The Behemoths

Friday, 7 December 2018

Hello all -

Well, two weeks into the campaign and we've exceeded 40 backers - I'm utterly thrilled with how things are going, and of course a huge thank you to everyone who's pledged! There's a ways to go yet, but it's as good a start as I could hope for. As ever, if you want to support the campaign, then one of the best things you can do (beyond pledging of course) is to share the campaign with people you think might like it, whether online or in person. 

I thought for this first update I'd go through one of the key images from the book - the Behemoths - and go through how the image was created. The video above goes into a bit more depth, and also showcases some of the music from the comic's soundtrack.

Every page in The Boy with Nails for Eyes was a painstaking process of sketching, revision, refining. I set the bar high as I could - to the extent that some images were discarded towards completion and re-started, while others were simply removed wholesale. The Behemoths was one of the more complex tasks, not least because it was so early in the process of creating the story. The whole thing took weeks to complete, leaving aside the time gathering photographs, sketching draft layouts and honing techniques.

So, here's the process. 

Rough sketch

Strictly speaking this was a 'final rough sketch' - the end of a process in itself, rather than a beginning. This was the point at which I thought I had the plan for the page pretty solid. Not so much, as it turned out...

This stage really enables me to get a feel for the problems that are likely come up ahead of time - what parts of the image will prove most complicated, how to balance the elements. 

The Behemoths, of course, are the headline act - they take centre stage, and the rest is composed around them.

Secondary elements are the town in the foreground and the crows flying overhead - thinking that these would be relatively simple, I kept them very loose at this stage. My mistake. 

As it turned out, things got a lot more complicated, since the composition changed to give more prominence to those secondary elements, and so a lot more planning would have stood me in good stead.

Building the Behemoths

First thing to do was build the Behemoths.

This was the most intimidating part of the image. Getting this right would mean that I had a solid foundation on which to proceed to the rest. Hence, I came to it first.

This Behemoth was the first of them. Like the rest, it was composed of photos of various buildings - Bristol Cathedral, Wills Memorial Building (also in Bristol), York Minster, St Paul's Cathedral, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul - plus countless other buildings whose names I've either forgotten or never knew.

The buildings were photographed from a variety of different angles, trying to give myself as many options as possible when it came to putting them together.

The bits I needed were cut out and recomposed in Photoshop, mimicking a three-dimensional structure.

[Close-up - the elements in the background are buttresses from Bristol Cathedral (with windows added). The foreground elements (the crook of the elbow) are combinations of Bristol Cathedral and Wills Memorial Building.]

[The face - the dome is from the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the rest is a combination of York Minster and random churches and buildings around Bristol.]

If printed full-scale, the Behemoth would stand around three metres high, maybe more. I worked at this scale in order to ensure that future images involving the Behemoths - involving different angles and close-ups - could be composed straight from this initial work, without having to redo too much.

Town Planning

Next was the town.

I soon realised that the way I'd planned the image initially wouldn't work.

As this image was part of the prologue, setting needed to be firmly established - the view I'd first chosen avoided showing too much of the town, losing a chance to embed the reader further into the story-world. 

Using a Victorian map, I Photoshopped a basic map together (here shown in an unused page from the comic).

I found it amusing, looking over this image again for the first time in years, to see the street names I'd used - Moon Street, Green Street, Brook Street - a mix of names which were significant to the story, and others that were entirely based on the letters available in the original image.

Later on, I decided that I needed to go further, so I built a 3D model of the town.

This allowed me to explore it at street level, finding shots and compositions that I couldn't arrive at cooking up by eye and hand alone.

Drawing

This was when the image kicked into gear in earnest.

The drawing was done on Bristol board (beautifully smooth stuff), putting two sheets together to make an A2 piece.

I drew using an 'F' pencil - not a popular choice, I gather. In fact, so unpopular that I'm struggling to find 'F' pencils any more, and I've resigned myself to some other choice, perforce, in the future.

The sketch was rendered using inkwash to build up the basic tones, which were then worked into and refined using graphite, chalk, charcoal and acrylic. The result was scanned into Photoshop, where I added a base sepia tone - the first step for images for The Boy with Nails for Eyes in the digital phase. 

The levels were tweaked to bring out the details in the image. People in the streets were added digitally - this was essentially out of laziness, as I couldn't face the idea of drawing dozens of people by hand.

Clouds

Like the Behemoths, the clouds were from photos that I'd taken over the years, whenever the sky looked interesting and I had a camera with me. The tricksiest was trying to get them to blend together, although I was helped by the fact that there is no standard shape to a cloud, so I could get away with more distortion than usual.

I didn't bother tidying where the main Behemoth would go - again, laziness, or practicality, depending on how you look at these things. For me, it was laziness.

The Behemoths

Next, bringing in the Behemoths. Now for the first time I have an idea whether the image will work or not. A sigh of relief at this stage.

The more distant Behemoth is mainly made from photos of Bristol Cathedral - I made this a key facet of future Behemoths, making them draw upon a single building. This made them simpler to compose, and gave them each a distinctive 'character'.

Digital masks were used to blend the Behemoths into the clouds. Exhaust smoke was painted in digitally.

I also added a photograph overlay to colour the sea. This was heavily distorted, but since I knew it would disappear behind clouds and fog I wasn't too concerned.

Fog of War

Fog. This would have been rather simple to add, if I had stuck with simply painting in the element digitally. But this would have resulted in an incongruous look - something smooth, flat and over-polished (to me a lot of digital painting suffers from this, coming from a lack of the accidents you get with physical material). 

So instead, I scanned paper which I had gone over with several layers of very diluted inkwas. This brought out the grain of the paper, and gave the fog a textured feeling, adding depth.

[Close-up - the most difficult aspect here was painting the fog through the network of streets in the town, without the clear outlines of the buildings being lost.]

The Crows

Next, the crows. These were drawn in pencil and then scanned before being scattered through the image. I repeated the drawing several times, again to save effort.

As a result of this corner-cutting, I'm still not totally satisfied with this part of the image - there's some visible repetition. Every now and again I think I should go back and correct this, but I don't know whether the effort would be worth it - the image works, and might even lose something, become inert on the page, if I worked it too much.

Nothing's ever finished, you just walk away - half the battle is judging the moment, especially in digital work, where the process of refinement can go down literally to the level of pixels.

Smoke

Smoke from the chimneys is added. This was a simple process, just a quick blast of digital painting.

Once the painting was done, I used a mask (which controls the opacity of an element in an image) to give the smoke varying degrees of density.

Again, I cheated this bit, but deliberately this time. Elsewhere in the comic the smoke is rendered thick and black, almost opaque. Doing that here would hide the Behemoths, of course, so I rendered the smoke quite transparent, to enable them to be seen.

The final image

At this stage, it was just a case of tweaking the light levels to draw attention to the right elements, and to add drama.

I say 'just' - this was actually a very fiddly process. Because the comparatively levels of contrast played a big part in controlling (as far as you can control such things) the movement of the eye around the image, small changes had big effects.

I tried to make the larger Behemoth the most 'catching' elements, followed by the smaller one - then the crows would hopefully draw the eye down to the town, with the smoke adding rhythm across the image, making it coherent.

From start to finish, this image something like two or three months, working every spare hour I could scrape.

So that's the Behemoths. I'll be posting other updates in the future, probably more behind-the-scenes stuff, including images that, for one reason or another, didn't make it into the final cut. 

Other stuff I've been up to

(Just a glimpse into the day-to-day stuff I get up to.)

This morning I glanced out the kitchen window and saw that it looked like a promising morning. I wolfed down breakfast, grabbed the camera and headed out.

There's a pier near our house, stretching out into the harbour. I walked down there and half-way along realised one of our cats, Behemoth (yes, his real name), was already there, most likely for the same reason I was - the starlings gather there in the mornings.

I spent about forty minutes hanging out with him, talking, taking photos. Cats are good listeners, but awful photographic subjects. They have too good a sense of timing.

Things I've been listening to lately

Gojira - Magma. I was late to this album, which has been out a couple of years. Spectacular. More stripped back than Gojira's previous work, but with the same hard edge. The recording period of the album saw the death of the mother of frontman Joe Duplantier and drummer Mario Duplantier, which seems to have given the lyrics a more introspective edge.

Heilung - Lifa. Came across this quite by chance, and it's one of my favourite albums of the last few years. Heilung (the word means 'Healing' in German) have taken Viking runic poetry - inscriptions from archaeological artefacts and preserved poetry - and set it using a mixture of traditional and modern instruments. The result is staggering, even more so given that this album was a recording of their second ever live show.

Sunn0))) - Dømkirke. Metal, but not as we know it. Sunn0))) are an experimental metal outfit, and Dømkirke was a live gig played by them in the church of that name in Bergen, Norway. Standout track is the opener, 'Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself in Clouds?', a tectonic drift of chords played on the church's organ, while vocalist Attila Csihar delivers vocals all the way from guttural bass to fingernails scratching down the blackboard in your ears. Almost no one else I've played this to has liked it, but I think it's awesome.

Arvo Pärt - Musica Selecta. I'm not a religious person, but I don't see the point in extending my beliefs, or lack of them, to music I listen to. Arvo Pärt's wonderful. This isn't so much a 'best of' album as a selection of choral, chamber and orchestral works from his career. Beautiful music, and 'Da Pacem Domine', the closer, is stunning.

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