Hi art friends.
In the first installment of The Takashima Process, I’ll share the process of bringing “The Takashima Extraction” to life.
For the longest time, I was a self-taught Gimp user, going way back to the 1990s. I’d created a few complex images and they were ok. I was a big fan of Stampington & Company’s Digital Inspiration magazine and longed to create similar images.
My photographic library was largely comprised of random, unplanned, low resolution imagery that hampered my ability to create cohesive composite image. I didn’t understand how to effectively use layers, masks and many of the tools in Gimp.
I created a few doll photo stories (which is a thing in the doll collection world), but I wasn’t able to create the type of images I had in my mind. I toyed with smart phone art, which kept my interest going while I struggled to learn Gimp.
One day, a great deal for Sebastian Michael’s “Photoshop Artistry” appeared. The price was terrific and I had the cash, so I signed up and was amazed at what I could create with the first lesson. Before I completed that class, a deal for “Awake” appeared. In seeing everyone else’s work, I was scared but couldn’t resist signing up. A whole new world of visual storytelling opened up for me.
The first 4 images were created in Gimp. My photos were captured with my smart phone of the time or my Canon Rebel T1i with the 18-55 mm standard kit lens, shooting in auto mode with the highest jpg file setting. I use a Wacom Intuos Pen & Touch tablet that I’ve had for years. All the dolls are from my collection.
I’ll delve into details in the next post; however, I need to mention there is a more complex story I started before Takashima. The first 4 images represent character portraits for the other story.
Cassie enters the Matrix
Cassie (Dollmore Lilis Liv/Glorydoll hybrid) is a technomancer in the other story. My challenges with that story: how to visually show the difference between meat space (on the left) and the Matrix (on the right). What does her Matrix avatar look like? How do I create a clear distinction between these worlds? And then there is the astral plane, the magic aspect of Shadowrun, to visualize. These challenges caused the story to languish for many years.
I chose technomancers for the protagonists so I did not have to physically alter my dolls to add cyber wetware. At the time, I didn’t have the skill to do the work on the dolls or digitally add it.
“Cassie enters the Matrix” is my first attempt to show two worlds. For this image, I extracted the image of Cassie, two of my own photos of a breezeway downtown serve as the backgrounds. The grungy mess down the center is meant to represent the portal between worlds. I was going for a dispersion effect – a technique I’ve yet to master. I layered and masked each side of the background images. For the background on the Matrix side, I applied the neon filter to get the enhanced edges. The girl and the stuff in her hand are imagery from the Sebastian Michael’s classes that include commercial use licenses to class members.
It’s an interesting image but didn’t manifest as I envisioned. To this day, I look at it and wonder how I would do it differently.
You gotta have a street sam in the Shadowrun world. Mine is my Elfdoll Soah, Ginger. For this portrait, I set up Ging with the doll scaled Katana letter openers and used a photo of downtown Seattle I took on some outing that Bill and I took. Again, I used the neon filter to enhance the outlines (it became the go-to filter as the signature look at this stage). There is a 50% grey dodge and burn layer over Ginger, set to Soft Light. I did not have the chops to effectively mask her elbow and wrist joints. This image was the seed to create costumes to cover the joints as much as possible.
I ran into a number of problems with this image: her black outfit was murky. A curves layer helped to bring out the details. As a single-jointed doll, Ginger has limited posing ability with arm and leg positions. I didn’t have a doll stand at this time, so poses had to be standing or sitting. To improve her posing, particularly with raising the sword to strike, I’ll have to undertake some simple modifications (glue sueding and wiring), put Ginger’s head on a double-jointed doll body or use a different double-jointed doll for the street sam.
The story of this image is more successful, I feel, than Cassie’s image. There’s clearly something going on in the scene with Ginger, she’s got her swords at the ready. The people on the left were semi-masked because they’re running toward the fight – never a good plan. Ginger is not well integrated into the image; she is clearly an extraction. There are some unpleasant hot spots on her outfit. It is, however, a good start that is more what I had in mind.
Kaneda (Elfdoll K) is one of the technomancers in the other story. The images not my own are the tiny warrior in the green area and the vector graphics (again, commercial license granted by class participation). I took the warrior photo to a website that converted an image to code. I used green because it’s very close to the cursor color back in the early days of desktop computing. This green area and the warrior represent a technomancer program about to run.
The background is a composite of two Seattle images, both taken with my cell phone. Again, my favorite Neon filter applied. Less grunge and a bit more successful as an image. It looks more painterly and less like a composite photograph. I’ve made progress integrating my extractions into the overall image – Kaneda has a shadow but given the direction of the light on his face, it should be on his right side. There is a bit of halo around him on the left side. Were I to update this image, I correct his shadow, add an overhead alley pool of light shining down the wall behind him and increase the light and dark areas of his face to increase the noir feel and eliminate the halo effect on his head.
Mage portrait of my Dollshe IM Hound, Lancaster, who has gorgeous, expressive hands. The background is a photo I took on my phone of concrete; I masked out the wall behind Lancaster. The pinky-purpley ball of energy is a combination of a vector graphic, a sphere of color and a white sphere that I manipulated to add the swirls.
Getting there. Less visually dense, tells a story. I still haven’t cracked the code on those wrist joints. Looking at the image today, I see his eyes are lost in the layers.
Why didn’t I notice the eye issue sooner? Not so much a problem in the first 3 images, but clearly visible here. My brain is filling in the missing information because I know what the dolls look like but I have not developed a critical eye to my images at this point. At the beginning, I tended to rush through creating images. Since this project is taking so long, I’m able to let images rest so I can go back to them later with fresh eyes and see better what needs adjustment.
Takashima is born
As a Gimp user, the Photoshop classes were very helpful, but Gimp features do not directly align to Photoshop and some features do not exist at all. Photoshop actions don’t work in Gimp (or didn’t in 2019). With each lesson, I had to translate Photoshop instructions into Gimp and, more often than not, find a workaround. As I progressed with my skills, I began to bump into the Gimp limitations as well as limitations with the processing power of my aging laptop. There was a limit to the number of layers I could work on in a single image. As I added layers, Gimp took longer to handle the images.
Prompted by the Awake class assignments, I set a goal to develop the other story and further developed the outline.
Hiro (there’s an image of him later) and Ginger were my first 2 ball jointed dolls. I have tons of photos of these two, long before I developed the other story. There are other images unrelated to the Shadowrun story that develop the relationship between Hiro and Ginger, that became the basis for Takashima and served as the catalyst to create a smaller scale story and develop the visual bible for the other story.
The original Keaton
At this point in my Awake classes, I am shifting away from trying to force old photos to work and toward setting up photoshoots to tell a specific story. I began setting up doll photoshoots in my studio. The next two images were part of a series of staged images to extract and drop into other created backgrounds.
The original Keaton for Takashima was my Dollshe Grown Saint. To confuse matters somewhat, this doll’s name is Keaton, after Buster and Michael. Saint Keaton was the inspiration for the protagonist of the story, based on this photoshoot. There are short stories that were the seeds of the developing Takashima story.
The first image was accompanied with a “Surveillance Report” filed by Takashima Corporate Security (CorpSec).The image is a fairly straightforward image, grungy background, hint of what is going on behind him. I was going for a random street shot of Keaton, but it’s not terribly successful.
I converted the image to black and white to check my contrast. That changed the visual direction of the story and I decided to take it in a film noir direction. The surveillance image is ok but didn’t quite hit the mark.
“The Morning Report” and the short story that goes with it form the executive summary of Takashima, kicking the project in full gear.
Another minimally process image: the photo of Saint Keaton, some grunge, 50% dodge/burn layer, some wrist joint clean up. I surprised myself with how it looked. This image sparked so much creativity that I completed the first full outline in a weekend.
I finally felt I could create a photo-based story to the end. I made some character costume and prop sketches, character notes and developed character backstories.
Takashima-specific conceptual images
My plan at this stage was to create a series of black and white grungy images to tell the story. But what to do with all these images? How do I put it all together? Do I keep writing posts like “The Morning Report”? Do I write and post these on doll forums?
That all seemed fine but I wanted to see the story as a whole work and that’s when I decided to create a graphic novel.
Around this time, I found myself tired of bumping into the Gimp limitations. I wanted to use some of the many painterly actions and apps that only work in Photoshop, so I upgraded from an HP Thinkpad and Gimp to an iMac and Photoshop CC in 2019.
A new wrinkle
During one of my photo shoots to check costume development, I realized the dolls I planned for Al Keaton and Camille Starfall were not working together, due to differences in the dolls heights and age. That complication is explored further in the Character post. I mention it here because there are different dolls playing Keaton and Starfall.
The backgrounds will be explored in a separate post. For this section, I’ll explore the character images.
Keaton and Starfall, my main characters. I love these two dolls together. He’s grumpy; she looks world-weary. Their proportions and ages are good. The perfect pair of star-crossed (maybe) lovers.
One of the artifacts of laying images, depending on the layer mode, can take a daytime photo and give it a night quality. Day for night, as they say in the film biz. This test conceptual image of Keaton and Starfall is loaded with layers. Immediately behind the characters is a shot out my studio window.
Behind that layer is a complex image of the Space Needle that is comprised of 3 layers set on different layer modes. In the Photoshop Artistry class, this is call The Palmer Technique, after the artist who created it.
This technique works best with urban cityscapes. The original layer is duplicated. Zoom out so the image is small, then the copy is stretched extremely vertically by holding down the shift key and stretching it 2 or 3 times the height of the original.
The stretched layer is duplicated and an extreme vertical motion blur (set around 200) is applied.
At this point, you play with the layers, layer modes and masks to get the desired look. It takes quite a bit of faffing to get an effective image. It’s a matter of experimenting with different urban images to see what works.
In black and white, a Palmerized urban image becomes the foggy background, creating lovely depth and murkiness.
“Keaton’s Daydream” explores how to show his crush fantasy life with Miss Camille. The dolls were extracted, I created and hand painted the background behind them, added a 50% grey dodge and burn layer, and pretty effectively corrected some of Camille’s seams. The back of her head seam is still visible. This photo may or may not appear in the final draft. It needs quite a bit of work. I feel I’ve created other, more effective day dream images.
The background of next image was composited for a Shift Art challenge. The city is a composite of 4 or 5 international cities, extracted, layered and Palmerized. I never finished the challenge image, but I really liked the composited city and decided to stick it behind my rigger, Hiro. I’m not likely to use this specific image in the story, but it is the compositional idea for a story location. The steep vertical blur adds a rain element to image. I like the pools of light. There is a lot going on here, but overall, I like the composition.
The next image may end up in the story, with a little more work. It is an extension of the “Cassie Enters the Matrix” image. The idea behind this image is the character, a Takashima Executive, is in the Matrix when she gets a call from the manager.
The next image is a more complex composite, showing how far my compositing skills have come. The doll, the foreground, the deer, the birds, the clouds and the hills in the background are separate elements composited to form a new image. There is a 50% grey layer with light rays coming from behind the cloud and a grunge overlay at the top of the stack to unify the piece.
The color version is clearly a composite. The doll’s hair is red, her boots are orange, the foreground landscape colors do not relate the hills. Visually, it’s a hot mess. Converting it to black and white magically unifies the piece.
Next up, we have “He’s Gone,” a simple image of Cassie where I masked the background, layered a photo of concrete behind her and the grunge overlay. I didn’t even correct her shoulder joint. I love the mood of this image. A version of this image will be in the final story.
I had a lot of fun creating the next image, as character development for Lucius Pinkham. Another favorite image of mine. At this stage, most of the composites are fairly simple although I have not let go of the grunge aspect. This is a 5 layer image: the extracted doll, the abandoned shack, grunge overlay, a vignette created with watercolor brushes, and a 50% grey dodge and burn layer (with a spray of white behind Lucius to set him apart from the background) set to overlay.
Jane Davenport has a saying in her mixed media classes: “Trust the mess.” Art always has an Ugly Phase. The key is to push through that phase through experimentation and curiosity to try something new.
Looking over the conceptual images, I am enjoying how my photography and Photoshops skills have evolved. Planning Takashima and creating images specifically for the story has taken my skills to the next level. Converting the story to black and white made all the difference.
When I started this project, a 5 layer image would have taken at least 4 hours of work. Now that the composite backgrounds are done plus the doll extraction action I created, means I put together a 5 layer composite in less than 30 minutes. The story looks as I imagine it.
Everything has finally come together: my skills match my vision and I have the tools to create a graphic novel. All that is left to do is keep plugging away until it’s done.
I been working on Takashima for 2 years. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve hit so many walls. Just when I hit my creative stride, the weekend is over and I have to go back to my regular full-time job.
Although I initially resisted applying my EA skills to this project, thinking it would scare off my creative muse, the structure freed up brain space to create and develop a new editorial calendar that I can stick to.
I have a plan. Plans can change and have changed and I’m ok with that. I have faith that I will work through everything. I’m inspired to see this project through to the end and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.