Monday, April 16, 2012

Archaia Presents: How to Tell a Better Story Through World-Building

On Sunday morning Archaia's Editor in Chief, Stephen Christy, moderated a panel of writer/artists who met to share their knowledge with aspiring creators.  The panel consisted of Jeremy Bastien (Cursed Pirate Girl, Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard), David Peterson (Mouse Guard), and Sean Rubin (Bolivar, Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard).

Stephen kicked off the panel by briefly introducing the panel and prompting them to give a short breakdown of the specific things that go into their process of world building.  Specifically, when designing characters and costumes.

Jeremy - When I am trying to design costumes I tend to exaggerate features.  I add lots of detail.  I try to put the reader in an antique world where you can get lost in the details. I try and create the craziest characters I can come up with.

David - With Mouse Guard, their anatomy is all the same.  There is only so much you can do with their body language so clothing is what differentiates the different characters.  All the mice are little in this very big world around them and that alone makes the world unique.  The characters come through the costuming.  I try and show the different types of regions in the world through the costume details.  If you look at the mouse who wears goggles and has his head covered, he looks like he's from a desert.  It indicates he's from Sandmason.  Now if you see that character out of a desert, you know he doesn't belong, he's out of place.  The guy with the pine cone is an example of showing how they incorporate things they made or things they grabbed from nature to adorn themselves with.  It tells a lot about the world around them.  I like to keep it loose as I go.  If I wrote all of the details at once it would be too overwhelming.  By doing it this way, I don't paint myself into a corner and can edit as I go.

Stephen - I see so many new creators doing their world building all at once, and not concentrating on the story until after.  What are your thoughts on doing that?

 David - Don't let world building get in the way of story.  Get the story down first.

Stephen - [Panel agrees] Get the people to care about your world through your story.  You have to get people invested in that first.  Bolivar is set in present day NYC, is there one very specific thing not of that world present in your story?

Jeremy - You mean the dinosaur?  I had to make sure everything else made sense while having one massive thing that doesn't.  We had to figure out the way they would dress and what that would say about them.  Comics are a visual medium.  One of the more fun things in the book is that the main character Sybil wears her school uniform for the entire book.  It's funny because there's this one part where she is breaking out and wearing a pith helmet.  She has a pretty rich imagination, she's one of the only people who knows about the dinosaur.

Stephen shows us some concept sketches and lets us know that Bolivar will not be out until spring.

Stephen - Maybe we should talk about acting and how important the acting of your characters can be.  All of you [panel] are writer/artists, so much information can be conveyed by what they wear or the way they sit.  What types of things do you do to convey info through acting?

David - With Mouse Guard I have very limited expression.  I don't want to cartoon-ify them too much.  I think of them as puppets.  Look at Kermit.  He has no eyelids and very limited expression, whereas Gonzo, you could do much more with.  With mice I have to look at controls.  The eyes and shoulders, hip placement, even the way they distribute weight on their legs.  I convey all the emotion through that kind of body language.

Jeremy - You can have a rich detailed world, but without personification, it's like a fabergĂ© egg, empty and hollow.  Giving them quirky-ness is what makes people relate to them.

Stephen - Quirky on the outside.  How do you stay on model or keep it constant?  Do you use references?

Jeremy - I don't.  She [Sybil] kind of changes from page to page.  The characters I get right every time are the Swordfish brothers because I sculpted them.  One half is one brother and the other brother is the other half.  They have interchangeable heads.  It's nice if you can use a physical model.

David - They change in different issues.  I chalk that up to artistic growth.  If I were to wait until I can do it perfect and consistent every time I would have never gotten book one complete.  I do have sculpted models, but I did that for fun.  It has helped though.  For some reason the shoulder armor of one character can be confusing.  I keep the model on the desk and if I get confused by direction, I just rotate the model.  Same with Liam and Nixon.  They have nicks on opposite ears. It can be difficult keeping that straight.

Sean - How do I stay on model?  With great difficulty.  In different panels she can look different ages.  I do sculpt and I'm trying that.  It's probably been one of the most difficult things.  With different face expressions she can appear different ages.  I use a mirror and think "If I were to feel this way, how would my face look."  It's a real good tool to get that stuff on paper.

Stephen - How much of the worlds do you write out and how much work do you put into that before you can put pen to paper and begin?

Sean - The picture of the inside where she's running down the stairs here.  Okay, so there's a couple of things going on here.  I try to give some family history here without actually saying it.  You can tell her mother studied Anthropology in college.  She appears to be some sort of freelance writer for travel magazines.  She has a life outside of her little girl thinking there's a dinosaur in the city.  Her father is not in the story.  If you keep the father you have to write in the marriage, and then it becomes the Incredibles.  Maybe the father is an attorney or something.  Show where they live - what are their interests?  The nice thing about NYC is that it has a rich history.  Architecture can convey story to your readers.  I try to keep things grounded with technology, the most you see is a laptop and a cell phone - like the old flip kind.  Adding it sets the foundation that it's a believable world.

Stephen - Is it important or not important to explain where Bolivar came from?

Sean - His family immigrated from somewhere.  When I imagine, probably Ellis Island.  The thing about NYC is that no one knows how anybody else got there.  At one point everybody came from somewhere else.  I see Bolivar as native, probably has a nice rent controlled apartment.

David - I had a couple key points about the Guard and the world, but I didn't want the world building to get in the way.  Try a nice balance with not too much info, or painting myself into a corner.  I did a lot of role playing in college.  Running games like that helped me think on my feet.  Story building with friends was a group activity, each contribute on the fly.  It gave me teeth cutting or how to build a story.  I started with what had to go in a given issue.  I made post it notes of what absolutely had to be included.

Stephen - Did you create Mouse Guard as a comic or role playing game first?

David - Comic.  I had to convey history to the audience, but not in a way like a 30 page exposition or encyclopedia of Mouse Guard.  It had to be casual reading and come from the characters.  They had to understand their own history a little bit at a time and not forget the story.

Jeremy - She is trying to figure out her own story, the fun in the story is figuring out the story as you go.

Stephen - David, I find the most interesting thing about Mouse Guard is the map of the territories.

Book of Kells
David - The map I made to look as if it was drawn by the mice.  They know their own surroundings and have their own sense of time.  I put their city in the center of the map - its a cultural thing.  Like here in North America, we have North America in the center of the map.  In other places they probably have themselves in the center of the map.  It changes by perspective.  Here, Lockhaven is dead center.  It's important to them.  You have to come up with ways that make it [their history] expressed through the characters.  How they record their own history is very important.  I looked at what we did in recording history.  I looked at the Book of Kells, excluding bible stuff, it was made with heavy metals.  It glimmered because of the inclusion of the metal in the design.  I looked at tapestries, which are kind of comics in cloth.  I borrowed and used some of those ideas.  The ways characters write down their own timeline is important.  What they leave out is important too, creates myth.

Stephen - How do you work on things someone else created [Redwall]?

Sean - The thing about it is he [Brian Jacques] was an amazing illustrator.  He really gets into the the descriptions.  Like food or architecture.  He developed different cultures for different animals.  There were different hair styles or uniforms.  One was identical to a uniform in the movie Zulu.  There were mice living in an abbey.  He saw nothing wrong with that, so we didn't either.  One of the things that was always a challenge was the idea of mice and the other animals co-existing in the same space.

David - It was a conscious decision to make it different.  Otters and mice walking around with very different sizes.  How do you get an otter through a door a mouse built?  Mice are like children.  What I've been doing is making the mice like six or seven year old kids.  The otters are like adults.  The mice make things too big for themselves in order to accommodate the other animals.  I imagine mice climbing up into chairs, despite they built it themselves.

Stephen - Is it as hard with architecture and the physical locations of the world they live in to stay on model?

David - Well, I was kind enough to bring a model. It's really hard to keep all of it straight.  How on earth can I remember proportions of a boat?  I can use a reference model to keep it straight.  In building them I design them.  In this there is not sketch first.  Sometimes that's the case, and if I don't have direction with models.  I can hold up cardboard or sticks and it all starts clicking in my head.  Please bring up the model of the arch [projector image of graphically created arch].  I was going to do a library for Legend of the Guard and I really wanted the feel of this library in Ireland.  I snuck a photo of it with my phone because pictures weren't allowed - and by the way, it might look familiar, it was the basis for the Jedi library in Episode 2.  But no matter how hard I tried the library I made ended up like either of those two.  I build one piece of it, one of the arches here, and just decided all of the proportions while doing that.  Then when I put it together [projected image of arches in succession creating a hallway effect].  There's no multiples of these.  It was a Photoshop trick.  I moved the model down the table and compiled them all in Photoshop the entire space was designed and the arch conceived.

Stephen - Awesome! Did you start that way with Fall?

David - Most of Fall occurs out in the wild.  I drew from photos of nature, plants, and trees around my house.  I had a hard time in the third issue because it takes place in a city.  By issue six I had to come up with consistent stuff for Lockhaven.  I learned my lesson towards the end of Fall.

Stephen - How did you learn to make models?

David - My dad was an industrial design major and taught lessons.  His big thing was this you can do anything attitude.  If you don't know how, learn and do it.  He built the addition to our house.  Know the art and point sizes for type.  Know your craft.  Dad was incredible and nothing was off limits for him to do or learn about.  My mom was pretty crafty and did needle point and other crafts.  Growing up I was the one who was designing and making Halloween costumes.  The best Christmas ever my dad made me a workbench that was my size.  It wasn't something to just play with, it was real.  It had a metal vice and everything.  The best part was he painted it bright red, my favorite color.  Ever since then it's been this I can do it attitude.

Stephen - Jeremy, your art is incredibly detailed, how do you stay on model?

Jeremy - I make very impossible worlds.  You meet crazy creatures like a pipe pirate.  It's just trying to come up with the craziest things possible.  I do have a couple models ships I bought off eBay and I use those as a basis for drawing a ship.  Outside [the ship] is where I really do need the reference for.  Also for architecture.  I like my design like a classic story book, not with perfect straight lines but ones that are curvy and expressive.

Stephen - Sean, you live in the city where Bolivar is set.  Does that help things?

Sean - Yes and no.  If I need a building I can find one, but I don't want to get slave-ish to them.  Some that make it into the book are smaller or more narrow, but there is tons of inspiration.  I just don't want to go nuts and have the exact number of houses on the block.


1. Do any of you have a moment with illustrating where you pat yourself on the back?

Jeremy - Holly's cabin on the pirate ship.  I liked designing the furniture.  There's lots of character in the environment.  There's scrawling on pages and a portrait of Holly - drawn at knife point.

David - Sometimes building a model I feel real clever, but in terms of story telling - the tavern in Legend of the Guard.  It helped to tell the story and for the reader to keep track of who each of them were.  Where they sat determined the story building.  The model became the story telling.

Sean - I had moments like that usually in story telling, not so much in the world building.  For me, it was a gesture or book about something that is going on. 

2. Have you ever been discouraged when a certain aspect is called out to be similar to something else [ie. too much like Jedi library]?

David - At first I was real discouraged when everybody thought I was doing Redwall.  I started this in '96 when it [Redwall] was real popular.  I was discouraging thinking that Brian is doing this way better than I ever could.  Until I was like "I have something different to say!"  I got defensive at first, but then I realized "Oh, that's actually a compliment."  If the readers are interested in one, chances are they'll be interested in the other.  In terms of fan reaction, put it on paper.  You might have an idea of what it is like, but listen to the fans.  Their perception might be totally different than yours and you can course correct based off their feedback.

3. I'm curious, what are your influences?

Jeremy - I have been heavily influenced by deceased artists.  Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke, that's the world I love in those illustrations.

David - Various movies like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings.  It was brought to my attention that Black Axe is basically Baeowulf.  I also like revivals for style.  Revival is interpretation of the epitome of that thing and raising it up.  Dig into it and cherry pick ideas.  Look at the aesthetics all over history.

Sean - Good point.  Revival is more interpretation of the style than the actual style.  Harry Potter did that.  When in doubt, steal from the best.  I'm going to get in trouble for saying this so often, but I love Calvin and Hobbes.  Subconsciously, they were there in my character design.  A lot of other painters though, too.

4. For stories where you've got big worlds, and then you move them to other mediums, were you building story or character bibles along the way for yourselves or your collaborators?

David - For me, I started jotting down notes.  I was more reluctant to put more details than I had to.  Since then, with things getting so much more elaborate, I needed to start keeping track more.  I have a spreadsheet I keep for myself that includes a timeline of important dates.  The role playing game inspired a lot of that.  Instead of just a copy for myself, there's one for players.  We keep that a little looser than we should in the game to give players the room to create.  I actually use the role playing game as my creator bible, though I have nothing bound together.  I upgraded from post its to full sheets of paper now.

Stephen - When we get submission, we see very elaborate worlds. As a creator, you should always plan on just one book out.  You never know how it will do and you want your readers satisfied.  Even if you have a broad world beyond that, give audiences a beginning, middle, and end.  Make it able to stand alone.  That's the hard thing of putting it together.  Think about what your audience is going to be getting and make sure it has enough meat to be complete enough of a story for your audience.

5. Ever make any world building mistakes?

David - Consistency could be one.  How you handle it is important.  What do you do with conflicting info?  You have to take another look, maybe a character was lying or just uninformed.  Fixing or course correcting can create new story ideas for you or make the world richer.  World building should serve the story, not the other way around.

6. How do you work with names or pick names?

Jeremy - I did a map.  The fun thing was making names for the cities.  I looked at a book of old maps.  Sometimes names just come to me, kind of like first impressions, but I then think "is it funny enough or goofy enough?"

David - I like naming conventions, sometimes types of formulas.  Meaning is important, like Saxon.  It means sword.  Other times, something just sounds cool, or I base it off the character, or an alternate spelling of a name.  For ferrets I did a racial thing.  I used name and color of their fur.  Luth of Ebon Clan.  Luthebon is the result.  List of colors and names ended up sounding cool.


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