3D Wow
By: John Gaudiosi
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 9 (Sep. 2009)

3D Wow


Comic books, a traditional 2D medium enters the third dimension.

More than 126,000 people flocked to downtown San Diego for the 40th annual Comic-Con International convention in late July. While Hollywood and video game publishers have stolen much of the spotlight from the original focus of the show—comics—new technology is helping comic-book publishers lure the connected consumer back to the classic art form. And, they’re doing it in a variety of ways, from motion comic books that can play on iPhones to traditional graphic novels that were created using the same 3D technology that powers film and video games.

Seattle-based Zombie Studios has been a video game developer for decades, but in recent years, the company has started creating original worlds that can expand beyond the console. The studio currently has two comic series in production. Shrapnel is an epic solar war trilogy, published by Radical Comics, that Mark Long, president of Zombie Studios, calls a kind of “Joan of Arc in space.” Blacklight, which focuses on an elite covert ops team that is hunting an American colonel who has gone rogue, is like “The Heart of Darkness crossed with Blade Runner.” Both these properties will be heading to the big screen and video game screens, and in doing so, has opened up a new way of thinking in terms of the creation of 2D comics.

“Traditionally, concepts start with storyboards or rough pencils,” explains Long. “You lay out the landscape and composition, drawing and painting in [Adobe’s] Photoshop with a Wacom tablet. But now we’re building the landscape in 3D first, sometimes with simple primitives, like blocks and cylinders, other times with more detailed models that we have in our database. After we have an environment laid out, we can rapidly move the camera around, experimenting with placement, field of view, and so on, until we have the composition that achieves the focus we’re seeking. Then we render the composition using a high-resolution radiosity lighting model that produces detailed ambient occlusion (shadows).”

This untextured (noncolored) base render provides the first layer for the artist to paint over. The major advantages of utilizing this process, according to Long, is that it provides a correct perspective and lighting.

“The remainder of the process is traditional, or at least traditional in the sense that the concept artists ‘paint’ over the render, but they paint digitally,” explains Long. “Concept artists are still trained using paper and ink/paint. But they rarely work that way professionally, except to sketch ideas.”

Zombie Studios uses Epic’s Unreal 3 game engine and Autodesk’s 3ds Max modeling/animation software for the work. Typically, a single production designer supervises the production of a team of about seven at the facility, while two or more modelers lay out and render the scenes. Then, depending on the production schedule, three or more others will paint over the renders. Lettering is also done digitally, for the most part, usually by one artist who specializes in this area.

“Our process is actually very new,” explains Long. “I’m only aware of a few concept artists or concept studios that are building and rendering scenes as a base layer. But, it is a well-established process in video game development. We’ve been painting over work-in-progress screenshots for years. So for us, it was a very natural approach.”

Zombie Studios has applied its 3D skills from the video game realm to the world of comics, using the tools and techniques to create compelling properties that span various media.
In Motion

While Zombie Studios is pioneering new techniques to create traditional comic books,  Vancouver, British Columbia-based Sequence Post has been leading the way in transferring static comic-book stories into motion-based experiences with full sound effects and voice acting. Ian Kirby, owner of Sequence Post, ushered in the motion comic evolution back in 2001 with Broken Saints, a 24-part online animated comic.

“We’ve evolved from using Flash animation with simple parallax to now working with [Adobe] After Effects, Apple Shake, Avid Media Composer, and [Maxon] Cinema 4D with I Am Legend and Batman Black and White,” says Kirby. “We receive flat artwork from the studios and have artists cut that up into layers, separating characters from backgrounds. An Avid Media Composer is used to make a rough cut and lock timing so that the artist knows where the beats are in each shot.”
According to Kirby, the group takes the now-layered art into After Effects or Shake, and starts blocking the scene. Next, the 3D artists are assigned certain jobs, and a music pass, sound design, and voice pass are added to the rough cut. After a few reviews, the group has a finished project. Sequence Post uses the Avid heavily for all its cutting and daily reviews, and finishes the project with Avid Symphony. After this, the studio hands the client, such as Warner Premiere, an HDCAM SR final version of the motion comic in 1080p.

With the advances in technology, Kirby maintains that creating motion comics is becoming more 3D while still respecting the original artwork. And this is done, in part, with projection mapping. Kirby’s team has two different approaches to projection mapping.

First, the crew can start with the original artwork and projection-map the art onto a 3D scene using Cinema 4D, much like films do for matte paintings. By using this process, the group can keep the art style intact, while adding more depth into the scenes. Alternatively, the team can do quick projection mapping using Photoshop, whereby the artists use the software’s Vanishing Point tool and then transfer to Adobe After Effects to make a crude 3D model.

“We’re able to take advantage of a variety of software tools for motion comics, including [Next Limit’s] RealFlow,” says Kirby.

For the second season of Batman Black and White, the studio used RealFlow for the episode “Here Be Monsters,” in which the villain shoots a big glass cage full of monsters, spewing water everywhere. “Water is the worst thing in the world to animate, so we used the RealFlow water-simulation software that movies have used, to blend with the original artwork in a 3D scene, and then we textured it in a cel-shaded style to match the art,” Kirby says.

Sequence Post uses a team of eight to 10 people per motion comic project. They created 20 episodes of Batman Black and White for Warner Premiere. A typical episode can be turned around in one to two months. The company’s background is in motion design, and the team currently does a lot of 3D motion work for television and film, in addition to the burgeoning comic-book work.

“There’s demand for motion comics because of the lazy reader who has abandoned the print comic, plus it’s easy to watch some motion comic episodes on your iPhone while on the bus on your way to work,” says Kirby. “Studios are trying to figure out the best way to capitalize on this new entertainment medium. Motion comics allow studios to take comics that are already out in print and re-do them in a new way and potentially attract a new and different audience.”

Motion comics are currently available online through mobile platforms such as iPhone, and on Blu-ray disc and DVD. Kirby cautions that the market is currently saturated with “cheesy” motion comics, so it’s important for newbies to research what they’re going to watch.

“It’s a very fine line that we walk for the hard-core comic fans,” says Kirby. “It’s important for us to stay as accurate as possible to the original artwork and not take too much away from it. We try to make the experience as cinematic as possible with actors and scored music, but it’s the original story and artwork that remains the centerpiece of the experience.”

Lydia Antonini, director of digital development for Warner Premiere, a division of Warner Bros. Entertainment, oversees DC Comics’ motion comics initiative. Sequence Post is just one of the many companies that she works with to bring the artwork to life in the digital age.

“We work in partnership with DC Comics to identify titles that have meaningful stories and digitally appropriate art,” says Antonini. “Then we identify a studio that has a particular directorial vision we jointly feel will elevate the adaptation of the print comic into a motion comic.”

Antonini notes that while Warner Premiere’s current motion comics slate focuses mainly on the DC assets within the Warner Bros. family, the future is limitless in terms of using motion comics as a way to adapt all comic storytelling to the digital space.

“Comic art and storytelling will always be a big part of our entertainment experiences. They won’t be going away, but will be continually adapting to new distribution opportunities,” she adds.

The motion comic Henchman #9 uses a combination of 2D and 3D assets.
New Medium
New CharactersSmall comic-book companies are also going digital. And, they’re using motion comics to introduce all-new characters to the connected world. Catastrophic Comics is currently using a combination of 2D and 3D assets for its next motion comic book, Henchman #9. Sean Cipher, who oversees a staff of seven on the motion comics work there, says being able to mix the two provides the team with the freedom to create some visually impressive motion comics that have their own unique style and feel.

Henchman #9 is a comedy in which characters from various children’s stories have to apply for a job before being placed in the appropriate fairy tale. Within this world, the hero starts off cleaning up after superheroes, and he’s quickly recruited as a henchman because of his amazing fighting skills. However, he’s so good at fighting that he is ruining every fairy tale he’s assigned to because nobody can get past him.

Cipher said since they’re creating the book from scratch instead of taking it from pre-existing 2D images, the team can be more creative with the camera angles and do some impressive moves within the 3D landscape.

“The 3D technology allows us to bring the world to life. It also lets us have great-looking backgrounds and cut corners by not having the artist draw out the backdrop,” explains Cipher. “It frees our animators to work on movement and make the characters as lifelike as possible. There is a degree of tedium when taking a printed comic, pulling out the elements, drawing new ones in, prepping, and animating it all. Improving the technology and adding 3D elements cuts out some of that tedium and streamlines the workflow. It’s pushing the limits of what we’re able to do. In the future, all of our original motion comics will have 3D animation in them because it’s allowing us to tell the story like never before.”

Catastrophic Comics employs Autodesk’s Maya to bring the comics to life.

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“I believe the future is motion comics,” says Chris Folino, owner of Sideshow Productions. “Traditional books will never die, but as motion comics become more mainstream, it will eventually come to a point where both a printed version and an animated motion version of a comic will be released simultaneously. One day, you will be able to walk into a shop, buy a book, and then download it on your iPhone, iPod, or Kindle, and see the pages come to life with great actors, music, and story.”

There are those in the comic-book world who see the Internet as the future of comic-style stories. Scott Christian Sava, founder of Blue Dream Studios, has been working on his online comic The Dreamland Chronicles since 2001. What separates his work from others is that while the comic lacks motion, it is made completely in 3D using 3ds Max.

The Dreamland Chronicles is about Sava’s fascination with dreams and fantasy. It’s taking all the books he grew up on and trying to extrapolate the best of them all into something fun. “It’s about a boy who goes back to the land of dreams he used to visit as a child, where he finds that all his childhood friends have grown up, as well,” explains Sava. “It’s about faith. It’s about remembering your innocence. It’s a romance story. And, it’s just fun. It’s something for my kids, and something for me.”

Sava began his career as a painter and then migrated to video games, working on projects such as Starcraft 64 and Aliens vs. Predator. He then entered Hollywood with feature films, including Casper, and TV shows such as Spider-Man and NASCAR Racers. He established Blue Dream Studios as a Hollywood animation studio, and today, the facility works full time creating 3D comics, several of which are making the leap to the big screen, including Pet Robots at Walt Disney Pictures and Hyperactive at MTV Films.

Sava creates his comics as if they’re feature films. He writes using Final Draft’s screenwriting software. Then he storyboards with pencil and paper. All the 3D work is done in 3ds Max and rendered with Brazil, from Splutterfish (which was recently purchased by Caustic Graphics). Then the images are taken into Photoshop, where the artist uses a plug-in called Lenscare, from Frischluft, to handle depth of field.

Scott Christian Sava has been pushing 3D in the medium for quite a while through his Blue Dream Studios, most recently with The Dreamland Chronicles.
“When I first started using CGI in comics with Spider-Man in 2002, it felt cold,” recalls Sava. “I came from illustration. But my career took me into video games and, eventually, into animation for film and television, so I had the skills I needed to try something different. It’s incredibly time-consuming. I’ve been working on The Dreamland Chronicles since 2001...writing, storyboarding, posing, lighting, rendering, and compiling the panels and putting the pages together. Now, I’ve got a good rhythm down, and I’m still updating five pages a week on the site (www.thedreamlandchronicles.com), where we have more than 12 million readers worldwide.”

During the past seven years, there have been more than 30 people involved in the production of The Dreamland Chronicles, which is done virtually from around the world. The process starts with the character designs, which are then passed on to the character modelers. Afterward, they are rigged and the morph targets are made.

One of the main reasons Sava toils on The Dreamland Chronicles is because he believes that comics from DC and Marvel are too mature for kids today. His work is all family friendly and aimed at the mainstream kid audience, which, regardless of the content, is where all these comics are aimed. And 3D technology is giving them a boost, along with an original avenue, to speak to these consumers.

John Gaudiosi has been covering the world of video games and the convergence of Hollywood and computer graphics for the past 16 years for outlets like The Washington Post, Wired Magazine, Reuters, AOL Games, and Gamerlive.tv.