Move along, nothing to see here…
In an ideal world this is where I would have written about revisiting Orbital comics to see their current exhibition ‘Stripped‘; a collection of artworks ‘celebrating the iconography of comics as well as physical objects themselves‘. However when I visited London yesterday it seemed luck wasn’t on my side.
After being mercilessly shortchanged by the underground’s Oyster system – a beast I dare not argue with – arriving at Orbital I puzzlingly found the exhibition barricaded off with staff milling around inside sorting a pile of comics. Questioning one I was told that they had a delivery in and would as such be closing the area for the day while it was used as an improvised stock room (either that or the stock room was being used as an improvised exhibition space). I’ve generally got nothing against Orbital Comics; they all seem nice enough and they’re usually cheaper than places like Forbidden Planet, but you’ll forgive me if I extend a most sarcastic thankyou to them for not bothering to mention the exhibition’s temporary closure on their website.
Anyway, wanting to make the best of a bad thing I strolled a short distance to the British Museum to cool off and besides rediscovering my childhood fear of Egyptian mummies, found something of at least some relevance to my work.
The museum had a small but distinctly offbeat exhibit of art and drawings from the Japanese manga Professor Munakata; a crime/mystery solving affair featuring the titular character – a caped detective figure who I can’t unsee as Oliver Reed – in a one-off story to foil a theft at the British Museum.
The creator and artist Hoshino Yukinobu actually collaborated with the museum to research the setting for this and as such was granted full access around the place, the resulting details of the exhibits in his drawings being astoundingly accurate. Putting aside this novelty though, looking at the displayed sketches and pages in various stages of production gave me some interesting insight into the process by which they are made; Yukinobu, a professional and industry veteran of over 30 years clearly knows his way around a comic displaying crisp efficiency in character design along with precise background work and compelling layouts. Aesthetically speaking his work also struck me as reminiscent to Naoki Urasawa, something which can only be a good thing given the quality of the latter’s output.
The manga’s contents were clearly more adventure mystery than gumshoe or noirish (let alone hard sci-fi) and given the largely digital nature of my work the far more traditional approach of a typical ‘mangaka‘ is a world away from my own technique. Regardless, it felt like a good experience all the same for the sake of seeing things differently and being reminded once again of how diverse the comics medium is, while as with just about anything comics related there are little touches which are of almost universal relevance to any approach.
Not a complete waste then! I’m back in London next week for a Graphic Art Fair at Somerset House so I may give Orbital’s exhibit another shot then, between that and forgetting the mummies’ terrifying shrivelled faces everything should be good…
Just thought I’d quickly mention that Branch has been featured on The Duck!
Besides being generally pleasant and hopefully drawing a bit more readership, it’s also interesting to hear the admin’s summary and someone else’s perspective on the plot:
‘Curtis Dorsett is a bit of a wide-eyed newbie at space travel. Everyone gets sick their first time anyway, no big deal. He gets some friendly advice and stops by to pick up his luggage. Luggage listed under the name of “Emanon” and which contents immediately alert security to the fact that Curtis has a little more going on than you might expect. Turns out he (or more likely the package) is so involved in a thing he needs a cyborg (sorry, “enhanced” escort)… but while she’s introducing herself, security is getting murdered. Just what is going on here? This cool, gritty-cartoony comic should catch your attention!’
Now, time to make good on the extra interest and push forward with the next page!
Director Nicolas Winding Refn really needs to have a word with his marketing department.
His film of 2009 Valhalla Rising was largely pitched as 300 with Vikings; ‘Born of violence! Born of blood!’ screeches the cover in front of a crimson splattered Mads Mikkelsen and a battle ready Norse horde – a horde which never actually materialises in the film – those looking for the sort of action heavy fare implied would be sorely disappointed by the complex and gradually paced metaphysical journey it delivers.
So it was that his latest film Drive (2011) was given a similarly unfortunate treatment last year. Between a terrible trailer which manages to both misrepresent and spoil the best moments along with a poster campaign suggesting endless car chases, you’d be forgiven for anticipating Fast & Furious 6; contrary to its title though and much like its directorial predecessor this is not that movie.
Refreshingly there’s a distinct lack of vehicular pornography here, Refn is said to be wholly uninterested in cars not even holding a licence and it shows. There are only three car chases in the trim 90 minute runtime, two of which feel so distinctly unconventional I wonder if they can really be called ‘chases’ at all. Dialogue is minimal and in spite of the premise the film’s never in a hurry being more Taxi Driver than Taxi.
On paper the plot sounds deceptively generic: a nameless driver (Ryan Gosling) who works as a stuntman and garage hand by day moonlights as a criminal getaway driver, running a smooth double life until something goes horrible wrong™. Just reading a synopsis before its release made me painfully recall boozy Saturday nights wasted in front of TV absorbing entertainment with all the memorable qualities of a sneeze. What sets Drive apart from such testosterone fuelled fluff is the emotional investment it makes in characters and carefully developed mood it garners throughout.
Gosling’s Driver – initially portrayed as cookie cutter ‘strong silent type’ – quickly manifests as a far more interesting man in conflict. Rather than simply being cool and quiet, he’s established as someone almost entirely devoid of life, exceptionally talented behind the wheel but lacking in almost every other area. He literally feels empty as a human being.
I know that having love step into fill the void is one of the oldest plot devices in the book but it’s played out with subtlety and finesse, creeping up on the viewer rather than being rammed down their throat. Slowly becoming involved with his neighbour Irene and her son we see him begin to emerge from his shell to – as the soundtrack phrases it – become a ‘real human being’.
It’s all too good to last of course as Irene’s husband returns from prison inadvertently bringing a wave of criminal terror with him. Feeling obligated to help the family through ambiguous motives the driver steps in to help, at which point the film’s real dramatic power comes into play; the formerly sedate tone is shattered in an explosion of aggression and we see a far more disturbing side to our protagonist. It’s from this carnage that an unsettling poignancy begins arise in his contradictory behaviour and its inevitable conclusion: for all the good intentions to defend them every act of violence pushes Irene and her son further way.
What does any of this have to do with my project? Well, beyond being a movie worth recommending it’s also firmly lodged in the neo-noir genre. The category is constantly misappropriated and overused these days but in the case of Drive it’s most definitely earned. Connecting to classic noir there’s an abundance of dubious morality and creative cinematography (which I’ll go into in a moment), while the calmer first half before the descent into violence follows the parent genre’s common trajectory down into a narrative heart of darkness.
The ‘neo’ side of things though takes a quirky and somewhat inspired move by adopting resolutely retro qualities of cinema past, specifically the films of the 1980’s. The alternately sun bleached and neon washed streets of LA, liberal use of slow motion photography and can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head electro pop soundtrack all recall the era’s celluloid output so uncannily it’s often easy to forget its set in the present day. On a personal note, it also presents a compelling defence for the relevance of these qualities in relation to a certain disagreement I had a while back regarding 80’s influences…
The direction, editing and visuals are uniformly brilliant as well with Refn and his cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel clearly having a profound control over the medium and what they want to show. Again, tying in with Noir there’s some typically striking use of light and shadow contrasts but its elevated considerably by touches of bold ingenuity; cold tones are masterfully overlaid with rich reds and warm yellows in manner reminiscent of Mario Bava or early Dario Argento films, while the camera work frequently breaks with convention often eschewing exterior shots of driving in favour of a closer more intense view of the subjects. The visuals are indeed so strong at times that they override much of dialogue, while towards the end the signature visual crescendo does much of the talking plot-wise.
Bizarre a comparison as it may sound my conclusions of what makes Drive such a brilliant film and so noteworthy to my work are remarkably similar to those I recently drew on Hellboy, it keeps everything simple and is ultimately more inclined to show rather than tell. It’s a modest film in many respects; it’s not an epic, runs under two hours, has no indulgent back stories, no large scale shootouts or overblown street racing and no sex scenes – it strips away all the flab and overproduced nonsense that’s become synonymous with much of today’s action cinema and actually delivers more as a result. A reminder of what really matters in film: character, story, visual craft, atmosphere and emotion.
Ah well, perhaps Refn will get a better advertising campaign next time…
Somehow I had it in my head when I pencilled this one out that it would be relatively simple, unfortunately it ended up being the proverbial greased eel. The end result is solid enough but there’s no way it can justify weeks of hiatus; while there may be artistic merits to the work it’s also entertainment. Entertainment with readers. Readers with limited patience who I’ll wager have a hard time maintaining interest in a conversation spanning across a month and would rather spend their time with Batman or watching funny cat videos on YouTube…
To anyone who is still following I really am sorry for the slow output and continual broken promises, speed is by far my biggest weakness but I’d still rather delay than churn out something unremarkable which I’m deeply unhappy with. Anyway, rather than moping about my inadequacies again or making more shady promises I thought I’d do something different here and provide some insight into how I work while considering how I might tighten things up in the process:
The rough pencil plan which I start with (above, left) based on the script is perhaps the easiest part of making a page, I sometimes end up wrangling with the layout a bit but it’s usually over and done with in a day. Anatomy tends to be wonky while the linework itself is immensely crude but since it’s all going to be redrawn it hardly matters, what’s important is that I get a sense of the overall thing and whether it works compositionally before beginning proper.
Conversely, ‘inking’ (pictured above right) is typically the most difficult and time-consuming portion of the process. Previously I’d draw out each panel individually with fine liners but since realising I’d have a far easier time doing the same digitally I now work over the layout in Corel. The new approach affords me more control and makes mistakes – of which I make many – much easier to reverse, on the downside though it tends to bring out my obsessive side. Given the option to redraw things as many times as I like means I can often lose focus on the bigger picture and end up repeatedly reworking a nose/eye/hand/miniscule detail, whereas on paper I’d get it down and that would be it – no going back.
To my mind at least the quality of the art has risen over the last several pages or so thanks to the new methods but I need to be stricter as to how I allocate my time and avoid being tempted to overcook irrelevant minutiae.
Stripping away the linework – and inadvertently creating some seriously trippy imagery – you should get a sense from the two stages above of how I build up colour. Given that this scene is saturated in sickly greens the palette isn’t as complex as some other pages but I still ended up putting in a lot of effort.
I start out with a base green, apply midtones, then work in shadows and highlights from there with the dodge and burn tools; I know that professionals often start with the darkest areas first and work up to lighter tones from there but I find the mids give me a greater sense of balance as I build up the layers, providing a kind of anchor I know not to stray too far from. Keeping everything in variations of green struck me as somewhat monotonous and unrealistic so you can also see how I’ve overlayed other colours in the second image to make certain features such as eyes and Scratch’s prosthetics standout.
Something I’ve additionally begun paying more attention to recently is lighting. Besides the regular greens being a little strong on their own adding the sense of a lightsource/s creates a far more interesting visual atmosphere; note the cyan highlights applied in the left image via brush selection and translucent gradients, in this case giving the characters a paler complexion along with the sense of cheap and nasty lighting overhead. For similar reasons I also applied a dark blue tinge to areas of heavy shadow to enhance the feeling of depth.
Finally, the last image (above right) shows two irregular effects I applied in this case: the mirror and the HUD overlay from Scratch’s viewpoint. The reflection was a simple affair only requiring some overlayed gradients and highlights, unfortunately getting the HUD right proved considerably more taxing, being largely responsible for the last day or so of delay. Unlike most other features it needs to look computerised rather than organic/living but on the flip side it has to fit with the style making it a mind-boggling contradiction to draw up. It took a few tries but the end results I hope are at least serviceable, appearing precise enough to be a computer readout with a suitably rough edged look to prevent it from jarring with the rest of the comic.
Putting aside smaller foibles I feel like my methods and techniques have evolved into something I’m fairly comfortable with, as ever the bottom line is the need for greater efficiency. With future pages I need to be more aware of where the time goes, which details are necessary and which are superfluous. I’ve seen others with less time produce far more than me at a higher standard so it’s not a question of whether it can be done, I’ve just got to keep refining and work towards a more respectable output.