Monday, September 25, 2006

Telecommuting between the United States and Japan

When I was in college and toying with the idea of becoming a mangaka, I thought that with the convenience of fax machines, FedEx, and low-rate international calling plans, I could probably manage to work on my manga in the states with editors stationed in Japan.

Things got a lot more convenient by the time it mattered.

From the moment I started working with my editor in Japan on the Darwin manga book, we communicated via emails. At times, we would talk over the phone, but email fit the bill (and my budget). This worked out particularly well because after I’d come home from my day job, I’d grab some dinner, and by the time I got to work on my manga, the work day would have just started in Japan.

Sending files over the internet only got more convenient as internet traffic speeds increased. At the beginning, I only sent text files containing outlines and scripts. When I got to the drawing phase, each page that I sent for content checking was compressed to 1 to 3 megabytes. The final black and white half-toned images sent to the printing press were even smaller, despite their resolution being 2400 dots-per-inch, so the files were never too big (although the cover illustration files were quite large and a bit more of a hassle to deal with).

The only time we found snail mail to be more convenient was when Otsuka-san was editing the final proofs. Instead of doing it online, he’d print out the pages, mark them up in red and mail them over.

So from beginning to end, we were able to do most of our business over the internet. But still, I flew over to Japan a couple of times over the course of the project to meet with my editor. After all, you eventually want to put a face on that virtual person across the internet, and there’s no better way of getting to know each other than to meet in person.

At one of those meetings, my editor introduced me to Shimizu-san, an editor of manga (Otsuka-san edits science books). I was a bit nervous because Shimizu-san was the vice editor in chief of that big-time weekly manga magazine, Shonen Magazine. My nervousness was completely unfounded, as he turned out to be very friendly and encouraging, and gave me a lot of useful advice. For example, “If something’s annoying or boring for you to draw, it’s probably annoying or boring for the reader to read it,” is something very useful that I keep in mind every time I draw, to this day.

Shimizu-san is unfortunately no longer with us, as he passed away of a stroke. He has a great legacy of having positively influenced many mangaka. I always carry around advice from people like him and my father, so it’s my hope that I can keep some of their influences living on in my works.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Artistic tendencies and plastic modeling

I’ve been in the sciences almost all my life, but a path in the arts is not altogether strange.

Since I was a kid, I can always remember sneaking in creative projects when I should have been working on homework. When I wasn’t being a geeky scientist type, I was definitely that stereotypically doodling or daydreaming student who people wondered if he should be a cartoonist instead.

It wasn’t just drawing that I liked, though. In fact, back then, I was probably more into making things.

Here’s something I did for fun one winter weekend during grad school. I had heard that Chinese artists used to paint the insides of glass spheres with paint brushes consisting of only two hairs. So I gave that a try with a clear glass Christmas ornament. I chose as my subject one of my favorite characters, Joe Shimamura, from Shotaro Ishinomori’s classic manga, Cyborg 009. I used toothpicks and carefully added animation paint through the hole where the hook attachment goes in at the top. Because you’re looking at the paint applied to a smooth surface, it looks as if it were a polished stone.

One of my hobbies is plastic modeling. I used to make plastic models in my early teens, back when I was so clueless that I’d try to wash lacquer paint off of paintbrushes with water, and airbrush paint without thinning it. (You modelers out there know how ineffective that’d be!)

In any case, I got back into plastic modeling during grad school (notice the pattern?), and tried my hand at scratch building the mecha, Palace Athene (no, that’s not a typo), from the anime series Z Gundam. Normally, with plastic modeling, you’d buy a kit that comes in many parts that you’d glue together and paint. For a full-scratch build, the pieces are hand-made, carved out from polyester putty and polystyrene sheets. And, where needed, duplicates of the pieces are made by casting polyurethane resin in silicon rubber molds.

Like any project, it helps to have a deadline, so I decided to make this for submission to the national Orazaku competition sponsored by Hobby Japan magazine. I remember getting really frustrated at times with the difficulty of crafting certain pieces or the engineering of the joints. I also had to rush through the paint job in one frantic all-nighter so that I could make the deadline. But in the end, it did pretty well, managing to win third place out of eight hundred or so entries. One of the judges, who was the editor responsible for overseeing Gundam stuff in Hobby Japan, liked it so much he featured it in a Gundam Weapons book and asked if I’d like to write some articles for them. But that didn’t pan out because I really had to finish grad school in some reasonable amount of time.

Now that I’m working, I can afford to buy the plastic model kits. But these days, having no time for these extra projects, I’ve become a stack’em up modeler who uses more closet space than his wife. (She’s not too happy about this.) But, getting back to topic, I need to get this manga career off the ground, so it’s bye-bye to Gundam plastic models for the time being.

Monday, September 11, 2006

How my first manga book was made

Creating a manga book has a lot in common with other tasks like writing computer software, conducting scientific experiments, or painting a detailed picture. You generally have to do a lot of planning before doing anything that’ll be part of the final work.

So for an educational manga book, that means that before you do any of the drawings, you first need to figure out what exactly you want to put into the book. You might ask if this takes away the spontaneous creativity needed in art. To some extent, yes, but making an educational book is a complicated enough process that you’ll benefit much more from mapping things out to make sure the book makes sense as a whole. Small details can be changed later, but the more you have things planned out, the less likely you’ll have costly mistakes from which you can’t recover.

For the manga Darwin book, I first started by brainstorming ideas for content and figuring out what I wanted to accomplish with the project: Who’s the audience, what would they like to know, and what would be the best way to explain these things. This would then be turned into an outline that I’d flesh out with lots of researched material.

Now if this were a regular book, I’d be done with a little editing. But because this is manga, I still had to convert all the material into drawings. This meant that I had to rework it to flow with dialog and humor so it won’t look like I was just adding illustrations as an afterthought. The researched material takes its final form as a script that specifies what’s shown in each frame and who’s saying what. It’s only after that’s done that I can actually start the drawing phase.

As far as the actual drawing of the pages is concerned, my first manga book was made in a semitraditional way. Using a thick paper meant for manga, I sketched out the drawings and frames with a pencil. Once I was satisfied with the drawings, I’d ink with a pen nib. After waiting for the ink to dry, I’d erase all the pencil lines and scan the inked page. Finally, on my Mac (yes, I’m an Apple fan) I’d typeset the text and add shading, frames, touch-ups, and any special effects using Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.

Once a page is done, I would make a compressed low-resolution file and email it to my editor who would check it for content. When this is done for all 205 pages of the book, my editor and I would go through a couple of editing passes before sending them to the printing company. One of the subtle things I caught during these editing sessions was the inconsistent number of fingers on Darwin’s hand (at first he’d have four and later only three). I also noticed that my Photoshop use improved over the course of the book so I made some tweaks in the final stages to equalize the look throughout the book.

So that’s how the first book was made. The overall process used is pretty general, so it’ll essentially be the same one that I’ll use in the future. Going forward, though, instead of paper and ink, I’ll be doing everything on the computer in an all-digital workflow, so that’ll be a lot of fun!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Manga, anime, and movies

Many people I talk to seem to confuse manga with anime. I get comments like “You gotta show us some stills” or “How’s your anime going?” I realize these people are simply trying to make conversation, given that they’re not necessarily into this stuff, but still...

Manga is printed Japanese comics. Anime is Japanese animation that you see on TV or in the movie theaters. They both tell stories, but the business models are completely different, like the way a novelist usually has nothing directly to do with movie production.

Don’t get me wrong. I love anime too. My favorites include Galaxy Express 999, Space Cruiser Yamato, Gundam, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

But if you want to be the creative force behind a work, being a mangaka has certain benefits. To make manga, you don’t need tens of millions of dollars and the large staff that’s required to make anime or large scale movies. This works out better for me because I don’t have tens of millions of dollars, and, more importantly, it’s easier for me to keep control over my stories. The reality is that unless you own an entire production studio like Hayao Miyazaki, the anime industry is usually not where you can be very creative. Most anime studios just take popular manga and make animated versions of them. So making anime is often just a tedious process of having to make thousands of frames of animation just for one episode. For manga, all you need is a pen, ink, and some paper (these days you might use a computer with decent software, but more on that later).

Being a mangaka gives you a lot of artistic freedom, but the flipside is that it requires a lot of skills. In some sense, a mangaka has to perform all the roles in the credits of a movie. You have to come up with an original story concept, work it into episodes, and polish it with convincing dialog as if you’re the novelist or screen writer. But it doesn’t stop there, as any visuals will have to be hammered out on your own. What do the characters look like (casting)? What are they wearing (costume design)? The world needs to be modeled (sets and props), and when you’re drawing, how you expose the story (directing and editing) and how you visually convey the story (cinematography) are all up to you.

It’s a big challenge, but that’s part of what makes it fun. Someday, when I’m much further along my manga path, I’d like to try my hand at movies. Entertainment in the form of printed media is facing tough competition from many areas (the internet and video games, to name just a few), so adaptability will be key to anyone’s artistic survival.