Postmortem: A Two Year Journey
Mar 24, 2014, 2:47:51 AM
If you're curious to get an idea of what it's like to embark on a long project, then you might be interested in this postmortem of This Mortal Coil: The Rabbit and the Moon. Now that I'm taking a break from illustrating the comic, I want to take some time and reflect back on what I've done in the past 2 years.
"What gets measured, gets managed." - Peter Drucker
Back in 2009 I began to manage my time. Well, I began to manage the amount of time I spent watching anime around November '09. Once I began to write down the shows I watched and the number of episodes, I realized I could do some time estimates and figure out how much I was spending on this passive hobby.
I found that I enjoyed keeping this log and upgraded it from being TXT files to living in Evernote where I could get that information whenever I wanted too. In April 2011, I took a month off from work -- a mini-sabbatical I self-imposed because I was feeling burnt out. I knew that if I didn't manage my time, the entire month would flitter away so I began to write down everything I did everyday in bullet point fashion -- these aren't emotional reflections, just a clinical breakdown of my day. If there was any question as to where the time went, I'd know. The log made me more conscious of my time; I knew where my hours were going. I could track progress on side projects and keep a running log of what I did at work, which helped when review time came up. Time is a lot more precious than money to me. It's a resource you can't earn back.
If whatever gets measured, gets managed, then it can also get fixed. I worked on side projects and wrote about them, but I thought one day, what if I could work on one project, but break it down in to tiny parts. I could put on different hats and tackle different aspects of the same project and day by day build it into something through divide and conquer.
In January 2010 I got the idea for This Mortal Coil while walking on an elliptical. I was reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Before that I was watching Death Note, Kamichu!, Galaxy Express 999, Maria-sama ga Miteru, and a plethora of other anime. I was reading Walking Dead and Preacher -- a few graphic novels a friend let me borrow. Somewhere along the lines the ideas between the comics and anime turned into a slurry and clicked in that moment.
What if a girl died out of the purview of god? If he didn't know then he wouldn't be all-knowing and infallible, would he? Then what happens to the girl? What if there was a clause in her contract with god that stated, she would become a god if he failed her as one. That's how the idea began. I drew a short comic called one of us for an ashcan comic my old drawing circle put together for the Alternate Press Expo that year, but I didn't really pursue it until 2012. Here's a page from the ashcan:
I also knew right then, that if it were expressed as a comic, I'd actually want to draw it in high contrast, black and white, a la Frank Miller's Sin City. The story is about deities, but from a more eastern perspective, and a high contrast look inspired by the high contrast yin-yang would give it an interesting artistic and dramatic angle. To me, it just all gelled together.
2012 is when I began to think of Mortal Coil as a long term project. I was bored of what I was doing art-wise, so I wanted to level-up in my own way. Maybe this project would take years, a decade, more. I had just spent 9 months prior writing a 300,000 word novel -- I ended up not liking it, but I drew some experience from it. Mainly: I could do it. I could make things in my head real and I was patient enough to take the long view.
March 13 to July 29 2013 (5 months). I wrote the script and did a revision of it for This Mortal Coil: The Rabbit and the Moon. I think of This Mortal Coil as a TV series, one that takes place over many episodes -- some story arcs are serialized while others stand-alone. It could be like the X-Files, Lost, or the new Doctor Who series. The Rabbit and the Moon is just one episode and if it were in a TV series, it might be somewhere in the middle. It took five months. I wrote a lot of scenes and threw a lot of them out when they didn't make sense to the overall story.
When you work by yourself there's a propensity for "wheel-spinning." Your brain gnaws on an idea and you keep wanting to revise it, or make it better, or make it perfect and it becomes this one singular task that begins to suck you into it like a whirlpool. With the script done, I found myself working on the website, because I felt that it needed to be the next big ticket item. I could learn HTML5, canvas, maybe new web backend technology, but in the end it was a bottomless pit. There were sections I was convinced the website needed -- art gallery, about pages, a whole system to catalog the comic pages and serve them up that would be independent from the Wordpress CMS/blog system. It should work on mobile, desktop, and anywhere really. The goal was way to lofty and immeasurable.
I talk about my project with a buddy, and one day he asked me, "why don't you just do the comic?" It was a "duh" moment. Wasn't that the whole point? I clipped off what I had done for the website and nixed all future designs of it. Back at the end of 2012, I didn't need much more than a blog anyway.
From Jan 5th 2013 to February 5th, a full month, I did the storyboards based on my script. It ended up being 221 pages. I don't know a damn thing about how storyboards should work or how to layout a comic, but it didn't stop me from trying. That's only half-true, most of my knowledge comes from watching too many movies, a hands on moviemaking class I took in college, a hand-drawn animation class I took, watching anime, playing games with overwrought cut-scenes, and reading How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way and of course, other comics.
The First 32
According to my daily logs, I began drawing page 1 of chapter 1 on February 17 2013 and I finished the first 32 pages, the first 4 chapters on September 1st. These chapters setup the backstory and bring us to the first time we meet Kamiko, Hana, and Natsumi, the main characters of the Rabbit and the Moon.
Now, it's questionable whether or not I needed the entire first chapter -- the whole scene with Houyi and the priest going after the demon wolf. It's a lot of pages to build a backstory. I went back and forth on it, convincing myself one minute to cut it and another to keep it. I really wanted a historical background, a dramatic scene to show the passage of time and to break into the mythology I was spinning.
One of my main issues, and I realized this only once I was into production, was that Kamiko doesn't show up till page 20. It troubled me that she didn't appear earlier, but I was doing everything I could in service of portraying the bigger story. The only thing I can rationalize, is that the graphic novel is 221 pages, and she would be in the bulk of it. Chapter 1 is just a fraction, and I shouldn't rush to introduce her.
Whether or I should have or shouldn't have done the first chapter the way I did, I had to simply let it be. I didn't want to fall into the trap of revising already done pages. That's another form of wheel-spinning. I made it a promise not to do that, and always keep moving forward. It didn't have to be perfect. It just had to be done. I would have to take my lessons and apply them with the next round of work.
After The First 32, I seriously began considering cutting and revisions again. A part of me wished I was further along, but it is what it is. I can only go so fast. There was the question of quality versus quantity. I wanted to put my all into producing these pages and try and make them the best as possible.
I worked on Chapter 5 from September 19th to October 14th. This is probably the quickest turn around for a chapter I've done.
This page was one of the first pages I revised. It was broken up into a series of images and word bubbles, but I thought everything could be condensed into one drawing and keep the same text. I think this was one of the better decisions I made in terms of revisions. I cut a potential 20-25 hours of work into just 8 hours and got the same result. With each new chapter I took on a second revision to see if I could do something similar. I revised storyboards by cutting panels out and condensing others together.
Chapter 6 and 7
Chapter 6 and 7 began on November 1st 2013. I published Chapter 6 on February 14 2014, and I just published Chapter 7 on March 22nd. Due to holidays, work, and life (the other important things) it was much slower to produce these 20 pages.
Unfortunately though, cutting doesn't work well for all chapters and in Chapter 6, I found I had to/wanted to add pages. I entirely revised the chapter to give Jade more presence in the story. The storyboards were re-cut with some additional frames drawn. It went from 6 pages to 2 pages to 10 pages. Yeah, at one point I thought I could chop that entire scene down to Jade simply running away from the house, but there are little bits and pieces of information we learn in that chapter and I wanted to clarify those. I also liked the idea of introducing Natsumi's mom even if she is a secondary character. There had to be a sense of balancing the economy of storytelling with the needs of having fun while producing the story/artwork.
Chapter 7 was cut from 14 pages to 10. I made a wild-ass-estimate that a page took about 15-20 hours. Taking out four pages is 80 hours of work spread over weeks, so anything I could remove would help. Chapter 7 though introduced one big set piece which I knew would take a lot of time. There was one shot with a Shinto Shrine in it.
There it is, that last frame. That last frame took something like 10 days on it's own right. I can only work on this project in my evening hours, so I don't get a full day of working. Part of the work for this scene was done in Blender:
I laid it out in 3D. I originally wanted to do the whole temple in 3D, but that would take a considerable amount of time. I learned that when I did the other Yayoi inspired shrine at the beginning of the story. I also spent what seemed to be a month on building Natsumi and Hana's house, which would be a reoccuring set. There maybe one or two other shots with the Shinto Shrine later on. I may want to make some 3D parts to help me visualize and draw it, but I don't see a point in doing the entire shrine. Once I had the 3D layout in Blender done, I was able to extrapolate the perspective grid in Manga Studio. I wish I could have done more detail, but I wasn't very patient, and there is something to be said about the high contrast look: it can get too busy.
What Went Well
- I did it. I shipped pages. I went from nothing, no website, no script, no comic pages, just a nascent idea of what This Mortal Coil could be and I turned it into a thing with my own bare hands. It's not perfect, but that's not the goal.
- Not wheel-spinning. It's something I think folks who work on passion projects can get into. Wheel-spinning, time wasting. I fell into that trap, but with a nudge here or there I was able to re-evaluate and move on.
- Cutting panels and pages. I definitely have to continue this. 221 pages for a graphic novel is what I signed up for, and I'm down for the long haul, but anything I can do to shorten my work load is the right thing to do. This way I can burn the candle on both ends -- produce the parts of the story that seem relevant (and fun) and cut out the cruft.
- Research into Japanese/Chinese History. One thing that did come out of writing about Houyi, Chang'e, and including parts of the story that happen in ancient times, is looking for reference. Now, if you're a history buff, you might notice that I have got a lot of things wrong. :) I wanted an approximation of that history. Houyi is dressed like he comes from the Han Dynasty, but the Japanese architecture comes from the Yayoi -- they are two eras that don't quite match up time-wise. I was fine with that, I wanted something historical enough to give it some context. So yes, creative licence based upon history was definitely taken. On a related note, Natsumi and Hana's house is based on a blueprint of a modern Japanese house that I found and built in Blender.
- Manga Studio 5. To me, it's a replacement for Photoshop CC. I can do just about everything in Manga Studio 5 and the fact that it does color as well makes it a fantastic all around package for art/illustration and comics (of course). The perspective grid tools speed up that process. The layers work close to the way they do in Photoshop and I can import/export almost 1-to-1 between the two programs -- text layers don't translate, which is too bad.
- Time Logging. I still like keeping a log of how I spend my time. I can know how much time I spent on Mortal Coil and as a separate blog post, I want to break that down.
- Tools. My tools have stayed fairly consistent now with the inclusion of Manga Studio. The other ones are: Scrivener (Mac) for screen writing, Evernote for notetaking, Wordpress for the online CMS, a cloud backup system for my production files, Photoshop for some finishing touches. I used Adobe Premiere for editing timelapses together and Dreamweaver (I know) for working on the website.
What Went Wrong/What Could I Have Done Better
- Not Cutting Earlier. I'll bring it up again: chapter 1 is debatable as whether it was necessary or not. There's a lot of hindsight in discussing this point, but going forward a second revision before I begin drawing will include more aggressive cuts.
- Pie in the Sky ideas. This is mostly in relation to the website. The task of the website was nebulous. I kept talking in grandiose terms -- the website was going to be web 2.0, mobile, an art experience. I had no clue what any of that meant. Really the website needs to be usable, simple, and just a focused experience for the reader to get to the comic. I don't think it's there yet, but it's a compromise that I can live with.
- Dialogue. Going back and reading some of Kamiko's lines. I really hate them. I'd go back and rewrite them, but that violates the rule of revising completed pages.
- Promotion. I'm pretty terrible at it and it represents a whole side of the project that I need to work on. I didn't really build an audience for Mortal Coil, but this leads to another discussion. I didn't build this story with an audience in mind, which is probably anathema to its existence. I built this story because I wanted to see it exist in the world, and now, I should share that vision with everyone else as much as I can (without the expectation that anyone would care). It's definitely an uphill battle. I have wondered plenty of times why I bothered with this in the first place. Sometimes staying inspired and keeping on track to achieve something can be a hard road to travel.
- Consistent blogging. Unfortunately, there's only so much time in a night. Do I write a blog post or do I draw a page? I'd prefer to draw a page, because that's why the website exists, but I also now have a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff. I love to share that stuff. I'd like to show you that it's not magic. It's just a lot of hard work. I should blog more and consistently and it's something I have to work on.
- Working Alone. This could be debatable, but having someone else help me could help speed things up. This is a big question mark, and I'll discuss it in a future post.
- Adobe's Creative Cloud. I love Photoshop but with Manga Studio 5 I have less reason to use it. I stopped timelapsing pages -- it was generating a lot of work which may or may not be of interest to anyone.
- Working in high-contrast black and white. There is no question whether or not Mortal Coil should be done in this style to me. That's the only reason I want to draw the comic. It's difficult to render panels in black and white though. You have to be able to balance where the color is and isn't. Large swaths of white or black might make it appear undone. How do you do minor details? With trees and nature there are ways I can fudge it. Building out complex scenes in perspective, lighting them, and giving it sufficient detail, well that's hard, but that is the artistic challenge of the graphic novel. Certainly there are issues with the high contrast approach, but I believe everything can be solved somehow, even if it's fudged. I have noticed that I've gotten better at painting this way, and there are more experimental ideas I'm interested in trying with it, so the art style is not a dead end to me. I'm barely scratching the surface.
- 3D pre-vis. How much do I mock up in 3D? Do I go into details or just block out a scene and draw it? It's more of a case-by-case basis type of thing, but I find doing the 3D work interrupts doing the actual page drawing, and 3D work is time consuming. Setting up a scene with a few mannequins and block models is easy, but having to stop and say, build a shrine, that's hard, and could fall back into wheel-spinning. It's a great tool but it could become a distraction. I need to find quicker ways to the end result.
One step I'll do moving forward is to aggressively cut pages out of the story. I did a session over the 2013 winter break, cutting out 32 pages. I'm down to 190+ pages now with 62 done, leaving 130-ish pages to go. That's still a lot of work, and by some of my calculations about 2.5 years worth. I want to cut more out and see if I can't be close to done with This Mortal Coil: The Rabbit and the Moon this time next year.
I have plenty of other ideas that I can develop into other stories about Kamiko. There's plenty of things to research and read to get new ideas.
Drawing comics isn't the only medium in which I can express Mortal Coil: there are novels, short stories, and even content native to the website itself.
For now though I'll put on other hats and take a break from producing comic pages. It does feel like I'm going on vacation in a sense, even though I still have my day job and other little related projects to do.