In December last year, I was so inspired after completing (on Hard) Alien: Isolation (my personal 10/10 Game of the Year), that I wanted to do some kind of project like that. Between client work, I thought perhaps I could try once again to do a comic reformatted into a more cinematic style, a ‘cinecomic’ as I call it.
As I was developing the project’s original IP, I thought I’d also do a styleframe test using Alien as a general framework to play around with. The comic wasn’t intended to ever be Alien specifically; it just provided a shorthand for me to focus on building up the image and experiment with its look. This could show myself what’s possible, which could contribute to how I would shape the IP and the comic’s eventual treatment and screenplay. Sort of reverse-engineer how to approach the project.
Well, for this test, I ended up pushing it all the way with photography and CG– and it only took me a full day. Doing this hand-drawn would’ve probably taken so much longer for just one frame. In previous cinecomic projects of mine, like Radical Sleep, I like to rotoscope draw over actor poses and CG block-in environments anyway to give the comic a more cinematography style look, but this cut out that entire step. So, I realized I might actually be able to pull off a cinecomic photographically.
As this shot started from nothing (no plan really at all) into apparently a scene from the Alien universe, it evolved iteratively along the way.
Yes that is me three times standing-in for three characters, with facial replacement of Sigourney Weaver from 1979 Alien! Usually for illustrative cinecomics, I’ll draw over myself as each individual character with their own unique features, but in the photocomic route, I realized I could stand-in and compose the entire thing and then do a reshoot, involving other people in the end to not bother anyone before.
I am just now getting the hang of Maya to the point that I can use it pretty freely, but I have a long way to go to get it at the level of quality I want. Still, this was a happy surprise to myself that I could even do this. Since then, I’ve been doubling-down on training over Maya and Mudbox. This virtual set was also originally intended to just remain ‘graybox’, as I was planning on drawing over the reference shots from a single environment for consistency. After realizing I wouldn’t need to draw at all, using Maya to construct fully-realized virtual sets would later become my new standard.
I then would create textures and comp them directly into the shot (including a shout-out to Seegson!) :
Throughout my progress, I’d switch gears and draw over the frame to do notes to myself. Some of this stuff I was never able to fix (glasses are highly problematic in both still tests and greenscreen tests), but a lot of that had to do with this being a first test and not really planning anything, as I would for an actual shoot.
For a still-image based cinecomic, I like to shoot reference video and pull the perfect frame out to roto with hand-drawn art (the original intent of this test), instead of try to awkwardly pose for the perfect still photograph. You can get better motion and even performance out of this. However, even at 2K (1080p), my Canon Rebel T3i DLSR (which we shot Think Tank! on four years ago) was very fuzzy and sub-par for this– I wanted to compose my shots in at least 4K but more like 8K ‘Scope since you can really stop and stare at a comic panel for hours.
But the most obvious limiter from this test here was definitely my camera resolution. I actually ended up blurring everything else down to match it, particularly the environment art. The hands of the corpse especially look very Photoshoppy from the poor video quality. You win some, you lose some. As long as you learn something…
During this time, I also picked up some awesome books about Alien / Aliens and printed out some scripts. I was just all about it, immersing myself in this stuff as I developed the project’s original IP. It was really interesting reading the behind-the-scenes stuff from 1979 Alien from Alien: The Archive. I’d also highly recommend The Art of Alien: Isolation. The behind the scenes of the ultimate Alien Series Blu-Ray and Prometheus are fantastic as well.
After this, I did a separate greenscreen HD video live-action test (a little GIF clip below) that worked out even more effectively and efficiently to my total surprise. I used some previous motion graphics work to test out holograms as well. I wanted to see if the greenscreen could match an actual photo-real environment, so I took a capture off the Prometheus Blu-ray, Photoshopped out Fassbender on the bridge as a clean plate, and added myself in there as three different test characters for depth placement, all in a few hours.
From that test, I realized again… I might as well push even further from ‘cinematic comic’ instead all the way into filmmaking and VFX! Ha! I still like the idea of doing my own hand-drawn anime-style cinecomic one day, but this proved so much more efficient a process for me– the effort is more sustainable actually in filmmaking for even one guy. Which is totally ironic because I always thought this would be immensely harder. One of those times where things just all come together and make new sense. This is a perfect example of why I test first to reverse-engineer an approach. This totally changed everything for me. But this first Alien cinecomic test frame was how I unexpectedly got there.
One way to fix the video quality issue, which is what I did next, was to get the Panasonic DMC-GH4 4K DLSM, a camera designed specifically with indie filmmakers in mind. Not that long ago, a camera like this at 4K was only viable for indies through the RED One. Now I can create full fidelity video compositions in After Effects in full Cinema 4K resolution (4096 wide).
While I had always wanted to be a filmmaker my whole life, this cinecomic test was accidentally my first step into actually doing it (more on that later…) in a very roundabout way. A large part of these final results here is how I made myself move quickly through this– ultimately this pipeline has to be sustainable for me on my own right now, to be viable at all. But this can be better. I know there’s a gap I have to close yet; the key is to keep going. After these tests and getting the new 4K camera, even bigger tests were about to begin…