Graphic Novel for Design Fiction

The rage, when it comes to design fiction, is to make a film. The examples of this abound, not only the best diegetic prototypes from Blade Runner, Minority Report and 2001, that really started us thinking about this stuff, but also the recent presentations by MicrosoftCorning or Sony. In fact, with each new sic-fi or super-hero blockbuster there is some element of design fiction that is woven into the narrative. Tony Stark’s high tech lab with it’s holographic, gesture interfaces, is really just a “one-up” of John Anderton’s pre-cog version. The heart implant, however, doesn’t qualify so much since it is rather removed from the trending or plausible science of today.

In my last post I listed two things that I believe are essential to qualify as design fiction. The first was that you have to make something, visualize it or prototype it. The second qualification is that you have to throw it into the background as a tool, and not fetishize it (to use Bleecker’s term). It’s much more about how the people use it and their interaction with it, than how incredibly cool it might look (which is OK, but it’s about the human drama first). If there is a third, then I think the design itself must be based on some thread of science or research that can be pulled out in such a way that, in theory, the thing could work.

Whether the authors, screenwriters, or production designers on these film did rigorous research before creating these visions, is not as important as whether the thought of plausibility was there, or whether it was pure fantasy, e.g.“OK, he will need little rockets in his boots so that he can fly.”  Not that there’s anything wrong with little rockets in the boots, I think they’re cool, but they are not design fiction — in my book.

So what does that have to do with a graphic novel?

This brings us to the title of the post. Why does a graphic novel do this better than a movie. First of all, I would not presume to say that it does it better. It does, however provide some interesting advantages that a film does not. The idea of sequential art that links story pictures (panels) in sequence to move the action forward, shares some obvious similarities to film, but it pretty much stops there. The distinction most frequently cited is what we call the “gutter”, the space between the panels that requires the reader to “fill in”. Most film marches forward in linear fashion delineating in perfect detail, all that is contained in one scene. Unless we grab the remote step-frame our way through, the film is designed to flow over us. The graphic novel, on the other hand, can show you as you turn the page, what is about to happen, and unless you are way more disciplined than I, you are likely to glance at the last image on the page before you read all of the images leading up to it. Therefore, as a double-page “spread” lays there in front of you, past, present and future are all displayed at once. Film does not do this. Even with rewind and fast forward, you are locked into the moment. This nuance allows the reader to study the image in a way that a movie audience cannot.

There are some good reasons, I think why this is a particular advantage for design fiction. First, the designed thing or technological idea that is being presented may not be front and center to the story, but it can be studied and lingered upon, before proceeding onward. Second, if the artist puts enough detail into the thing or ethnography into the idea, you can examine the waltz of interaction with the design in the innocuous way it seductively seeps into the background. I believe the this can only be done effectively, if you are able to proceed at your own pace. Once again, I know that you can step your way through a film, but often it lacks both the resolution or the detail to satisfy a deep dive.

In the case of my graphic novel, each scene is created in CG, so everything must be built. The designer is drawn in, perhaps more deeply, to craft the object with sufficient detail that it can be studied. Therefore, not only the size and shape and ergonomics of said design, but the finer details of its materials and functions may also be required. All this adds to the realism, and realism adds a dimension to the visualization and prototyping that combine to allow that item or idea to seem perfectly at home within the scene. I have taken it one step beyond, of course, and made each panel High Def, so that you really can zoom-in and see more; an idea that has already come back to haunt me as I inspect these very large images. “How did that thing get in the shot?”

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Design fiction – rendering and writing

Per my previous post, I have sent out the first chapter of my graphic novel to a handful of individuals who are familiar with the finer points of the project. While I assemble their feedback I have found plenty to do. Another peer-reviewed journal has shown interest in my, “When designers ask, “What if?”  paper. This one is requesting major changes. I am fine with that, since I submitted the paper nearly a year ago and there is lots of new learning as well as new perspective on the issue of design fiction. In the next 4-6 weeks, it looks like I will have to, essentially, rewrite the piece to incorporate this and to satisfy reviewer requests. All in all: good preparation for my final thesis writing.

The design fiction idea

As my reviewers adeptly noted there is a fair amount of activity in the design fiction realm and suggested that I identify more of it in my paper. The fact is, that more and more of it is coming online every day — the bigger question may be, “Where do you stop?”  Discussions also circulate in the science fiction realm regarding the importance of that style to future thinking. Most of these are concerned with science fiction strictly in the prose narrative form.  picks up on the idea of thought experiments which is my first exposure to the term. In many ways, I think that it is at the core of design fiction.

My thesis is distinguishable (from the many flavors out there), because it defines design fiction with two key requirements:

1. Design fiction works within the drama, life, and culture. I believe I am on the same page with  Bleecker and Sterling on this. It’s not about fetishizing the object or design, a la Microsoft, Corning or Sony, but in the way it works with the fabric of the narrative. Some of the best examples of this are in movies like Minority Report, Blade Runner, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. In these movies, the design futures, like the gesture interface used by Tom Cruise, Blade Runner’s epic billboards and photovoltaic glass, or the pre-cursor to the iPad used by Kier Dullea and Gary Lockwood, are not the focus of the story. They are diegetic prototypes; part of the background that moves the story forward. In this way we are able to observe, if we choose, how the design affects people, how they use it and ponder its viability. In so doing, it also creates a model of their culture. This is a major distinction because it is design as it should be. (This is also the stuff of drama, of narrative, of graphic novels. More on this later.)

2. It must result in a visualization or prototype. For us to absorb and appreciate the fiction, it must seem real enough to pass into the realm of the ordinary… part of the story. Therein, we as observers, can begin to appreciate how design becomes invisible. As I was discussing with my thesis committee chair today, I am directly experiencing a demonstration of the effect. The characters in my graphic novel are using a variety of technological designs intuitively, as part of their everyday lives. They don’t think about the fact that they can make a telepathic call to someone across the city, or that they can lapse into the virtual with a few taps of their fingertips; that they can change their attire purely via thought process. This is the kind of design that they take for granted . It becomes part of the mesh of the story. By seeing that happen, we are able to accept the notion that it might happen and examine the ramifications that would ensue if it did.

The fact that I have to find a way to explain it, is obviously not for the characters involved in living it, but for those observing it. Through this medium we can look at the way these technologies have changed the lives of the characters and, perhaps, gain insight into the awesome power of design, technology and the decisions we make — about what to make. The benefit in this exercise, to the designer quickly rises to the surface.

I’ll speak more to the special significance of the graphic novel to all of this in the next post.

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Chapter 1 — First world’s HD graphic novel?

For those of you who thought this might never come to pass, I am pleased to announce that I have just sent out to my “10-most-trusted” friends the contents of a preliminary chapter 1 of  The Lightstream Chronicles. (If you weren’t on the list, it isn’t because i don’t trust you, but because these 10 are much closer to the project). I spent what might be considered a luxurious amount of time on the splash page; an aerial view of Hong Kong in 2159, but I think that week spent tweaking the cityscape proved worthwhile. I am pleased with the way it turned out. Chapter 1 consists of 42 pages (including the cover) or 21 spreads. Not that many when you think that the final book will consist of just over 100 spreads, but nevertheless, I see this as a definitive “proof of concept.” In fact, I can’t wait to get to the first page of chapter 2. I have invited my 10 to provide feedback. Then I will make the final, final tweaks and begin Phase 2.

On to Kickstarter

According to my current plan, which I am still praying about, Phase 2 is Kickstarter. With a proof-of-concept out of the way there is still an enormous amount of work to do to get a Kickstarter project off the ground. Some of the obvious: a dedicated website, a video, premiums for the contributors, a huge mailing list. I have started on the website while working on the other elements.

 The first HD graphic novel?

So, what about this “HD business” that I stuffed into the title tag? Well, this may indeed be my hook. While it could be hard to convince people, at this early phase, that this is book to invest in — because it is a great story — there is a definite difference in the way I have illustrated it. Everything is built and rendered in CG. Some of the CG purists will, no doubt, dismiss me for having used Poser® for my base characters, but I spent uncounted hours morphing and customizing the faces, bodies and textures to move well beyond the conventional “Poser look” (and , yes, there is such a thing). However, and just to be fair, I have seen many CG characters in some of the most renowned video games that look more like Poser characters than my cast does, So there!

 But what about HD?

OK, OK, I labored over chapter 1, and will do so through the rest of the book to infuse as much detail as possible, trying to eliminate all of the cliche CG stuff. Caveat: Now, let’s get this straight: CG is CG. The only example that i can think of where the CG was virtually transparent was Avatar, and according to Wiki, it, “…cost between $280 million and $310 million for production and … $150 million for promotion….The lead visual effects company was Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand, at one point employing 900 people to work on the film.”1  So, I am short-staffed. This is not an apology! I think you will thoroughly enjoy the characters, the environment, the settings and the ambiance of the book.

Plus… there is a huge difference in the fact that you can zoom-in 2, 3, even 4 times into each and every panel (if you are so inclined) to inspect, or hunt for more information. Personally, I think the experience is enhanced the more you lingeron the page and probe through the background data. It’s all part of the story.

It’s big (in Mb), but lots of opportunity for zoom and pan.
It will “work” on an iPad with a pdf viewer, but that’s like watching Prometheus on your iPhone. This is meant for the big screen, preferably an HD cinema display with  1920 x 1200 or larger.

Some have suggested that you take in the story at a normal graphic novel pace and then, perhaps, go back at the end of each chapter and scan it for more info. I like that idea.

So what we have is chapter 1. According to plan, chapter 1 will go to Kickstarter by summers end, then each subsequent chapter will be sent to Kickstarter contributors on a thumb drive for a total of 6 chapters. Ultimately a book will be printed — 220 + pages.

That’s the plan. Gimme feedback. If you are absolutely dying to see chapter 1 before it goes live, email me at and tell me why.




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Graphic novel art – rendering in the rain

Rendering in the rain

This is an interesting challenge in CG. There are several options and I am anything but an expert, so if you are a CG artist and have any better ideas, please share. There are 3 ways to do it, that I know of. First, you can create rain using something called “particles.” These are 3D oddities that you can parameterize into smoke, dust, vapor, and rain — whatever. Since 3D programs are all based on physics and there are formulas for how everything “behaves” in nature, you can, through trial and error, create droplets (particles of a certain size, shape and material), that fall to earth (programming gravity and density and airflow) to approximate real rain. This is probably the only option (for life-like rain) especially if you are creating an animation and requiring the rain to be steady and erratic (like rain is) and to hit the ground and do something, like splash. All this is programmable in Maya (the software) I am using. But, I am not creating an animation, thus I have only to make a single frame glorious and the rain relatively believable. Not to mention that the art of particle animation I see as something of it’s own career. When done properly particles can be dazzling, achieving the closest approximation to the real thing, but there are so many variables to experiment with, getting it right would add bunches of unpredictable time.

Nevertheless, I was watching the rain yesterday and as you have experienced, if you have ever looked outside to see if it was raining, you can’t always tell. Unless you’re watching a torrential downpour rain is hard to see as it’s falling. So, you look for puddles or dark areas in the background that set off the contrast. That’s the phenomenon for daylight. At night, you have a different dynamic. Now, you can’t see the rain falling unless a street lamp or some other ambient light lights it, and again, you look to the puddles to see how hard it’s really raining. Just an observation that highlights an interesting twist. If you get too realistic, then you may leave your reader behind. If the reader has to hunt for the rain, then you are breaking the mood. In real life, we can often hear the rain, we know the forecast, or we happen to be outside in the rain. In which case — we know it’s raining. Hence, a little justification for why we exaggerate these effects so that it’s obvious to the viewer.

The next two options are more like 2D cheats. The first is to create 2D rain using software like Photoshop, (relatively easy to do), then apply it to a vertical “plane” and place it in your scene. You can add one in the foreground with bigger droplets and one in the background with smaller more condensed rain density, then render.

Seeing through all this transparency really taxes your renderer. I’m using something called MentalRay. It’s a dandy renderer but if you are not careful, it can spin on indefinitely, calculating every possible mathematical way of seeing what you have (ignorantly) placed into your scene.

One trick is to render these planes as a separate “pass” (just raindrops) then “composite” the raindrops overtop of your final rendered scene. It tends to speed things up.

Here’s an example of multiple layers of rain.

An example of multiple layers of rain.
A scene from the graphic novel. Sean in the rain.

The third option that I am aware of is just to add the rain in Photoshop after you have rendered the whole scene. If you mask out your foreground and background you can still achieve the various rain densities from that track the depth of your scene.

That takes care of the rain.

Now there’s the matter of the “wet things”: wet pavement, wet walls, wet surfaces, and wet skin. There is the matter of rain running off walls and spilling off roofs, puddling on the ground and splashing under foot.

Did I say that rain scenes were a nightmare in CG? Well, they are.

I offer this somewhat in defense of the time it took to complete the last two pages of Chapter 1.

The entire graphic novel story takes place within the time span of about 24 to 30 hours. So, it wouldn’t be unusual for the rain to stop for the next “few hours”, if you know what I’m saying.

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