Wow, I can’t believe it’s been over three years since I drew a guest comic for Basic Instructions. My first was the aptly titled “How to Have a Guest Artist Draw Your Comic Strip.” Now I have an additional strip under my belt (which you should go read first, if you haven’t already), and since I had to re-learn how to draw and assemble a strip in the Scott Meyer way, I figured I’d give a little behind-the-scenes peek at how Basic Instructions gets made.
First off, there’s the idea. I try not to say the following words to Scott often: “You should do a strip about how to ______!” Believe me, he hears that all the time from everyone. But our conversations sometimes lead to an idea popping out. If he doesn’t already make a note of it on his own (and most of the time he does), I might say something like, “Huh, there might be something in that.” For this strip, we were indeed coming up with drinking game rules at the grocery store, and I thought not only that there was potential, but that I could help Scott with his workload by doing a guest strip.
The idea percolated for a while, until one day when I was trying to take a nap. Which wasn’t working, because of the cat giving himself a bath while pressed against my leg, and the other cat giving herself a bath while pressed against my head. But while I was lying there, I came up with my four punchlines.
I got up, wrote them down, and figured out rough narration for those four panels. Scott doesn’t always write the same way — sometimes he comes up with the “how to” concept first, sometimes he comes up with a couple of punchlines and figures out what kind of “how to” framework they’ll fit in. And some rare times, an almost-complete strip will pop out from his head like some kind of comedic Athena.
I worried about a strip about drinking games, and considered some sort of “please drink responsibly” fine print at the bottom. Finally, I decided to start the narration in the very first panel with “alcoholic or not,” and I went with coffee cups and soft drinks for two of the art panels. Hopefully that will satisfy everyone but the most sticklerific out there.
With the writing done, it was time for the art. The software involved is Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. I’m sure you could use other drawing programs, but these are the ones that are (a) in my house, and (b) I know how to use. As for the hardware, we both swear by Wacom tablets:
Photography comes next. In my first guest strip I called Scott’s drawing process “photocartooning.” Its more technical term is “rotoscoping,” and it mainly consists of drawing over the top of a photograph. Shots are taken in the appropriate poses and costumes (Yes, costumes — what would Scott be without a black t-shirt and chinos? Or Mullet Boss without his suit jacket and unbuttoned shirt?) and put on the computer.
Tracing over the pictures isn’t as easy as you’d think. I think the hardest part, and the part that Scott really rocks at, is figuring out what parts to trace, and what to leave behind. You can’t trace every single line on someone’s face, for example — it’d look like a line-filled, wrinkly mess. Likewise, you don’t want to capture every wrinkle of clothing, and you don’t want to define every single tooth. It just looks creepy. Plus, these drawings are going to shrink down to a tiny size, so you’d lose a lot of the fine details anyway. Pick the bold stuff and ignore the rest.
The tracing is done in Photoshop, saved as a JPG file, and then placed in Illustrator. Why, you may ask? Well, the Photoshop paintbrush is easier to draw with (Illustrator’s pen and brush can both be a little weird) but Illustrator is needed to turn the drawing into a vector format. A process called Live Trace is run on the JPG, and Illustrator finds all of the lines and turns them into points on curves. That way, you can resize the art as small or large as you want, and as long as the software knows how the points and curves relate to each other, it’ll always look the same. Illustrator’s fill-in paint bucket is really nice, as well.
Once all the drawings are traced and colored, it’s time to assemble the strip. I had to draw eight figures and some furniture all from scratch for my strip, which made my poor hand tired. Scott has a huge stockpile of drawings of his characters, and almost always has a drawing he can use again for most common poses (thus the title of book 2: Made with 90% Recycled Art). I did not, however, build my own framework. I used Scott’s, because I wasn’t about to measure everything and start from scratch when he had a perfectly usable template ready for the borrowing.
The first part of assembly is a mad festival of copying, pasting, resizing, typing, and nudging things around until they fit right. A little scootch here and there really makes a difference.
Here you can see my strip before I’ve clipped the unused parts of the artwork away, and before I’ve put balloons around the words. It took a lot of nudging and wiggling to get everything to fit. I worry that I might be even wordier than Scott, which is saying something. You can see that I didn’t draw Scott’s feet, because I didn’t think I’d use them. I actually wish I’d been more complete with a couple of the drawings, because I had to really finesse them to get them to fit right. Like Scott’s shopping cart (and he is, indeed, the one who pushes the cart), which is as high as it can go without showing that the side comes to an abrupt end.
A few more nudges and adjustments, and the strip was ready to send to Scott. I sent it to him as an Illustrator file, and he rendered it as a 600×600 GIF for the Basic Instructions site. For his strips, there are a couple of additional steps — there’s a larger vector-based copy that gets sent to newspapers, so it’ll print clearly at any size. He also has to keep everything scheduled tightly, due to newspapers and the Cracked.com site running strips certain lengths of time before they show up on the BI site.
So there it is, how a Basic Instructions gets made!