Welcome to my first in a series of posts I’ll dive into a bit of behind the scenes of a project I’ve worked on.
Back in 2019 I was the lead background artist at Studio Showoff on the short ‘HBO Backstories: Watchmen.” This was a pretty intense project as it was my first time in a lead role.
The bulk of the backgrounds were done over a 3 week schedule. I started several days earlier than the rest of the background team. I needed to prepare so that I was ready to instruct the background artists on how to paint in the style and have work ready to assign them.
My first step was to figure out actually how to replicate the style from the Watchmen comic book. This was a reasonably kind style for a first go a being a lead as the comic book provided a wealth of reference material, and the colouring only dealt with flat colours and a limited palette, removing a few variables. I sat down one sunny afternoon in the park looking through the entire book, making note of style features I want to replicate and taking plenty of photographs.
The next part of the puzzle was finding the right brushes and processes to mimic the style, but keeping the instructions as streamlined as possible so it’s efficient and not confusing to explain to the background team. I modified a brush to create a brush that quickly paints in striped shading as seen in the Watchmen style.
I then painted the first test background and put together a rough background design document with all the instructions for layout and paint. With the background artists starting in a just a couple of days I didn’t have much time to second guess my decisions and I had to trust my gut feelings on a lot of things.
One big decision I made was to split up the background pipeline into both layout (roughs) and background paint meaning I could check layouts and assign each step to a different artist. On smaller projects (and on a couple of previous Showoff projects) it’s common for background painters to work directly from whats in the animatic, but I like the flexibility of having a separate layout stage and it’s how I organize my own personal freelance projects.
As the lead, I had more of a birds eye view of the project with regards to things like continuity between backgrounds or what specific angles the camera meant to be facing on different shots, so it was often a time saver to do some of the layouts myself and then assign the background paint to someone else. I also got to to play to the strengths of my team: one of my artists, Jon, I’d worked with before on a layout team in a studio so I knew I could trust him with certain layouts. Another team member, Jackie, is a super talented designer I admire, so I’d often assign her backgrounds I’m excited to see her take on and I think she would come up with something cooler than I would.
One of the things I didn’t expect is just how much time assigning and checking backgrounds and giving notes to the background team would take away. It’s given me a newfound appreciation for any lead on a project afterwards plus I’ve thinking about how I can improve the skills involved in effectively communicating and instructing ever since.
Another thing that stood out to me working as a lead is how much more trust the directors put into me and how much more hands off they were. Sean and Ivan did flag major things with me, but for the most part there was much less oversight compared to previous Showoff projects or productions at other studios. That makes sense of course, as my job is to save them time so they can focus on other things. Being able to approve your own backgrounds though, that is a time saver, heh.
The last notable thing about being a lead was whenever I was checking work deciding what to approve and what to send back for a revision was always tricky. You can’t be a perfectionist, so I always asked myself ‘Is this fix an efficient use of the artists time and my time?” It’s another thing I’ve been thinking about how I can do even better next time I’m in a lead role.
Watch the full video below: