(interview conducted by ozoneocean!)
INTERROGATION …I mean: interview.
This interview will be conducted over a series of PQs.
I will ask questions and you will answer in whatever way you choose. The answer to each new question may or may not have some influence over the form of the next question.
Is that CLEAR?
Name, rank, and serial number?
A: Willoughby comma Stephen C; Private Civilian, former sergeant US Army, bravo1102. I am not putting out my Social Security Number because all those female stalkers would track me down and throw their nubile young bodies at me. My wife of 14 years wouldn't like that. I live in New Jersey in the USA, the most corrupt state in the USA, home of Bruce Springsteen, Lou Costello, Frank Sinatra and my exit off the parkway is 114. I'll offer some background, so long as it doesn't compromise security. :)
I'm currently 44 years old, a college graduate with a degree in History, certified teacher of Social Studies, graduated technical school with a certificate in graphic arts. Along the way I've worked in retail management, education, public works, security and those 10 years in the army.
In other words as I like to say: no one of consequence.
Friends and family think I know enough about history to besiege me with questions on a regular basis. I go through phases in regard to eras and topics. One year I went crazy about the American Civil War, most recently I've been reading biographies of powerful women in history. My constant love though is military uniform and then I love reading about weird stuff. Conspiracy theories, UFOs, occult, psychics, alternate archeology, monsters and watch lots of fantasy, science fiction and horror movies, classic anime; the more exploitive and bad the better.
Enough about me let's talk about those comics of mine.
You clearly derive material for your comic from your experience, reading, and interests. Many people do, my self included, but it's your interests we're interested in here! :)
Later I'll ask you about research and how your interests influence your work, but right now:
Why use action figures?
I grew up playing with 12“ tall GI Joe's who hung out with my sister's abandoned Barbies. However, I grew up at a time when GI Joe was no longer military in the least. Here I am loving military uniforms and there no uniforms for my Joes to wear. Fast forward to around 15 years ago. GI Joe released all new 12” tall figures and other companies started doing strictly military figures. So I snapped them up and put them on my shelf. Then I found out they did female figures. They weren't Barbies. They could actually bend their knees and elbows! So I started collecting them. Then I started customizing them after discovering message boards devoted to collecting these figures. (but not Barbies)
Then I discovered that some collectors photographed their figures and used them to illustrate stories. I bought some furniture and started writing little stories for some of my figures. Then a message board was started for collectors of non-military fantasy figures. I had already done some customs of my old Dungeons and Dragons characters and I saw someone start an epic fantasy comic. Out come three old novel manuscripts I had started about the characters.
Back in the 1980's I even was encouraged to build up a portfolio and pass it around to some independent comic publishers. I never got around to it. As for why I didn't draw these webcomics? I was already heavily involved with the figures and my drawing/painting had languished since I was in college in the 1980s. I hadn't drawn anything except some doodles while working as a teacher's aide. I went to graphic arts school and learned all about Photoshop, photography and digital art. So I never thought to draw my comic. I now regret that decision as I can draw a lot faster than I can set up figures and photograph them. But I have all these custom figures and costumes and props so I'm determined to use them. Now if I can just finish this story so I can get to the other ten scripts I've started.
Additionally, there is the advantage of seeing everything in three dimensions as opposed to pencil and ink on Bristol. I can walk around the set and look at the frame and blocking out the figures like you would on a stage or in a movie. Then there is the actual three-dimensional creation of the character with re-painting a face, putting together a costume and properties. Now there is a lot of 1/6th scale furniture out there, but it's all pink. So there is a lot of re-painting involved. That's a lot of fun. I've always liked painting figures as opposed to doing traditional portraiture. I guess you could say it's make-up? When a costume is put together it drapes like it would if someone was really wearing it with things hanging at angles or bumping around. There's a tactile element to it of being able to touch and physically change the figure as opposed to just taking out the eraser. Some costumes look great on paper but would never work on a three dimensional figure. Mine have to work on a three dimensional figure. I don't do a lot of costume making though, I just mix and match what is commercially available. It's like producing a movie. I shot one story out of sequence so I wouldn't have to strike sets and re-build them and had a shooting schedule by scene with annotations for costume changes. Sadly that wouldn't work for Go a Viking! as the story is just too long.
Now I half expect you to say: “And now for this commercial message”
And now for this commercial message…
AAAAaaaaannd now we're back. Excuse me while I put this can away. …I sure do like my Pinky TA cola. ;)
Well I must say your attention to detail with the figures, props and scenery in Go A Viking is pretty astonishing. And you manage to characterise them so well, you give personality and depth to these plastic figurines, making them INTO their characters, far beyond the knowing novelty we usually see in works done with this media.
Now for the interests part-
You're into history in a big way, into scifi and fantasy etc, a former soldier, a graphic designer, and an expert modeler.
I can see how the model making skills help in the creation of the comic (in the sets and figures), and the graphic design is useful in putting it altogether, but how has your interest in history helped contribute to and influence your story? How have your experiences as a solder helped to enrich your work?
A. I do research. When I was a kid I visited Old Tenet Church near the Monmouth battlefield. I walked in and was assaulted by the smell of the place. That was my first encounter with the smell of history. I've always been interested in how things worked once upon a time. It's the mundane things that often grab my interest. I look for the little stuff and how it makes the world work. Some examples from the recent pages: Why does a bunch of interlinked metal chains work as armor? How does it protect the soldier? Being chain it is pliable so what is the effect of the force of a blow if the edge is blunted by the mail? I like knowing all that stuff because all too often we just think it was just like today but the clothes were different. When I started playing Dungeons and Dragons I was in the midst of getting my degree in history and taking lots of courses on medieval history. I wanted to give period flavor to the game, so I did research and added all the little day-to-day details. After my gaming days were behind me I continued reading because when building a model it's the same thing. You're trying to recapture a time and place in history. That “smell of history” When you paint that figure in that period uniform what brings the figure to the next level is not just a perfect paint job but capturing what a soldier would really look like because of the life he lives day to day. An armored vehicle in combat is the tanker's home. I build a model of that I want to capture how the tanker makes it livable. What does he carry, how does he modify his gear to make it more comfortable. You can't carry everything; I've tried.
B. Having been in the military adds the additional dimension of personal experience. I was there in the field living on that tank. I read memoirs of a tanker in World War II and his life was the same. I read John Keegan's work on The Face of Battle and I'm struck by the experience of war fighting and how much is the same but at the same time so much is different. How did that haversack work as opposed to my “Alice” pack? Camp followers? Marching by foot with all your belongings on your back rather than in the bustle rack? Smelly wool uniforms as opposed to my carefully designed battle-dress uniform. The devil is in the details
C. That's something else from the military. Attention to detail. Look at the little stuff, as that is what makes the big picture in a diorama stand out. Anyone can throw a bunch of figures together, put them in their environment and surround them with a story. But is it real? Can you smell the sweat? Does it make the viewer/reader suspend his disbelief? I've been some places that were hard to believe, but there was always some little detail that reminded me it was real. So out come the books and I look to find the flavor of what was as opposed to just the appearance. That smell of history. Face it, before the modern era, stuff stank.
Extremely interesting answer! Your experiences really have enriched your work. It's some of the “realest” stuff I've seen in a comic, it's so easy to suspend belief and get into after making a start on it. Not in terms of the way out scenarios, but because of the relaistic portrayals and behaviour.
The converse of that is of course all those technical aspects behind the scenes. I've read a lot about how you work on the forums etc, so I have some background knowledge already, but there's always more.
let's see if I've got this straight: you have carefully constructed sets, props, furniture, clothing, and backdrops. You have a huge case of poseable figures and accessories for them. You take photos of the scenes with a digital camera… Already this sounds like a massive undertaking! What's the process exactly and how long does a chapter take to get through?
A. Are we discussing the same comic?
I can only talk about what I do, so here goes: It starts with the idea, then comes the brainstorming. During the brainstorming I start casting the parts. I have boxes of figures so I pick them out and do costume tests. I have boxes of clothing and gear and play with different configurations. Sometimes I take test photos.
Once the script is done, (I did one story without a finished script and it was a disaster. In fact it was the first draft of Go a Viking.) I separate the script into chapters and scenes based on the backdrops and figures involved.
I check the script to see what I need for the scene. I set those figures aside, and then I see what properties are needed. It's like shooting a movie. Props, sets, costume changes.
I do different set-ups and test angles and poses. I don't take pictures at this point; these are done with my eye to viewfinder to get a feeling for the content of the frame and where to put everything. Then I look at the script and set up the first panel. The figures are posed on stands, or if they stand up by themselves all the better. The poses are adjusted until they look natural. Most figures just have the one hand pose, trigger finger and grasping. If I have an alternately posed hand I use it. Unlike traditional fashion dolls these figures are very poseable. The knees and elbows bend; some are double jointed and can bend more than 90 degrees. Wrists and ankles move, waists bend and turn so I try to get expressive with their body language. I noticed that in most action figure comics all the poses were stiff and fake. I try not to do that. I even find myself adjusting certain characters because they wouldn't stand that way. Body language. The figures are shot against a blue screen because usually the background will be all digital.
So now I have two or more pictures of each panel in the script. All kinds of adjustments are made from shot to shot; angles, slight pose changes, it's like doing multiple takes in a movie. The pictures are uploaded to my computer and the fun begins.
Everybody still with me? All I have are a bunch of raw pictures taken against a blank background. I look at the pictures through the viewer and chuck whatever ones just didn't work. Then I put them into Photoshop. I'm back in the Stone Ages still using 7.0. The color and contrast is adjusted. I finally got my lighting right so there aren't that many adjustments needed anymore, at least to my tired old eyes. I used Auto levels a lot and at times it didn't give me what I needed.
Then I use the wand, pen and point selection and lasso to get rid of the blank background. I used to use the pen tool almost exclusively and it took forever. Then I experimented with the wand tool doing a bad B-movie script and life became so much easier. Along the way all the joints are blended, blurred or painted over. It's part of suspending disbelief. It really improves the look of the nude scenes. This can take as little as five minutes for a single figure to two hours for a group shot.
I'm left with the figures against a transparent background. Now along the way I've gone around the Internet and searched out interiors and exteriors and when I go on vacation I take lots of pictures. Chapter 6's background is all from my trip to Valley Forge. The modern stuff is edited out, as are bystanders and the like. Some shots have digital skies as the sky looked awful after using the clone tool to get rid of the telephone poles and suburban neighborhood.
So now I have cutout figures against a background. I usually blur the outlines of the figures 1-2 pixels so they blend, add shadows especially under the feet. If there can be grass or whatever I paint some in so they look like they're standing there as opposed to floating. For a camp or other exterior there needs to be people walking around. That's done whenever I feel like it. I've built up a library of shots of extras and spear-carriers and add them in as needed. It's all blurred so the reader won't notice. But I like the look of hubbub back there. Try 15 minutes to an hour per panel just for adding the background.
Compare the panels to the script again. Out of 10 edited panels at least 2 and as many as 5 will be cut during this process. Now comes matching the figures to what they're saying. I already have the body language, but now I do the facial expressions. Blur tool, select and move, select and transform even draw things in like open mouths and teeth. I move eyes and eyebrows the most. The effect is often very subtle because such expressions are very subtle. There is the occasional exaggeration for effect. So I have a finished panel.
Then I open up Comic Book Creator and using their templates drop the panels in. I'm still learning this part and at this step I really need the crutch of generic page templates and pre drawn speech balloons. I started out using broad screen frames and Photoshop speech balloons and it was pointed out how bad the page set-ups were. So I ditched using Photoshop and Pagemaker for page layouts, at least until I'm comfortable with paneling.
Whenever I get stuck or lacking in motivation I will shoot a whole pile of varied pictures usually recreating a bad B-movie I've seen and practice page layouts, blending and editing. Doing one of those I experimented with the settings on the wand tool and now use it. Before that I used to draw selections point by point with the pen tool.
The shoots take one-two hours per page of script. Then the editing process fifteen minutes to more than an hour to remove the background and blend joints (there was one group scene that took four hours but that was back when I still used the pen tool exclusively, joint blending for a nude scene takes forever and a day. It's those hip and shoulder joints) Then the background another fifteen minutes to an hour, then the page layout. I can usually race through the page layouts and speech balloons and even then finished panels will be tossed.
Anyone still reading?
Time? It depends on the content of the panel. Some take only an hour, others eight hours or more. Multiply that by 4-8 panels per page and as many as 20 pages in a chapter. I'm going to be doing shorter chapters from here on in.
My GOD what a massive answer!
I didn't realise you used digital images for most of your backgrounds, it's done so well that I just assumed they were custom sets. If I look closely I can see of course NOW, but because it was done so well I didn't think to examine like that before. :)
You have a good process going there, it sounds very professional ans streamlined. I'm impressed at how well you integrate your digital work with your photographic imagery.