Friday, April 29, 2016

Backstage Pass April: Glenn Song

Psst! I grabbed a Back Stage Pass!
Let's Go Meet Glenn Song!

(Note from the MC: Glenn has now joined the Strip Show team, but this interview was offered before he had and it seemed a shame to dump the idea. So here's your chance to get to know our second reviewer dear readers.)

So Glenn, Tell Us Something About Yourself! 

I’m the webcomic author and illustrator for This Mortal Coil and the co-founder and senior engineer for Prisma Wave Studios a small two-person independent game developer. We make the iOS game Ollie and Flip - Arcade Snowboarding.

This Mortal Coil is a webcomic serial about the Gothic Lolita Shinto goddess, Kamiko, and her adventures helping mortals who become entangled with deities, spirits, and monsters from the Eternal Realm.

Another part of This Mortal Coil is The Shrine.

This is a highly experimental form of interactive storytelling for This Mortal Coil. It’s a virtual place -- a Shinto shrine where Kamiko resides as a land deity. You can come at various times of the day or the week and meet someone different and converse with them a la a visual novel (or RPG conversation system like Fallout 3).

You can also leave anonymous wishes, prayers, and messages to Kamiko using the Ema board. She’ll read them and tweet them throughout the day, but at the end of the day, they’re all destroyed.
Kamiko’s twitter is another way of telling story. She randomly gives you bits from her (mis)adventures.

Other Hobbies and Obsessions

Fiction writing, programming (video games, websites, and virtual toys), and photography.

So, tell me about your early experience. How did you fall in love with telling stories in pictures?

It started with my interest in developing video games back in the early 90s. I could barely code, but my ambitious and dreams ran ahead of me. I spent a lot of time designing games, which seemed to segue naturally into doing worldbuilding.
At the same time, I had begun to roleplay Star Trek on America Online. These were chatroom based RPs where you played a character on a ship in Starfleet. This got me into creative writing.
Despite learning a lot of programming, I realized that building a game was a fairly daunting task for one person to do (it can be done though). I really enjoyed writing stories and for a long time I thought I would only write fiction. As I developed my artistic skills over the years, I finally decided at one point that I wanted to combine them together and doing a comic felt like a good fit.

What media and programs do you work in to produce your project?

I use Manga Studio 5 these days for sketching, painting the comic pages, and even a bit of 2D animation.
I use Blender to help me storyboard shots. I’ve created 3D rigged mannequins, props, and even a 3D poseable wolf model to help me set the stage.

I'm particularly interested in the stylistic choices you made on This Mortal Coil. What inspired the style you chose to use? How did it evolve?

When I came up with the series concept as a comic, I thought it would have to be in black and white. Not inked, but painted so that the black inked parts in balance with the white would create the images. Some inspiration for this comes from Frank Miller’s Sin City and Rockstar’s Max Payne 2. I’ve had friends comment that it gives Mortal Coil a very noir look and feel, probably because the style is heavily associated with gritty, detective stories. Another inspiration is the Dao yin-yang symbol, which makes more sense to me. Half of the shape defines the other half. Plus, TMC is rooted in eastern religion, mythology, and pop-culture so it makes more sense to me.

When I first started painting in that style, it was difficult. What’s supposed to be black, and what should be not-black? How do I represent dimensionality? Organic things like trees, bushes, etc? What about shadow? Do I “ink” lines? How much detail? Is everything just in silhouette?

I came up with some rules of thumb:

If it’s dark, it’s black -- Kamiko’s Lolita dress and shoes lend itself to this, nighttime, the darkness between trees, the characters’ hair. This made it very easy to go through and outline things that were black and then flood fill them.

Light and Shadow. Once I’ve flood filled the light and dark areas, I can go back and etch away the black using an eraser and carve out the details based on where the light source is.

Without color, use texture. Wood grain patterns, speckled surfaces, masses of leaves/grass, etc. It was another way of breaking up the white and black.

Keep lines to a minimum. Sometimes it’s necessary to use lines but I try to break them up to let the reader’s mind fill in the shape. I devised new brushes in Manga Studio for doing shrubs (you can use these as brushes or erasers). I even did some work in Blender such as building the Shinto and Yayoi shrines and using a high contrast material on them and rendered them out as a basis for painting over.

A lot of this work was focused on creating a sense of realism, but I see it as tip of the iceberg. I think there’s so much more to explore with this style technically and artistically.

Can you tell me about your typical day or strip-creation session? How does your working process flow?

It all starts with the script, and though it’s been re-written a few times, I’ll go over it again and make dialogue changes to keep it fresh or make it more concise. Sometimes I have an initial set of storyboards, but these days, since those boards are so old, I toss them and start again. My goal is to reduce the amount of imagery needed to tell a chapter.
A lot of the storyboarding is drawing stick figures and blobs and moving them around to get the layout I want for the page and to make sure it flows from page to page.

I put the actual text in as a part of this process, because word bubbles are also important to the design and layout of each panel and the flow of the entire page.

When I’m happy, I’ll begin the pencils. If I want an establishing shot done with a certain perspective in mind or if it’s a difficult drawing with multiple figures, I may break out Blender to pose mannequins, stub in props, and orient the camera to get the shot I want (having done photography comes in handy here). I screen-cap the result and bring it back to MS5 and draw over it. I rarely draw over the 3D directly since the result can look stiff, so I built my rough sketches from it and go from there.
The black and white rendering is last. I mostly use the stock g-pen and an eraser variant I made for doing the painting. I have some custom brushes for doing foliage or other effects.

Here’s a Youtube timelapse video of the process in motion from the image series above.

When I’m done, I let the page sit and look at it days or weeks later to see if there’s anything missing or terrible looking and make any final corrections. This is usually done right before publishing it online. Doing a page can take on average 15 hours.

What’s the most difficult part of your work?

The most difficult part is storyboarding and designing the page. There’s a lot of things for me to consider at that stage:

What and how big is the establishing shot

which camera angles to use to best convey what’s happening

where to place the text and re-editing it so that it fits in the panels

the expressions and gestures of the characters

Which direction everyone is facing and where they are spatially

the SFX

Letting moments breathe

What needs 3D previs

On top of that, I’m also thinking how I can get through the page economically since it takes a great deal of time to do. It’s a constant balancing act.

Can you tell me about your storytelling process? Do you prefer to script your stories, fly by the seat of your pants, or somewhere in between?

I started by scripting the entirety of The Rabbit and the Moon.When I started producing the comic, I was a bit naive in thinking that I would 100% follow what I wrote. Once I learned the true cost of producing a page, then I could extrapolate how long the entire project would take me. My big takeaway: It’s way cheaper to revise in a script before you draw one line. When I did the math on finishing the first 32 pages and extrapolated based on my original storyboards for a 210 page comic, I realized it would take me 5-6 years to finish. I didn’t intend for Rabbit and the Moon to be THAT long. The pages that were done, were done. My motto is to keep moving forward.

I went by a very loose metric of 32 pages equating to 6 months of artistic work. If I cut 32 pages I’d save half a year, and I aimed to cut one year’s worth of work out. Through lopping off entire chapters and restructuring the remainder I removed 70+ pages.

From my perspective, the hardest chapter to pull was “The Ferrywoman.” I cut it so many times because it was primarily a conversation between Kamiko and the Ferrywoman. I wanted to keep the Ferrywoman in the story since she’s a link to the Eternal Realm and appeared alongside Kamiko in “One of Us”. That chapter has a lot of explanation and info dumping, but as I reshaped it, it became a way to sort out the stuff that came before and hone it in on a conclusion.
A downside of this rework is that some pages had too many panels jammed together.
As a consequence, I learned to let the story breathe and it’s a constant balance of trying to fit as many beats of dialogue and story as I can on one page while letting each scene have it’s moment.
Going forward, working on stories, I’m thinking they need to fall more into 24-48 pages which might be more manageable for a comic story per year.

My idea is that Individual stories like the Rabbit and the Moon are plotted out ahead of time, but the overarching mythology isn’t. I have plenty of ideas and world building material. I’m taking a page from Rick and Morty, and earlier Adventure Time, and Steven Universe. Yes, there’s continuity and a larger world, but the episodes matter more. I want to write intimate stories about a small set of characters. 

You use a lot of period architecture and mythological concepts in your work and do it very well. How do you go about researching ideas you'd like to use in your work? Do your ideas grow from your reading, or do you get ideas and then research them?

For the story the Rabbit and the Moon I got the idea mostly from watching anime and reading mythology and then researched it further. Sailor Moon is probably where I got the idea from. The main character Tsukino Usagi means “Moon Rabbit” (as far as my understanding of Japanese goes).

In Asian mythology, if you look at the moon there’s a shape on it that looks like a rabbit with a pestle and mortar. If you’re Japanese the rabbit is pounding rice into mochi. If you’re Chinese the rabbit is mixing ingredients to make the Elixir of Immortality, and as much as I love mochi, I love that idea better, and with it comes the story of Chang’e, the Lady of the Moon, which my story plays on. Hana and Kamiko tell a version of it in the chapter “The Storyteller.” I researched different versions of the story to get more background on Houyi, Chang’e, etc, and yes, in one version, Houyi throws Chang’e’s pet rabbit Jade up to her as she floats away to the moon.
In the first chapter of the story, I wanted to open it during Houyi’s era of time. I know it’s in the ancient past, but when? I figured he would be apart of the Han Dynasty. I looked to the movie Red Cliff for inspiration for his armour and look since it was about as close as I could get. I wouldn’t say it was historically accurate, but it’s good enough.
I also had to figure out what would be the corresponding time period in Japan, which happened to be (loosely) the Yayoi era, and that’s where the wolf’s shrine design came from. I references a book on Japanese architecture for the design and modeled it in 3D (see the image above).
Likewise, for Natsumi and Hana’s house I found a blueprint of a modern Japanese dwelling and extrapolated that into 3D and tried to design interiors with a semi-Japanese aesthetic in mind.
A lot of what I know about Japanese culture comes from watching documentaries and cultural shows on NHK World such as Begin Japanology, Japanology Plus, and Journeys in Japan.

How much of a buffer did you like to keep when this project was active?

I was pretty poor at keeping a buffer. When I drew the first 32 pages, I thought it didn’t make sense to drip it out one page per week, so I released them all at once and then did chapter releases, but that would mean months could go by without new pages. Eventually, I settled on doing a page per week, but I had barely any buffer and struggled to keep up with it. I also took hiatuses to work on related Mortal Coil projects such as the Shrine.

Has anyone told you that you'll never be a successful artist and you'd be better off studying a real field and/or getting a real job?

Yes. I know my father did. He was a big believer in waiting till you retire to pursue your other interests, but he never really had his retirement, and he passed away last August. If anything, the uncertainty of death is reason enough to do it now.
But, the bigger critic was myself. I certainly didn’t think being an artist was a way to make money for me, and that’s why I turned to software engineering and kept my dreams of doing art and writing as a side gig.
Last year, I got laid off from my job, and it was a nice kick in the butt. I’m working with a friend and we formed a company called Prisma Wave Studios and made our first game Ollie and Flip over the last year. I’m still working on This Mortal Coil and I’m learning from both of these ventures side by side.

What message do you hope readers take away from your work?

For the readers of TMC, I hope they enjoy the stories and the mythology as it grows.

Another message that I want to impart to readers and indie creatives is that you can make something big from nothing. Passion is important, but discipline and open-mindedness is necessary if you want to build something. I want to show the behind-the-scenes and even teach the processes behind how I built this project into what it is.

What keeps you devoted to telling the story you’re telling?

The mythology of TMC is one reason to keep me invested in this. It’s something that’s been stewing in my mind for a long time (way before TMC became a thing), and it would be neat to see it materialized as a work of fiction.
Kamiko is the other reason. I’ve spent a great deal of time with her living in my head and I’ve tried to make her personality different than myself, so it’s interesting to explore her view of the world.

Rock on Glenn Song, we look forward to seeing what you'll come up with next! 

No comments :

Post a Comment

Drop us a line!