Happy Samurais issue #1 Layouts

Happy Samurais issue #1 Layouts

When working on a comic, I usually layout and draw one scene at a time. My fear has always been that if I laid out something like sixty pages, that my drawing, storytelling and layout abilities would improve so much during those first twenty or forty pages that I’d have to re-layout a ton of pages to incorporate all that I’d learned. I’m not sure if there’s any truth to that at all, but it made sense to me for a number of years.

Two things have recently helped change my thought process on that. One, during my time at the Atlantic Center for the Arts residency last year, I talked with Craig Thompson about his experiences working on Habibi. (Though Habibi just came out this September, Craig had finished it as of October, 2010, so I’d seen the completed book while I was there). Craig had laid out the entirety of the 600+ page Habibi at least three times (I wanna say it was actually more like five). Each layout wasn’t just a change of camera angle or adding another panel, it was completely changing the way he was telling the story or more often, changing the story itself. He felt laying out the entire book was the only way to really see how the story worked. You sat down and read it from beginning to end.

Craig’s group at the residency was working on longer form comics — stories with page counts at least 100 pages in length. Members of his group each had to have a huge chunk of layouts done for their story, which they’d then share with the rest of Craig’s group in a workshop type of session. Craig said he was more convinced than ever after his experiences workshopping with his ACA students, that laying everything out ahead of time was the way to do it.

The second thing that made me change my thoughts on layout was hearing details of how Pixar develops their movies. Directors at Pixar screen their films internally every 16-20 weeks for their “Brain Trust”. The “Brain Trust” is considered to be John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars), Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo), Pete Docter (Up, Monster’s Inc.) and Brad Bird (Incredibles, Ratatouille) — though I believe other key people like Bob Peterson, Ronnie Del Carmen, Michael Arndt etc. are involved in some form as well. They “screen” the film in whatever form it’s currently in to get feedback on how it’s progressing. So during the first screening, the film is probably still an animatic (animated storyboards), the next version is maybe an animatic with temp voices/music, then onto a version with blocked in 3D models etc.

This screening process isn’t necessarily a straight line through to a finished film. Often times they get three or four steps into the process only to decide things aren’t working and go back to square one — both Monster’s Inc. and Up went through multiple false starts. Andrew Stanton has said, “I don’t believe in a scene until I see it on the reels.” As Stanton describes Pixar’s process, it’s essentially making the film three or four times to get it right. (Incidentally, Stanton feels that Pixar isn’t the best at making movies, but that they excel at re-working them). What Pixar doesn’t want to do is waste time making a story that doesn’t work. They want to, as Stanton says, “Be wrong as fast as we can.” So Pixar turns it into a movie (even if it’s animated storyboards) as soon as possible to see how it’s working out. Thus it only makes sense to turn your comic into a comic as soon as possible to see how it reads.

Before I can lay out a scene though, I need to know what the characters and environment for that scene look like. If you design a characters that’s super-wide, or maybe has some ornate costume detail that sticks out three feet off each shoulder, you’re going to compose a shot with that specific costume differently than you would a generic mannequin figure. Same thing with a location. The shape and design of the architecture is going to suggest unique angles, framing, composition and backdrops to set your characters against. The background should never be an afterthought to the characters.

I currently have about half of the triple-sized Happy Samurais #1 penciled (not all consecutive scenes, I jumped around a little). To apply my new strategy of laying out the rest of the issue, I had to finish off all remaining character and location designs. I like to make a reference packet for each character/location (see stack in the photo below). The packet will have printouts of whatever designs I’ve drawn and any other reference I might need. As of yesterday, I FINALLY finished off all the design work for issue #1 and this morning I start laying out the remaining scenes. The design phase always bogs me down (when I think back on many of the projects I worked on that fell apart, the design phase was almost always where it occurred.). It just happens to be the most time-consuming task for me. Super-happy with the designs I came up with, but honestly more psyched to be done with it and back to drawing and telling stories.

If you’re interested, I highly recommend checking out the following links to Pixar related podcasts:

Andrew Stanton – talks about upcoming John Carter movie & Pixar’s film-making process.
Pete Docter & Bob Peterson – talk with Jeff Goldsmith of Creative Screenwriting about Up.
Brad Bird – brilliant interview about Brad’s career and work in animation.

Design Work for The Happy Samurais Issue #1