Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Mike Nicoll: From behind the drawing board...

... or perhaps that should be the computer screen, this being a "CGI strip". Have to say that I'm not normally one for blogging as I never seem to have enough time to devote to it but, for obvious reasons, I'll try to keep this one up to date!

The question I get asked most often is: "why use CGI for the strip instead of drawing it in the traditional way? Does that mean you can't draw very well?"

Well, the second part of that I will leave for others to judge as there are a few hand-drawn projects of mine due to see the light of day quite soon and you can decide for yourself.
As for the "why...?", I had taught myself how to use CGI software and was very impressed with the results - but they weren't exactly what I hoped for. I have to say right away that I don't profess to be an expert in the area and I know that I use certain software in ways that it wasn't meant to be used but what the hell - it's my party. Also, if you look closely, the strip is not all CGI - there is a hell of a lot of Photoshop/Painter and scanned hand-drawn art in there as well.

Thing is, CGI is far from being the "magic bullet" that popular mythology would have us believe and it's not possible to simply click a few buttons and create an image that looks the way it's meant to - or at least the way I meant it to - so I take the base render and fiddle about with it, adding colour layers, smoothing edges, overlaying cutouts from other renders etc. and that's the way I like to work.

To call Ex Astris a CGI or 3d strip is only half the story - it's a pastiche strip inasmuch as I will use any and all available material to create the look I want. For example, starfields never look very good when I render them - probably my fault for not using the software correctly but if I spent all my time reading "How to..." manuals I'd never get anything done - so I painted a piece of card pure black and spattered white paint across it from a toothbrush which gives a truly random effect, scanned it, knocked out the black and overlaid the remaining white dots on the image - instant starfield! I then add "blobs" of virtual paint, blur, distort and generally mess about with them using filters and add some photo's I took of sunsets/rises (and the odd section of a pic I nicked fron NASA, but please don't tell them!!), merge the whole shebang together and use the resulting image.

I've never created a CGI render which I felt was good enough to use without doing some post-production work and to that extent there's as much hand-created art as there is CGI in Ex Astris.

Why use CGI at all? There are two main reasons:

Firstly it's a matter of speed. I create the art for Ex Astris alone, so if I had to hand-draw a complicated design such as the Armstrong every time it appears in the strip It would take forever. (Before I discovered CGI, I actually built a metre-long model of the ship to photograph and draw from, so I know what I'm talkin' bout dude!)

This way, I have to spend some time creating the original mesh but after that's done I can relax and let the computer do the work whilst I work on the next panel.

Speed is of the essence in strip creation - you can look at magazines like Imagine FX and see pages of CGI-created artwork which looks much better than mine but if you look at the amount of time these artists take to create one single image, albeit a bloody brilliant one, it would take years to create a single comic.

Second reason - because it's there. I'm not being flippant - it's just that if artists only ever used the materials available at the time them we'd still be painting in cow's blood on cave walls. I see the potential in CGI to create a new style of art which I personally like the look of - and at the end of the day that's all I care about because I didn't create Ex Astris as a commercial venture - it was just a hobby that I would work on when I had the time and it wasn't until John Freeman said that he felt it had some potential that I even thought about it that way.

I know there are problems with CGI in creating traditional comic style exaggerated expressions and poses - they just don't look right in CGI -- so if I want that style of strip, I revert to hand-drawn. Ex Astris isn't meant to be a superhero strip, it's more like an adaptation of work by Arthur C. Clarke or Greg Bear, and so far, touch wood, people seem to like the way it looks. Long may it last!!

Okay - out of time as usual - see you in the funny pages!!!

Mike Nicoll

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Secrets of Ceres joins Spaceship Away

Were delighted to report that Secrets of Ceres, the first part of a new Ex Astris strip drawn by Mike Nicoll and written by John Freeman, will feature in the next issue of the Dan Dare-inspired comics magazine Spaceship Away, now at the printers and which editor Rod Barzilay tells us will soon be shipped to subscribers.

Secrets of Ceres is a three part-story set in the Ex Astris universe created by Mike, set some years before the strip available as a free to view comic on ROK Comics and the one-off strip Homecoming, appearing in another independent UK comics title, Bulletproof Comics, which will be available from that publisher's Online Store soon.

Secrets of Ceres is set in the mid 21st Century, at a time when the race to space has been rekindled, borne from both the need for raw materials and a desire to explore. With bases on the Moon, Mars and the asteroids, humankind has truly expanded beyond the confines of home planet Earth... but is this fast expansion driven by other needs, unknown to the general public at large?

By 2040, the major asteroid Ceres has been selected as staging post for the mineral exploitation of the Asteroid Belt, with big corporations paying for the base in return for property rights. By 2050, Ceres base is fully up and running -- moved using giant ram jets into Mars orbit to better exploit its resources.

But beneath the surface of Ceres secrets are about to be uncovered - secrets investigator Sarah Blake may not live to reveal...

Spaceship Away (a three times a year, full colour, glossy magazine) started out as a way to get a newly created 1950’s ‘old Eagle’ style Dan Dare strip story (Drawn by Keith Watson and Don Harley) in print, along with how it was done. However, it didn’t stop there! Soon, other new Dan Dare stories - some serious, some not, and features joined the title, including plans, cutaway drawings, development notes, real science connections, custom-built models, foreign DD, readers' chat-back and background write-ups.

The magazine has grown from 24 to 48 pages over its five year publishing history and is now moving sideways into other SF comicsas well. Of the latest issue's 11 regular strips, five are non-Dan Dare, including Charles Chilton's Journey into Space, Space Girls and Ron Turner's Nick Hazard Interstellar Agent - Mission to Vorga.

More about Spaceship Away at
More about Ex Astris at