Monday, September 21, 2015

A Psychochronography in Blue (Part 6)

I think, by now, you probably know the drill.  On the chance that you're a newcomer to these here shores you can read the previous entries in this series by clicking here. You don't need to in order to follow along, but the option is there if you need it.

So, new cover for a new Phil Sandifer joint, this one being the 6th of the main series of TARDIS Eruditorum, 'The Unofficial Critical History of Doctor Who' (because Phil loaths a short subtitle).  To see Phil's post on the subject, click here.

By all rights, this should have been my personal favorite of the series to do, as it lands smack dab in the middle of an era I hold dear.  Oddly though that very fact made it less satisfying, as nothing I could do would ever live up to the memories of the ridiculous gaudy graphic excesses of the mid-80's (the prime example of the theme being the 6th Doctor's much maligned coat).  I did my best though, in line with Phil's preferences, and quite like the result.

You may note that it looks a bit like a book cover, but also ever so slightly like a cover from a video game.  There are reasons (other than just myself and Dr. Sandifer being colossal nerds), but we'll get to that later.  If we follow Dylan Thomas' advice to begin at the beginning (which wasn't actually advice), then we track back all the way to a set of thumbnails.  Ideas and options for further exploration.

This is actually the second set of thumbnails I'd sent, the first consisting of only the first row.  Let's break down the thought process in picking the 'right' one (you'll note none of these tally exactly with the final cover - we'll get there).  The cover had an additional difficulty this time, since it had to cover two Doctors instead of one, complicating the amount of information the cover had to relay.

The first two were dismissed because Phil thought they might be too 90's - they're not, being pretty strongly mid 80's, but if Phil's memories were throwing him off he wouldn't be the only one, so they were out (I think there's some potential in the second one for some other things though).

The last one was dismissed because it might be too obscure (It's based on Queen's Kind of Magic album cover), and raise questions in those who got it as to why the book didn't contain an essay on Highlander, which then raises the question, why wasn't there an essay on Highlander?

This left the other two as the only strong contenders in the first batch.  From the rest, Phil liked the Rubix Cube TARDIS (And I've now forgotten why we didn't push another round with those, because they are sort of fun), ruled out the neon faces and crest, and liked some of the Logos.  The C64 ASCII art TARDIS was deemed too plain, but it did bring up that we both have associations with the era and the Commodore 64 computer.  Some logos were liked, and some were not.  Somehow, through the discussions, the following resulted.

In these you can see the first real signs of what would become the final cover.  It also raised a lot of points for discussion, such as how noisy the cover could be in terms of looking like a photograph of a graphic over just being the graphic, and how the books apparent age is worked out (this wasn't an issue before, but this one has two Doctors, and the next covers time outside the airing of the show on TV).  For the record, the book covers are intended to be era appropriate for the end of the time covered within them.  And I just realised that this is the first book without the dates it covers marked. Bugger. Not the end of the world though.  Moving on.

So from that we arrived at these two, which are minor variants of the same (one was ironing out some things I wasn't sure I could do, like making it look as though the image was a photograph of a CRT television), including the heavily sloped A, because nothing says 80's like a heavily sloped letter or two - just ask Jean Michele Jarre.  Phil approved the first, and then went radio silent on the second because he was busy - this may have had the longest gestation period of the covers since we were both tremendously busy at various times during it.  The last book technically took longer, but most of that time it wasn't under discussion, so much as sitting on my hard drive doing nothing.  The first email on the subject of this one was back at the beginning of June.

Anyway, he didn't respond for a while, which gave me time to mull things over - always a dangerous occurrence.

Phil also writes Last War in Albion as you possibly know.  Last War in Albion is about the mystical war between the writers Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.  That sounds weirder than it is, but it uses that to explore the history of the two and all sorts of asides in a similar way that TARDIS Eruditorum uses the alchemical aspects of Doctor Who as a springboard to other diverse topics of discussion.  Anyway, that's all by the by, the important thing is that that reading it reminded me of the rear cover to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke, which is a playing card featuring Batman and The Joker.

Since we were already discussing the possibility of the cover containing a computer style illustration it made sense to make the playing card idea following that sensibility, and furthermore, once I did it the whole thing looked to me like the cover to a video game from Rainbird or Firebird; things like Elite, Starglider or Morpheus (I may be showing my age here).  Based on that I wanted a screenshot on the box.  A screenshot of the non-existent TARDIS Eruditorum game.

I may have nerded out a little over this cover.  Again.

So since we're in nerdville I may as well go a little further and cover some things I did for the cover that most people will never notice or care about.  If you really don't want to know any of this, scan on down past the red framed text.  If you're a hopeless saddo like me, then it's time to get (gently) technical, a little personal and somewhat old school.  Reminiscence is likely to happen.

Geek Starts Here

So I got my start in digital art a long time ago in a country far far away.  We'd borrowed my grandfather's Dragon 32 computer for a few weeks, and so my dad, being a hopeless geek himself, decided to learn to program it.  I was 8, and Oh My God That's My Son's Age!  I only remember one thing he did, which was a graphics package called Doodle.  It was pretty amazing, featuring such advanced things (for the time) as rubber banding & limited animation.

It should have sold thousands of copies and funded the next version (which he started on but never finished - pixel editing and zoom were on the cards); it sold about 10 copies.  After that we gave the computer back, and eventually got a Commodore Plus/4.

Nobody remembers that computer it seems, but I rather liked it.  I learned to program a bit myself, and worked out how to do art on it.  This involved working a picture out on graph paper and entering the colours and co-ordinates as a program.  Eventually my dad bought me an art package for it - I don't remember the name of it sadly, but it was a start.  For old times sake here's a link to a video of the C+4 rip-off of Boulderdash; Icicle Works.

Eventually we got a Commodore 64 (I think I was 11 or 12) and a copy of OCP Art Studio and that was pretty much it for me, I was hooked.  Eventually I got an Amiga with Deluxe Paint, and then a PC with Photoshop, and then a tablet for it and so on and so on.

But I did a lot of work on the C64.  A lot.  In fact my GCSE art project was done on one (this was a combination of original art and loading screens from various games copied pixel by pixel from games magazines.  Yes it was partially plagiarism, but I didn't appreciate that at the time since I was doing it the hard way, and learning a lot at the same time. You'll note I credit pretty much everything when I can these days - Guilt from when I was 15.

But this does mean I have a pretty solid understanding of the limitations of computers, specifically the C64, circa 1986.  With that in mind I decided to be as accurate as I could.

Firstly, I did it the dumb way.  I should have looked for something like HermIRES, which purports to simulate the C64 limitations on other systems (I just found that while looking for something unrelated, and I'm totally going to snag it in case I need to do something like this again).  Instead I set Photoshop to use double wide aspect pixels and did it in there with the pencil tool and the C64's 16 colour palette and resolution.  Yes, the C64 had double wide pixels on it's multicolour mode - it also had a limitation on 4 colours per 4x8 'square'; I couldn't simulate that limitation, but I did my best to stick to it anyway.

So that got me the Game screen and the Playing card, but back in days of old the way you'd get things from the computer into a magazine or on to a gamebox was to photograph the screen, which gave such shots a fairly distinctive look.  Here's a couple of scans from the old Zzap 64 magazine -1, 2 - note the screenshots are slightly blurry and slightly distorted and you can see the pattern of the TV's electron mask.  Sometimes you'd have the slight shadow of the screen's redraw too, if the photographer messed up the exposure.

So I wanted to simulate all of that, even though it would be quite likely nobody would have any idea that I had.

Short of buying a CRT, and working out how to hook the PC up to it, and then photographing it (yeah... no thanks), I had to simulate it.  I did this by creating a small mask pattern and then repeating that for each pixel in the simulated screen.  For the low resolution CRT display (400 x 480i) this worked out at a whopping image of 12240x8160.  Into this I would paste my simulated C64 resolution image, and then scale it up using Nearest Neighbor mode (which doesn't blur or sharpen the pixels).  Some additional fiddling with blend modes and offsets and such gave me a pretty reasonable CRT look.  Then that was duplicated, flattened, and the next step was simulating the photography of an actual screen, which involved distorting the previous image, adding  some vignetting and some reflection off the curvature as well as a little bit of a redraw shadow.

Yes, that was a bit long winded, but I think the results are pretty good.

Geek Ends Here

After that it was predominantly a case of finalising the layout, adding the text, doing the wear, lightening the blue, that sort of thing.  Stuff I've covered in many of the posts about the previous covers.  I did go back and add 'rounded' corners to the playing card, and give it a little perspective and a reflection though, because 80's, and I also cut it out of its 'screen' a little less accurately because back then people did such things by hand (you'll never notice, it's really subtle).  I also cut out the torn label by hand, but it's basically using the exact same technique as I use to do the wearing on the cover, and I covered that back on Book 2.

One thing that's worth covering here though is the Chrome logo.  Because 80's chrome is the best chrome.

I've done a lot of chrome over the years, firstly because I was actually around during the 80's, when everything had some chrome, but then because I was doing vehicle logos for things like Saints Row (now there's a Before the Blog post I should do).  Usually I can do a pretty reasonable job by hand, or with filters or by using layer FX.  None of that would work here (at least on its own) because the logo was too big.

So it's all done with vectors, other than a drop shadow and slight bevel overlay using the Layer FX options.   This was actually pretty easy - a couple of gradient shapes, an outline, another gradient, done.  Not terribly in depth, but worth noting that I did something I'm very familiar with in a very different way.

Once Phil had the final page count I decided to put the original Pixelated Doctors image on the spine, because the spine was huge, and I liked the image.  Phil submitted and there was a mistake somewhere that meant I had to reduce the size of the spine again, but the image still fitted just fine.  Both myself and Phil were a little surprised the cover didn't get rejected due to some of the text being upside down.  That actually answered a question we had over a previous cover, but didn't  have the guts to try back then.  This wasn't done as a test for this cover - we just forgot it might be an issue until it wasn't one.

And there you have it.  This is the second and last 1980's cover, since the next book covers up until 1995, so I'll have to brush up on my 90's before then.  I promise the next one won't have a huge influence from era specific home computers though.  Well... maybe not.

No comments:

Post a Comment