Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Hollow Men: On Character Design



So by now some of you may have actually read Flight Volume 8, which is neat! I was right, wasn't I? You enjoyed yourself. Toldja so.

I finally got my own hands on a copy, and had a wonderful time re-reading everyone else's stories. There are so many phenomenal storytellers with such distinct styles represented in this final volume...I think as a whole it really lives up to and exceeds Flight's high standards.

For my own part in it, it was really surreal to hold a copy in my hands. Like any artist, I feel a certain amount of anxiety seeing my own work all published and done. I vacillate quickly between that sensation that "it could be better!" and a general giddiness that it's actually done.
I think, with whatever perspective I can have right now on the whole experience, I feel content.

I am also itching to start working on something new! I've got a few projects that linger perpetually on the backburner...maybe it's time for one of those to take shape and start developing? Jellybots? Something else? Time will tell.

I mentioned last post that I wanted to talk about some of the character design process that went into Hollow Men...so I figured I'd give that a shot. If you haven't read the story yet...you probably should do so before you read the rest of this post, lest I spoil it for you :p

________

On Process II, Character Design:



When I start something...or at least when I started this...I think non-linearly. Not just visually, but in moments, emotions, color, symbols, etc. A random stream of things that jumble together, and ultimately become the final story...or they don't, and they sit around my attic of ideas and gather dust :p

I work full-time as a character designer for a video-game company, so naturally much of the miasma of my thoughts includes character design.
Just like with Story, it can be tempting to get caught up in the bits and baubles of character design. For me, I like to add hooks...little adjectives you can add to a design that give the viewer something to think about...some visual and conceptual handle that stops the eye and the mind and keeps you looking. I think that's vital to all really captivating character design...but the very best designs (it seems to me) don't just resort to gimmicky hooks to grab your attention...there's a deeper element of design that's beyond all that...and I think it has to do with sincerity.

It's that thing that, however 'uncool' or just weird the idea is, you just can't shake. Anyone can put more and more spikes, horns, wings, or whatever on a character...but that deep sincerity is what can make one drawing mysteriously captivating. It's literally one of the hardest things in the world to articulate (so if you don't know what on earth I'm going on about, I don't blame you) because it's a design thing, not a words thing.

So I'll stop talking theory and talk practically:

A boy paddles a canoe down a silent river in the forest, there are serpents in the water.

That means there is a boy and there are serpents. Obvious, I know. But to me...even in that simple sentence, those are specific people (er...and serpents that are also...kind of...people?). So the process of designing them is the process of trying to figure out how to visually develop the image you see in your minds' eye without losing their unique identity along the way. That means making decisions all along the way to ignore 'cooler' ideas that may occur in favor of 'honest' ones. Make sense?

It's like naming someone. Some names will fit and others won't, because there is already a someone to name. You can't go deciding that 'Peter's' new name is 'Optimus' when it clearly could never be. It just doesn't feel right. It won't stick. Optimus is a cool name, but not for a Peter.

The main characters in The Hollow Men are Jehan (the prince, though you wouldn't know it because his name is never mentioned) and the Hollow Men themselves. The first thing I knew about Jehan was that he had tattoos of hands on his shoulders.
There's something profound to me about the idea of a tattoo...and moreso the idea that that permanent mark could represent the impact of another person...it could stand for kinship...that fealty could be expressed as a kind of permanent embrace. It just worked for me, emotionally, as a symbol. Of love, legacy, whatever...again it's a felt thing, not a words thing for me. So hands became a very important theme in The Hollow Men...which drove the story and some of the decisions I made in terms of how to compose certain frames and play certain moments.

It followed in the soup of my ideas that the hands had to do with his father. That there would be a scene late in the story where we would understand what they meant. And the image of black hands with long, slick talons came to my mind...violating that space. That's literally how it went. That was the second 'moment' that I knew had to occur for me to be satisfied. So the character design became integrated with the story itself and they helped drive eachother.

Then there were the Hollow Men themselves. MUCH more tempting to push further and further away. I knew the serpents in the water would be white. I knew the kind of personality I wanted and I knew there would be two of them with only one consciousness between them.
There was an idea I'd had, which I still like, that they would sort of...unzipper down the middle. They would twist and wind in and out of eachother (doodled above). That's the conceptual origin of the black line that bisects them. But because it pulled too much focus away from the narrative, I decided against it.
They were kind of a meditation on loneliness, I suppose? The thought of being completely alone in a crowd...the pair of them are only one thing, and that one thing is barely a thing at all...just an idea of hunger. A void always wants to be filled. To me, that is the essence of how it is to be alone.

There's more I could say, but I think I'll ruin it if I talk too explicitly about it all...I want to let you into the process, but not completely draw back the curtain and show you how the trick works (if it does) :)

I've talked a lot about preserving that initial idea, and I think it bears saying: pinning down and keeping inspiration can be an impossible thing. Like, literally. Impossible.

It's been the biggest struggle and the source of some of the biggest lessons for me. As an artist, you're constantly aware that once you lose that passion, it all falls apart...you can only do your best to tread water. Maybe your dogged commitment will see you all the way to the end if you just grit your teeth and bear it. It's never really worked that way for me...you only get so far white-knuckling it before your strength gives out.

Like many things in life, I am so dependent on something that is so beyond my control: "Inspiration".
Who said I'd even have an idea to begin with, or that it would be a good one? After I start, what happens when the passion abandons me? I never finish. So often I feel like I don't have an idea worth preserving. When that happens, why start at all?

This could be a whole new post, but I make passing references to my faith and my praying a lot in this blog. I don't want to alienate anyone, but by the same token I don't want to shy from being candid:

A huge part of the art process is surrender. Giving up. And that is a huge part of prayer for me as well. I always wondered: how on earth does my faith have anything to do with my artwork? I found some new things out about that during the process of making this comic.
In art, as soon as you start to seize down on something, you overwork it. You kill the sketch...the pose turns out wooden and stiff. So I panic pretty consistently throughout the process. I second-guess myself and freak out. That's why I pray. And that's just one of the ways my faith has collided with my work. Not in some high-minded spiritualized sense, but in an even more 'practical' way than chasing emotions and trying to pin down dreams. Giving control over to something as 'abstract' as God makes a lot more sense when I realize I give control over something as abstract and fleeting as 'inspiration'. All. The. Time.

Phillipians 4 springs to mind.

Maybe more on that later? Just a thought for now.

Thanks SO much for reading. I hope you still do. A full several-page preview should be up of all the comics in volume 8 on the flight website soon. In the meantime, you can tide yourselves over with some similar posts from the other phenomenal contributors:


Much love,

-n


9 comments:

Raphael said...

:-)
Reading your entries is like sitting in a school, you like to be, and not only enjoying the teaching but also the life behind it.
Thanks for sharing!

Anna said...

Seeing your own work in print is an awesome (and kind of scary) thing - I've only seen it in fanzines so far, so I imagine having something professionally published is at least twice as awesome (and twice as scary - what if they discover that slightly lazy panel on page two?). I'm definitely getting my hands on Flight 8 (and all the other volumes I'm missing) to see what everyone's come up with.

Reading your thoughts on character-design was interesting, because short of the prayers, it's very similar to how I work - trying to pin down the shape of a feeling or an idea, and constantly failing. But, hopefully, failing a little less each time.

lsposto said...

I second Raphael, and would like to add how soothing it is to follow the process behind a story. Wish I could get my hands on a copy... your work is delicious!

"As an artist, you're constantly aware that once you lose that passion, it all falls apart...you can only do your best to tread water."

This really hit home for me, and it's nice to know that there are others who struggle with this--and make amazing things, to boot.

Thanks for sharing with us.

kriseasler said...

I just read your comic yesterday, and wow...I am completely stunned by it. Your work is truly magnificent - and being able to see the process has been so insightful!
Thank you so much for sharing your talent (and your faith) with the rest of us!

Dan said...

congratulations!

James LaVela said...

Got my hands on Flight 8 two days ago and immediately paged to "The Hollow Men" - awesome!

Phil Carnehl said...

First, congrats and thank you, you've put together a beautiful story. I've followed the flight anthologies from the beginning and while i have thoroughly enjoyed each and every story several times, yours is by far my new favorite. And on top of that i've found a wonderful new blog to follow. Your artwork and words are an absolute joy to go over. Thank you again and i look forward to what God has in store for you next.

Laurena said...

Congrats! I've been completely absorbing my copy. I read it in one sitting, and have been picking it up everyday since. It's fantastic.

nicholas said...

Nicholas,
This post has really got me thinking (when I should be sleeping) about how we include our faith in our art. In fact, can we really take it out? The fact that you include it in a practical form in your art making is rather refreshing. I have been reading a book by Madeleline Lengle called "Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art" It has really challenged my thoughts on art and "Christian Art." When I see your work, I experience what the book is talking about in regards to no separation between art and faith. Your art and faith are both a part of you, and your work is an extension of that. When I sat down to read Hollow Men to my 7 year old son, he was completely captivated. A truth was communicated through a compelling story. This to me is the result of the "surrender" you spoke of. God speaks through us in so many different ways. I'm encouraged and inspired by you sir.