Thursday, 25 August 2011

Make Over

So, if you're up for playing our little game of 'find the essence', I'd advise you to scroll down to the previous post first, ensuring that you pay no heed to the illustration in this post. Then meet back here when you've had a thought or two.

One advantage I have over my art team is that I get the instant hit. Sal will call me over and I'll wheel across to her desk, my heart fluttering with anticipation, and I'll arrive at her side as a player: I get an instant response, and that response is paramount in making decisions. Similarly, I wheeled over to Ben recently and my immediate response was something like 'Wow: that's a powerful scene. I'm getting the storm clouds preparing for battle behind a mighty stone cathedral and a derelict bridge languishing in the shade of blossoming trees; I'm getting the river and the graveyard of steam boats. I get the sense of destruction and unholy power - and the sense of change, as the beauty and tranquility of the town is falling away to reveal something much more sinister.'
However, I also found two elements which didn't work so well: the first distracted, the second was weak. Ben's composition was so overwhelming that he had created a regular vertical two-thirds of the way across the painting, and as a part of my instant hit, I found the sense that the piece was a kind of cut-and-shut of two distinct paintings. To remedy this, I recommended that Ben bled some of the golds across to the river and into the steam boats.
Secondly, his lamps were not achieving their potential. We had created an opportunity for orange street lamps (of a Victorian gas lamp style) set against the impending storm, and Ben had not quite made the most of the bright oranges - rather, he had stifled the glow beneath his adored repoussé metalwork. Two simple fixes upon a magnificent hit.

We all face this problem - the problem of become involved in the work and losing the perspective of a fresh-faced outsider. My solution is to take regular breaks, or to leave a work for a short time, and then to return with a slightly fresher perspective. But there's no substitute for having trusted eyes on your side.

So to Sal.
Which sounds like a great name for a character! So-to Sal. So Tosal. So To-Sal. Sot Osal. Soto Sal. Hmm. I like.
The narrative elements bombarded my bones like emotive X-rays, and lit up a panoply of responses...

I didn't really get enough of the sense of the Puritans' evil. Also, I wanted to feel more that Brites had been overpowered - that many burly men had swarmed about her and had actually relished the idea of harming her. To this end, we had already suggested this prepared intent by introducing the dual-functioning step ladder: on the one hand, it served as a functional means of crucifying her (and we acted this out to experience the problems of crucifixion); on the other hand, it demonstrated that the Puritans had come prepared, which is to say that this was part of a plan that had been brewing for a while.
As you'll know, I'm extremely fond of using devices that serve more than one function! Maximum impact from minimum work!
I knew we needed at least one more Puritan in there. I also wanted to up the evil ante. Imagine there's a crucifixion going on. You'd be horrified right? You'd probably be glued to the execution - at least momentarily.
I wanted this extra Puritan to have his back turned on the execution. Consider the effects of this. Perhaps this is his seventh crucifixion of the day and he's now bored of them. Pehaps he cares so little for the woman that he bears no interest. (Also, in body language terms, the act of turning one's back on another is the ultimate rejection and a powerful narrative tool!)
I then faced a new problem: What if the player invents an alternative, inappropriate reason for this action? Perhaps she will read the disinterest as revulsion? Perhaps she will invent a narrative (and this happens constantly and unfalteringly and we have to retain control throughout) whereby this extra character is so upset that he has turned away to vomit?
I read through the text again, looking for something with which I could regain control of the narrative, looking for some means of demonstrating evil.
We talked recently about motives and about humiliation. I found Brites' flowers and saw an opportunity to create an unnecessary action in this foreground Puritan: he tips her flowers from her basket. Also, by bringing him into the foreground, we were able to get something more from his expression, knocking a few of his teeth out and going for something of a leer.
To close the scene off a little more - to hone the sense of claustrophobia - I asked Sal to paint in some foliage across the top. We also looked at Brites' clothing and decided on a more authentic peasant dress with longer skirt and bodice; and then - and here's more duality - to return her bare legs to the scene, which were necessary for the crucifixion pose, we tore away a section of dress, which creates all manner of wonderful additional connotations. And lastly, I had Sal add a scabbard and sword to the torch bearer.
And all of these reactions, considerations, and resolutions occurred within me in under two minutes. And that's something that never ceases to amaze me about the writer's wily brain!

Sal is still learning about clarity - about simplicity and cleanliness. Consider all of my requests, and then decide how clearly these narrative features percolate from the illustration. (In particular, I had Sal use almost iconic flowers to keep the player from reading those small gangs of pixels as teeth or buns or anything other than flowers.) Do you get the torn skirt? Do you get the gappy grin and malevolence in the foreground Puritan? Is the sense of claustrophobia pervasive enough?

There we have another skill required by the art director: When do I let stuff through? How much of my bosses' real, actual money do I allocate to, say, a clearer flower? Or even a stronger narrative? Should I have let the previous illustration through? Or, for the sake of fifteen minutes work, are the effects worth the cost?

As a rule of thumb, anything within the first hour of gameplay needs to be as near perfect as we can achieve, as this constitutes the trial period, and is where the player decides whether to purchase the full game or not.
Also, anything that functions to drive forward the story and, hence, anticipation, context, and a powerful climax, needs to be as clear as an invisible crystal.
However, provided that the milestones are met, we face the miasmic question:
When is a heap not a heap?

Monday, 22 August 2011

Gem Polishing

Been a fascinating few weeks. Of course, I'm more than happy to share them with you...

Much of my time has been spent mentoring dear young Sally and her impossibly short skirts.
It's a role I take very seriously. (The mentoring.)

What's fascinating is to witness Sal's transformation - seeing how effortlessly she absorbs certain requisites, and how she struggles with others. There have quite literally been tears and laughter. This is Sally's story as seen through the eyes of her art director - me.

Much of technique is easily assimilated. Sal already had a good grounding; in particular, she demonstrated a sophisticated control of form. Years of life drawing can drum this into an artist: if you don't quite capture the subtle curves of a leg or shoulder, your work sucks. Sal is a whiz with curves and with pose and, in the main, composition.
She has struggled on and off with the style, but guiding her through the more clandestine and vainglorious halls of Photoshop, and providing her with hands on demonstrations, have worked wonders. Thing is, Sal is good at leaving her comfort zone, a rare trait born predominantly from a desire to improve, and an ability to listen.
Technique is largely about tools - about the means by which we can achieve an end.

So what is that end?
I gave Sal an illustrated keepsake task.
She was required to create an illustration for a piece of text. The text related the crucifixion of Brites, bride of the cyclopean blacksmith Oban.
I was interested to see how she would interpret the text: which mood/s would she aim for? How would she decant the essence of the text? (Note that I was never in doubt that Sal would understand to choose a mood and then pursue that mood with robust technique.)
Sal went for loneliness. She depicted Brites nailed to the tree, her head hung, and nothing more.
This really was missing the point of the text. It was the evil of the Puritans that was paramount - an evil which would bond the player to Oban - his sorrow and his lust for vengeance.

This is a topic that Ben and I discuss frequently.
Sal's next attempt at her crucifixion scene was an improvement. She worked in the Puritan nailing Brites to the tree. But the scene still seemed superficial.
Ben and I have noticed that this ability to enter 'the zone' - to tune out the real world and to step into the fantasy world - is one of the recurring characteristics that distinguishes the good artist from the bad. Oh yes, this applies to the writer too in bucket loads.
I sat with Sal and we walked through the events leading to the crucifixion, taking in the scene and smelling the sea air and then listening to the gulls and then the nails being hammered through bone and the sadistic laughter of the bystanders. We talked about how Brites would behave and how the Puritans would behave. We sought the key ingredients - and only the key ingredients - that would capture the very heart of the mood which we had decided upon.
We chose the moment immediately after the crucifixion. We found wooden steps which the executioner had used to reach up to work; we found his aide who would hold Brites' limbs to the tree, and we found authentic early 18th century tools and costume. We found expressions and relationships. We found the drama of the scene.
Often, Sal finds little trouble capturing a mood through the thoughtful implementation of her techniques; but she tends to capture a secondary mood over the primary mood, and this is a question of judgement - a deep understanding of the function of any scene.

Sal's third attempt captured enough of the essence to receive the thumbs up. I'll probably make some notes and add them to the wishlist for later: I'm still not wholly sold, but it's more than adequate to the task.

I've come to realise that this is a rare talent, and not the fundamental skill which I imagined all good artists must wield. We need many icons and elegant designs and concepts in the game; and yet they all fall to Ben and I to originate. Beyond her occasionally questionable judgement, I've watched Sal painting in little flourishes and spending sometimes hours on details which I would then ask her to remove in a flash because they detracted from the key functions in some way. Everything we add to a work must perform an important function. If it doesn't, then it is clutter and detracts from the whole. Check out these famous logos. To add or to remove any element of any of these logos is to detract from its success. And this is precisely what Hemingway referred to when he spoke of the mot juste.

Designing narrative for an illustration is a task fraught with danger. The slightest nuance in a facial expression, a stance, the shape of a leaf, can all mould the viewer's response, and the more we add, the more chances we create of introducing something inappropriate or contrary or disparate.
Sal, like so many other creatives blessed with raw talent, finds it difficult cutting through to the essence, and masks this shortcoming with superficial ornaments. And let's be fair, it's one of the toughest skills to learn, and is seldom absolute!

In Sally I see enormous potential. She has good technique, and an attitude that allows her to build upon her tool set. And she uses her technique to create emotional responses. The subtleties and judgements come in time through experience...

I've just finished the new dream cards and I'll be posting the full set of eighteen cards along with a little insight into some of those subtleties and judgements as soon as possible. And remind me to talk a little about how I'm attempting to add character to each puzzle!
Oh, and we have a goat chocolatier outstanding if I'm not much mistaken.

There's one particular skill that a creative director needs which an artist doesn't: I need to be able to immerse myself instantly in a multitude of assets. I'll breathe the air of any given dream card, and at any moment be torn from that vivid microcosm and throw myself into Ben's scene, then back into my own work, then into Sal's painting, then into a 3D scene...
That's my day and it's splendid!

P.S. Speaking of school reports, here's what my son wrote on his end of year report under 'funniest moment':
My funniest moment was when my class began a conversation about my dad's ear. Even Mr. Kittle was interested in the topic.

But check out the irony in this misspelt statement from his teacher:
Accademically, [he] has excelled in all areas of the curriculum...
(Oh, there were many more spelling mistakes in that report! Sigh.)

P.P.S. Actually, I've just spent a few minutes studying Sal's crucifixion scene and I know just what's needed! See if you can figure out how best to capture the essence of that text, and I'll post our solution soon...