Monday, December 1, 2014

Game Informer Sacred Cow Barbecue illustrations by Zander!

I've done the April Fool's Game Infarcer "cover" gags for 10 years now, but the other illustration that I frequently do for Game Informer is the Sacred Cow Barbecue. Video game players are fanatical, I've come to understand, and over the years, certain games will gain such a reputation for perfection that they become immune to criticism. Well, the editors at GI don't play that game, so the Sacred Cow Barbecue that they do in the magazine, so often seeks to correct the imbalance. Harshing the buzz of millions of gamers the world over seems slightly mean-spirited, so naturally, I'm the man for the job.

Matt Helgeson has long been the writer of this feature, and thus the lightning rod for furious, impassioned defenses of Goldeneye and Final Fantasy VII, but he passed the baton this year to Jeff Marchiafava, who of course knocked it out of the park.

Since I've drawn this basic illustration (2 page spread, characters being cooked/killed/mistreated) three other times so far, I wanted to change the setting. For the first two, an actual barbecue was the obvious choice, but since there was no one actually AT the barbecue, it seemed somewhat empty. The third year, I did all the characters half-submerged in a lake of fire, which was a) a lot of fun to draw, b) a good color scheme, and c) demanded the presence of a cow dressed as the devil, a staple of all good illustration. And since the following pages were going to continue the background of the fiery pit, it was easy enough to add heads of characters being consumed by flames to fill out the rest of the space.

This time around, the illustration hit me on a weird week. For whatever reason, I thought that a torture chamber would be the best idea. With a torturer cow. Solid! Easy to place the characters, a variety of ways they can be made uncomfortable, and an appealingly sadistic tone to apply to my cute-ish cartooning style. Not to mention: blood everywhere.

Jeff gave me the list beforehand, which is really nice, since I never have time to play all the games, so it at least gave me a way to come up with some gags and find out what I don't know, so I can ask for help or some extra gags. Anyway, what was nice about that is that I could come into the meeting with a basic layout already in place, with characters or character types placed around the room and narrow the focus of our brainstorming.


This is actually the first Game Informer piece that I did without even touching a piece of paper. I never thought I would do all of my work digitally, and I genuinely like to work on paper. But when deadlines howl, it's really nice to be able to approach the drawing from a couple different fronts at once. The first thing I did was rough out where everything was with what passes for a pencil in my digital environment. I use a pencil tool that responds to pressure for opacity and width, which allows me to use the same type of drawing method as a real pencil, despite having it really look nothing like a pencil drawing.


Next, and this is one of those things that digital art makes easy, is a painted rough. Since all of these characters have established color schemes, plopping them down as rough blobs really helps figure out how I'll distribute the color around the image as well as adjust everything to the warm lighting. Because I wanted the room to have a warm but stony feel, I dropped in a neutral brownish-orange as the background, then built up grays and browns over it, using the fire at the center as the primary light source.

At this point, Jeff suggested that I swap out Dark Souls' Asylum Demon in the lower left for a better-known character, suggesting Wrex from Mass Effect 2. Much as I thought that stupid Asylum Demon deserved punishment for that stupid first level in stupid Dark Souls, I agreed. The finished color rough ended up looking like this:

The nice thing about having this image is that just in case you're an artist who's not great with budgeting your time -- and although I've gotten way better, I could definitely stand to improve -- this rough provides a great deal to the people who have to deal with the final image: the layout department. Once they have this in their hand and can reasonably assume that the image is not going to change too much, they can start doing things like placing their own text (the paragraph I put in was just for placement), choosing fonts, and making sure any additional elements have good color balance as well. Basically, it means that there's something useful filling that big spot until the final art comes in. That lowers the stress of the people on the other end, and that's always a good feeling for them to associate with your name.


At this point I saved a copy of the illustration and then doubled the resolution. I wanted to keep a low-resolution version for my files, since it's kind of fun to see the various directions I tried, or the imagery I played with (you know, for blog posts!), but I also wanted to slim down the layers in the final. In my high-res file, I only brought in the 'pencil' layer and the rough color layer, which I kept in two layers: 1) the background and 2) the figures. I did this because the painterly style and smudgy shadows on the floor and walls appealed to me, and frankly, I just didn't want to do it again. We'll get to that in a minute.

First, I went through and, using the rough pencils and the rough colors as a guide, did the final 'pencils'. This doesn't look like much, but what it did was get me ready for the specific details in the characters, as well as things like line weight, which needs to balance well across the whole picture, but that you only look at a few square inches at a time. Part of me thinks that I could jump into the 'inks', that is, final line art, right away (since you can erase it just as well as the 'pencils'), but I'm afraid there's some old-fashioned cartoonist left in me yet.


Next, I inked it, using an adjusted version of a Photoshop brush created by Ray Frenden. This brush is fuzzy on the edges (I usually like to have my line work be crisp), but it makes the smoothest lines that I can do in Photoshop. This helped get a sense for how everything connects to each other, and greatly helps with the specifics of things like Wrex's scars and Sora's (the kid under the grate) hair. Another nice thing about having done such a specific color rough was that in areas that were really going to be defined by color (the darkness under the rack, behind the cow, or in the iron maiden), I could not worry about detail, knowing that it would be painted in a way to push it to the background.


I have a time-saving trick that I like to do with my colors, and it really helps me when I'm flatting the image. Flatting is the step in which you select all the areas of the drawing and fill them with flat colors. Sometimes flat colors are all you need, like if you are working with big black areas, bold lines, and crosshatching. When I'm working in this style, however -- thinner lines, no rendering, very few black shadows -- I like to have the colors be more painterly and define the shapes more than the lines do. So each section of color is going to have to have several degrees of value to define the volume of the object. In order to do that, I create an adjustment layer over the flats that darkens and saturates the colors. Then I cover it with a layer mask. All this is to say that I set it up that I can paint an effect onto the flat colors, and that if I change that color, the darker version changes as well.

I kept the wall, floor, and stairs background painting from the rough colors, touching it up and fixing holes, then (using the trick I mentioned above) rendered all of the characters and objects in regards to the central lighting element. This serves to make the objects and characters look as if they belong in this space, but still looks very drab.

Now it's time to add certain effects, each on their own layers. First of all are the flames. Those are kind of pointless to do in line art. It is very difficult to draw a credible flame with black lines, and in a painterly illustration like this one, I felt like it was just better to render it out in color and drop out lines around it.

Next, I added a layer where I used a low-opacity brush to add an orange cast to objects around the image, giving a sense of the warm light that was hitting them. On areas that would get a stronger rimlight, I went over it several times, making the light harsher and brighter. Also notice: I added the effect (since it was pretty straightforward) of the white-hot Keyblade leaning against the fire pit, and the lighting effect of the torch on the back of the cow's hood.

And finally, I added a yellow and white layer in which I rendered the very center of those hot rimlights. This pops out all the objects that would be hit by the firelight.

Over in the corner, there's a gag in which Altair from Assassin's Creed I is tomahawked to death (presumably by the guy from Assassin's Creed III), and I wanted to show that as he's dying, he's desynchronizing from the virtual reality simulation or whatever that game has. I copied a section of the scientific-y looking chemistry symbols from the game (and likely made a nonsensical chemical in the process), drew them in white, then copied that layer, placed it underneath, changed it to blue, and blurred it. Together, then, it looks like very hot floating blue symbols, as in the game.

Also, because I like gags, I threw in a few little gags in the background. Here's Clementine from The Walking Dead, with a bite on her leg showing she's not long for the world, as well as a Minecraft torch, and Steve being stretched until he's the proportions of an Enderman. That's a little shout-out to the 6-year-old Minecraft fan in our house.

As well as some weapons reappropriated as torture devices: the Assassin's blade and the diamond sword from Minecraft. And poor Isaac Clarke's head from Dead Space.

And a barrel full of Disney parts.



I thought the final came out really well. Having done the color beforehand really allowed me to think about how the overall drawing was going to look and kept me from a) putting too much time into inking things that were going to be obscured by color, and b) agonizing over color choices late in the game.

One disadvantage was that I usually put in more details than this. When I start with a pencil drawing on a large sheet of paper, I compulsively start putting in gags and jokes and other stuff to fill all the real estate. Working so small, with such "soft" tools, made me less aware of how much room I had, and so there are some empty places in this drawing that I might otherwise have filled with (undoubtedly hilarious) gags.


Since this illustration was kicking off a lengthy article, I also did some spot illustrations to wrap text around. Like the above gags, I intentionally meant them to be pretty obscure. Like in a lot of things I've done that center around rich subcultures or works, such as Top Ten (superhero comics), Heck (Dante's Inferno), or my upcoming comic KAIJUMAX (monster movies), I like to place certain obscure images in them to act as little nods or winks to people who love the subject as much as I do. Here I did the drawings on no background so that the layout people could place them on top of whatever they had for the background color for the rest of the article.

The first one is pretty obvious, although the scar is meant to be from the Keyblade, the weapon/artifact used in Kingdom Hearts.

This is a pretty obscure one. There is a character in Mass Effect named Joker who has a condition that gives him extremely brittle bones.

And in Dark Souls, you can leave notes for other people who play the game, so every time you get to a cliff, there's always a note from some wise ass that says "Try jumping!".

If you look closely, the red guts left inside the Creeper's body is a block of TNT.

And then Nathan Drake, who's gone through four Uncharted games with his shirt half-tucked in. Choose a side, Nathan!

As always, the most fun thing I draw all year. Thanks, GI!