DM of the Rings: Behind the Scenes

By Shamus
on Mar 3, 2007
Filed under:
Projects

The post on Friday about making DM of the Rings only garnered a few comments, but it seems to have generated a number of emails. I guess a few people are thinking of using other shows and movies as an art source, and have asked for my advice or help in getting started. I’m going to try to address this stuff here.

The “Complete” Guide to Making a Webcomic from Bastardized Images

Resources

When it comes to bandwidth, it is very hard to know how much you’ll need. DM of the Rings burned through 60GB of transfer in February. That’s just the comic images. The rest of the site, the other graphics, and the posts on other subjects ate up additional bandwidth. (Another 40GB, actually.) Now, there is no way you can predict how much you’ll need, but that should give you a ballpark figure. Keep in mind that while I’m very pleased with how the site has shaped up, I’m still a small fry in the webcomic world. If all of my readers gathered at Helm’s Deep, we could probably hold off Scott Kurtz and his readers for about two and a half minutes. If you hit the big time, you could find yourself needing some ridiculous bandwidth. Don’t ask me how to handle it, but remember me when you get to the top.

I use Comic Book Creator to make the pages. It doesn’t do everything I want, and it does a million things I don’t care about, but it gets the job done. The big thing I need it for is the placement of chat bubbles. That would be some tedious work without CBC. I understand that there is another program you can use if you’re a Mac user.

CBC can’t do it all, though. I still need an image editor for finishing touches. For example, CBC can’t do colored chat bubbles, so the yellow bubbles from NPCs and the blue bubbles from dead Boromir are done after I’m done in CBC. I use Paint Shop Pro 8, which was $40 and does 80% of the stuff that Photoshop does. However, Paintshop Pro was bought by Corel. I haven’t tried the new version, but assuming Corel stays true to form, I’ll bet the new PSP takes more memory, costs more, is packed with all sorts of useless gimmick features, fills the system tray with “helper” apps, and has twice as many buttons. I wouldn’t install it on a dare. Really, someday PSP 8 will stop working, and I don’t know what I’ll do then, so I don’t know what to suggest. There is also the GIMP, which is to Photoshop as Blender is to 3D Studio. If you already have Photoshop then you’re in great shape.

I use Power DVD for watching the movie and doing screencaps. The ability to play a frame at a time is essential for finding those “perfect” frames and expressions. In Everything But the Girl, the single movie frame used in that last panel is the only one that would have worked in that entire scene. Aragorn was really stopping her from running to her father, and the rest of the frames were either too blurry, partly obscured by Gandalf, or unsuitable for the joke. In that one frame it looks like he’s ushering her out with a confused look on her face. In the subsequent frames, she’s pissed off and he’s wrestling with her. Not so funny. Sometimes you can step through a scene and “find” a joke. I don’t care what player you use, just make sure it can framestep.

Source Material

When it comes to getting images together, I’m betting TV shows are easier to work with than movies. TV shows run for much longer than a movie, and scenes are often interchangeable from one episode to another. So, I can grab a wide shot of the bridge of the Enterprise from one episode, and a tight shot of Kirk and Spock talking on the bridge from a different one. The lighting and wardrobe will match, and it will work. Try that with a movie, and you’ll find people change clothes about every three minutes. Maybe they don’t put on a whole new outfit, but if they take their jacket off or put on a hat, you can’t drop it into the middle of a strip without yanking the reader out of the story.

Lord of the Rings is probably one of the harder movies to draw from. The scenery changes constantly, the characters change clothes once in a while, and wide character shots are exceptionally rare. There are almost no shots of Gimli and Aragorn together, for example. Oh sure, I have tons of shots of Aragorn looking down and the top of Gimli’s head appearing at the bottom of the screen, but that doesn’t work very well for a comic. This means I have to use different shots and cut between characters a lot. This tends to eat up lots of page space.

As an example, check out this comic, how I have to use a panel every time I need to go from one speaker to another, because there just aren’t shots with those characters on suitable backgrounds. If there was a wide shot of them standing around and facing each other, I could have jammed all of that dialog into a few wide, interesting shots instead of a whole bunch of tight closeups. Compare this with Overly Requited Love, where the generous supply of shots with Aragorn and Eowyn together let me pack a ton of back-and-forth dialog into a small number of frames. If Gimli and Aragorn had talked that much, it would have taken ten pages.

Weekly TV shows, with their unchanging costumes and scenery and long running time, have got to be many times easier than the average movie. They favor the steady shots of actors standing together, which is exactly what you need.

The Process

I start in notepad, actually. I’ll write down the dialog as best I can, and then scan through the related scenes to see what kind of images I can find. The original text for this comic looks like this:

are we still doing this dungeon? we've been here for weeks.
how come we never seem to get anywhere?
[well, let's see:]
-
[last session you guys spent about two hours making gay jokes...]
about my character!
-
[a half-hour debating about who's turn it was to pay for the pizza...]
i'm still convinced it wasn't my turn.
-
[and had an hour-long experiment where dave tried to prove his dice were "unlucky".]
they are! I'm telling you!
-
[then there was the hour-long exploration of the rulebooks where we tried to figure out if aragorn could give the orc chieftain the finger without provoking an attack of opportunity.]

yes! i totally flipped him off.
-
[also, don't forget the lurid conversation frank had about his girlfriend.]
you mean legolas?
don't start that again!
-
[so i think it's pretty obvious why we never get anywhere.]
because you're a bad dm?
[because i'm a bad babysitter.]

In my comic, I encase DM text in [brackets] and denote probable panel breaks with a little dash. I have a few other conventions, but I won’t bore you. The important thing is coming up with a system that works for the source material. I strongly suggest writing things out in text first. It is very clumsy and time-consuming to try and experiment with dialog as bubbles on the page.

I try to write a few jokes in a row. I’ll type out several in notepad, and once I have three or more, I’ll go image-hunting. Once I have the images I need, I gather them up into a single folder. (CBC sort of sucks for scanning through huge lists of images, you’ll waste a lot of time hunting for the ones you plan to use.) Then I choose a layout, place the images, add the text bubbles, and add the finishing touches in Paint Shop. Rinse. Repeat.

Promotion

The various comic aggregators are mostly a waste of time. They usually want a link back from your page, and in return they might send you a dozen people, tops. The average Livejournal user, posting a link for her friends, is usually more effective than that. I was lucky, in that my comic caught the attention of a couple of larger bloggers, which helped spread it around. So I didn’t need to do any promotion. Still, from where I sit it looks like it would be far more productive to just make some friends, leave some comments, and trade links with individual blogs.

I’ve done a little link-whoring here and there, but generally I find that trolling for links is a waste of time. I sent emails and posted comments to a few people that I thought might dig my work and be willing to pass it along, but it never came to anything. (For example, I dropped a comment at Wil Wheaton’s site at an opportune moment, and nothing happened.) People will either link you or not, and there isn’t much that can be done about that. Again, making friends and gradually building an audience seems like the surest way to go, although it can be slow going in the beginning. Nobody wants to toil in obscurity, but running around begging for attention (and being mostly ignored) isn’t very rewarding either.

I visit every site that links me, and if something relevant catches my eye I’ll try to write a post and link them back. This helps me fill in the rest of my site (since I’m not just a webcomic) and is a nice way to thank people for the link. Again, in the long run trading temporary links many small blogs is much more effective than trading permanent links with some huge webcomic portal.

Regrets, Mistakes, Second-Guesses, and Bad Decisions

As I’ve mentioned before, I regret chewing through the early parts of the first movie. Still, I didn’t expect the comic to take off, so I didn’t see the point. This is less of a problem if you’re using a TV show. TV shows don’t have much in the way of a clear story arc, and you can keep that going pretty much forever, since there should be plenty of shots of all the various character combinations. Movies have an arc, and the more you deviate from it, the harder it is to arrange images.

My early comics were all a single page. This means that I would do a lot of cramming. This made them cluttered and hard to read. Later I’d make strips longer by just merging a few stray panels onto the bottom. Thus I made a lot of “page and a half” comics. These are now a tremendous pain in the butt. If I want to make a PDF of the whole story, or if I suddenly had the chance to print them, these 1.5 page comics become a major headache. I can cram them to fit on a page vertically, but they look terrible. I can cut them apart, but then what do I do with the exta half-page of blank space? So now I always work with full pages. If a strip needs 1.5 pages, I expand it to 2 pages.

Lots of movies tint scenes to help set the mood. “Night” shots are usually filmed in bright light and then colored blue to make them look like night while still letting you see what’s going on. It helps to use color balance to correct this. This makes some shots a bit easier to re-use, as well as making the images a bit clearer.

comic_colorbalance.jpg

Early in the strip, when it came time to harvest screencaps I would just let the movie play and hit the capture button when I saw something interesting. This “shoot from the hip” method is a great way to fill your hard drive with useless images while missing out on perfect shots like the Aragorn vs. Eowyn I mentioned above. Now I get images from playing in slow-mo, or stepping through parts of the movie a frame at a time. The results are clearly better.

At first I didn’t have any system for organizing images, so I just dumped everything into one directory. That came back to haunt me. If you plan to run a comic for any length of time, come up with some sort of system or you’ll drown in data. A few people suggested Picasa for its image-tagging features, so you may want to check that out.

Comic Book Creator creates images that are 750 pixels wide. My website is designed around a 600pixel column, so I’m obliged to reduce my creations before posting. If I were starting from scratch, I’d use a design built around 750 pixel content. If I was going to run the comic forever, I’d probably devise a theme which will always keep the most recent comic on top, and treat the rest of the posts normally. There might already be a theme out there that does this.

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10Just 10 comments.

From the Archives:

  1. Rebecca says:

    I noticed you did the reverse color treatment with that comic wherein Legolas killed Gollum. (My favorite, btw.)

  2. You don’t mention legal issues.

    Technically, it is not sufficient that you takes images from a source and make a generalized “parody”; you must actually be parodying the source material. You may also fold in a parody of other things, as DM of the Rings does, and DM of the Rings is probably in pretty good legal shape, even if the copyright holders were to object.

    What you can’t do is take Star Wars images and then do something with them that is otherwise completely unrelated to Star Wars.

    This is a subtle point that people often miss, just as people tend to assume “Fair Use” means “I can do whatever I want as long as I don’t make money” or some other horrible bastardization of what it really means.

    You aren’t allowed to use a “substantial” portion of a work, either, but I’d imagine a reasonable number of screenshots out of a movie would be considered not substantial by any means. Try to avoid posting long movie clips.

    Of course, if your strip is ultimately unsuccessful it most likely won’t matter, but if you choose to ignore these restrictions and go on to create a successful strip, it may become a major pain.

    IANAL, but I’ve studied this stuff for a while, and this is a restatement of what I’ve seen other actual lawyers say. Ignore anybody who talks about “fair use” but conspicuously fails to link to things like the US Copyright Office for backing up their opinion.

  3. Rustybadger says:

    Third!!!! I’m Third today! It’s like a promotion for trolls, you see.

  4. Mordaedil says:

    Good for you.

    The legal issues are probably quite serious, aye.

  5. SteveDJ says:

    Off-Topic here, but just noticed in the URL for this page that it is page 999. Are you planning anything special for your 1000th?

  6. Bard says:

    I was linked here from Ace of Spades, of all things. Anyway, you rock.

  7. Joey the Lemur says:

    Ya know, regarding the regrets on going through FotR too fast, and having 1.5 page stories… you could always do a Special Edition after you’re done… :)

  8. Jadawin says:

    I was linked here from Ace of Spades, of all things. Anyway, you rock.

    Likewise. I enjoy the other posts as much as the comic, though, so I’m glad I found the place.

  9. Steve says:

    Thank you Shamus. My daughter is an aspiring cartoonist and this information will come in very useful when I surprise her with a suite of comic creation-friendly software for her birthday. Right now she is fixated on Burlew’s Folly, but I hope to bring her across to DMotR soon.

    I would love to have half the talent and inspiration you bring to the table.

    Steve.

  10. Daniel says:

    This site was linked at Sci Fi meshes which is a fairly popular site. I have been enjoying the whole LOTR parody.

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