Graphic novel update: 8.29.11

There is little in the way of academic thought today as I have been crunching away at my self-imposed deadline to finish my eight key characters this week. I’m happy to report that I’m running renders on the last one right now. This one is turning out to be it’s own unique challenge, as they all have been, but will probably require numerous render passes and more compositing than the others.

I’ve also decided to make DeviantArt my launching point for these characters. I thought about doing it right here but this blog is not really set up for large imagery and DevArt handles that pretty well. Plus, these are the people who really appreciate the work that goes into this so it makes sense. I’ll be adding them to scottdenison.com but in a lower res format.

Now, the question is: one a day, or all at once? I’ve created a template for the characters that links them all into the book title and supplies some basics on who they are. There will be a story synopsis to accompany the launch, but it’s going to be a year before the 500 or more panels are complete so after this, folks are just going to have to use their imagination. I’m thinking that to keep things alive until the book is finished I’ll be posting random renders, scenes, props, “diegetic prototypes”, (there, I made my academic contribution) and such. And, of course, I will keep everyone in the loop on progress.

This autumn I will be teaching Basic Design at OSU, which is a heavy 2:45 studio, three days a week. No telling, at this point, how much it will eat into my design time on the book. We’ll have to wait and see.

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What designers can learn from a sci-fi graphic novel.

With characters and script, synopsis and page grid nearing completion, I am poised at the threshold of an epic design journey and the production phase of my MFA thesis. Through my work this past summer, I have already begun to construct the context for this future, the story of the characters, their lives, and their world and visualize it within the constructs of a science fiction graphic novel. For this future prototype, I have chosen a new visual style — not film, not hand drawing — but stylized realism from computer-generated imagery (CGI) to further enrich the story, the cultural legibility, the theoretical visualization, the experience, and the emotional resonance.

As I have blogged before, I want this to be a great read, but for the designer it is also something more. This project is a multi-layered examination of the conjugation of design and narrative. With a trip to the latest superhero flick, there is clear evidence that we now have the technology to envision virtually anything, any world, any impossible feat and any disaster. Within these virtual visualizations, our design—our stuff—often taken for granted, supplies context and cohesion. The more the design reflects the culture the more real and reasonable the premise — the more virtual the vision. Thus, on one level, design blends into Bleecker’s[1] background providing credible context for a future vision.

On another level, design also becomes an accelerant for our culture and society. If the design around us, in our messages, our products, our tools, and our lifestyles is so inextricably woven in our culture, then it bears examination of what we make and how it will affect culture — perhaps before we simply wait and see.

Design also participates in the storytelling exercise and the way that future worlds can be prototyped. The graphic novel becomes a means to create a visual prototype of one such world in a fashion arguably less costly than filmmaking, where the designer gets to ask the holistic question of what design will be like a hundred years from now in the context of people’s lives wrapped in a compelling narrative.

The examination is multi-fold. The designer must create a purely hypothetical drama, then speculate on how it might be made real, how design can contribute to authenticity, what new things and ideas might be woven into the texture of human lives, and pulling threads of science fact into science fiction create the visuals and style to serve as prototype and narrative guide through a coherent order utilizing the conventions of the art form and the tools of the graphic designer.

At the end of the journey is introspection and conversation on the implications of such a journey for design practitioners as contributors to future media, entertainment, artifacts and information.

Possibly this is more real to me after having done it for 30+ years, but it seems that this is about design habits, and the tried-and-true that we exercise every day in the practice of commercial design, back and forth over the same territory, forging ruts and channels that make us and our design so predictable. In many ways, if we never stop and ask, “What if?” we will never spark that new synapse that will lead us to the untapped possibilities. Design should do that, too.

 

[1] Bleecker, Julian. 2009. Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. (37)

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My sci-fi graphic novel: more updates

Editors note: If you are arriving here for the first time, I’m a designer working on my MFA thesis is a graphic novel set in the far future, 2159. The objectives are two-fold: 1.) an exercise in epic designmanship that examines the design-culture relationship within a future narrative. Because the end result is visual, making things and and diegetic prototypes are a natural by-product.  2.) Created entirely in CG,this visually rich graphic novel will be an exciting, page-turning, thought-provoking adventure into the future.

With that behind us, I’ve made some progress on character design, to the point that I think I’m back on schedule and satisfied, (do you believe it) with the renderings, style and overall look that is developing. Five of eight characters are complete with the remaining three underway and well past the half-way point. As soon as this is completed I will be working to polish my overall story synopsis so that you guys will have something real to think about. I’m seriously toying with the idea of going on Kickstarter to get some funding. I’ve been working around the clock on this for almost a year, (with no appreciable income) writing, researching, etc. and a printed book seems to be a necessity, and that means promoting it and everything that goes with that — hence the funding.  A web comic, as I have discussed previously, might happen but only after the entire work is complete. This could be a year away.

Also on the list is a website for the book based on the title, and a video trailer. So, there is no end to what needs to get done.

Meanwhile, on my parallel path of examining the relationship of culture to design and vice versa, my designer investigations have touched on dozens of design decisions that amount to futurist predictions for the year 2159. These would include geo-political changes,  the philosophical ramifications of a techno-human future, society, religion, crime, as well as a plethora of design speculation on things like interiors and furniture, architecture, telepathy, fashion, transportation, food and cooking, weaponry, hardware, learning, and, of course, the meaning of life. All of this requires prototyping, researching and designerly thinking on the relationship of culture, the human condition, and design. Is this fun or what?

The path to that place, right now, is a matter of 3D modeling, UV texture mapping, rendering, rendering, rendering, tweaking, rendering, Photoshopping, and did I mention, rendering? Anecdotally, I was putting the finishing touches on one of my key characters and as I’m walking the image, I notice that there is this annoying shadow in the background. It reminded me of my studio days working with the great photographer, Paul Schiefer and those moments when we would be staring at the screen saying, “Where did this shadow come from?” We always had tons of lights on the set so it became a matter of switching lights on and off to find which one was the culprit. Of course, this is exactly the procedure in 3D. When I found the offending light, (set somehow to a distance of 25ft.) I ratcheted it down to about 6ft, but my next render revealed a background in darkness. Hmmm. Here’s where you depart from the photo studio world: I added a new light exactly where I needed the illumination and turned shadowing off . The result a perfectly lit background sans pesky shadow. That would have come in handy in the studio, huh Paul?

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Grinding it out – Graphic Novel update

Today: 3D tutorials. Web comics. Future of clothing. World Future Society.

Have I mentioned how I hate to learn software? It’s a young man’s game. As I remember back to the early 90’s, I taught myself 3D with programs like Strata 3D and PowerAnimator. Somehow it was easier then — software more intuitive (and less robust) — or I was just a lot younger. Anyway, I find myself having to learn certain aspects of the various software programs that are in my stable, just to move from point A to point B. Clothing is a bear. I mean really. Getting clothing to look realistic can be a nightmare. I’m a full week behind on my character designs and clothing is a big part of the issue. Nevertheless, I am grinding on. I still plan to release my eight key characters in September along with the plot line for the book. This comes with the caveat that I can change my mind at any time.

I have also toyed with the idea of launching the story in weekly form online, but have since thought better of it. I’m afraid that launching my graphic novel online before it is finished will prohibit the kind of last minute tweaks and changes that help continuity and overall polish. For example, my first spread is a fairly ambitious project in and of itself, and I am trying to capture a number of sophisticated visual effects to set the state for the whole story. But as I continue to work daily, I actually find that I’m getting better at what I do. What my first spread looks like today could look infinitely better in a year, (when I hope to be finished) if I could go back with new chops and polish it up.

Speaking of clothing… I’ve also done a lot of thinking about what people will be wearing in 150 years. Putting on my futurist hat, my design speculation is that clothing will be more technologically active than today, and a body suit will be the standard for most. It will also be possible to create your wardrobe in your closet, a scarf, a jacket, whatever on your own 3D textile printer. But most of the time you will be wearing a tight fitting body suit that is constantly monitoring your internal chemistry as well as functioning as a mediator with the outside world to provide information and protection. If you are thinking that some people will not look so good in a tight fitting body suit, that should not be a problem, since we will be long past the medical advancements required to maintain perfect body weight and muscle tone late into your first century. So there.

That brings an interesting point and why I have to keep driving toward the finish line on this as fast as I possibly can. If I take too long on design, I run the danger of never finishing. A year is a long time. My whole story vision could change if I’m not careful and over the course of a year I run the risk of hating everything I’ve done thus far. This happens, so I’m going to have to watch out for it.

On an academic note. The World Future Society is calling for essays for next year’s WorldFuture 2012: Dream. Design. Develop. Deliver. Neatly, they’ve inserted design into the theme. What could be better than that for my design fiction essay. I will probably submit. I’d love to attend.

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Rambling on thought bubbles and word balloons

I’m finding that, like it or not, I’m having to make some style decisions — which I hate — to me: it’s never good enough. One has only to browse through the gallery of ConceptArt.org or the CGSociety to get thoroughly intimidated. I have some lofty goals in creating this graphic novel: not only a great story, which for some reason I seem to be pretty happy with, but also in the art which, in my case, is a blend of CG models and stylistic effects, the latter of which is where I am struggling most. I don’t want this to be super-realistic or to suggest that these images are somehow real. I have no interest in going there. But I do want the images to have certain richness and a style that pulls you into linger on the image while at the same time not distracting from the story. Not that I think that either one is a deal breaker, since I have seen plenty of successful graphic novels that, I personally, find difficult to look at and others that look so good that you find yourself looking forward to the next page more for the art than the story. Both can be satisfying. Certainly, the overriding objective is to achieve that elusive chemistry between image and story. Having said that, I do think that CG begs a certain amount of detail and the design fiction influence that is so much behind this project more or less demands that you can stare at the thing if you want to know more; that you get the context and the way it (whatever it is) is made.

Which brings me to the next stylistic decision: the inimitable thought bubble or word balloon and how to handle the onomatopoeia — ratta, tatta tat and all that. Thought I haven’t read a solid rationale for the thought bubble, some historians attribute the conceptual origin of word balloon to breath on a cold day that puffs from out of our mouths. Unlike the movies, in comics you can’t hear what I’m thinking you have to see it. The question arises, stylistically, in how you render that without distracting from the art. In comics where the art is rich and textured, Watchmen comes to mind,

 

 

 

one could argue that the bright, white, word balloon, seems to detract (though not much). But, if find that as I race forward to find out when the bomb will explode, I am focusing on the words to propel me, then I am sacrificing (for the moment) the image, not studying it as it may merit. They are not making that seamless blend. I wonder if my word balloons and or thought bubbles can be of more equal value, more seamless as in the movies, so that one does not necessarily leap out at me like the stark white balloon in the dark alley (full of it’s own nuance). Can they be seen as more of a unit and then the reader chooses? I think so.

 

The beauty of this medium is that anything goes. Breaking rules and starting new ones is what comics is all about. At one level, it demands it.

 

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Update: graphic novel layout, character progress

I’ve begun to layout a preliminary page grid for my graphic novel. Continuing my mild obsession with the anamorphic, widescreen format ratio of somewhere around 2.40:1, and my cinematic aesthetic bent, I have created a page size of 8.5″ x 9.5″ resulting in a spread size of 8.5″ x 19″. If you plug in the margins that gives you roughly 7.5 x 17.625″ of spread image which is 2.35:1. Close enough. As of now, it has 12 panels per page, which provides ample opportunity for variety and pacing in horizontal and vertical formats.

My 12 panel grid

I’m guessing that there won’t be many 24 panel spreads in the book, but it’s too early to make that prediction. I have actually started to work on what I am thinking will be spread 1 while waiting for renders to complete.

Speaking of renders, I’m about a week behind right now on my key character renderings. Interesting things pop up in character design. For example the character I create now, is pretty much the character I have to live with for the duration of the project, so I really have to resist the tendency to “settle”. Costumes will have to live with these characters through a lot of action and exposition, so they need to be right. It is getting pricey though, because I am investing in a lot of models that are getting tweaked and modified. The perfectionist in me would like to create everything from scratch, but a.) I don’t have cadre of modelers, and b.) I have to finish this my allotted lifespan. Throughout, however, I am working hard to make this look like a non-stock project, and already I have modeled from scratch two key interiors, about a dozen exterior structures, a couple of weapons, some props, and three vehicles — plus the accompanying image maps. I’m reserving the stock for models that would simply suck up far too much project time. But believe me, there are plenty of Hollywood films rife with stock imagery and models, so I don’t feel so bad.

Back to rendering…

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The human-machine hybrid culture and design fiction

As I have said numerous times in previous posts, my graphic novel takes place in the year 2159, a full 100 years after Ray Kurzweil’s predicted Singularity; the point at which we will either merge with machines/technology or they/it will surpass us. As people begin to noodle this concept, whether they buy in or not, it seems they are suddenly starting to think seriously about the future of technology and whether this future should perhaps be designed or just evolve at its own sort of chaotic pace. Already I have read a half dozen “futurists” predicting indefinite lifespans and even immortality. Once we replace or “regrow” our bad architecture or infrastructure, and once we switch-off the bad, disease causing genes we will be free to contribute endlessly and productively to society — or will we?

A lot of people are thinking about this it would seem and it’s becoming much discussed on the talk show circuit. Meanwhile, if the live-forever-singularity is on schedule millions of baby boomers will be lamenting that they are the last generation that will have to die. Sigh. Some futurists are wondering what it all means. What will guide us into doing the right things in this future? Where will we  find meaning in all this? Some are calling for a “grand mythological narrative” to tie it all together.  In an article from Forbes Online, Alex Knapp interviewed Jason Silva, a producer who is working on a documentary entitled, Turning Into Gods.  Silva says, “In a secular world, we need to find better ways to Get Off On Awe. In other words, our thirst for transcendence hasn’t disappeared, it just needs better entry points. In my mind, its at the intersection of art and science where we find WONDER. Wonder is the precursor to awe, it elicits the possibilities of consciousness expansion. The more we see the more we become. This is Werner Herzog’s “Ecstatic Truth”… Its what we live for.”

In another blog, by way of the aforementioned Forbes post, Knapp cites a post on a futurist portal, SpaceCollective.org, Daniel Rourke, says, ““One of the main problems facing the scientific community of today is that the general populous finds no ‘meaning’ in its enterprise.”

What I find fascinating is that the original master narrative, God, is ipso facto out of the discussion. Scientists, secularists, and even atheists are admitting that we thirst for transcendence but God can’t possibly be it. In fact, it would appear that they would rather invent their own “mythology” which is what many atheists and secular thinkers have called Christianity.

This poses a conundrum of sorts. With the onset  of meaninglessness, the post-modernist thinker finds that existence without transcendence or moral direction to help guide them into the hybrid, man-machine, trans-human future is uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that they need to construct a mythology. But to do that, they will have to sneak in the Judeo-Christian tenets of good and evil. And here’s the problem: In the pure post-modern sense, there really isn’t any objective source for what good is. If there is a moral law, there must be a moral law giver. But that would be God and you can’t go there, right?

Who will we use to replace God? A few “good” men? Reason?

Let’s hope we can do better than reason. Reason brought us “survival of the fittest” and (as predicted by none other than Friedrich Nietzsche after pronouncing that God was dead), the bloodiest century in the history of mankind (the 20th century, that is).

In Jason Silva’s movie trailer, he quotes Edward O. Wilson, ” Home sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us…  Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.”

That’s all well and good, but if you happen to believe or even entertain the notion that God, just possibly, might be the force that made us, then He might just find that statement bloody arrogant. What if He will have none of it?

This is all juicy stuff and 148 years from now these questions will still be there which makes for good drama in the graphic novel. As author and designer, I’ll be doing a lot of speculation on the human/machine hybrid, culture, and design fiction, but something that hasn’t changed for a few thousand years is human nature.

I wonder: If the same human nature that discovers the marvel of nuclear energy and, in turn, makes an atomic bomb, what do you suppose awaits us with technologies we haven’t even imagined? Will a new mythology save us?

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Grappling with sci-fi jargon

A friend and I were discussing the phenomena of sci-fi jargon that so many books and stories use. Personally, I find that it can tedious when it’s overdone. My guess is that it started somewhere around the time of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s deemed to be something of a classic. It certainly has the accolades. Wikipedia gives this description, “Neuromancer is a 1984 novel by William Gibson, a seminal work in the cyberpunk genre and the first winner of the science-fiction “triple crown” — the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award.[1] It was Gibson’s debut novel and the beginning of the Sprawl trilogy. The novel tells the story of a washed-up computer hacker hired by a mysterious employer to pull off the ultimate hack.” That’s a good synopsis. As I recall, the book is set far into the future but no exact date is given. Neuromancer is one of those sci-fi books that are fraught with pseudo jargon. Check out this passage,

“The gate blurred past. He laughed. The Sense/Net ice had accepted his entry as a routine transfer from the consortium’s Los Angeles complex. He was inside. Behind him, viral sub-programs peeled off, meshing with the gate’s code fabric, ready to deflect the real Los Angeles data when it arrived.”

That’s actually a mild example, and you find yourself wishing you had a glossary to help you figure out what he’s talking about. But it is highly imaginative stuff and was clearly the seed for a lot of science fiction that followed, including The Matrix.

When you are creating a work of future fiction a certain amount of new lingo is an imperative. Look how language alone has change in just the last ten years. Twenty years ago, terminology like GPS, GSM, and iTunes were unheard of, and street slang was a completely different animal. So, to some degree, newspeak is required. Don’t look for my graphic novel to contain a Gibsonian level of verbal texturing however. It’s too much work for the reader and me. While I’ve invented a few words, some slang and such, most of them have some conjunctive grounding in present tense origins, so the reader can figure it out without a glossary.

I welcome more examples of sci-fi speak. Send them along.

 

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Design challenges in design fiction

Part of what makes design fiction so interesting is that you have to speculate, an exercise almost unheard of in the traditional practice of design. In fact, after 30 or more years in the profession, most clients would probably concur that the designer has no right to be wrong. Market research, iterative design and prototyping, along with the rigor of the design process should eliminate ideas that don’t cut it or won’t cut it in the outside world. Design, as we know it, is a criterion-based practice. Time, money, market, manufacturing, competition, user analysis/interface, usability testing and a myriad of other forces are what shape, and ultimately mold, the final solution. It is a fact-based, reality-based endeavor. The exercise, if you will, of design fiction, forces the designer — not to abandon research — but to venture forth without the comfort of the conventional design climbing holds, or to create their own. Building design constraints for a speculative future can be approached two ways, through pulling threads of existing technologies and social trends (which seem to be becoming the same thing) or through wild unbridled fiction. The latter carries the dismissive, “Don’t ask me how, it’s just that way”, as something akin to the writer/artist’s artistic license. Hey, it’s fiction. The former blends the brain of the designer and the writer/artist and insists that he or she ground the idea, however speculative, in the roots of some plausible science or social momentum.

Hence, as I begin crafting the visual world for my graphic novel, I find myself struggling with these challenges daily. This summer, I am working on the self-imposed deadline of August 31 to have completed character designs for the eight, key cast members. Each character is posed in a relevant (though not apparent without having read the story) scene from the book. That requires not only the design of the character and the questions of what they would wear, the material, the design, and the function, but also the design of their accessories, as well as the design and construction of the set on which they are standing. The decisions seem endless, sometimes terribly frustrating and enthralling at the same time. The CG workflow, which at this level often distributed between specialists in modeling, texturing, posing, lighting, rendering etc., lies squarely on my shoulders. Since I don’t posess virtuoso proficiency in any of the above, it adds to the challenge. On the up side, I may well be a virtuoso (at something) by the time the project is completed.

I plow ahead, but I am excited to show my progress, and hopefully on, or near to the deadline.

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