Making St. Shawhank’s Infant School

Hi there, St. Shawshank fans.

If you’re anything like me you’re a big fan of in-depth ‘making-of’ documentaries that feature on only the best DVD and Blu-rays (think those badass packages put together on The Lord of the Rings and Hellboy extended additions), and it is in that same spirit I here present a Making of St. Shawshank’s Infant School… Let’s do this thing!

I’m not sure that any two creators in independent comics produce their work in the same way; I might be wrong, but I can only really speak for myself, and I don’t really conform my working practices to any established format, I just do it the way that seems most natural to me. So, with this article I intend to pull the curtain back on those working practices in the hopes that you find it in some way informative.

I guess we should start at the beginning, which is, of course, the writing. After coming up with the idea of basing an all ages comic on The Shawshank Redemption (a story in and of itself… the generation of the idea, not The Shawshank Redemption… Well, I guess that too), the writing process became singular; not at all the same as fabricating an entire story but certainly not the same as producing a straight adaptation, but a blend of the two.

The first stage of the entire project had me sat, slowly making my way through the film over three evenings, dissecting it scene by scene and making numerous notes on timings, themes, scene/episode breakdowns and general ideas pertaining to translation from its format and story to my intended variation. These notes were sometimes incredibly detailed where I had distinct ideas for the story, but sometimes quite general, with the assumption that the details could be filled in as my own version of the story developed. With these notes I worked out that the whole story would take around fifty separate episodes to tell, which in turn helped me plan for my work rate and release schedule.

After this I started designing the characters. Now, I’m not the best cartoonist in the world and besides having a day job also have numerous other pastimes, so lack of time being a factor, I designed very simple looking characters, more simple than my usual drawing style in fact, so that I could reproduce them well and at speed. As I’ve gotten more used to drawing the characters over the course of time, they’ve refined and become more ‘on model’ but they’re essentially still the same as when I first designed them.

Going back to the writing, the fourteen or so pages of notes I wrote have proven invaluable, always being housed at the very front of my St. Shawshank’s file-folder, and read before the writing of the individual episodes. It remains the backbone of the project, providing the original direction and spirit that the project was conceived with.

As to the individual episodes as they finally appear on the net are written as thus; I’ll watch the scene of the film to which that specific episode is based (the comic being a veritable scene by scene adaptation, after a fashion) and thereon make further notes on iconic elements of dialogue, plays and variations of the story and, most importantly, gag ideas, be they independent of the source material or aimed squarely at fans of the film.

By this point I am fully loaded to write the episode, which may be whatever length it needs to be, usually two pages but some times as few as one page or as many as four. Scripting is done simply and roughly with a pad and pen. As I do the artwork myself, the script has very general descriptions, the scene setting being secondary to the dialogue, which is written in full and broken down into panels on the page.

As the image shows, my handwriting and spelling is really quite atrocious, for which I must thank the onset of the media age for correcting these terrible flaws at the click of a button (and sometimes without even that), but be that as it may, this is actually the finished script that I work with.

As a side note, webcomics work in many different ways, but the majority of them are either single gag strips, like the newspaper dailies of old, or if the comic is an ongoing story, such as mine, usually release single pages as they are ready or on set days of the week. I really don’t like the latter of these and think that the way I release my episodes combines the best of both of these styles, providing a long running story but with gag-heavy episodes with a beginning, middle and end, usually quite satisfying in their own right.

From here I take the script and draw very rough thumbnail sketches of the page layouts, at which point I really have to think about the visuals of the comic (obviously).

I see this stage not just as the beginning of the art process but the end of the writing process, as, when writing exclusively, considering the actions of the characters usually comes with the panel descriptions. I do this process on A5 paper (I don’t know how the paper systems work in The States, but the A system is a UK standard in which the paper size doubles as the numerical digit decreased), with any pencil that is at hand. You’d think, by looking at the image, that this is a very quick process, but I actually find myself procrastinating more at this stage than any other of the process, so it usually takes at least a few hours per episode.

The thumb nail stage makes the actual pencilling of the page much less of an ordeal because I know upfront exactly what I’m meant to be drawing and where, so from there I go right on ahead and take out an A3 sheet of thick, smooth paper and get to work pencilling the finished page. I start by drawing a centimetre border and measuring out the panels according to the thumbnailed page design.

Then it’s getting stuck right in there and pencilling down the page, one panel at a time. I first learnt the practice of drawing characters when I was young from the book How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way, under the tutelage of the excellent John Buscema (still a remarkably relevant instructional book in many respects), and am still in the habit, despite the simplicity of my character designs, of first mapping out the characters with stick figures, bulking them out with simple spherical and cylindrical shapes and only then fleshing them out with detail. If you look closely at the image you should be able to see the faint construction lines.

I usually do this process with a very light 6H pencil and if the page looks clean enough I’ll move on to the inking, but if I’m feeling less than confident with the looseness of the lines, I’ll add more detail and/or refinement with a HB mechanical pencil, sometimes changing the drawing a little as I go.

I ink directly on to the pencilled page, starting with the boarders and any foreground sound effects, but then just go down the page panel by panel. The selection of the paper quality is most important in the inking process and entirely dependent on the inker’s tastes; though smoothness is generally a must for everyone, to better ease a pen or brush’s gliding over the page, the absorption qualities of the paper are dependent on what delivery method you are using to ink. I personally use basic fibre tip pens of varying thicknesses, easily acquired from art or stationary shops and none too expensive.

For me the inking process is the most satisfying of the whole work, it doesn’t take too long, it doesn’t require too much concentration, it is quite relaxing and really brings the image together. I have a very simple and clean inking style because it’s the approach I most like to see in comics and the way I naturally gravitate towards. The thick outline is a kind of signature style to my inking, first because it lends a quality of chunkiness that suits my cartoony character design, and secondly because I’ve been doing it for so long now that my drawings never feel complete without it.

Once the inking is complete I erase all the pencil lines, and all going well the image looks clean and ready to scan into the computer.

I don’t have a fancy computer setup, because I’m poor; just an outdated Macbook, the most basic, tiny Wacom tablet you have ever seen (donated to me), a very old version of Photoshop and a flatbed scanner that is smaller than my inked page, which means each page has to be scanned in twice, then linked together after the fact (any cash donations are welcome, by the way).

I scan the image in to Photoshop as a 1 bit, pure black and white image, and after switching it to a greyscale image and making it a layer, I select and clear all the white, leaving only the black outlines of the drawing (though I do put the white back in as a background layer).

The decision to give the comic grey tones instead of colour, like the character design, was one of time efficiency, I simply knew that, considering my meagre colouring skills and speed, I wouldn’t be able to keep the comic regular in full colour, but fortunately enough it added the atmospheric quality that everything inside the school is drab and dreary compared to the first episode, set outside the school, which was vibrant in colour. Not subtle storytelling by any means, but effective I think.

Anyways, dropping the grey tones in is simple enough, I map out whatever segment I want to be colouring with the lasso tool and just fill in the tone, putting the backgrounds on one layer, the characters on the next one up and when that’s all done I blur the outline layer slightly giving it a slightly defused look which I quite like. I then save the image as a Photoshop file and a jpeg.

Next comes the lettering stage. Many people who produce their own comics letter by hand, this, for many, many reasons is simply not an option for me (I mentioned my handwriting and spelling, right?), but I also can’t afford a fancy lettering program, so I went the poorman’s/technophobe route. There is a very cheap and fun programme called Comic Life, which was originally supposed to be used to turn photos and such into comic strips and, I guess, supply very rigid panel formats and such for people trying to make their own comics. But it turns out Comic Life has a fine, if limited, set of lettering options that, used correctly, can make for a professional looking finished product.

I pull the jpeg version of the coloured image into Comic Life and use the basic options to place and resize any word balloons and caption boxes, Comic Life kindly informing me when I’ve misspelled something. Doing your own lettering is great practice for developing a sequential art style that leaves plenty of negative space to fit the dialogue into. When I first started the comic I didn’t put enough though into it, and as such, fitting in the dialogue without covering too much of the drawing was quite a chore, but with practice and a completed script you become aware quite quickly of where and how much space you should actually be leaving; in fact I often include the balloons in the thumbnail.

The lettering complete, the page is about done and is saved as a Comic Life Document and exported as a jpeg, with the final job being to resize the jpeg image in Photoshop so that the width is 600dpi so that it is compatible with the width dimensions of my website.

As of the designing a decent webcomic site, well, you’re just going to have to find another source for that info. I’m a technophobe and as such have found the simplest way I can to get my comic on the net, which it turns out was getting a WordPress site, and, using a lengthy process of trail and error, picked out which format and pluggins worked best for what I wanted my comic to be able to do. The upside of this is that everything but the domain was free and that when things go wrong with the site I can kind of work out how to sort it out. The down side is that when I need the site to do something different, I generally have to set an entire Saturday to one side to work out what to do.

But, as it stands, simplicity is the key for me, and all I need to do to get my comic online is to import the jpeg images to my WordPress site and place them in the right order.

Promoting a webcomic and getting it out there too is not something to ask me about, what works for one person may not work for another and I think it’s just a case of trying everything you can think of until it begins to catch on… When I figure it out myself I’ll let you know.

What I CAN tell you is that to have a good webcomic you need two factors that would serve you well in any storytelling medium. You need to be adept in telling stories and you need to put dedication in to your work. That all sounds very obvious and vague, I know, but it’s one of the universal truths. A webcomic lives or dies by its regularity, you NEED to have the material on the site when it’s supposed to be there or people will just find another comic to read.

As example, to get the episodes of this comic out on time takes up a huge portion of my time, but as I am unwilling to sacrifice all my evening time to it, I instead decided to sacrifice sleep, so while the writing for the episodes is generally done in the evenings, the majority of the artwork is done in the mornings before work. So, getting around five hours of sleep, I rise at five, exorcise (…sometimes), shower and breakfast then sit at the drawing board for at least two hours before setting out to work… and I don’t see a single penny from it (the comic, not work)

That, at the very least, is the kind of dedication required and it’s one of the things about this project that I’m most proud of.

[Steps off soapbox]

I hope you’ve found this informative or inspiring in some way. Thanks for taking the time to read it and thank you even further for coming back, time and again, to read this comic. It’s the kind of comic I’d like to think I’d enjoy reading even if I weren’t producing it but it’s for you like minded people out there, whose enthusiasm keeps me at it week after week, that the comic is really for.

If you would be kind enough to spread the word and sing the comic’s praises out there in Internet Land and the Really Real World I will be your best friend forever more.

Thank you again and big love.

Richard Reynolds.