnails, writing actual dialogue is something I usually do last and only because it’s the easiest thing to change at the last minute.

But I have been super critical of many writers in my space – that somehow, I don’t feel like they have spent anywhere near enough time crafting something that is suitable to the medium of comics. If the saying is true, that to a hammer everything looks like a nail, then I felt most writers viewed everything as text.

They may have imagined something, thinking it through in their mind’s eye like some movie playing back in their heads. But most of the time, it is some replay of a popular movie, or even another comic, that they have internalized and wanted to make their own.

I think exposure to too much media makes a person far less creative than they could be. I don’t like to work with writers who’s only comparisons come from popular culture. I know it’s inspirational for some writers to look at the latest Netflix hit and declare “that’s what I want to do!”

I fall victim to the same tendencies, after all I basically rip off Blade Runner in everything I’ve ever made. Hypocritical, I know. I’m working on it.

I’m ranting again – I have never spent this much time trying to write something as if someone else were going to draw it.

Van Halen and life in general

Van Halen. A name and a band, and for me personally kind of a mantra.

I started playing guitar when I was twelve, but I can’t say I ever truly studied music formally. My mother was a music teacher, and she did for a short time demand that I learn to play piano but Van Halen made me bargain and whine for a guitar instead.

Piano just wasn’t cool enough. I told her many years later that I had made a mistake by not learning piano as well as I did guitar. But it was my choice, and as long as I was learning to play SOMETHING musical, she was happy.

I can remember a class I took in college where everyone was told to bring in something purely audio, not necessarily music, as part of an active listening exercise. I brought in “Cathedral” off the album Diver Down. I asked the class what instrument they thought it was and there were some who already knew but no one guessed it was a guitar. Look it up if you’ve never heard the song.

It’s really more of a solo than a song, but it got me thinking even when I was a kid that the guitar or anything was open for exploration. That formal learning only takes you so far. Eddie learned to play piano to a pretty high level, also encouraged to do so by his father (also a musician). I’d learned that just like Eddie didn’t play like anyone else, I didn’t want to create like anyone else.

That first song, Running with the Devil has a lyric that goes “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow, all I’ve got I had to steal. ‘Least I don’t need to beg or borrow. Yes, I’m living and I face that guilt.”

I think for me that lyric means something else – it’s not a call to hedonism that so many people misinterpret it to be. It’s kind of fatalistic – I HAVE to live like there’s no tomorrow because TODAY is so hard. It’s not all just a big party, it’s about the work that you have to do to get done.

Running with the Devil still gets a lot of radio airplay. Yeah, I still listen to the radio. It’s definitely a technology that’s lost it’s cool to the mobile earbud army of iTunes zombies. And any time that song plays, it still feels fresh to me.

I bought a Parker guitar a little over two years ago, even though the company kind of disappeared recently though many promise it will return eventually. It’s a guitar with a lot of really carefully crafted features to facilitate playing. Smooth surfaces, good components, lightweight construction.

I think plenty of people would accuse Parker guitars of being clinical. Too clean. But they don’t get it. The Player is the one who is supposed to add that “dirt” or “fire” – Eddie would famously tell people it’s pointless to tell you what gear he plays, because you will always sound like you when you play.

Kicking back into my favorite pet peeve of fan art, some often say that fan art is exactly that same outlet. That people are adding their own spin to established characters. Eddie would, I think, vehemently disagree and his argument would be one of his own albums – Diver Down.

As any Van Halen fan fan can tell you, Diver Down is a bone of contention – it is largely cover tunes. As a fan, I love the albums original songs – the aforementioned Cathedral is on that album. But Eddie hated it – too many covers, Van Halen had already slogged through the Los Angeles music scene playing covers because party goers demanded it.

And artists often view selling fan art as a means to get the bigger gig. And it’s true, I think it has happened – but Van Halen became a top rock icon because of it’s original work, not it’s cover songs. Gene Simmons didn’t hear their demo of cover songs, he heard their originals – Running with the Devil was one of those songs.

So who are you Running with? The Crowd? Or the Devil? Haha!

Deep color, and running blades

Colors are mostly done now.

I was really happy with that last panel – in kind of benefitted from all those years of rendering depth maps in my day job as a CGI/visual effects guy.

Depth maps are weird to look at in isolation – painting them by hand is like painting a deep landscape with no actual details.

If you are a colorist, making flats which basically recede in value per layer of the scene accomplishes this pretty easily. And since I am ultimately a Blade Runner devotee with too much time on his hands, I almost always make some kind of Blade Runner homage or hide an Easter egg in the architecture somewhere.

I think I’ve done this in nearly every book I have published – some establisher somewhere invokes or cribs a detail from the movie. To real fans, it’s sometimes painfully obvious, and I like people’s reactins (especially die hard BR fans reactions) when the spot them on their own.

Anyway, hope to see some you at WonderCon 2018 in artists alley, table E-07.