Thank you… You’re Wacom.

One of my biggest bugbears when it comes to digitizing pencil scratchings is that I have to do my sketching on paper, get my phone out, take a photo – with a black piece of paper underneath to hide the stuff on the other side – then transfer that via bluetooth to my machine, process it through Gimp to get rid of the noise and stuff, despeckle, desaturate and use the threshold command to get the ‘black and white’ levels, mask one over the over to retain the gradient of the pencil or pen, and, finally, use my clumsy mouse for shading and colouring.

Ouch.

I’ve been drawing with a mouse since the old 286, and it’s fine and fair enough for this and that but, really, what I’ve been after is a way to draw / sketch / paint directly into the machine.

Intuous Art by Wacom

There I was, at Officeworks, looking for a present, when I saw this little puppy looking at me with sad eyes:

cth490k_galleryimage_1_600x600_emea.jpgI thought, “Nah. Nahhhhh.”

I did a skip around the store, found the present and was about to leave. I looked back. It was still there. “Take me home,” it said, not forcefully, not appealingly, just sagely.

“Take me home. Use me. I’m what you’ve been looking for.”

I have an old (ooooold) Wacom pen and tablet thing. As a pointing device, it was great. As a drawing tool, no good. Naturally I was skeptical about this one. But times change, technology improves, things get better, kinks get ironed out.

I thought, “OK.”

The rest is history. And, I have to say, it’s awesome. It came with a Corel painting software with which it integrates perfectly. It responds to finger pinching, so I can move the virtual ‘paper’ around, or zoom in and out, without having to leave the pad.

But the really cool thing is that it’s pressure sensitive, so if I want to make light strokes, the corresponding lines are light. Push down and make darker, stronger strokes. The result is a very natural looking stroke for pens and pencils, even watercolours, oils and acrylics.

Blending and shading, as you can imagine, comes out tops. In Gimp, it’s not so great because it doesn’t respect the pressure sensitivity, but pop the picture into Corel and it’s like liquid. I can shade gently, I can shade hard, I can smear this bit, scratch that bit, and even layer it all.

Needless to say, I’m going to be spending some time with this little pooch to make the artwork for Grosvenor Lane Ghost. My pictures will have a lot of chiaroscuro, contrasting light and dark, so I’ll be working on shadows and shines a lot, lanterns, old fireplaces, that sort of thing.

What do you know? I haven’t been excited by technology for a while.

On a side note, I’ve found that this is pretty cool for my little Boy as well: I showed him how to paint with it, how to change the colours and make shapes and things. He’s still getting the hang of it, of course, he hasn’t actually mastered holding a pen properly, but he loves how Daddy can draw him a dragon or a car or a train or a tree or a face or a cat, and he can ‘colour them in’.

Bugger. Can’t stick it on the fridge.Mini Jeztyr Logo

Let’s Animate… something.

I’ve spent some time on the music. I’ll need to spend some more time on it, of course, but I’ve had my fun and I should get back to the animations and whatnot.

Looking at my plan, I’ve made a few of the assets that I wanted, like Miss Penelope and the assault at the Sanitation Facility, I’ve got a basic tune to put it to, so, really, there’s no excuse to open up Synfig and start poking about.

Scenes

With The Bullet animation, the scenes were mostly long running, which fit the slow pace of the book and music alright, but Adaptation is more action and adventure (mixed with some metaphysical introspection) so it wants shorter, dramatic shots.

Shorter shots, means a shorter run time which, in turn, means more shots per minute. Considering I’ve got the music, and the whole animation, to run for a minute, I’m going to need to up my asset count by… more than what I’ve got.

Still, the good news is that I can actually compose clips and shove them together to see what I’ve got and get a feel for where I’m going.

Composition in Synfig

I did The Bullet in Synfig Studio, I’ve gotten comfortable with it, so it makes sense to continue on with it.

All of my drawings are two dimensional, with shading and hashing to give an impression of depth, but that’s not all I can do to help. Backgrounds and foregrounds, for example, don’t have to be ‘in focus’. To give an impression of depth of field, I can use Synfig’s blurring layer over backgrounds or I can also simply blur them in Gimp, saving on rendering time in Synfig.

Crabman, an important element, gets a look-in, as will Henry and Lucas.

Now I’ve opted not to make Vectors this time, instead I’m aiming for a more ‘paper cutout’ look, with sketching, hashing, colouring and heavy light / shade. Because of this, I won’t have an opportunity to use the bones feature of Synfig Studio, but that’s OK because it wouldn’t fit the style, anyway, and I want to save that for Grosvenor Lane Ghost.

Edit: This post was supposed to be posted about a week ago. Don’t know what went wrong, guessing this fuzzy headed dude didn’t click the ‘publish’ button.Mini Jeztyr Logo

Darker Sketches

The first batch came up sweet. I’m still learning from my mistakes even from the last few drawings. For one, I really need to take the photo with a black backing sheet to get rid of the text showing through.

FallenVigil
A fallen Vigil sketch with colour.

Secondly, the book is more than heads and scenes. It contains a fair bit of action, violence and brutality. Hence I need to include some of the more disturbing scenes.

Warning: The next portion does contain images that might be confronting. I apologise in advance for any offense, although I do conjecture that it is within context of the book.

ACS Troopers and Pan’s Torture

ACS TrooperSketch
ACS Trooper Sketch.
ACS Trooper
ACS Trooper converted to colour.

Two of the defining portions of the book come are the assault on the Sanitation Facility and Pan’s torture by the Rags.

After toying with various perspectives and points within the scene, I’ve chosen to go for the ‘implied’ violence option. We don’t need to see someone being shot by a trooper dressed in dark armour, the implication of a trooper holding a gun, along with a body and some blood spattering is enough.

There is such a thing as gratuitous violence.

That’s not what Adaptation’s about so it shouldn’t be in the promo. Still, the assault took place, so a trooper, perhaps even a silhouette of troopers, and a fallen Vigil will suffice. Notice the shortened legs of the trooper. In the original sketch the legs are longer and wider, but I’ve got some perspective issues when taking the shot. No biggy, I’ll fix them up in Gimp.

Concept of the Assault on the Sanitation Facility.
Concept of the Assault on the Sanitation Facility.

And before you get all thingy, yes, I’m aiming for more troopers to be part of the assault and yes, I’m going to add shadows to the figures and the walls. This is a concept piece.

Pan’s torture is a turning point for Ottavio. Not only does it activate the Berserker module, it also reveals just what it is that he’s fighting for.

As such, I need to display the naked, brutalised, emaciated body of Pan, up against the drug-crazed yahooing crowd of steroid-using Rags. Rather than drawing every Rag there and having a very busy scene, I’ve decided to make a silhouette of the crowd, and have two or three Rags in detail accosting the poor boy.PanTortureSketch

So with the sketches in place, I scanned, coloured and converted them, so that I can make a composition in the order of:

Pan's torture and brutalisation
Concept of Pan’s torture at the hands of the Rags

Having the dark foreground blurred, the eye is naturally drawn to the centrepiece. Perhaps I’ll animate the red sheen falling over Ottavio’s eyes as Berserker takes hold and superimpose the hearts and livers of the assailants. Then again, maybe not. I don’t want to give the impression that the series is just a bloodbath.

Once I knock these off, I think I should be set to start putting some pieces together, maybe even get started on the music.Mini Jeztyr Logo

Colour me Happy

Sketches are nice enough, but add a dash of colour and, boom! They come to life.

A Different Approach

In the Bullet Animation, I rendered all of my sketches in Inkscape to vectors. This made them look flat, however I noticed that when I added the colour regions and overlaid that on the original sketch, it looked kind of like a watercolour.

I responded to that.

So this time I thought about doing things a wee bit differently. Getting into Gimp, I added the photographs of my sketches and cleaned the up the best I could, desaturating them, upping the contrast, adjusting the levels.

Then, adding a Layer (Layers are super) I created and coloured in my regions. I ended up with flat colours. OK, OK, nothing too different yet, may as well have done them in Inkscape, but, whatever, bear with.

Adding Layers makes the process a lot safer and easier
Adding Layers makes the process a lot safer and easier

I then added another layer, and another. One for shadows, one for shines. I bundled these into a Layer Group (Only learnt about these recently. They help a LOT). Now, with the aid of Gimp’s tools, I could shade in the various regions, quickly adding some dimension to the colour which, in turn, added life to the sketches!

The Results

And they’ve come up nice. Of course, they aren’t vectors, so that means I can’t animate them as I’d like. I guess I could pass them through Inkscape if I wanted to but I don’t think I want to. I’m still deciding whether I want to go down the sprites path, or down the stills path.

Transition for Master Pietro - Colour, Shading, Blend
Transition for Master Pietro – Colour, Shading, Blend

That’s Master Pietro. Here’s Brother Holland:

Brother Holland, drained of blood, eyes staring at the roof.
Brother Holland, drained of blood, eyes staring at the roof.

And Master Penelope. I toyed with a mustard suit, but purple seems to suit.:

Transition from sketch, colour, shade and shine, and blend
Transition from sketch, colour, shade and shine, and blend

Darn it, the print is showing through. I’m going to have to filter it out somehow… *sigh*.

Anyway, as I sketch and colour in more, I’ll post them for y’all.Mini Jeztyr Logo

Some Sketches

Even with my plan in place, I’m not entirely sure how this is all going to fit together. What I do know is that I can’t sit around umming and ahhing to the point where nothing is done.

That’s a philosophy of mine: When stalled, do something. That something might be thrown out later, but at least there’s something to throw out AND more often than not, whatever you’ve got has got a chance of being exactly what you need.

Waddya got?

So I looked through my pile of ‘Things that I’d like to show in the animation’ and picked out ones that formulated a scene in my head.

MasterPietroSmall
Master Pietro, with his wonky nose, strong jaw and weathered appearance

The first is Brother Holland and Master Pietro. I’ve got a half-idea of Master Pietro discovering the murder, and a close-up of Brother Holland’s blood-drained body. Master Pietro will be aged, weathered, gnarled. That won’t be too hard. Brother Holland, however, will pose an issue.

It’s one thing to draw a face, another thing to draw a face in recline, and yet another altogether to draw one that has had all of the blood siphoned out of it.

My first few attempts looked too healthy, too plump and firm. Kind of like a movie where they slap a bit of tomato sauce on the hero to show that he’s been beaten up, yet you can see he’s still fighting fit and feeling well. Hmm.

BrotherHolland
Brother Holland, emaciated, blood drained, face sunken, lips drawn and eyes skyward.

I then trawled the internet for examples of mummified or desiccated corpses. OK, that wasn’t fun, and the example were too dehydrated. It went in the opposite direction. So I mixed a bit of both and ended up with something that might pass as Brother Holland, staring at the ceiling with his lips drawn back over his teeth.

Last one my list of must haves is Miss Penelope. She’s not someone you see the back of. Nor her profile. She is always looking your way, watching, observing.

Master PenelopeSkewSmall
Miss Penelope, crisp, sharp suit, glasses, hair pulled back.

Now, Miss Penelope does a lot of talking, but no one wants to see a head yapping away, so I’m thinking I might include the head shot in some kind of introductory way, perhaps as a contextual piece or to juxtapose the various ‘action’ oriented scenes.

One thing you’ll notice is that there is print on the back of the images. This is a mistake of mine: To save paper, I used an old proof of Hampton Court Ghost and drew on the back.

Now those letters are coming through on the front. I’m concerned that, with the paleness of the pencil, upping the contrast to get some lines will also include artefacts from the print. I’ve run into that problem before and I’ve found that re-taking the photo with a black piece of paper behind the image works well enough, but we’ll see.

In any case, these are the first of many that (fingers crossed) will give me enough material to work with.Mini Jeztyr Logo

The Bullet Animation – Vector Graphics

In my previous post, I showed you how I sketched up my characters to bring them into a digital format.

The problem is that they were still unsuited for animation in Synfig. I had to convert them from raster images into vectors. But how? Enter Inkscape stage left (inkscape.org). I had downloaded this on a previous occasion, toyed around with it and put it away because I had more pressing, important issues to attend to. Work is like that. Anyway, I’m happy I revisited it because it’s the bee’s knees. It can convert bitmap images into regions for you, it can apply paths in layers, it can fill with gradients and stroke with different styles, and you can even muck about with opacity and geometric shapes and…

Awesome, so…

So, I inserted the image into Inkscape as a layer, with the result as shown. Yeah, it looks scrappy, but it does get better. Working over the lines into paths, I traced over the top of the lines. Then I noticed that Inkscape has a layering facility. A bright idea struck me (I still have the mark) and I worked at breaking up the image into logical parts.

AssassinVector1After a couple of faces, I got into a pattern of figuring out all the different layers and regions of the eventual picture and added each of these as a separate layer. So, in the example of the Assassin here, there’s the hat, the glasses and his coat, along with the scarf. Furthermore, he has skin and hair and, on the skin, he will have skin in shadow and skin in light (Think old school, silver salt photography).AssassinVector2

The skin will appear underneath the hair and the hair underneath the hat. Get the idea?

With each of these as layers, it was then only a matter of sketching out the relevant outlines over the top of the picture to create paths. These can then be drawn and/or filled however you wish. To make life easier, I set the opacity of each layer as 50% so I could still continue to use to the underlying sketch as a guide.

I recently discovered that I could achieve the same thing if I locked the sketch layer, placed it at the top, and set the opacity of that layer to 30%. Eh, Pot-ay-to, Pot-ah-to. Got there in the end.

I chose not to have an outline on the regions, preferring instead to let the colours do the work of definition. I like line art, but after a bit of experimentation having lines on and off and with different thicknesses, I opted to go for fill only.

Darn it, now that I look at that partially coloured sketch, I kind of like the scruffy black-lines and washed up colours. Kind of like water colours. Storing that one in the back of my head for next time.

AssassinVector3Continuing on, filling in layer by layer, I ended up with the images that I could then use within Synfig. I reckon I could’ve spent longer but I had time limits imposed on my venture. After all, I’m supposed to be writing Hampton Court Ghost.

These images can be exported as .svg files, and can be used as scalable vectors in a bunch of programs. InkScape has a bundle of really cool features that I haven’t had a chance to play with yet. I was going to get all fancy with some of the plugins I did get to play with (there are some really cool plugins!) only when I tried to import the resulting svg file into Synfig, there were some issues. For example, importing regions that had bits knocked out them, like doughnuts, came in as filled.

I’m not overly sure, yet I think there’s a slight disparity in Synfig when importing SVG files in the current iteration, but it’s not a show stopper. I’ll get onto the topic of importing into Synfig in a later post.

Neat, huh?

ForemanVector1There you have it. I repeated the process for my various characters,  even for the Tester (who didn’t make it into the reel) and ended up with the pieces that I needed, ready to go. This really was a neat way to get my faces ready for animation:

Oh, whoops! I made the Foreman’s hair too dark. That’s OK, just select the hair and change the fill, adjust the hue, the lightness, the saturation.

Drat! I made him too small! Not a problem, being a vector, it’ll scale up or down without any loss in quality.

Blast! I needed a larger chin, the hat’s too short, the eyes are all wrong, I want scruffier hair. All good, just grab the path tool and add, remove or tweak the points until you’ve got it the way you want it.

That’s one of the beautiful things about this: You can add more layers to add more detail, add more points to define a better edge or, conversely, remove points and layers to simplify and posterise. I got into a rhythm of defining small paths, using the union option to join the regions together, then simplifying the path to get to a more cartoon-like style.

Creating the slug and the shell of the Bullet was the easiest of the lot. Being geometric in nature, Inkscape’s path tools made short work of it. I added another layer for the casing, and created a couple of ‘shines’ but left the gradients to be added after I imported it into Synfig Studio.

In my next few posts I’ll go through how I approached animating the scenes, you know, the ones I did way back then, and some of the problems I came across.

The Bullet Animation – Artwork

In my previous post I spoke about how I was making an animation as a promotional video for The Bullet and I got as far as laying out the scenes and getting the timing right.

For each scene I needed to get something to animate. Pictures, right? Right. Back in the old days (did I just say that?) I used to use some software that came with the Genius Mouse that allowed one to draw, fill, cut, etc. With this I could sketch an outline on the screen using a bunch of connected lines, then apply a fill and, presto! Art! I could save them in PCX format and, well, that was about it.

Enough Reminiscing!

My first thought, when approaching the task of drawing, was to open up Paint and do pretty much the same thing. Paint has come a long way from its 3.1 days (unlike Notepad, but then Notepad++ fills that glaring void) so I wasn’t too worried that I’d be able to get something knocked up. After a couple of strokes, though, I realised that it wasn’t quite suitable for my purposes.

Why not? Because drawing a picture as a bunch of pixels doesn’t lend itself to scaling or rotating or shearing without a lot of pixelation or tearing. Not only that, I freestyle draw a whole lot better with a pen or a pencil than I do with a mouse. So I made a plan that I would draw my characters freehand, take a picture of them with my phone then convert them into some appropriate format. Which format?

Well it turns out that the format I chose influenced the style of drawing. After reading up on Synfig’s tutorials, vector graphics (as opposed to raster) is ideal for 2D animation since the images are a bunch of instructions rather than a bunch of pixels. Without getting all techo, the image can be rotated or scaled or pinched or whatever and it won’t suffer the same fate as a bitmap image. The other really cool thing about vector graphics is that they behave a lot like the old painting program I used to use: The image can be built up from a set of outlines or shapes (paths, I think the lingo is), give it a stroke and a fill and away you go.

So I put the mouse down and picked up my pencil, sat down at the kitchen table and drew the characters I was after.

Sketching

I had to search through a few books and online to find the right kind of face for the job. Then is was a matter of sketching it onto some paper, rubbing and scrawling and positioning the eyes until I got what I was after.ForemanRawSmall

I started with the Foreman, the dude with the cap and moustache, then went onto the Tester, the Courier (neither of which ended up in the final feature) and the Boss.

Before getting too far into it, I took a copy with my phone’s camera, transferred it over to the computer and opened it up in GIMP (www.gimp.org) to make it suitable. I desaturated it, increased the contrast and fiddled with the levels to get it into the form you see here.

So that meant I had a rough, digital sketch on my box. Yippee. Doesn’t look much, does it? It needs colour, of course, and refinement, and a solid tidying up. The chin isn’t a strong as I would like, the cap bulge isn’t in the right spot.

MerchantRawSmallThis is where the whole business of turning the image into a vector affects the drawing style. Why? Because I’m not sketching to perfection, I’m sketching to get an outline. I didn’t need to colour in the picture. I could have left the moustache unshaded, even though it helped visually, since, when I make the moustache as a region, I can colour it any way I want. As you can see from the sketch, the hat has some rough shading, the chin is darkened, the hair is filled, all unnecessary.AssassinRawSmall

So when I got back to making the others, I concentrated more upon the outlines of the elements within the image, and the region of shades.

The Merchant, the bald guy with the awesome chops, has his features marked out like the Foreman does, but there’s a line running from his chin, weaving up past his nose and around the left side of his head, marking a region of shadow or darker skin. I shaded his chops to help out with the visuals for later, but, again, this was unnecessary.

ClientRawSmallThis is even more pronounced in the Assassin, with the glasses and stovepipe hat. You can see his hat just has a rectangle marked out for the ‘shine’, and his scarf and collar are outlines only.

By the time we get to the Client, it’s all outlines and regions. No facial hair for him. Just a warm cloak and a decent hat. That’s the kind of guy he is.

So, to wrap up, I sketched out the characters that I wanted on paper, photographed them, downloaded to my machine, stripped the colour and increased the contrast to get a set of outlines that I could use for the next step.

Stick with me. In my next post I’ll go over how I converted these images into vector graphics that I could then use in the animator.

The Bullet Animation – Conception

I realized only a few months ago that, whether I like it or not, promotion is a part of being an independent author. Like the saying goes, if you don’t blow your own trumpet, no one else will do it for you. So this next series of posts could also be titled, “How I learned to blow a trumpet”.

A big shout-out and thank you to Erman for giving me the inspiration to make a video for The Bullet. His suggestion to make an animation sparked in me a memory of a former interest. I had, back in the days of bulletin board systems (BBS’s, remember those?), 2400 bps modems and 5 1/4″ floppy drives, dabbled in animation and music, but my experience was frustrated by the poor interfaces (ASCII based), slow 286 CPUs, no sound card and a small hard drive.

It’s 2015, and we’ve come a long way, so, I considered, maybe I’ll give it another crack. I put my digital pen down and started poking around on the net for ideas and software. Good thing I had a decent supply of coffee! From low level to high, I considered my options. Not wishing to delve into 3-D modelling, nor draw every frame / cell by hand like I did back in the good ol’ days, I skirted past those options and settled on Synfig (www.synfig.org). A couple of demo videos on YouTube later and I was convinced.

The next problem was figuring out which book I was going to pick on. Almost immediately I decided upon The Bullet, since it gave itself nicely to 2-D animation, what with the old-skool Steampunk thing going on, and a couple of scenes jumped straight into my head.

Inspired, I got cracking.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. My next few posts will relate the process I took to get from an idea to the screen.

After playing around with Synfig for a bit, getting a feel for how it operates, I turned my machine off and picked up a piece of paper and a real pen. I’m a big fan of pen and paper for ideas. I’ve tried using tablets and styluses and finger scrawls but, in the end, I just end up frustrated. There’s just something about the freedom that nice paper and a good pen affords.

Anyway, although it sounds obvious, I had to take a step or three back and decide what it was that I actually wanted from the video, what the message was, how it was to appear, how long it would be, how the viewer was to see it. Important stuff. Boring stuff. Stuff that was getting in the way of actually making something. Yet I knew that it would be fruitless if I didn’t plan properly.

I had these grand ideas whirling around in my head, some stupendous, others just stupid. A full-blown twenty-something minute video just wasn’t feasible. What was this video for, anyway? Telling the entire story? No. Reading out a slab or two? No.

It was to be a short promotional video, enough to give a feel for the book without giving too much away.

To this end, I opted to keep it simple.

I’m not a fan of videos that go on and on, or have a massive lead-in time, so, doing a virtual demo inside my head, I whittled the scenes down to four or five to fit within a self-imposed timelines of roughly a minute. To visualise the scenes and test the timing, I scrawled out a timeline on some paper, complete with markers to indicate where things happened, and worked at it (scrapping some unnecessary scenes) until I got it down to a concise flow.

The end result is fairly consistent with what I ended up with and I think that this planning stage was crucial to getting this thing off the ground. Of course, a video isn’t really a video if there isn’t sound included. I marked out a few key sounds that needed to be included, pointed out roughly where they needed to go on the timeline, and put them on the back burner. But I’ll get onto the sound and the music in a later post.

There was a lot of squeezing here and poking there, to make sure that each scene was given a fair go. In the end, I used the conceptual stages of the book, rather than the chapters as I had originally planned, to create the scenes. A great deal of emphasis is placed upon just the creation of the Bullet, so this would naturally require a lot of detail, thus the first three scenes are devoted to the genesis and refinement of the Bullet.

The confusion and chaos on its journey was going to be almost a minute long but, in the end, I got it down to twenty odd seconds. Why? Because this wasn’t a movie; each detail of the Bullet’s journey didn’t need to be exactly plotted. Instead, the feel of the story was what was needed. So players like the Boss, the Courier and the Tester aren’t shown, but this isn’t really an issue, in fact, I think it was necessary. Too much detail can be as bad, if not worse, than not enough.

Finally, the realisation of the Bullet’s destiny, and its relationship between the Assassin and the Target, was to be the climax. Of course, there is no mention of who exactly the Target is, since that would be skewing the reader’s opinion, so I had to be careful not to put too much emphasis on the character’s visuals outside of what might be gleaned from the book.

In the end, I wound up with a bundle of pages, the first and neatest of which is shown below. The others look a lot like this, only there’s a lot more furious scribbling, crossing out, annotations, arrows (lots and lots of arrows) and times.

BulletScenes

In my next post, I’ll show you how I got my characters onto the screen with the aid of pencil and paper.