Thursday, August 20, 2009

Assistant Wrangling

Yesterday's post about the young women who helped me color WHTTWOT reminded me of a topic I wanted to tackle at the time but didn't (and which I thought might make nice fodder for my book's Facebook Fan Page as well). Robin, Laura, Kelly and Kristen were the first assistants I'd ever used for . . . well, anything, really. They did a great job and it was a very good experience for me (and, I hope, them). But it took some effort to make it go as well as it did.
The decision to use assistants in the first place wasn't trivial. I have a lot of respect for the do-it-all-yourself auteur approach, it's hard to give up any control of your baby, and there's always the impulse that it's just easier and quicker to do the job yourself. But coloring 200 pages of art simply would have taken more time than I had. Cold mathematics told me I needed help.
I had a kick-off meeting with the girls, where as I recall we talked about both the technical and artistic requirements of the job. Technical topics included the resolution we needed to work at, the difference between red-green-blue (RGB) and cyan-magenta-yellow-black (CMYK), trapping, and file formats. Artistic topics probably touched on my approach to using color in the book, how and why I constructed the palettes for each chapter, and the general look I was going for (e.g., flat colors with minimal shading or modeling). Fortunately, I didn't have to give any Photoshop tutorials; I wasn't kidding when I said they're all better at it than I am.
That meeting probably lasted no more than a half hour, but it was important for getting us all started on the same foot. I assigned work by giving them each a jump drive with the appropriate palette and the pages they were supposed to color, along with hardcopies of those pages with hand-written notes from me. Each girl got four or five pages at a time and brought me her jump drive when she was done. (Kelly and Kristen were at our house all the time anyway, so it was no inconvenience.) I downloaded the colored pages, uploaded the next assignment, and off they went. I tried to maintain continuity by assigning blocks of pages, so that something on page 43 would be colored the same on page 44, but I also tried to even out the workload so no one got all the hard or easy pages. Several pages I kept for myself.

Here are some examples of our working materials:

Above is a simple model sheet for the characters circa 1965 to 1975. It's sketchy, because all I really needed to do was show which colors went in which places. The nice thing about doing this digitally is that the colorist could open this page in Photoshop and sample the colors directly from the models, so there's no eyeballing or guesswork. They'll always match precisely.

This is a model sheet and palette for the chapter "March 1955," showing how I wanted the main characters colored. The palette labeled "Sepia" provides the range of tones used to color almost everything else in the chapter (I know that blue-gray color isn't "sepia" . . . that's just what I called it when I made up the palette for the 1939 chapter, which was sepia, and the label stuck). Again, providing this sheet as a digital file allowed the colorists to sample directly from it and keep the colors consistent.
Above is the palette for the "Space Age Adventures" comic book pages, which was very different than that for the Pop and Buddy pages. The top half of the sheet provides all the colors, while the bottom half specifies which of those colors go with which characters. This was based on the actual comic book practice of coloring with shades of cyan, magenta, and yellow at concentrations of 25%, 50% and 100% (and, by the 1970s, 75%). Combinations and permutations of those colors were all they had to work with. I only cheated once or twice.

In working with my assistants, I had two goals: get everything colored the way I wanted, but give them some freedom to be creative and have fun. I didn't just want coloring robots. Consequently, my coloring guide would often consist of a dozen or so specific directions and then a note like "Go crazy here" or "Surprise me." I was very happy when I'd look at the results and think, "Gee, I sure wouldn't have done it like that myself, but it looks great!" I didn't need to correct much.

With four people on the job, the work went amazingly quickly. I had a hard time keeping up with them. Although I went into it with some trepidation--would they be fast enough, would they perform to my standards, would I have to redo everything, would it be easier to do it myself?--working with these particular artists turned out to be one of the best parts of doing WHTTWOT. I'd do it again anytime.
(BTW, I'm not saying this is the only or best way. Someone who actually knows what they're doing would probably look at this and say, "What th--?" But it worked for us.)


Mike said...

Fascinating stuff. I've got nothin' to add, but I sure did read it with interest and wouldn't want you thinking the tree had fallen in the forest or whatnot.

Brian Fies said...

Thanks, Mike! Same to you, by the way. I enjoy just about everything you write, even when I don't have much to add to it.