A Slow Thursday

story by Frank Adelstein and Timothy Weber
Frank: pencil and ink on paper
Timothy: colors and lettering on pixels

Post Mortem

Timothy: Frank, why did we do this?

Frank: Why...oh why did we do this! If only we had stopped, just for a moment, and asked ourselves, 'but what about the children?'!!!

Actually, I think it was a combination of boredom and the intense need to be creative. I've drawn litle strips before, and was inspired to do one after my car skidded off the road in a snowstorm on Christmas Day ('02). Usually I only do black and white; that one was in color using Photoshop. And I had asked you for advice a few times. Then, you said, "hey, that sounds fun, can I play next time?" and things led to things. I can't say that it's less work than doing a video, but there are things you can do with images that you can't easily do on film or video. And in the end, it is a lot of fun.

Timothy: Definitely. And it's hard to imagine how we would have pulled this off on video.

Frank:  Timothy, what about the basic story idea, how did we come up with it, and what about the ties to classic comic strips of 100 yeas ago?

Timothy: I'm glad you asked, Frank. Only I'm not sure I remember how we came up with it. We were brainstorming after lunch in Center Ithaca, and then your alien friends burst through the ceiling and the next thing I remember, we had some rough sketches on paper and I had a headache and this odd feeling in my lower abdomen.

I do remember, though, that we'd been discussing "Little Nemo In Slumberland," the astounding and bizarre weekly newspaper comic strip done by Winsor McCay from 1905-1911, and also his lesser-known strip, also about weird dreams and specifically about those caused by indigestion, called "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend." Our thing is really a total rip-off -- I mean, homage to -- the Rarebit strip, which had a consistent formula that was very easy to appropriate.

Frank: We started to think about some ideas, very broadly, and asked questions. Did we want to have a long story or a short one? Lots of characters or only a few? We didn't really even think about a plot at first. But the Nemo and Rarebit Fiend idea did keep coming up as a nice frame that lets us go pretty much anywhere.

And in our discussion of characters and situations, one started to emerge. It was a minor character that was, possibly, a friend of the main characters that we hadn't yet designed. He was a psychopath. Or perhaps just slowly going crazy. The idea was that there'd be periodic sequences that would cut to him, each time doing weirder and weirder things. Nothing horrible or gorey, just...disturbing.

One image we had was that of a dinner table in a formal dining room. Crystal glasses, fine china, linen napkins. Probably a half-dozen place settings. And this character would be there, on the phone, politely telling (his friends? the main characters?) that he was busy tonight, couldn't make it, sorry. And then he'd fill a bowl with packing popcorn, sit in front of the TV in the family room, and eat it all alone. Creepy.

Obviously, the one thing to come out of that was the eating of the packing material. Then linking it to the dreamworld of Nemo or the Rarebit Fiend really starting things going.

Timothy: Ah, yes, it all comes back to me now. I seem to recall the guy moving around the table, eating packing peanuts out of each bowl at each place. And, it all started with a fascination with using and disposing of things in large quantities - e.g., taking each napkin out of a large package of paper napkins, squirting ketchup on it, crumpling it up, and throwing it away. Man, that guy was nuts! Why did we hang out with him?

So anyway, refresh my memory -- what happened after we had the concept and sketches?

Frank: We sketched the storyboards using Springboard. It was quite convenient as we went back and forth for a while on that. We pretty much had all the dialogue done at that point. Then came the first tricky part: the initial frame sketches. It took, of course, longer than I planned. The main character (who is currently still nameless) had to be simple, yet identifiable. The goatee and turtleneck were easy touches to make it somewhat clear that it's the same guy in all the frames. Frame 7 had to be redone because I think I got the thumb backwards (I still get those confused). Eventually, I drew a quick sketch of Timothy's hand while at lunch one day. Frame 11 had to be redone too, as the first sketch had too many lines in his face as he pondered the taste; it made him look too old. Frame 12 needed some special touches and I was too lazy to make the fixes. I'll let Timothy describe that.

Timothy: Ah: Frank was wearing his non-Euclidean glasses while drawing that frame, so the paper and pencil were neither to scale nor in the plane of the desk. But they looked fine on their own, so... why re-draw when you have Photoshop? Clip out, resize, skew, rotate. Let no pixel remain unretouched.

Frank: Frames 14 (or 13) is my only true cheat, reusing the frame. I wanted them to be very similar, probably more similar than I could make it if I drew two frames. So, I went with the easy approach and made one frame with both things in it and let Timothy separate them into two frames.

The later frames intentionally get simpler, as there's an "out of sight, out of mind" thing going in the dream-world. Perspective and continuity need not apply. And then there's frame 17. I kept drawing and redrawing it and just couldn't get the legs to look right. Remember how we eventually fixed that?

Frank's buttTimothy: Heh. We balanced Frank on one of those little back-chairs so he could hold still in the same position our guy needed to be in - i.e., falling into a vat - and I took several digital pictures for Frank to use as reference. See sample at right. I still think it looks recognizably like Frank's butt in that frame.

Frank: Thanks so much for that.

So what were you looking for when you chose the primary colors to use? And what about the background, lettering, and little touches like highlights? Was it a specific look or a theme or both? And how iterative and deliberate was it?

Timothy: We had talked from the start about the color scheme and backgrounds getting wilder as the story progressed, so I wanted to start with something bland and industrial, with somewhat desaturated colors. I think I'd also had the idea of giving the packing material an evil, undead green glow fairly early on (though it still troubles me that the the Wizzy-Cheez is yellow, not green). I don't think I had an overall look in mind, though it's probably not an accident that the color scheme seems (at least to me) reminiscent of the characteristic palette of those early newspaper strips.

The backgrounds took a while to develop. I knew they needed to become more complex and psychedelic, peaking at the penultimate frame, but I had no idea how to make that transition. After I tried using a gradient to solidify the background in frame 6, it seemed natural to carry that forward with some variation. And eventually, when everything else was basically finished, I got the idea of having that gradient start to come to life gradually: changing direction, dividing, acquiring focus, starting to spin, and finally exploding outward. (That last frame, by the way, has 32 layers, counting masks!)

I don't have much to say about the lettering except that it was a total blast to do, using Illustrator to modify stock balloons from Blambot, then importing them into Photoshop for placement. I don't know why, but I cackled the entire time.

There are some little touches, like the underlighting I airbrushed into the last few frames and the copy of The Onion that's on the computer screen in the second frame, that don't really show up here, but may be more visible if we ever print this sucker at its full resolution. The images here, in addition to showing a few compression artifacts, are about 25% of the size of the originals, so that's what, 1/16th of the pixels, 1/16th the fun.

One more question for you, Frank: We started this in what, January or February? What's it like to hand the product of your love and labor over to some slacker who takes MONTHS to color 18 frames?!

Frank: Well, while it's nice to think that I drew everything in about 3 days and then sent them to you, it's was more like 3 months. I gave you a few penciled and inked drawings at a time, out of order.

Timothy: Oh, yeah.

Frank: The whole process was pretty cool though, since we really did have a similar "artistic vision" (if it can be called that) and could give each other useful feedback. It was really cool to have suggestions on how to represent some of the images or what might be too crowded, etc. Originally, I was lazy with the packets in the drawer. The pencil sketch had only a few. But it was your suggestion to have them overflowing. And I remember making some minor suggestions on the colors or background, and it was quite cool to see you do it as I was imagining. So, all in all, it was quite a fun project. There are a few ideas I have brewing for other projects ("Dusty the Attention-Starved Parrot" and "13 Ways to Try to End a Phone Conversation"). What'd you think of the project?

Timothy: It was umitigated fun for me. The shared "artistic vision" thing was fun, swapping suggestions was fun, and coloring inside the lines was just as much fun as an adult as it was when I was six. It was also long. But that's OK.

Frank: The big question is where do we go from here? How do we produce stuff that amuses and appeals to us without taking years? And, what the HELL is the main character's name? Perhaps we can have a contest.

Timothy: Good idea. I vote for 'Dwight D. Eisenstein,' but what do I know.

And yes - how do we deal with the time thing? I think the big thing I learned from this project was that doing comics takes a hell of a long time. It's not easy to find concepts that will seem worth putting six months of your life into - even if that's just six months' elapsed time, an hour here or there.

On the other hand, this was a fairly dense project. Some of those panels are pretty thoroughly wrought. Maybe if we lowered our standards and went more for quantity of panels and plot, we'd get more story per invested hour. Hm.

Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2003