Monday, October 24, 2011

Meet Mr. Write

I just finished the third re-write on my script, and I think it's pretty much good to go at this point. I've been over it again and again with a fine-tooth comb, and at this point it is what it is; I'm just second-guessing myself. To shy from the drawing of it at this stage would be procrastination. I've no doubt that small changes in dialogue, panel count etc will creep in here and there as I actually illustrate the thing, but barring any serious cold feet, the writing has now been put to bed.

I'm delighted that it's finished. Still have no idea whatsoever if it's any good. I ran the bones of it past some of my mates in the biz(heh), and they seem to think it's a goer, so we shall see. For two months plus worth of work, it seems in some ways a small accomplishment. I guess I'm used to quantifying productivity through stacks of finished artwork, a much more tangible endgame. That said, I'm certainly happy with what I have ended up with. From a loose outline containing a rough beginning, middle and end peppered with some cool set-pieces, to what I think(hope?) is an exciting, action-packed, coherent and original story.

The proof, as they say, shall be in the pudding. To the drawing board!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Nobody said it was easy...

Man, I'm really getting stuck into the full script now, and it's tough. My outline is pretty water-tight, for good or for ill, so I'm not hugely worried about wandering off the beaten track or anything. But as I progress, I'm coming across elements that I suspect have maybe been done in some form before, and that can at times be in danger of bordering on the cliché. I'm second-guessing myself all the time, and I'm not sure if that's a positive or a negative. I certainly respected writers before, but now I'm simply in awe at the ones that can conjure up purely original concepts and ideas, and execute them in a fresh, invigorating way. It seems like pretty much everything has been done in one form or another somewhere along the line. Maybe the trick is to put a fresh twist on any given cliché, to present it in a new and interesting way.
It's true to say that the matinee adventure serials I'm trying to emulate were ridden with such clichés; all the various entanglements and cliffhangers being recycled over and over. The execution was what mattered, whether it got folks on the edges of their seats or merely became predictable and tiresome.

Hmm. I used to assume in a way that simply because it took far longer to draw a comicbook page than write one, that the artist had the harder job. I was wrong. Dead wrong.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ishikawa Minamoto

Ishikawa is ex-SNLF(Japan's Special Naval Landing Force). Enigmatic and cheerful in equal measure. Snappy dresser.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Writing vs Art: This Time It's Personal

Today I sat down to start typing out the full script, having finally nailed down the detailed outline. On the very first line of page 1, I'm struck by something. How much do I describe in the script? I'm going to be the artist on this book, so I don't really need to dictate every last nuance of each scene in flowery prose, but I do need enough information to tell the story.

So how much is enough? How much is too much?

This leads me to the age-old debate in comics: Are the words or the pictures more important in telling the story? Neither. The script and the art should be married seamlessly, so that the reader isn't thinking about the script or the art as diparate elements. They're thinking about the story; the sum of the parts. Ergo; the writer and the artist should be partners, in it together 50/50. But in my own experience, this tends maybe not to be the case at times.

Comics are a visual medium. Some may say that the art is what you see when you open the book, and in a very real sense, yes, on the most basic level the art does carry the story throughout. It's a visual delivery system for the writer's ideas. That said, the art would be a series of non-associated images if the writer hadn't described the basic story in his scipt. Both are essential elements. 50/50. But there's a problem. In any given work-for-hire comicbook, the 'power' is rarely evenly distributed between the writer and the artist. The writer is developing the premise and ideas, and going on to outline his/her story in the script. But not only does he/she describe what is happening, who is speaking, where the characters are in relation to one another etc, they also proceed to dictate the way they want this content to look on the page. The writer more often than not describes in fine detail how many panels there are (thus dictating the visual pacing), where they want the 'camera' to be, where the characters are to be placed, and the background/setting/lighting etc. All visual elements. Surely this should be the artist's job? If you handed a script to the director of a film complete with minutely described camera angles and scene directions, he'd laugh at you and tell you that he's got it covered. The director's job is to direct. Decide how to establish and progress a sequence visually. Where his cameras will be placed, how he will direct his actors to deliver the dialogue, as written by the writer. Along with his cinematographer and lighting director he will decide what the mood and atmosphere of the picture will be, referencing the script for the emotional thrust of the scene. The film script is a guide for the director, not a mandate.

I work a fair bit in storyboarding for ads, animation etc as well as comics. Never have I gotten a storyboard script that described exactly what was happening in each shot. The script will outline the sequence, giving you ample information on how it progresses, and telling you what elements need to be in each shot. But they want the artist to come up with how the sequence will be shot; it's why they hired you. The artist on a storyboard is there to come up with the coolest way to visually describe the sequence, in fact that's the only reason they're there.

And then you have comics. Probably the only medium that can be described as being as visual as film. The story, like film, is told in sequences of pictures. And yet the way many comics are executed is very different. In most comics the artist is generally hired to draw the pictures that the writer precisely describes in his script. The writer not only developes his/her idea and describes how it plays out on the page, he/she goes on to instruct the artist, the 'director', as how to tell the story visually. The artist has gone from being a collaborator to basically a hired hand, an illustrator of a series of individual pictures that take place one after another and depend entirely on the visual storytelling skills of a prose writer that generally has less knowledge of how to visually progress a story than the artist. The artist should be the director, the actors, the cameraman and the cinematographer. Anything visual should be a part of the artist's remit, not the writer's.

Now, that isn't to say that some of the writers out there don't have a decent eye for visual storytelling. Many of them are more in tune than others. Some of then have a downright fantastic mind's eye when it comes to mapping out the visuals.
The bottom line though, is that without actually sitting down and figuring out the nuts and bolts of a comicbook sequence through various thumbnail drawings, you simply can't know the best way to convey the story. The best shots, angles, panel count etc. This is something artists have spent years learning to do. Why not use this resource?

What often happens nowadays(again, this is only in my experience), is that the artist will sit down and thumbnail out the sequence as described by the writer, figuring out how to make their version of events workable. Sometimes a writer will nail a great way to visually progress the sequence of events. But not in the majority of cases. Usually the artist figures out how to make the writer's version work, instead of expending the same energies on coming up with his own version, unhindered by the thought that you might be offending the writer if you don't stick religiously to their description.
Basically, a lot of the artist's work on executing a given writer's script can come down to problemsolving.
There have been so many instances of spending a large amount of time on trying to figure out how to make the writer's shot-choice work. On figuring out how the hell to make character A stand in a particular place next to characters B and C, incorporating the dictated camera angle, and still have them talk from left to right so as to keep the visual flow of the scene nice and smooth. On occassion a writer will have a particular visual idea they're in love with, something in their mind's eye that indeed can look very cool and moody for that particular shot. But they oftentimes don't understand that you need to organically arrive at that shot and progress from it in the preceeding and following panels, that the book isn't simply a series of pretty looking static images. What that leads to is basically illustrated prose. Surely it should be the artist that dictates the visual storytelling? The pacing, the ebb and flow?

If the artist is lucky, they'll know the writer well enough that they can give them a quick shout and say 'listen man, can I change x, y and z in this sequence? It isn't really workable in its current incarnation in the script'. And any writer worth his/her salt will be absolutely fine with that, they know that it's the artist doing his/her job, and bringing their skill set to the table. But with many of the books I've worked on, I've never talked to the writer in my life, maybe a short email here and there when I have questions. I'm loathe to change anything in these scripts without asking first, and so I spend hours thumbnailing various iterations of the page, trying to shoehorn in the exact shots that the writer has specifically described. Even when I do request to change something, its only after spending ages exhausting every possibilty of trying to make the writer's initial shots work.

So how would I prefer it was done? I'd prefer if the writer wrote his script with more room for the artist. Let it be a truly 50/50 collaboration. Describe any scene setting, breaks and story points. The general timing and mood. All dialogue, obviously. Tell me how many pages I have for a sequence, how it begins, how it ends, and what happens in the interim. By all means suggest elements like panel count, shot choice, and character placement. Lighting, panel-specific mood, atmosphere. These descriptions can be of great help to the artist, and will let him/her know what kind of look the writer envisions. But leave it up to the artist to make the final call on all of these visual elements.
This would give the artist exponentially more freedom to express himself/herself, and tell the story in their own distinct visual style.

Now, it's highly possible, and perhaps likely, that I simply haven't risen to a point in the industry yet where I'm given that bit more leeway and latitude with scripts. Maybe I need to pay a few more dues before I get to the point where I'm truly a 50/50 player on a book. And that's A-ok with me, I believe these things need to be earned. But I also believe that a slight shift in the creative process could and would lead to better comics being produced.
It also has to be said, that a lot of the writers that I've worked with would probably have been more than happy to have me contribute more to the process of planning each page, but I simply didn't ask them. I was always too worried that I might step on somebody's toes, or that I might be out of line. Which is obviously a failing on my part!

All told, I guess all that's needed is a slight mindset shift on everybody's part, where it's a given that if the artist feels that it's necessary to improve the storytelling, he/she is free to make changes here and there. At the end of the day, if the writer or editor feels that the artist's choices hindered the book rather than improved it, they'll look elsewhere next time.

Anyhoo, my long-winded point being that on a book which I'm writing myself, I should worry less about including every facet of description from the outset, and merely give myself a detailed outline of the story. How each sequence begins, progresses  and what the outcome is, and how this leads into the next scene. And so on. Hell, I could even leave it 'til the whole thing was drawn to add dialogue, but I think I'll include it at the script stage, as it usually helps me define a character's body language and facial expressions.

DISCLAIMER: if you are a writer whom I've had the good fortune of working with, it isn't you I'm mentioning as writing awkward shot descriptions. It's that other guy. Please keep hiring me.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Break It Down

Today I finished the sixth draft of the outline for the book. I'm very happy with the beginning, middle and end of the story at this point, and have figured out most, if not all of the scenes and sequences. I pitched the story to a few of my buddies a few weeks back, and have gotten to the point where I've jettisoned everything that didn't work, and retained and enhanced the stuff that did.
One thing that's throwing me a smidge though is the act breaks. Not what they are, exactly; that much is very clear. It's more like where they occur that's the dilly of a pickle. How do I have them happen at the exact right moment in the narrative so as to act as natural cliffhangers/issue end points? I've been tackling this script as if it were a movie script, simply because this is how I generally think of scriptwriting in my mindgrapes. If the 'movie' is to be 120 minutes long, then ergo my story will be 120 pages long, which neatly fits 6 issues worth of material, and forces me to zealously seperate the literary wheat from the chaff. This has been working out fine. But the problem with act breaks and climaxes etc in a movie script is that they can happily occur at the organic points in the story without worrying too much about their placement. There are no required breaks every 20-odd pages in a movie, so there is far more scope for choice of positioning. In a comics script, however, this aint the case. As well as figure out a cool, appealing story with interesting characters and a rollercoaster ride of events, you need to somehow neatly position said events so that they peak at the correct positions in the story, ie the issue breaks. Far less leeway. This also somewhat negates the traditional three-act structure of movie writing, although I get the idea that even in movie writing, this is a pliable element, and some great flicks have acts coming out the wazoo.
So as I say, I've figured out the story content, length and quite tight structure, but now I have the tricky task of shifting small elements here and there so that the act/issue breaks fall just so. Niggly. All a very interesting exercise though.
I guess to bypass this entire issue I could simply work on the story as a complete graphic novel, and therby remove the need for specific breaks. But I am loathe to lose the serialised nature of the story, in as much that the tales that I'm trying to emulate and pay homage to were strictly serialised adventures, and that cliffhanger aspect was a huge part of the fun. Food for thought!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Elizabeth Huntington-Moss

Time for more artwork methinks. This is British MI6 Agent Elizabeth Huntington-Moss, one of the female leads of the story.
You can see that I re-drew the nose and softened out her mouth and brow a bit in the colours, just to make her a tad less harsh looking. I'm kind of playing around with colours on these character design sheets just to try and nail down a style for the series in general.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Write Stuff

So, turns out this writing lark is pretty difficult. Structure, setting, character, composition, scene design, act design etc etc. Complicated process. And that's assuming you have a halfway decent idea to begin with. Over the last month I've been reading various recommended texts on the subject, and re-reading some of my favourite guides on visual storytelling for comics and other media. Very informative stuff.
At the risk of echoing common opinion, I've found Robert McKee's 'Story' to be the best representation of the nuts and bolts of story writing, and is an excellent primer as long as you're bringing reasonable storytelling skills to the table to begin with. It doesn't wave a magic wand for you; let you simply drop x y and z into the corresponding slots and viola; there's your story in kit form, good to go. But it does put across some very illuminating theories and ideas, alongside clear examples of how to implement them. Now, you'd want to be pretty deluded to imagine that you could learn how to write a successful story through reading a book a couple of times, but it's definitely been of some help. Other books I'd recommend: screenplays of films you feel match the tone and pace of your story. In my case, I've been studying Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark very closely, and handily have the illustrated edition from 1981 that contains the original storyboards running concurrently with the script. Another winner is Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards. This book is full of phenomenal examples of visual storytelling married with script, and I learn something new each time I read it. A couple of Alex Toth collections, just because they're such a good representation of the basics of solid sequential storytelling, and I often leaf through them looking for things to emulate, or in layman's terms; 'rip off'.
Also in my reading pile is Will Eisner's famous how-to book, 'Comics and Sequential Art'. I had attempted a few times when I was younger to slog through this at times very worthy text, but it's only in the last ten years that I've realised how chocabloc full of great information and technique it really is. What else... oh yeah, the comicraft book on how to letter a comic! The last time I attempted to letter my own art was on a book called Freakshow back when I started out, and the results weren't altogether pretty. This time I'll be sure to do it correctly.
At the end of the day, of course, no instruction book is going to present you with a handy how-to guide on how to concoct and execute the perfect script through some convenient recipe for literary alchemy, but I figure there's no harm in going in relatively prepared. I figure I have a pretty decent beginning, middle and end of a story, and books like 'Story' helped me figure out an appropriate delivery system for those components. That coupled with the various scripts i've worked from over the years have given me enough ammunition at least on how to structure a comicbook script correctly. These are just the books I'm looking through at the moment. Any suggestions for other books I should be reading; please have at it.