02 May 2013

Lessons from Samurai Jack

The animated television show Samurai Jack (created by Gennedy Tartakovsky) won rave reviews for its bold, distinctive designs. A key element to the show’s look was the extensive use of colour holds (at least, that’s what I’ve heard it called in comics). See if you can spot the difference. Here’s Jack:

Now compare Jack to a previous Tartakovsky project, The Powerpuff Girls. What’s different?

Here’s an explanation of colour holds (my emphasis):

“Overlays” or “color holds” (where there is no black outline or the outline is in a specific colour) are done on a separate sheet of acetate or vellum overlaying the original art. This is usually done by the penciler or inker as a special effect – simulating invisibility or colours in a fire or explosion.

Now back to Jack. The only place you see black lines is to delineate his eyes and a couple of other facial features.

Early in the “making of” clip below, creator Tartakovsky talks about the design, saying:

If you look at cartoons, every character has a black outline around them. For us, we took the line completely off, so if it’s a white robe, you just see the white shape, you see no linework around it.

I seem to remember a longer version of this interview where Tartakovsky said this style, with no lines around objects, was something you saw a lot in kid’s books. And this gave that kind of artwork a real charm.

Here’s a clip that shows the astonishing design and graphics sensibilities the creative team brought to the show. It takes about a minute for the ball to get rolling, but when it does...

Note that this amazing action sequence depends on characters not having lines around them.

I thought about this when I received this request for feedback from Svetoslava Antonova-Baumann (as always, click for a closer look). She wrote:

Before coming across your blog last week, I hadn’t made a single poster in my life. Armed with your advice, I managed to produce my first specimen today.

My first thought was, “Oh no, not boxes again.” Lines around every section! I went Samurai Jack on this, erasing the first, most obvious, set of black lines around the boxes:

Just that one change immediately lifts and lightens the poster. Next, I eliminated the horizontal dividers within the columns:

Then I thought, “Maybe we can get rid of some more black outlines in the flowchart in the center.”

But I will add lines back in, in this case, to create an explicit X axis in the graphs at right, while taking out the horizontal gridlines:

Then I went about removing the white box around the institutional logo, and resizing and moving the author’s picture so that they both sit at a more comfortable distance from the title.

And a final, small move to the last “Conclusions and future work” section heading, again moving it away from the text.

Differences in colour alone can do the job of dividing spaces just fine. Black lines are almost always gratuitous.

I sent this last version to Svetoslava, who replied:

I really like the new version without the black frames. It feels somewhat “fresher”.

Samurai means “to serve.” I live to serve.

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1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

What a beautiful step-by-step case-study. Huge improvement by the end.

My only quibble would be removing the genuinely useful horizontal lines from the graph. Without them, it's harder to judge the heights.