Thursday, November 26, 2015

Up, Down

Got nine hours of sleep and woke naturally instead of by alarm. And I'm cresting on the manic side of my sometimes bipolar disposition. Ideas seem to come easily, I feel energetic. Which founders a little when I realize how little time there is, really, before I have to be back at work, and mentally list all the necessary tasks (laundry, time with family, etc.) that will cut into that time.

Had to put the drawing pad aside because I have a prop that is fast coming due and I need work space to tinker on it. And I really should keep up the prop work -- I'm not going broke while working full time, like I was last time I tried it, but I'm also not making as much above expenses as I'd like. A few bucks here and there from prop making would be welcome, and it is a lot more interesting then what I'm currently doing for work...and I've a paid-up year of membership at TechShop going to waste if I don't.

Ah, but I've been listening to podcasts on history and archaeology (and a little science) almost non-stop over the past several weeks of building cabinets and pulling PC boards from recycled electronics. So yesterday I finally made a break-through on planning that Tomb Raider fanfic I've been using as my sole writing outlet aside from this blog. I know where I am going to go with it now, right out to the coda. I'm just not real sure how to do it.

Through the past fourteen chapters and eighty thousand words I've sent "adventure archaeologist" (and video game character) Lara Croft after a mystery involving the ancient Egyptian god Horus. In the process of tracking the Tears of Horus from Malta and Tripoli, from under Colonel Gaddafi's eyes to the Giza Plateau and right smack in the middle of the Valley of Kings, she's ran into increasing clues about a different mystery of Pre-Dynastic Egypt; the fantastical "Ancient Astronauts" inspired back-story of the movie and television show(s) Stargate.

In true fan fiction cross-over fashion I've now got the major characters of the two properties together, and brought the two plots together to the point where the current incarnation of Horus the Elder has apparently mind-controlled Lara into getting him into Stargate command, where he used the titular Stargate to escape Earth.

And, yeah, I had some vague ideas as to what his big plan was, a climactic scene and some key revelations to come. But I basically started writing from a yacht moored off Comino with no larger intent then to put Lara Croft and the Stargate universes' resident Adventure Archaeologist Daniel Jackson into the same room and watch the sparks fly. So there isn't exactly a tight outline I've been following!

I'm pretty proud of how it has developed and I've got a decent following over at Fanfiction dot net now. My big set piece was a multi-chapter exploration into Prague Castle and environs after the Kunstkammer of Rudolph II, And it's not so much that I got to fold in so much in the way of legends and history from the Teutonic Knights out to discovery of the Galilean Satellites, but that when I was done it all seemed to hold together in a way that looked like it had been carefully planned!

This mystery wrapped in enigma served with a side of red potatoes and cabbage became an exploration through layer after layer into the past; from a brief discussion of the period of communist rule before the Velvet Revolution, to evidence of SS/Ahnenerbe investigation (and their fancy but not entirely practical "security system" for Lara to apply her trademark climbing and gymnastic to), to the dawn of the Age of Reason with the astronomers and naturalists and psychics and charlatans who surrounded one of the last of the Holy Roman Emperors, and back down through the rabbit hole of Christian symbolism and Hermeticism and grail legends and the tenuous link to the imagined glories of Rome until I could last spring Rabbi Lowe's grand creation, the Golem of Prague -- and tie it all finally back to the Tears of Horus I'd started with!

That was almost three months ago, though. I've been trying to figure out whether I am at the Act II/III turn-around now with 40% or less of the story still to go, or whether to let it expand further. I've been trying to work out what Lara's personal arc is; there's a great space here to really push on her guilt and fear and bring her to her worst crisis before she starts on her way back up and towards eventual victory but I don't know if that fits within the larger story arc. And of course I needed to figure out the set-pieces and major building blocks of the rest of the story.

Well, I know what I want to try now. And it is complicated. I was tempted for a while to go right through the Stargate and put one last "tomb" (aka the central mechanic of any of the games Lara Croft had featured in) with a climax involving a difficult climb, and then go to a not particularly conclusive conclusion.

Instead I'm taking a slightly longer path. I'm stealing a trick I first saw in a Travis McGee mystery. Basically, they try to warn others (specifically the Asgard, the "good guy" aliens of the Stargate universe) about Horus, but are told the ex-god had gained their trust through various good works.

So I'm going to split the party, and send small teams made up from combinations of both casts (Tomb Raider's and Stargate's) to explore three or more archaeological mysteries, attempting to discover what Horus had been up to in the misty past and if he indeed was being as nice a god as the Asgard think.

And then bringing everyone back together and wrapping up with a Boss Fight and (on the falling action) a crazy free-for-all between Asgard and allies against the renegade "Frost Giant" faction and their pal Horus the Elder.

But my problem now is a bit worse than finding three interesting mysteries of the past to explore. And more than the constraints that these activities of Horus need to fall somewhere between 3,000 BC and (preferably) on or before the 18th Dynasty (which is actually really convenient, as it falls right in the right zone to play around with the Boy King Tut, Nefertiti, and of course the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten,)

No, the big problem is that with all these archaeology podcasts and all I'm awakening to the emotional realization that this material (and the way the schema of the Stargate universe exemplifies the conflict) is exactly the same as the anti-science conspiracy theories -- Creationism and Apollo Hoax and anti-vaxxers -- that I've been arguing against for a good decade now.

I'm having more and more trouble twisting real history and science here; the excuse of "it's just for a story" is no longer working for me. So, yeah, although it would be trivially easy to reach into that wide-lipped candy jar of existing psuedo-archaeology; Pakal's Spaceship and the Copper Culture and Giant Nephilim with "double rows of teeth" I feel obligated to be scholarly, to stay closer to the bounds of real history and archaeology, to debunk some of the demon-haunted detritus of cable-channel misinformation, and to bring out some of the fascinating material that is out there in the real world.

And so with all that, my net is pretty wide at the moment. I'd like to send Lara Croft and her current companions to North America (because that, and pretty much everything from Turkey through Pakistan and down the length of the Arabian Peninsula has yet, to my knowledge, to be featured in a Tomb Raider game)*, England (because there's no better way to show off Croft Manor and to convince her stay-at-home team to come out and play a little), and Malta (both for general interest and as a book-end to how I started the story).

I'm also thinking of  Iram of the Pillars, because not only is a lost city cool, but it's in one of my zones of "a game hasn't done this yet" -- and I've already mentioned a previous search for it in my narrative. White Island is mildly tempting, as is something properly polar (possibly even Mountains of Madness). And I have a hankering to bring some Assyrian lammassu out to play -- Tomb Raider games have done sea serpents and centaurs already, and they'd fit right in. I also see I (albiet unintentionally) laid the groundwork for satellite discovery of some entirely unknown (and suitably massive) architecture to be discovered somewhere (perhaps in that handy rub al' khali).

But whatever I go with, there's a bit of work yet before I can write any of it. That's the thing about comic book science and's a lot faster.

* I believe "Rise of the Tomb Raider corrects that omission.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sequential Art: Composition and Perspective

Every panel is a little picture (or, in the case of a splash page, a not-so-little-picture). Every panel, however, does not need to be a complete picture.

Within the framework of a page, a comic, background and atmosphere are established, characters and their positions are shown, dialog happens. But it doesn't have to be in every panel; there's carry-over.

Detail is also an element of pacing. A more detailed panel invites the eye to stay longer. A panel without background detail suggests that you should move through it quickly. So both action shots and big dialog sections can actually benefit from reducing the detail and the extraneous information.

Each panel also needs to be harmonious on the page. The composition, the direction of thrust, the eye leading, the weight of shading; none of these can be chosen entirely by the needs of that specific piece of art, but need be modulated by the needs of the page around them.

That said, all the compositional elements and tricks are available.

Rule of Thirds: the focal point is rarely center. But this is a little more complex in sequential art, when there is activity taking place in the space between panels. The space of air in an individual panel is also a potential focus. To go back to the fist-swinging hero, the true focus of the panel is where his fist is going to be when that blow connects; the air between him and his target.

As a general rule, any panel should only have one prime focus. It can have multiple foci, but the others are subordinate. This gives a better balance in most cases.

Depth Planes: every panel is a window into space. It helps to shape that space by having elements that are foreground, mid-ground, and background. Obviously there may be more levels than that in a practical sense, but thinking in terms of three major, contrasting, planes makes for a clearer design. And when working within the constraints of inked borders and color fills, this division opens up possibilities such as making one of the planes a neutral silhouette.

Related to this, many of the masters recommend using three distinct values, and placing them so the largest contrast occurs between two of them; a dark foreground, a light mid-ground, a middle background, for instance.

Shot: every panel is a shot, and part of your overall shot scheme (including pushing in for emphasis, respecting the Line of Action, etc). Camera distance from subject and camera angle to subject nuances the emotional reaction to the subject, the more so when contrasted with the shots used in surrounding panels.

Perspective: although real perspective is complex, each panel should have a single overarching perspective scheme that frames the contents. A room is presented with specific, strong lines that help to define the deep space of the panel for the reader, even if there are elements in the room (chairs, say), that are angled to that scheme and required their own perspective plotting.

Perspective works hand in hand with the camera shot and the thrust of the panel; a long look down a foreboding corridor that leads the eye, points towards the goal, frames the focus, and is presented in strong 1-point-perspective, as one for-instance.

And it is worth repeating that many panels can be thought of as a "talking head" or an "insert" shot, where almost none of the above is used, or used minimally. But check out Wally Wood's "22 Panels that Work" for a masterful demonstration of multiple ways to break up the "talking head" shots and give interest to the conversation.

I have, or have read, over a dozen books on perspective, plus various tutorials. Above everything else I have ever seen, I recommend -- I strongly recommend -- "Vanishing Point" by Jason Cheeseman-Meyer.

It explains perspective. It explains it for a working artist (who doesn't have time to geometrically solve every loose card strewn on a poker table), and it gives things you simply don't see anywhere else. Curvilinear perspective, for instance. But even more than any of the above, it has stuff on how to figure out where to put the vanishing points. How to place them so you don't get that disturbing distortion. Tools that are simple, easy to understand and apply.

My preferred procedure is to rough out the page in thumbnail. I really should be making full thumbnails of each panel, or a cleaner rough, but right now I'm trying to draw faster, not neater. The next step is roughing in the panel plan, with lightly penciled contents, on the full sized sheet of paper.

Once I've seen the contents of a panel will fit and work, the lightly penciled freehand of the panel will form a guideline as to the perspective tools.

These fall into several rough classes. Some panels are essentially without perspective; either flat, or in planes. This doesn't mean the contents don't have individual perspective, but a talking head can be drafted as a head without having to construct horizon lines for the scene around it.

I always put a horizon line in, even if it is just a reminder of eye height in the scene.

Certain panels lend themselves to single-point perspective. I find this can be cleaner and make for a sharper focus. Even a complex city-scape may be nothing more than single-point.

Panels with boxes in them usually fall into 2-point. Here we get into traditional perspective; draw the horizon line at observer's eye height, plot two arbitrary points on it. I find -- again referring to Rule of Thirds -- it seems to work best to have one point in frame, and the other out of the frame. This latter point is usually realized by taping a ruler or other extension to the drawing board.

This is why for most perspective methods it works best to set up the vanishing points, and run reference lines to them (free-hand for a looser or organic scene, gridded equidistant for more technical/architectural scenes), and then put away those tools and proceed to draw the rest of the panel free-hand on those references.

Drama really comes with 3PP. In plotting these, the first advice I can give comes from Stan "The Man" himself; draw the first two points as you normally would, then drop the third "at some arbitrary distance" above or below the horizon line. A word here; bricks and buildings and so forth look decent only when they fall within the triangle (or between the two vanishing points of 2-point). Take a corner too close to a VP and it starts to look weird.

This is because, of course, artistic perspective is a cheat. It is an unreal tool that plots three-dimensional reality on to two-dimensional paper in a way that agrees with how our brains typically process the three-dimensional reality around us as captured through point sources (aka our pupils). The real world may have straight edges but we don't actually see them that way as projected through our eye, any more than they photograph that way (no matter which particular scheme the camera lens maker has used to try to distort the projection to better suit our preconceived perceptions).

And, yes, there are people who plot out parquet floors in exquisite detail. If you want to draw like M.C. Escher, then go right ahead. I want to draw a comic book before I turn grey. So I draw rough guidelines and fake the rest.

Yes, I will rule major lines back to the vanishing points when it seems required. But for the most part, the most elaborate I get is to construct a grid. Here's simple geometry; make tick-marks an equal distance apart and draw lines from them to the vanishing point. Draw a diagonal line through them. Now lines drawn perpendicular to the edge you measured will be equidistant in perspective -- as long as you make sure to draw them where the diagonal intersects the first lines.

Ah, but how deep is the shape? For that, unfortunately, one needs to plot a couple additional points. These are basically the lens width; putting these closer together flattens the image like a telephoto, putting them further apart makes the depth stretch Vertigo-style. (That's in one-point -- two-point is slightly different).

As I said above, in my own particular art style many panels don't need elaborate perspective. I can fake up a figure with nothing but a horizon line, and maybe some arbitrary scribbles on the figure itself to remind myself where the vanishing points are.

The last thing I want to mention is how helpful it was to load up a second mechanical pencil with red leads. This lets me put down perspective guidelines that won't confuse me later during development or inking. Even if it is just one horizon line...or a dot helpfully labeled "V.P."

Need a Vacation

Fourteen weeks now, finishing up my third full month, and I really need a short vacation to recharge. I'm still hourly, though, meaning no days off (other than official holidays). It was quite a change; going from freelance work (which averaged the same or more hours per week but tended to space them differently) to being up at 5 AM every weekday morning for what is often tough physical work. And I'm not that young anymore, either.

I still can't figure why I'm dragging so much after work. I used to do 10-14 hour days all the time. Is it just that my freelance schedule was more like three or four twelve-hour days in a row followed by several days off? Or does it have something to do with the specific clock I'm on -- a wake-up hours before dawn, and corresponding (attempt) to sleep while my neighbors are still (noisily) up?

I have the option to play with my start time. They are a little less eager to try shorter days -- even though I'm getting so much done in 40/week I'm catching up on a wish-list that's been around for months if not years. Otherwise, I'm pretty much playing Alaska Fisheries Summer; the rest of my life on hold while I earn some money. I've got a few $K of credit card debt to pay off, and even at just barely over minimum wage I'm still looking at cleaning that out within a year.

Well, this weekend I stayed in Friday eve and most of Saturday, barely stirring for a quick dinner out. Today I'm doing better; cleaned in the kitchen, mostly (which also functions as my shop, so is a bigger project than it sounds.) Cleaned up my hard disk a little (including shifting more files to DropBox so I won't lose them if someone steals this machine). And cleaned out some of the random electronics and tossed more stuff in a box of "to be recycled or dumped." I'm not a hoarder: when I was making less than six hundred a month the only way I could produce props and other arts and crafts projects was by using a ton of recycled material.

Now I'm no longer doing things theater style. Theater is an industry about being ludicrously short of time and money -- ludicrously, because on this budget they are expected to produce spectacular vistas and effects and reproduce scenes of opulence. I'm still shy of money but I'm even more crunched for time, so it makes sense to continue moving in a CAD-based, small-scale fabrication pipeline rather than spend time sorting through piles of odds and ends hoping to find something that can be modified without too much work.

And speaking of which: I've got a prop coming due, which I need to start pushing on and hence will be blogging about within the week.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Sequential Art: Story and Panels

Over the next few posts I'm going to walk through some of the steps of drawing a comic book page. Why? There are already good books out there and I'm a lousy artist anyhow. The reason is entirely selfish; explaining it out helps me sort things out in my own mind.

That also means these posts are not going to cover everything. They aren't even going to try to be complete. They are going to be more like a list of notes, of things I've found useful to get around the specific weaknesses of my own skills and the particular goals I currently have.

So, before I say anything else, those books I mentioned:

Making Comics by Scott McCloud. Filled with stuff, fun to read, inspiring. This is the desert island book for comic book art; if you only get one, get this. Both practical and very deep.

How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema. It is thin, brushes over important details, but is not just a fast and entertaining read but is also the most concise and to-the-point review of the entire process you will see anywhere.

And you are pretty much good here. You can get a few of the ever-growing How to Draw Manga series if you like -- even when you aren't interested in the specific subject listed on the cover, they tend to be fairly interchangeable boxes of interesting and potentially useful tidbits and, of course, general inspiration. But once you have Scott McCloud, your next purchases should really be anatomy and perspective and rendering books. Which I'll go into in later posts.

But if you really must keep collecting general texts...

Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative by Will Eisner. This book goes deep (deeper I suspect than Scott, but also more difficult to follow). It is also more narrowly focused on specific aspects of translating story to sequential art. There is almost nothing here on how to art, or even how to story; it is all about how to handle that specific narrative form. It is also, honestly, mostly a showcase for Will's work -- but unlike the lamentable Cris Hart books, at least the art is worth it.

The Idiot's Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel by Nat Gertler and Steve Lieber. Gets a nod here mostly because no other book even touches on how to cut a page into panels. This book is wordy; thin on graphics, and often too abstract, but it does provide an overview (and a more detailed one than the Stan Lee perennial.)

That will do for now. For the specifics of today's post, however, I am also going to mention one other book:

The Five C's of Cinamatography by Joseph Mascelli. The reason this book gets recommended will become clear shortly...I hope.

Not actually going to talk about story here. Story is story, whatever the medium. Sequential Art has specific needs that have to be solved in developing story. There are specifics also in genre expectations, and restrictions imposed by the format. The pacing, length, kinds of beats, the strengths of the medium are also specific.

Be that as it may.

I develop in Scrivener now. I find it is useful to establish a Scrivener text page for each comic page, and try to write out the dialog before hand. I use Scrivener to document my plans for page and panel layout and similar, but the actual planning of the graphical end of things is on a sketchpad.

Scrivener is also useful, of course, for keeping research notes, reference images (you can import, scale, and crop), and text samples both for spacing and as a reference for special effects fonts (which I have been hand-drawing).

Once the story exists, the next problem is how to tell it graphically. Pages take time to read, panels take time to read; roughly, the perceived narrative pacing is changed by increasing or decreasing the number of pages used, and the size of panels used. A series of small panels reads quickly and tends to feel like a lot is happening. A large panel feels more contemplative -- given a static scene it can read as a great deal of time passing, but given a moment of action can also read as a slow-motion shot for dramatic emphasis.

Before you get too crazy on figuring how decompressed you want to be, however, figure out how much space your dialog is going to take up. A lot of talk means a lot of pages, period. There's only so small you can make the lettering. And panels that are 70% filled with text "read" a lot differently than panels which are mostly art. The former can't help be perceived as "talky" and somewhat static, like a "Thin Man" movie.

I'm using computer lettering, and it is only a little measuring to figure out how big it will be on the original un-reduced artwork. I know for instance that a single-line balloon needs to be 3/4" of an inch high in the pencil art. For the length, however, I'm just typing up the dialog on the computer in the same font and roughly eyeballing it for proportion. I think I used to measure; it isn't much labor to simply set the text to display at exactly "print" size and hold a ruler up to the monitor.

For a while there I was leaving a space for the balloon and constructing it to size in PhotoShop after typing out the dialog there. But doing the balloons in ink makes them more organic and fit closer with the drawing. And is faster, overall. I'm all about faster. (Which is the primary reason I no longer hand-letter).

For me, at the current time, the strongest tool for figuring out what is going to fall on what page is understanding the rhythm. The pace, the division of meter (aka how often do panels fall), and the beats. I'm drawing a four-panel strip currently as well as a monitor-proportions web comic for instance, and for each I'm working to hit a "beat" at the end of the each page.

The four-panel format basically ends on a joke or a "take." It is a well-established form. For a master, look no further than Howard Taylor of Schlock Mercenary; long multi-arc stories, yet every single weekday strip hits that comic beat before closing.

With the larger page, I'm able to use the page break in other ways; as a convenient "chapter" divider, as a cliff-hanger, as a punchline. And that gives me a lot of options to consider while planning the pages. Right now I've got a party of adventurers approaching a dragon's cave. Is it best to finish a page with a hero shot of the cave, or will it work better to hold that reveal across the break by having the adventurer's say "Here we are..." and then have the cave itself shown after a page turn? (And, actually, due to other story beats I'm having to consider, I'm taking a third option).

And, yeah, there's a lot more to say, but I'm going to move on to something I both find personally difficult, and something that is annoyingly almost never discussed in any of the "How to Draw..." books. And that is panels.

How to panelize a page. Even the four-panel "newspaper" strip has choices. And, yeah, you can (and many have) go through an entire book on the same equal divisions, but it gives you potentially useful artistic choices to break up the panel size. And more. Odd-shaped panels, open space between panels, overlapping panels, panel breaks, full bleeds, even material that exists outside of the panel.

(The latter I think of as a Shoujo Manga technique. They particularly like doing a full-length figure outside the panel arrangement, the better to show off details of an outfit. Of course many manga fill inter-panel space and gutters with flowers, snowflakes, whatever.)

Panel size and shape and arrangement can nuance the pacing and flow. There are also certain arrangements that tap into the shared language; a series of small overlapping panels, for instance, can be easily interpreted as snapshots of a single contiguous action.

But parallel to the needs to shape panels to speed or slow the eye and break or jump appropriately to emphasize moments or to create pauses, there is the need of panels to, well, hold their contents.

Which brings us to blocking. Because before you can finish cutting out the panels you really need to figure out the way the story is being told visually. Close-up shots versus establishing shots, for instance. High angles versus dutch angles. Two-shots versus talking heads.

And, yeah, I've found one of the things that it really helps to keep track of when blocking your cast and planning your shots is the Line of Action. This is the subject of the 180-degree rule; if Sally is on the left of the frame and Richard on the right, you confuse the viewer by having them switch places. This doesn't mean you can't go over-the-shoulder for Sally and for Richard, though; you just have to visualize that imaginary line running between them and keep the camera on the same side of it.

This is where cinematography sources are so helpful. For a masterful dissection of a, well, masterful sequence making creative use of the Line of Action and Match Cuts and other tools, look no further than the analysis at Temple of the Seven Golden Camels (a storyboard artist's blog) of the truck chase sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And, yeah, I shouldn't have to say it, but if you are doing multiple panels of the same scene or even in the same setting, then draw a map. Work out where the people are. Heck; Gerhard (the background artist for Dave Sim's Cerebus) spent so much time in the same city he made a scale model of it to keep his backgrounds consistent.

A couple other helpful notes. Scott McCloud talks about the space between the panels. Often, things are understood to be happening between panels. You rarely see a punch land in a superhero comic book, for instance; the usual shot is right after the punch, with the hittee reacting to it.

A panel is a thin slice of time. You can't have multiple actions that each require a beat; you can't have in a single panel someone entering a room, seeing someone they didn't expect, then backing out again. can cheat a little. Since we read left to right and top to bottom, you can in some cases have more than one thing happening in order through the panel in that reading direction. (Remember, however, that the reader's eye will also grab towards the large or contrasty or otherwise focal points, and may chose to perceive those as happening first in the narrow slice of time concerned).

Oh, yeah. And as tempting as it may be to use odd-sized panels in whatever arrangement fits the material best, you can't force the reader to follow them in order. You can only make it so the instinctive direction the eye goes is indeed the panel you want read next.

There's a lot more to consider about what should be in the panel, from focus to eye leading to rule of thirds...but this bleeds into material I intend to cover in following posts. Suffice to say that the process of breaking up a story into the actual pages, the process you will undertake using rough page layouts and thumbnail sketches, is one that straddles and borrows from story telling and the actual "art" art; light and shadow and perspective and so on.

And, yeah. My big weaknesses here are still thinking in form, thinking in deep space, and thinking in color (or even in lighting and shade) when I am planning panels.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

It Never Fails

I'm interested in just too many things. I seem to work at a skill until I get relatively facile at it, use it for a relatively short while, then move on to something different.

Partly I can blame future shock. Software, in particular, moves so quickly, by the time you learn how to use something and work around the flaws and have finally set up everything so you can actually do productive work with it...the software changes. I can't name how many times I re-organized patch libraries on my many generations of synthesizers, but I'd guess it is comparable to the number of songs I actually wrote over the same interval!

As usual, Randall said it better:

So every now and then, I gather up all the tools and supplies and parts, and as much of the mental baggage as I can manage, for one specific field and put it away in the back of a closet. "I just don't see having time to do electronics again," I said -- just before the Arduino and the AVR made it possible for me to start doing things I'd only dreamed were possible.

This week, a random question by a friend in another forum got me thinking about drawing again. Drawing, which I said last post I was going to put away in the back of the closet and try not to begrudge the hours I spent trying to learn it.

And, yes; I dusted off my drafting machine, found my pencil leads, and indeed have been drawing this week. Or at least trying to. I struggled to get beyond scribbles for the whole week and most of the weekend, and only really on Sunday afternoon did it break and I started to pencil.

I draw lousy. Basically, I'm a plodder. I can construct a drawing using all the technical tools, but I can't capture a gesture or do a caricature or otherwise do a sketch. Not one that has any life to it. I pretty much fell into pen-and-ink through a love of fantasy book interior illustrations and similar, and developed this in the direction of comic book art of a particular era; the kind of clean lines and vigor and simplicity of Herge and John Byrne and Alex Raymond and so forth.

I was never terribly attracted by the broken-felt-tip look of many underground comics (and currently, many web comics), and as I said I totally lack the kind of brain that can do true cartooning in the Schultz or Mort Walker mode.

But this kind of careful anatomy and drapery and detailed machinery and above all strong emphasis on line is horrible for my particular faults. I get lost in the line, I draw and erase and draw and erase chasing the line, and I lose all track of the actual form that line is supposed to be describing.

So for quite a while every drawing I've made has been one more plodding step with my shoulder behind it, trying to work with forms and shadows and what Hogarth (an otherwise useless teacher) calls "Deep Space."

Not helped by the fact that I have a not-so-sneaking love for the constructionist methods, and that these are necessary tools for the experts I'm trying to emulate...and these are of course the tools I wanted to talk about to my friend.

Constructing perspective, gridding it out even, working up figures with action lines and proportion tricks (like the stack-of-heads method), plotting shadow directions even. These are the sorts of problems that caused me before I put down the drawing tools the previous time to load up mechanical pencils with red and blue leads; the red for panel borders and perspective guidelines, the blue for anatomical studies underlying the final detailed figure.

I'm also working with two grades of pencil lead; one hard (in an attempt to sketch out the shapes and rough in everything without turning the paper all dark and smudgy) and a softer one to cut in the final details.

So I'm getting a little better at holding back on lines and drafting mostly shapes, to solve the actual linework when I come back and ink. And, yes; this is part of the problem of having focused in the direction of comic book art. I think in practically Marvel Method terms; story, pencil, ink, dialog, color. Although at least I've learned to plan in the dialog balloons during the pencil stage!

This is "fun" stuff because there is just so much to watch. Like writing fiction, it is like juggling cats. There's just so much in the air you really have no hope of catching it all. Or not getting scratched. Although the more you work at it, the more you are tracking various issues without having to consciously remind yourself to do so.

In writing, I'm almost where I instinctively pace out dialog and description and page count, work my way towards beats and the build to intermediate climaxes, and hold in my head multiple lines I'm trying to thread at the same time.

In drawing, I'm hoping to eventually be able to internalize where I think in deep space, am conscious of light and where the color blocks are going to fall in the final composition, keep within the perspective, keep figures in scale, watch both the action line and the Line of Action, avoid tangents, etc.

At the moment, it is hardly internalized. So I'm missing stuff all the time. The best I can do is just try to keep drawing. To keep pushing myself not to get bogged down in detail but to move on and do better the next time.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Math is Hard

My state's minimum wage is $9 an hour -- going up to $10 in January. My home town is a little pricier, though, being a college town and all, so they are already at $10.

Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in this town is $2,800.

There's an average of 170 working hours in a month. That's...significantly shy. To pay for that single bedroom a household would have to work 280 hours. Or put another way; TWO people sharing that apartment and working full time would be spending over 80% of their income on rent.

That is not 30% of income (the traditional marker of affordability). It's not even close. It's not even in the same discussion.

Okay, maybe the average is too nice. We're talking minimum wage, right? So what's the cheapest place in this town? Harder to get numbers, but looks like anything below $1,000 is going to be one of those golden finds you hear people talk about... but don't plan your budget around being able to find it yourself.

The place I'm at, not terribly close to anything, no parking, extremely small -- these aren't even 1-bedroom, but studios roughly the size of a 1-car parking space -- is currently asking $1,300.  That's 76% of that hypothetical full-time job at minimum wage, there.

At least you can cook. Because one has to be ready to reply to the glib answers -- "the rents are a lot cheaper on the other side of the freeway" and "a room is cheaper." The reply being; everything costs money. If you can't cook at home, your total costs go up. If you are far from work and/or good transportation, your costs go up.

Something is off here, is all I'm saying. I don't know who the minimum wage is for, but it isn't for anyone who rents. Not if they want to eat as well.

(I've got rent control, and I am making more than minimum wage. So based on my gross, I'd be theoretically paying 38% of my income for rent. Fortunately I have a second job as live-in manager. But that's hours, too....)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

na no wri mo · bo tro go so · mo flo

For about thirty years, it was never easier (and may never be easier again) to write that first million words. Because it was easy to let go of them. I have old stories in Wordstar and MacWrite, tucked away on broken hard drives, stored on floppy disks and microtape

Yes: even though the formats are largely proprietary and the physical medium difficult to find readers for, I could probably rescue some of these. But, like the old game files that got a serious mildew attack in the back of the closet, it is also easy to throw them away and not look back.

Before that, one had to depend on the manuscripts getting lost in a move to a new city (but they have a terrible habit of coming back to light again). In the very near future, we can probably look forward to the increasingly corporate IP-friendly internet structure losing the creative output of us mere lowly consumers somewhere in the Cloud.

Yes -- that is this morning's thoughts, as I prepare to donate my Kaypro IIx and my Convergent Technologies Workslate and my pair of Wallstreet Powerbooks to a computer museum (or, more likely, the local salvage yard). The last Frankenmac is gone already (this was the 6100 "pizza box" case with a 7100 mobo crammed into it and a G3 daughtercard on top of that.) Oh, but there's still a G3 box on the floor as I glean the last old files off its hard drive over Ethernet. And a couple of MacBooks (Aluminium and Titanium) I drag out to run sound designs on when I don't want to leave my main production computer at the theater.

Except that hasn't happened in a while. I promised my new job I'd give them a minimum of a full year. And that I had no plans of even doing a couple weekends on a design until the new year. 

So that's why the plan is still to toss out as much of the random sound gear, the stuff I kept for emergencies, the stuff I never get around to sorting and testing, the stuff that I already know is broken.

Along with cartooning and drafting supplies, prop-making supplies, old synthesizers (I still have a JV880 and a Roland W30 cluttering up the place)...and any of that first million words I find lying around in physical form that I can bring myself to toss.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Farewell to Aux

I haven't mixed in what feels like quite a while.

Well, there was this children's show (adult actors performing for children in a tour of K-12 schools). I can't remember the last time I mixed a band, though -- even a pit band.

The last two months have passed in a bit of a haze, I fear. Get up (far too early), work all day, return home to collapse, eat a little, run only the most necessary errands. Interrupted only fitfully by pretty much random things; a little car repair, a Maker Faire, a prop order to complete. Nothing much to remember, nothing really worth reporting. No big projects, no long-term life goals.

Heck, I still haven't adapted to "the show that never opens." Instead I'm just struggling to get to work every morning and somehow stay fed and get a little sleep and the bare necessities of clean clothes and rent checks and so forth.

Spent today more-or-less reviewing. I've learned so many things, I can get lost for hours and hours just trying to brush up and maintain existing skills. And I have so many memories and life experiences I can get lost for a similarly long time just trying to review them. What was that movie I once saw? Where was the place I visited, who were the people I knew.

Last weekend was a memorial for a family friend. I spent a big chunk of it getting re-acquainted with his kids; these were the neighborhood kids when we were growing up, the closest in our circle of friends, the kids from across the street. Who have kids of their own now. Life is what happened to you while you were distracted.

I'm working full-time but it is practically grunt work. The decades I've spent learning theater craft (or learning to mix, or any of my other skills) are largely untouched by this. Theater doesn't pay well, but I'm getting significantly less per hour now; the trade-off being steady work instead of seasonal. So far, the main way that trade-off has worked in my advantage is that only now am I seeing a bunch of positions being offered (sound design, ME position, plus lots of load-in load-out). The dry spell was almost three months, and three months is a long time between paychecks even if the checks are bigger on average.

So I still dunno.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Persistence of Memory

So the department I work in does all sorts of odd jobs around the factory. Yesterday was resetting the clocks to account for leaving Daylight Savings time. Most of the clocks can be manually set, and that's no biggie. Several of the wall clocks are, however, fancy digital models that get the time wirelessly.

I'm told that in previous years my boss or others would struggle for up to a week, setting the clocks manually only to have them reset themselves digitally during the night.

The controls on the back are extremely non-informative. There is "Set," which does nothing if you press it briefly. "Wave," which also does nothing unless you hold it in for several seconds, at which point the clock advances to 12:00 and stays there. A "DST" switch and another switch marked "A, E, C, M, P." Well, that one is pretty obvious; that would be the US time zone.

On the company website, the instruction for dealing with Daylight Savings is both simple and opaque. "Hold the clock facing Fort Collins, Colorado, and wait for it to update automatically. It may take several hours."

This...this is not radio as I understand it. We're in California; Fort Collins is significantly below the horizon, and I doubt the Atomic Clock is using LORAN, either. The idea of the clock trying and failing over and over to achieve a tenuous connection long enough to update, an attempt so difficult it may take it several days, is at the very least sort of chilling, and most definitely rather ridiculous.

So I popped the clocks off the walls, rebooted them, stuck them on a dolly and took them to lunch with me out on the loading dock where they could see the sky. When prodded, they faithfully went into "waiting for signal mode," twitched for a while, and finally gave up. So then I set them manually, flipped the "DST" switch that neither my boss nor my bosses' boss seem to have thought useful to flip, and as of today they haven't chosen to reset themselves.

We gave one clock a better chance; set it up in a loading bay facing the local microwave and cell phone-festooned water tower. And the sun came out while the clock was there. And the clock melted.

Not the whole thing...the face bubbled up so badly it blocked the hands from moving. No ants, either.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

There's trouble at the mill

import troup.members as vikings

def main():
    while(eggs == True || bacon == True):

Can you tell which language I'm struggling with now?

Just trying to get the GPIO buttons on my Raspberry Pi assigned to automatically boot the GUI on the PiTFT display for easier stand-alone list.

I found my old Adafruit minty-boost kit, by the way. And it does power the Pi! Dunno about handling the full load of video, though.