One of the questions I’m frequently asked about Striker is how long does it take to draw a strip.
The problem with answering that question is that Striker hasn’t been drawn since 1999 - it’s now created entirely in a 3D animation package.
When I first created Striker in 1985, I used paper, pen and ink. But nowadays none of those tools is used. The whole production process from script creation to retouching is done digitally. And the bit in the middle – the actual artwork – is created in state-of-the-art 3D software. Here’s how the process works:
First I write a script for my 3D artist Simon Ravenhill to work from. Up until last year, I also provided him with a roughly-sketched storyboard but now he’s happy to work without one. The examples I am using here were from a strip used in The Sun in 2003. It shows Eric trying – and failing – to curry favour with Vanessa by bringing her breakfast in bed. In true Eric style, it all goes horribly wrong.
The script gives the 3D artist an idea of what I’m trying to convey, so descriptions of facial expressions are important at this stage. The storyboard (I produced one for the artists then) goes a step further by depicting not only how the panels should appear, but also which ones to use big for added impact. I don’t need to be too precise with the detail of the sketches because the poses will be done by the artist in the 3D environment.
Armed with the script, Simon can then start work on preparing the scene and poses.
The characters we use were all created and modelled in a 3D environment. Think of it as clay modelling and sculpting but done in a virtual computerised world. Instead of clay, the objects are held together by digital polygons. And instead of using your hands to sculpt, a mouse is used to work computerised shaping tools.
When a 3D model has been built, the next phase is to give it surfaces and physical properties so that the object looks and behaves as it would in the real world. For instance, a simple globe can be made to look like a dull rubber ball or a hard glossy snooker ball that reflects light. You can also make the ball bounce off other polygon surfaces.
In addition to giving these objects surfaces, it’s also possible to wrap images around them. For instance, a simple 3D rectangular polygon could have a photograph of a shop front superimposed on it. Then, when you rotate or move that object to change the perspective, so the image would move or rotate with it.
I don’t want to get too technical here, so let’s move on to our strip. The 3D models of characters will typically contain properties that allow the artist to pose them. Imagine them as having 3D skeletons inside them. In the case of Eric, the pre-built skeleton allows the artist to move his limbs until the correct pose has been achieved. In the illustrated example, you can see the actual polygons showing through the surface, although these are hidden at the final stage.
The next step is to arrange the lighting, just as a film crew would in a studio. In fact, the whole process of working in 3D has as much in common with film direction as it does with creative art. We’re not talking real lights here – again, they are computerised. You can move them around and change their intensity and colour.
Once the artist is satisfied with the scene in his 3D virtual studio, he’s ready to render it – which is like taking a snapshot of it. The rendered images are then dragged into a template of a strip page to be assembled into panels. Then it’s a matter of adding the text balloons.
The last task to be done is retouching. Maya, the 3D software package we use, has features that can replicate properties like clothing, skin, eyes and hair to the point that a character could be made to look indistinguishable from a photograph. But the more realistic you want your image or animation to be, the longer the whole process takes. When you need to produce a strip every day on limited resources, you have to work quickly, so a trade-off in the process is inevitable. Rather than create things like creases in clothes in a 3D environment, which would delay the production process, we reproduce them in Photoshop, where the artist uses more traditional artistic skills.
Simon is gradually upgrading the quality of the 3D character models in Striker.You’ll notice that Nick Jarvis’s face and hair now looks more realistic than earlier images. In addition to sporting stubble, he’s even got some greying hair above his ears. He is getting on a bit after all.
It’s so imperceptible that most people wouldn’t notice the difference as they read the strip from day to day. But compare the first 3D Striker images with the ones we use today and you’ll be amazed by the contrast.
It’s certainly a complex process and requires many different talents. Simon is not only skilled as a traditional artist but also has a keen technical understanding. So much detail is involved that little mistakes are easy to make and even easier to miss. Whilst we always try to correct errors before the strips go to print, we take comfort from the fact that even the biggest and most expensive Hollywood blockbuster movies can be peppered with continuity errors and inaccuracies!