Sunday, October 11, 2009

Postcards #12: Sunset Grill

Back in March (Yes that IS how long my backlog is) Kat from Sunset Grill sent me this email:


Hi there,

Stumbled on The Longest Sojourn lately and was rather surprised to
realize that it was by the same person doing this blog (which I'd been
following for a few months longer). I think I failed a spot check
there. At any rate, I'd love to have your thoughts on my comic, Sunset
Grill, whenever you have time or room in your queue.

http://www.sunsetgrillcomic.com

Good luck with your Advanced, by the way, and I hope you chose
somewhere warmer for it than I did for mine. The wrecks were lovely,
mind, but Lake Superior in September might not have been the cleverest
plan. *grin*

Cheers,

Kat Feete

One thing I should mention straightaway is Sunset Grill is a 3D art comic. That is, a comic made out of screenshots from custom made 3D models. There are quite a few of them out there, but I never really caught on to them for some reason.

Looks like this is a good chance to study why.

Hi Kat,

I finally got around to reading Sunset Grill. It took me a couple of days to get through the archive, and another few days to actually think about what I wanted to say in words.

Firstly I have to say I really like your writing, there's a wry sense of humour and the dialogue is funny. The futuristic setting and class conflicts, underworld and characters are also well-developed and engaging.

I have a problem with your speech bubbles though... more on that later.

I have to admit when I started I wasn't really enthused because of the 3D art style. At first I couldn't quite put my finger on the concrete reason behind it, but after much contemplation I think I've managed to narrow it down to three points:

1. Uncanny Valley Syndrome
Given that you work with 3D stuff, I'm guessing you should already be familiar with the Uncanny Valley Syndrome, maybe under another name, but just in case you haven't, I refer you to the excellent Wikipedia article. Here are some excerpts:

The uncanny valley hypothesis holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.
...
A similar problem exists in realistic 3D computer animation, such as...
I think this is the biggest obstacle you are going to have to overcome. People are weird with regards to this thing. The more realistic the art looks, the less they tend to like it. Especially if it's 3D. I experienced a little bit of this when I started reading your comic, it took a couple of chapters before I could stop feeling uncomfortable about it.

I believe Pixar avoided this syndrome by heavily stylizing their 3D characters in The Incredibles and Up! You might want to consider it.

I'm not saying that you should immediately drop your art style and copy theirs, or anyone's. But I just wanted to bring your attention to this point, so you can decide for yourself what you would like to do about it.

Edit: I feel that I wasn't clear enough on this point, so I'm inserting a bit of additional explanation taken from the my comments below:

Basically, if a 3D depiction of a human being is "almost real", but not quite, or does not quite act like what it is expected to be, psychologically it can creep out the viewer.

My opinion is this is because what they see is something almost "real" but part of their mind tells them something is not quite right with it... so DANGER! THINGS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM! Which explains the discomfort.

To avoid this, one can either:

1. Make it so realistic that the viewer cannot differentiate it from the real thing (CG effects in movies)
2. Move away from making it realistic, but instead stylize it and keep it cartoony... but in 3D (pretty much what Pixar and Dreamworks do)

Bottomline is, having your stuff in between these two extremes is kind of a danger zone. You might get the Uncanny Valley effect... you might not, and it varies from person to person.


2. Lack of Exaggeration, Contrast and Color Balance

The 3D models are given a lot of attention to detail. I like how you vary their features so much, the fine details you put in their clothes. But when you put them in comic form... the panels and pages well... feel... dead. Very static. Realistic-looking, and posing is good, but there's a problem with comics about being just realistic and nothing else.

Correct me if I am wrong, but in my book 3D art is mainly works for animation. I think it works pretty well to convey an action realistically if you have the advantage of moving frames. Unfortunately this is a comic. In a comic you need to compress several frames of action into a single panel. And for that to work well... you need to exaggerate the hell out of your art and posturing as compensation.

Sometimes people describe it as the art having a lot of "energy". Sometimes this means throwing the rules of time and laws of physics out the window... or at least bending them a bit.

For example there is a scene I quite liked where the cook Ana confronts Corrine for selling her out... with a kitchen cleaver.

It's not a bad image, but it does not quite send across the full extent of the menace which a few minor changes would have helped do:

This is in terms of posturing only. There is another problem in the colour palette used in the comic... It's always the same range of colours, and they do not change to reflect the environment.

At most it gets slightly lighter and darker, but that's it.

Here's an example. The setting for this is supposed to be a creepy street or backalley. I wouldn't really expect to see it lighted so well with soft, warm lights that show the colour of things so clearly!

A few seconds' work of levels adjustments throw deep shadows and take out some of the warmness, giving the feeling of harsh, fluorescent, street lighting in a god-forsaken part of town.


3. Very limited fixed perspectives and panel composition/speech balloons.

I have a love/hate affair with speech bubbles. Mostly its because many people use speech bubbles that clash with their art style. Speech bubbles like those used in comic life mimic those used in American comic books. The art style is bright bold and cartoony most of the time. It works well.

The cartoonyness of the font and bubbles do not as work well with realistic 3D art.

Lastly, the layout of the bubbles can be confusing. Sometimes they overlap and it's hard to see who is saying what.

Comiclife is a fun tool, but a few tweaks would really go a long way towards improving the bubbles:


The other thing is that the composition of the panels is severely limited.

I don't think I would be exaggerating if offhand... I said that 90% of the pages in Sunset Grill just consist of two characters standing and talking. The camera tends to stay fixed at the same distance from the talking characters, and takes pictures of them from the same angle.

This can be fine for a humour comic, but it can be boring as well. For a comic with action it's a complete No-NO.

After a while all the panels start looking the same. And that is pretty much synonymous with "boring", which in turn is synonymous with "bad".

Consider changing the point of view, add more close ups or compose the panel from the POV of the characters, and maybe even focus on inanimate objects when the long dialogues are going on.

Let the camera explore a little more. You can discover interesting ways to tell a story when you don't just take the direct approach of putting text and the picture of the character who said it together in the same panel.


Overall, I think your writing's good, but your medium of presentation and execution needs more work to stand out.

I'm still not convinced about using 3D art for comics yet, but I do respect your choice to use them and I hope the points here will help you improve them.

Good luck, and happy comicking!



Oh snap, I meant to write a postcard, but I ended up with a mini essay. I'm pretty sure I broke my 500 word limit again. XD


Edit: ArtPatient also reviewed this Sunset Grill a few months ago here.

8 comments:

  1. Maybe she should animate the comic, Ping. I think then I'll read it.

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  2. wow I dont think Ive ever learnt so much from a review, very informative indeed. I could really take on some of this stuff myself! :D I never thought about why realistic doesnt work in comic, I never considered that it would be connected with panels and capturing a moment in time. And I had no idea about the 3D phenomenon either, that totally makes sense to alot of things now 0_0

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  3. Thank you so much for this review. It is hands-down the most useful thing that's been handed to me in the year I've been doing the comic.

    I'm in the slightly odd situation of being a writer who got clobbered by a visual story and -- while I don't regret my decision to go 3D rather than collaborating with an artist -- my complete lack of training or artistic skill can be very frustrating. I'm pretty good at seeing and replicating body language, and I have enough of an eye to tell that there's *something* off about the stuff I do. But that's where my visual talent ends. The only other review I've gotten so far was enough to reinforce the "off" feeling without giving me enough detail to work with, and most of the talk of "Uncanny Valley" was about the same.

    You've finally given me some concrete areas to focus on. And possibly blown my mind. :)

    So yeah. Can't promise my skills will be up to making major improvements in the art, and I suspect "unembarrassingly mediocre" is the best I'll get from 3D anyway, but thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for mucking your way through my archives and taking the time to explain this stuff to my uneducated writer self. I badly needed a critique I could sink my teeth into, and you've given it to me.

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  4. You're welcome ;)

    Glad you guys found this Postcard informative, that made my day too! And in all honesty, I learned a lot myself doing this critique/review.

    If you get a chance, try reading the book "Making Comics" by Scott McCloud. If there was just one book I would recommend one read about learning how to make comics, that would be it.

    It's NOT a how-to-make-comics step-by-step book, but instead teaches you how to THINK when making comics. It's a good foundation and reference, from time to time I take it out and read it again and always find something new in it that I didn't understand before.

    Incidentally, if it is any encouragement... I consider myself a writer who learned to draw. Once I realized it wasn't about how realistic I could make an image, but how it was about getting the image to convey the message I wanting, things got a lot more encouraging.



    Lastly, I'm sorry about not being clearer about the whole "Uncanny Valley" thing. Let me try to summarize it here:

    Basically, if a 3D depiction of a human being is "almost real", but not quite, or does not quite act like what it is expected to be, psychologically it can creep out the viewer.

    My opinion is this is because what they see is something almost "real" but part of their mind tells them something is not quite right with it... so DANGER! THINGS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM! Which explains the discomfort.

    To avoid this, one can either:

    1. Make it so realistic that the viewer cannot differentiate it from the real thing (CG effects in movies)
    2. Move away from making it realistic, but instead stylize it and keep it cartoony... but in 3D (pretty much what Pixar and Dreamworks do)

    Bottomline is, having your stuff in between these two extremes is kind of a danger zone. You might get the Uncanny Valley effect... you might not, and it varies from person to person.


    Hm. I didn't know someone else had already reviewed this... I bet it was because I took so long again... LOL.

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  5. One of the most insightful webcomic reviews I've read.

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  6. You're not the first to recommend "Making Comics". I think I'll just bite the bullet and add that too my next Amazon order....

    On the Uncanny Valley thing -- sorry, I mispoke. I'm well aware of what Uncanny Valley is, know it's an issue for 3D comics, and spent a fairish bit of time when I started out fretting over it. The problem was that nowhere could I find tips on how to AVOID it. People seemed content to say, "I don't read 3D comics, too Uncanny Valley," and then walk off as though this explained everything. Finally I spent a lot of time looking at comics and decided that what bugged the crap out of *me* was bad posing, so I focused on improving that. But stuff still looked off. ArtPatient did mention it looking "frozen" and the colors were over the top, but it wasn't until you started talking about energy and color palettes that I started seeing a direction I could head in. However far off and dim that might be....

    (Not knocking the ArtPatient review -- it was very positive, which made me happy, and given that I didn't request it I doubt he wanted to be overly critical. But I am most glad I went ahead and requested this one.)

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  7. Kat: When working in 3D CGI, lighting is extremely important. I think that if you did some research into CGI lighting and how it's best used and applied, your art would benefit tremendously. Here's a couple tips to get you started: never use white lights, always use subtly-colored lights. Use more than one light source. Use brighter lights.

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  8. Daaang lol. That was pretty impressive. My brain is a little tired honestly. Props for taking the time to analyze all this so carefully.

    Andrew Stella

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