THRILLBENT 101: The Eighth Seal (Part 2 of 2)

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When I read the script for chapter one of The Eighth Seal, I was pretty damn impressed. James Tynion got a lot right when it came to opening a horror story properly, and he had some really interesting ideas that could make it a great digital comic, but I still saw many ways that we could push his script even further to take advantage of the digital format. I focused on storyboarding the chapter in a way that I thought would take advantage of digital storytelling but not take away from the story itself. James’ script was twelve screens long (we say “screens” instead of “pages”), and my storyboards ended up making the comic almost 40 screens long. I altered a lot of pacing, panel placement and word balloon placement while experimenting with the digital storytelling. Quite a bit gets adjusted, but my focus is always on embellishing what James has written and not on taking away from his story. Plus, James and I talk all the time, so I have a pretty clear idea about what he likes when it comes to storytelling and horror in general. To get a better idea, take a look at the script for chapter one and the storyboards for chapter one.

Things worked out so well on the first chapter that we ended up using the same approach on all of the following chapters. My process seems to almost always end up doubling the number of screens in the script, so now James writes with that in mind. James’ scripts have definitely grown to take better advantage of the digital format, and he’s come up with some of the best ideas for swipe effects in the series. When I storyboard The Eighth Seal, I tend to ignore the panel numbering in the script and look at a scene as a whole. My goal is to figure out the rhythm of the scene and see how far I can experiment with this digital format. Many times I draw the panels/screens how they are written in the script, but a lot of the time I end up with ideas that will work only if I move a panel to a different screen, move a word balloon to a different panel, or add an extra shot to a screen. It’s tricky to play with a script in this way and requires a writer who trusts your approach to storytelling.

All of my original storyboard sketches are actually pretty small and drawn on 3 x 5 inch paper because it helps me think within the 5:3 aspect ratio. Another goal with the storyboarding is to create a rough mini version of what the final comic should read like. When I’m finished sketching all of the storyboards, I scan them into my computer and edit them in Photoshop. I use Photoshop to layer images and create the rough swipe effects. After I’m done with editing, I throw everything into a folder and use an image/photo gallery program on my computer to click through the rough comic. This entire process helps me to know if my ideas are even going to work. I try to experiment as much as possible during the storyboarding phase because it’s the easiest time to test out ideas. I recommend including word balloons in your layouts/storyboards because they can play a large role with this format. Once I’m satisfied with the storyboards, and James approves them, I begin work on the final line art and create the core screens.

Core Screens: A core screen is a screen of artwork that has not yet been manipulated with editing or layering. On the image below, example 1 shows some of my core screen line art for The Eighth Seal. I usually figure out what the core screens will need to be during the storyboarding phase. While sketching, I get a pretty clear idea about which images will need editing or layering to create swipe effects. That’s the benefit to having storyboards that offer a very clear example on how the final comic will read. I try to fit as much line art as I can on each core screen. Once I feel that I have all of the line art on the core screens needed to create the final screens, I send them off to get colored. When the colors are finished, I then begin work on editing and layering the colored core screens to create the final screens. On the example image below, three core screens were edited to create a sequence that consists of five final screens. (By the way, I charge per core screen, kind of like how artists charge per page for a traditional comic. I charge only for the original art I’ve drawn on a screen, but not for any of the duplicated art on the screen. For example, if only half of a screen has original art on it, I charge only half of my core screen rate. I adjust my core screen rate based on that principle and try to always be fair about it.)

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Layering: I layer core screen art to make something appear, disappear or create the illusion of movement. Layering is really just a simple copy/paste process. When I want to show something move on a swipe, I draw that moving character, or object, on a separate screen from the rest of the non-moving art. When drawing the original line art, I use a lightbox to make sure that the character, or object, lines up in the right spot on the shot it will be layered over top of. Once I’m satisfied with the original line art, I scan it into my computer and send it off to the colorist. When I receive the colored core screens from the colorist I then begin layering the art together in Photoshop to create the final screens. On the example image below, example number 2 shows multiple characters pasted onto one screen. All of those characters will get layered on the same background; the background gets duplicated a few times to create the illusion of movement on the final screens. I ended up needing only two core screens of art to create four final screens on the example image. My goal with that final sequence was to slow the scene down and have it end in a way that put extra emphasis on the last panel.

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Lettering: Most of the lettering placement is figured out during the storyboarding phase. During that phase, I move a lot of word balloons around and place them in different panels, but this makes it hard for the actual letterer to know where to put his or her lettering because the original script doesn’t match the final screens I’ve created. So when the final screens are done, James creates a lettering script to help the letterer understand where all of the dialog will need to go. James usually adjusts the dialog one last time in his lettering script and uses my storyboards as a reference to see where the dialog will now need to be placed. Once he is finished, I upload the lettering script, final screens, and storyboards (for reference) to the Thrillbent server so that the letterer can download them. Take a look at James’ lettering script to get a better idea about how it works.

Once the letterer is finished, all of the final screens and lettering files are put in a folder on the Thrillbent server to be pieced together and finalized. When finalizing is done, a pdf of the final comic is sent to James and I to proofread. If everything looks good, we let Mark and Lori know that the chapter is ready for release on Thrillbent.com and Comixology. Then we begin work on the next chapter. That’s pretty much it. I hope some of this stuff has been helpful to anyone out there who is interested in creating this style of comic. Thanks for reading.

The Eighth Seal Credits:
Sketches & Line Art: Jeremy Rock
Scripts: James Tynion IV
Colors: Nolan Woodard, Mike Spicer & Robt Snyder
Lettering: Troy Peteri

Dec 03, 2013 In: Comics, Thrillbent 101

THRILLBENT 101: The Eighth Seal (Part 1 of 2)

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Hey, everyone, I’m Jeremy Rock, the illustrator/co-creator of The Eighth Seal, and I’m going take some time to explain my approach to digital storytelling. My hope is that this information will help those who are interested in creating comics in the style that Thrillbent uses. While I’m explaining this stuff, please remember that this is basically me saying “consider this” and not “do this.” Nothing is written in stone here. Also, if you haven’t read The Eighth Seal, please go read it now. It will make everything I’m about to explain easier to understand.

Let’s start with the basics. Digital comics are primarily read on computers, smart phones or tablet devices. I mainly have touchscreen tablet devices in mind when I’m creating a digital comic. I also prefer the landscape format for digital comics instead of the traditional portrait format that print comics use. Every Thrillbent comic uses the landscape format, but not all of them use the same aspect ratio, so if you want to create a comic in the same style as The Eighth Seal, the first thing you’ll need to do is figure out the aspect ratio of your comic.

Aspect Ratio: The aspect ratio describes the proportional relationship between the width and height of an image. Most Thrillbent titles use the 4:3 aspect ratio because that’s what the first Thrillbent comic, Luther, used. But I was interested in experimenting with a wider screen format for The Eighth Seal, so I decided to try out the 5:3 aspect ratio. Take a look at the example image below to see the differences between the two. On the right side of the example, you’ll see 11×17 comic art boards with little boxes measured out on them. Those show the sizes that I found most comfortable to draw my original art at for each aspect ratio.

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An aspect ratio of 5:3 can offer a little more breathing room for the art and lettering depending on your composition. 4:3 is a little more squarish but translates better to print, by stacking two screens to create a printed page, if you ever want to convert your digital comic into a traditional print comic. Honestly, I never think about print when I’m working on The Eighth Seal. In my mind, it’s purely a digital comic. I didn’t think that way when I worked on Luther, and it caused me to hold back on some unique digital storytelling techniques because they didn’t translate well to print. The focus with Luther was to explore a digital format that could later be converted to print. I didn’t like that I had to hold back the digital storytelling so that maybe one day the comic could have a print run. This approach just seemed to take something away from both formats. So now my personal opinion is that it’s best to give each its own spotlight and treat print and digital as completely separate formats. Allow each the freedom to show off their unique traits instead of forcing one to be more like the other.

Art Tools: The next thing to consider is the art tools that you want to use. You can use traditional art tools or create all of the art on a computer. Completely up to you. Artist Peter Krause uses the program Manga Studio to create all his art for Insufferable straight on the computer. I draw all of my original art with traditional tools (pencil, paper, ink, etc.) and scan the art into my computer to be manipulated in Photoshop.

Storyboards and Swipe Effects: When creating a chapter for The Eighth Seal, the team basically uses a five-step process of script, storyboards, line art, coloring, and lettering. Those are essentially the key steps to creating the final images for the comic. Take a look at the example image below to get a better idea about what I mean.

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When I start work on a chapter of The Eighth Seal, the first thing I do is read the script and create the storyboards. This is the same process as creating layouts for a page in a print comic, but I just got in the habit of calling them storyboards because of how they look and read on a screen. Call them whatever you want. A lot of the stuff that I’m going to explain is still so new that it doesn’t even have a name yet. I just make up names to help keep things organized, but feel free to use your own terms if you find them more comfortable.

Before I jump into my storyboarding process, I’m going to explain one of my most-used terms, “Swipe Effect”, which is just a play on the terms “special effect” or “sound effect.” It refers to a moment when the reader swipes on a touchscreen device and something changes in an unconventional way when compared to traditional comic book storytelling.

Some Thrillbent writers use the term “on the swipe” in their scripts when they want the artist to create a swipe effect (i.e., “on the swipe, she changes into a monster”). This style of storytelling can make something appear, disappear or create the illusion of movement. I usually just run on instinct when it comes to swipe effects, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to explain my approach, but when I started analyzing my techniques I realized that there was a lot more structure to my process than I had originally thought. So I’ve broken down my techniques and labeled parts to better explain why I do what I do. I’ve also created visual examples to help explain this stuff. These are just some of the basics to start with. There are still many ways to experiment with digital storytelling outside of the examples that I give below.

Action Swipes: These seem to be a favorite among readers. This style of swipe creates the illusion of movement by layering two or more screens that have slight changes to the position of characters or objects. It’s probably the closest I get to something like animation. This technique is a great way to make the reader focus on a specific character or object. It’s also useful for adding a surprise reveal and can even slow down the pace of a scene. Check out the example image below to get a better idea about how these work.

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Traditional Swipes: These really aren’t typical swipe effects, but they are a type of swipe that occurs often. Basically, Traditional Swipes are just screens with traditional comic panel-to-panel storytelling, nothing appearing, disappearing or changing. Just good, old-fashioned sequential art. Mixing in a decent number of these types of screens helps to keep the reading experience balanced and allows the reader a chance to sit and just read without having to constantly swipe.

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Full Screen Swipes: Much like Traditional Swipes, these really aren’t typical swipe effects, but they are a very useful swipe technique. A Full Screen Swipe is an image that takes up the entire screen. Think of it as the “splash page” of the digital comic format. It’s a great way to highlight a dramatic moment. The image can have a border to create a sense of confinement or be borderless to make the image feel boundless and open. It can even be entirely black, which creates an empty space in time if placed between two story screens. You can also place a word balloon over an entirely black screen to create a quieter opening or ending to a scene. I try to not use more than three Full Screen Swipes in a row so that the reader doesn’t start to feel like they are just swiping through an image gallery instead of a comic. But sometimes I break that rule if I feel the extra screens will add a strong kick to the overall sequence.

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Alternating Swipes: This is probably my most-used swipe effect. It’s useful for revealing a surprise to the reader. This type of swipe causes storytelling changes that jump back and forth between different sides of the screen. It can go left to right, up and down, diagonal, whatever way you want. You can get pretty complex with this technique. The trick is making sure it carries a rhythm to it that doesn’t confuse the reader. This is also a great swipe effect for slowing down the pace of a scene because it requires the reader to swipe for small bits of the story.

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Isolation Swipes: I use this swipe effect to put extra emphasis on a panel or image by isolating a single shot on the screen. On the example image below, with example number 4 you’ll see that I used four back-to-back screens with Isolation Swipes. I did this to show a more dramatic progression of time and allow each shot to feel more prominent. When combined with Alternating Swipes, Isolation Swipes can help to slow down the pace of a scene and offer space to reveal a surprise element of the story.

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Inset Swipes: This is another swipe effect that I tend to use a lot. Inset Swipes are similar to inset panels used in traditional comic book storytelling. They are smaller images or panels that appear, disappear, or change while inside, or overlapping, a larger image or panel. Inset Swipes can offer opportunities to reveal a surprise or slow down time.

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Letter Swipes: These can be a fun way to reveal surprise dialogue. This swipe technique makes it so that lettering can appear, disappear or change. Pretty easy to understand, but tricky to master. Sometimes when new lettering appears, the old lettering is removed so it will not confuse the reader about what to read next. It really just depends on where you want the reader to focus after a swipe occurs.

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Combining Swipes: This example isn’t about a single swipe effect, it’s about what happens when you combine multiple swipe effects. Take a look at the example image below, you’ll see that most of the time I use multiple swipe effects in a scene. Let’s examine this a bit further. With example number 3, I isolate the shot of Amelia to put emphasis on her feeling alone. I felt it was important that this be the very first image we see in The Eighth Seal because Amelia feels alone in her fight against her mental instability. On the swipe, we see Dr. West appear on the left, talking to her about her problem. After another swipe, we see a Lettering Swipe get rid of Dr. West’s word balloon, and a close-up of Amelia explaining her situation appears on the right. By using Alternating Swipes along with the other swipe effects, I created a back and forth feeling to their conversation. When we swipe again, the close-up of Amelia on the right is turned into an inset image with new lettering, and is overlapping, and within, a new full screen image of a school. Amelia is telling a story about an event that occurred in the past, and I felt this was a fun way to slowly transition to that memory she is about to share. On the final swipe, we see Amelia disappear as her memory takes over the screen, the colors of the environment become more vibrant, and new captions appear. The swipes I combined to create this sequence were Isolation, Alternating, Letter, Inset and Full Screen.

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So now that we have some of the basics down, next week we’ll look at how we create and assemble the actual digital comic.

Nov 26, 2013 In: Comics, Thrillbent 101