This week, two of the stars of our web comic, graphic novel continue chatting it up in the public security command center at Police HQ. I will let the conversation speak for itself and focus today’s comments on the challenge of rendering these control room scenes.
As I have stated before, everything is “shot” on location. That means that Kristin and Toei are on in virtual space, in a control room location, atop the same police headquarters featured on page 41 with a view of the built city of Hong Kong 2 that has been featured on pages previously. (The latest being chapter 2 prologue pages ix2-x2). Hence, when the camera is framing our cast the view is exactly what is “outside” the windows, or with them “in the room”. One would logically think, then, after all this “building” that it would be a simple matter of lighting and “shooting”. Alas, it’s not so simple. And the problem is focus. Using a real camera, in a situation like this would most likely yield a background out of focus so that we could capture crisp focus on our characters. Unfortunately, in Autodesk Maya, incorporating the rendering algorithms to calculate depth-of-field into all of these renderings would have increased rendering time astronomically, and probably not yielded a realistic look when it was all finished — if it ever finished.
I wanted the reflections in the glass to be fairly crisp, but the buildings that were far off in the distance to be more out-of-focus. All this required separate renderings. One for our subjects, another for the glass, and a third for the cityscape. Then the appropriate amount of blur was applied to each layer in Photoshop and composited into one single image with a believable depth-of-field. All part of the process of making The Lightstream Chronicles as engaging and visually interesting as possible.
This week we peek inside Techman’s workspace. A couple of story notes come through on this page. First there is the fact that Downtown is a several degrees cooler than TopCity, a phenomena caused by living in the shadow of the TopCity Spanner. This second level of the city covers huge portions of Downtown and the result is limited sunshine on Downtown residents. The next note is that Techman keeps his lair cold enough to see your breath. As he says it is to, “keep things fresh.” For now you can use your imagination.
In building this scene I had to collect a lot of public domain “props”; kind of like a set stylist does when they are out looking of accessories to make a room look lived in. I was part of this process for years as a set designer and creative director so the analogy is pretty solid. Of course, this is done in Hollywood, too using a prop manager. I have no qualms about using stock in these scenes since I am doing precisely what the prop manager would be doing on a movie set. Obviously, they’re not building every prop from scratch. As for the boxes, logos, and textures much of this was customized from the existing model image files or created fresh.
We’ve already determined that Techman is a bit of an outlaw who skirts under the proverbial radar and dodges the ubiquitous surveillance that permeates the world of Hong kong 2 in the year 2159. Back in my days as a designer working for Royal Dutch Philips here in the states, I would occasionally make my way down to the geek dome, the place where all the engineers would work on things like remote controls and televisions. They had these rooms that were entirely shielded in copper screen to keep signals in as well as to keep other signals out. As we move to page 30 you’ll see that I’ve built one of these rooms for Techman.
Now things are getting interesting. Last week Sean was about to step into the MagShuttle to head down to the dangerous street level in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong 2. Things will get a little grittier now and the oppressed, cyberpunk side of this society begins to gain some legibility. In panel 1 Sean is inside and looking out at the view from more than 300 stories above. Upon entering and by virtue of the fact that his identity was logged before the shuttle doors would open, the mesh promptly notifies him that TopCity residents are not advised to travel to that dangerous section of town. (The mesh refers to amalgamation of every network of every device, everyone’s chipset, every touch sensor, camera, scanner, electronic device and active surface in the greater 47,000 square kilometers of the Hong Kong 2 Mega City. The mesh is monitored by New Asia government computers and police security forces. It knows where you are and what you are doing. Though it is not something they advertise, the New Asia government likes to think that the mesh sees everything.
Sean waives the warning without a second thought (typical teenager – even though he’s 18) and opts for street level. As the shuttle descends, the third panel is worth inspecting with a zoom. Once the shuttle drops below the 50 story mark of the TopCity Spanner we can see the descent through the 20th century architecture of old Mong Kok.
For those who want to get the most out of the visuals, a zoom into panel 1 on this page and the last panel of the previous page shows some details of the MagShuttle interior, interface and navigation cameras, and panel 2 features a giant light panel (billboard) for the a synthetic companion from Almost Human Corporation, Sean’s employer. Panel 3 gives you a taste of the Mong Kok neighborhood.
The original intent of The Lightstream Chronicleswas a tasty coffee table, hard-bound book with slick, varnished black pages and a sweet linen cover with LSC emblem embossed in silver foil. Sounds cool, huh? Well, if you have been following the story, the blog, or the web site, then you know that that idea died a painful death on Kickstarter some months ago. I did a full diagnosis on that in a previous post, but now that I am several weeks into what has become The Lightstream Chronicles Web Comic I’m thinking that digital is not so bad after all.
There are a couple of reasons for this change of heart:
Experiencing The Lightstream Chronicles has two foci, one for the reader-observer and one for the designer. For the designer, the experience of creating the story, the research, scriptwriting, planning, design, and production become processes of continuous challenge. Each embodies design in different ways from the not so familiar means of writing fiction and dialog, to the more familiar methods of visual thinking, planning, prototyping, rendering, retouching, selection and layout. These, however, could all be grouped into the category of doing, which are valuable exercises in polishing the craft of a visual designer. A less visible benefit of the design fiction process is accessible only if the designer embraces the intentional act of questioning and reflection. The fabrication or visualization of realistic diegetic prototypes can play a major role in suspending disbelief about change and the plausibility of near and distant futures, but at this level, they are little more than contextual support for more believable stories.
In order for diegetic prototypes and artifacts from the future to provide the subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) commentary on the artifacts in use today and the interconnectedness of design and culture, the designer must ask, “What if?“ And the question does not concern the, “if ” of whether the artifact could be made, it asks what would happen if it actually was made, and subsequently used. It is this inquiry, that yields the story of human interaction, and the resulting behavioral and or social changes that occur. The experience of the designer then, can be twofold: as hypothesizing visualizer of future artifacts, adjunct to a believable tale, or thought leader who welds artifacts with human behavior in the form of narrative to provoke discussion and debate.
The latter was the intention of this thesis and project. It yielded and continues to yield an experience that drives reflection into the end-result of design and technology. Indeed, if in the storytelling, the audience of science fiction and its design sub-genre stops with the satisfying act of consumption, a strong element of the meal is left on the table. Such design fiction is intentionally made and should be similarly examined. Through reflection, these future artifacts provide form of social introspection and a way of slowing (at least long enough to converse and examine) the headlong pursuit of more, because we can. Therein the designer’s experience is enhanced through a far deeper examination of the process of design, and it’s consequences.
The second focus is deals with the zoom tool in the hands of the viewer. For the audience, in many ways, The Lightstream Chronicles is an interactive graphic novel. Though it is not built with sophisticated programming that incorporates motion and sound, it is built in a high-resolution format (300 ppi) that on most computer displays requires the reader to engage by actively zooming, panning and scrolling to navigate the pages. This was intentional. Building this level of detail facilitates the process of inquiry. It draws the reader into a more inquisitive relationship the environment, the characters and the diegetic prototypes. This sense of realism, of tangible artifacts, tactile surfaces, and atmospheric detail is critical to the design fiction experience. The resolution serves the dual purpose of having artwork that is of sufficient resolution for an eventual printing, and it encourages the reader to push into the imagery up to five times, thereby increasing engagement with the narrative.
This is a key distinguishing difference between traditionally hand drawn sequential art. While hand drawn art can be scanned or digitally built at a similar or higher resolution, it most often does not hold the level of 3-dimensional detail that would, upon inspection, yield any further value (beyond a fine examination of the artist’s technique). With CG that is built, realistically textured, lit, and rendered in virtual space the reader must adopt the illusion that the objects and people are not simply implied through the artist’s technique, but actually exist in 3D space.
In no way do I slight the sublime satisfaction of flipping through those glossy pages, but diving deep into virtual space has it’s advantages.
Thus far I’ve seen more than 150 downloads of chapter 1 of my design fiction, CG, graphic novel, The Lightstream Chronicles. The feed back is overwhelmingly positive: “Awesome!” “Amazing.” “Gorgeous!” Having studied the Kickstarter concept and many sites that succeeded and failed I knew better than to launch and then sit back and wait for the money to roll in. I’ve emailed more than 300 friends and associates and a couple of dozen media outlets with press photos and releases. I’ve even tried Reddit. I hope my friends and associates will be understanding as I’m going to be hammering away at my email list, right up to the end.
A couple of speed bumps.
There was this hurricane that hit the day my email went out, and then there was this national election thing. I think that impacted the response. In fact, a significant number of people that I mailed are easter PA and Jersey residents. Many of them were without power, so who knows what happened to their email. Then I look at the news this morning and there’s another storm bearing down on them. No point in emailing them again until we sort all this weather stuff out.
If you’re reading this and you haven’t contributed yet to the Kickstarter project, please go there and do that. Let’s make a book!!
It has been a long time since my last blog, but I’ve been making a lot of progress. While working on the Kickstarter Campaign, teaching typography to design sophomores, and writing new pages for my thesis, I’ve completed an in-depth website for The Lightstream Chronicles Graphic Novel. The site features lots of brand new back-story, character profiles, history, special features on design fiction and a section on the making of. Take a look and let me know what you think.
You will probably notice that there is a link to download Chapter 1 that is current “coming soon”. This will not be the case for much longer. I expect that the first 40 pages of chapter 1 will be ready to download in the next couple of days. I’ve been through several “final” scrubs and I’ve added all the page numbers. The last step is really just making sure that I have the right site source for downloading the content. My hosting service told me this week that they could not handle a significant number of 72MB downloads without running into technical difficulties. I want everyone to see these pages in all their HiDef glory, so 72MB is the no sacrifice requirement. My hosting service recommended something called a CDN. I looked into this and CDN stands for Content Delivery Network (aka Cloud Storage) and most of them charge for this service. Plus, unless you opt for a managed service at $$$ per month (in addition to your download fees), then you have to manage the servers yourself. Based on what I looked at, you need to be a real IT expert or computer science major to handle server configurations. The solution looks to be a free service like MediaFire. The link will take visitors off The Lightstream Chronicles site but at least we won’t have server hang ups or other problems for those who are anxious to see Chapter 1.
There has been a lot of prep for the Kickstarter launch including a creating a video trailer, bunches of new concept renderings, and an enormous amount of research including printing books, posters and T Shirts, distribution, shipping. The goal of the campaign, of course, is to get The Lightstream Chronicles Graphic Novel into a slick, hardbound book and the digital edition distributed. Here’s an image that took a couple of weeks to generate. That appears briefly in the video trailer. I’ll be blogging again, as soon as Chapter 1 is ready to roll.
I was shocked to see that my last post was in July. What have I been doing? There are four things, of late, that have been capturing my time. The first was completing a paper for Iridescent the Journal of Design Research. This required a lot of new writing over a period of weeks. I have not heard back on whether they have accepted the new work or not.
Next was collating the comments from the first review of Chapter 1 from the jury of twelve. Overall, I have to say that everything has been quite positive and all the suggestions very constructive. Most of the comments centered around text changes and errors. Some of the more visually sophisticated have honed in on renderings and made some good suggestions there as well. It looks like just a couple of re-renders are going to be required. The hiatus has also given me time to adjust and tweak where I was not 100% satisfied. In the last few days I have made some interesting adjustments to the speech balloons. This is something I have blogged about before. Speech balloons are critical for storytelling, of course, but in some instances they can be obtrusive. In my opinion, if they command too much attention and the pacing is taut, the viewer may end up reading the balloons and missing the art work. Since building a rich visual style into every panel is part of the signature of the book, I don’t want readers missing any of the art work. Hence, I have been trying for a technique that keeps speech balloons on an equal plane with the art — not too loud, not too soft.
One of things I find most challenging is back-and-forth dialog, and techniques for stringing the speech balloons together for each speaker. I am blown away by how well the team of Brian Michael Bendis, David Marquez and Sara Pichelli do this throughout the new Ultimate Comics Spiderman. The artwork and dialog are brilliant, but also the way Pichelli and Marquez chain dialog together. See the example below form Ultimate Comics Spiderman #9.
Here Marquez masters the repartee between Miles and Captain Quaid. My dialog and style are completely different in look and feel but hopefully they’ll flow just as well. Anyway, I have just begun to work on those suggestions and final improvements.
Third on my list, mostly while waiting on commentary, was to complete the web site for The Lightstream Chronicles. Inspired by the way so many movies and other diversions are going trans-media to fill out the world around the story, The Lightstream Chronicles online will provide additional character background, details on rendering and building the world, as well as other bonus features. There will also be a free download of Chapter 1. Once I have the guts to release those first 42 pages to the public the site will go live.
Finally, school has started at OSU. I am teaching first year Typographic Design. As usual, there is a lot of lecture prep, and course planning but even more now that the university has moved to semesters. That means an additional 5 weeks of material over the previous 10-week quarter format. I am also delivering more art and writing on the scholarly side to satisfy my own credit requirements toward graduation next may.
So, all this is to say that the book marches on. As the final adjustments to Chapter 1, complete the web site. I will be putting together a Kickstarter prospectus.
Oh, yeah, I hope that I can get started on Chapter 2 soon.
It has been about a week since I posted my concept art for the upcoming graphic novel. Thanks to all the encouraging emails and Facebook messages from friends. Response from outside the “circle of friends” has been slow. Possibly it wasn’t such a great idea to slide this out over Labor Day weekend. My rationale for getting this out so far in advance is to get some conversation going about both the project and academic paper that goes along with it. Patience is a virtue. If there was a magical formula for social networking, I suppose, everyone would be going viral, all the time. response has been 99% positive, with some reservations about my 7th character Marie. It’s difficult to explain when you haven’t read the script but one thing you need to keep in mind is that the story takes place 148 year in the future. If you think things have changed since you were in school, think about that kind of time frame. We’re looking at major upheavals in politics, religion, even the human body. We’re grappling with epic shifts in the way people look at the world and their lives, their perceptions, their lifespans, their ethics, their technology, their taboos, and their existential struggles. Even though the story falls somewhere in the sci-fi, crime thriller genre, all of this other is the swirling cultural backdrop that becomes part of the story’s texture. I think it makes a good narrative doubly fun to jump into.
Since posting I have attempted to take care of some other business, like getting ready to teach Design 251 in about 10 days, and general life stuff.
As the production schedule goes, I still have a few characters to tweak and I have been modeling away at more 22nd century props that will be part of my future design world. The next major undertaking is thumbnails for the hundred-some pages that will comprise the book. I think this is an essential phase. (In fact, I am taking a sequential imaging class at ACCAD in the fall where storyboarding is on the docket.) Putting my people into a sequential narrative format is where the rubber meets the road. Thumbnails will provide a visual roadmap for the project, essentially telling me what I need to render, what will be in each scene and the overall flow of the story.
I hope to have this phase complete, or at least well underway by December so that I can focus on rendering the imagery.
If you have comments on the art or story, (here’s the links again:1. DeviantArt, 2. the CGSociety, 3. scottdenison.com Ultra hi-res images are on DeviantArt which is set up for big files), please join the discussion.
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.
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.
If you’ve browsed my portfolio you see that I do a fair amount of 3D rendering, mostly for work but the tools are so superior these days that I have begun working on a few personal projects that let me stretch my modeling skills. The killer is always the time it takes to render and the final quality. To that end I just added Maxwell Render as my rendering engine. I found that it had a fairly steep learning curve and there is a lot more to learn before I could say that I’ve mastered it. There are some truly exceptional artists out there using it and are extremely proficient. You can explore it at http://www.maxwellrender.com
I use SolidThinking as my modeling tool primarily because I’m Mac-based and there aren’t too many NURBS based modeling platforms for the Mac. ST has its problems for sure, but it’s far more economical than say, Maya. Though, I think I will probably end up there eventually (save my pennies). I actually learned modeling back in the old days using Power Animator, on an SGI, moved up to Maya when it was Maya 1.0. Never was able to keep up with the upgrades.
Anyway, it seems like you could research rendering programs forever. I was looking to increase render speed when I started my search and I looked at Bunkspeed before settling on Maxwell primarily because of Maxwell’s materials editor. Really great stuff. Now, however, I am hearing a lot about VRAY. I’d like to hear what others are using and some of the pros and cons.