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Roadkill on the Information Highway

With the federal election on in Canada, I’ve been getting a number of emails asking me why I haven’t brought back ‘Beaver Fever,’ the Flash animation I did for five months a couple of years ago. If you’re not familiar with this, check out this blog entry from February or take a look at the Big Plans website, still up and running with all of the old cartoons.

I had the pleasure of watching a feature report on CBC Newsworld this weekend regarding the latest election animation from JibJab, arguably the best political animated satire on the web. When I was trying to flog Beaver Fever, I’d often get editors that wanted to know if I could do a Canadian version of JibJab’s ‘This Land’ every week. It got so that I hated the words ‘JibJab,’ even though I loved their work.

One of the reasons you aren’t seeing more editorial cartoonists advancing into Flash animation is that many editors and publishers think that it’s not only easy, but that it can be done in a very short time. Not only that, they assume that the cost will be comparable to editorial cartoons done for print. There is something in engineering called the ‘Project Triangle’ that I’ve heard applied to art projects as well. Here’s how it works…

From Wikipedia entry
You are given the options of Fast, Good and Cheap, and told to pick any two. Here Fast refers to the time required to deliver the product, Good is the quality of the final product, and Cheap refers to the total cost of designing and building the product. This triangle reflects the fact that the three properties of a project are interrelated, and it is not possible to optimise all three – one will always suffer. In other words you have three options:

  • Design something quickly and to a high standard, but then it will not be cheap.
  • Design something quickly and cheaply, but it will not be of high quality.
  • Design something with high quality and cheaply, but it will take a long time.

The interview that I saw with JibJab founders, Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, is something every editor should see, especially if they’re contemplating jazzing up their website with editorial cartoon animation. The current JibJab phenomenon, “Time For Some Campaignin’.” took 40 animators and writers several months to complete.

The Spiridellis brothers freely admit that the political animation they are most famous for, did not pay any bills, but it did make them a household name, lending credibility to their other animation and commercial projects. When “This Land” was around, it was unique, largely because YouTube did not exist. These days, everyone and their dog can create a satirical political video, posting it online for all to see and hear. Most of it is bad, some of it is good, but all of it is free. Their next video not only had to generate income, it also had to be better than anything else available on the web. I think most would agree that they hit their mark. Frankly, it’s brilliant, and they continue to set the standard of animated political satire.

I have no desire to be a poor imitation of JibJab.

While I did enjoy developing the character of Tim Castor, Beaver Fever quickly became work that I couldn’t wait to be finished with each week. Print editorial cartoons were paying the bills and the quality suffered greatly as did the animation. It got so that I wasn’t producing any good work at all, at least nothing I was pleased with. I took shortcuts wherever possible, creating images for the print cartoons that I would incorporate into the animation to save time. I was working long hours every single day, had no free time and worst of all, I wasn’t having any fun. Something had to give and since I couldn’t find enough sites to pay for Beaver Fever and it got to the point that I hated doing it, the choice wasn’t difficult.

I highly doubt I’ll do anymore Flash animation at all. I don’t regret the experience, but I have no plans of repeating it. That being said, I learned long ago to never say never. What I can say is that the likelihood of those stars ever aligning is incredibly remote.

How long I keep that site up remains to be seen. Since I still have big plans for the future, I’ll keep the domain name, but don’t expect it to involve Beaver Fever.

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Elizabeth May in Jeopardy?

Elizabeth May is the Green Party Leader in Canada. Recently she was told she wasn’t allowed into the televised Leaders’ Debate. Public pressure forced the television consortium to change their tune and she’s now going to debate. How she’ll perform remains to be seen. While its unlikely she’ll get seats, many Canadians just feel that she has a right to be heard. The problem is that even though she’s a very good public speaker, and the Green Party has a lot to say, they’re only known for the one issue. Whether or not she’ll hold her own when the other leaders challenge her on other issues facing Canada, remains to be seen. If nothing else, I think this may actually add viewers to the debate and change the dynamic for the better.

Since I never want this to become a political blog, I’ll stop there. I’m posting this for the caricature, not for the editorial content. Just for interest, I’ve included the initial painted ‘sketches’ from very rough to almost finished.

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Art Thou An Artist?

Constructive criticism is a great thing. I’ve received some excellent advice and help from artists who have genuinely wanted to see me improve. When you meet those wonderful people (and there are a lot of them), be grateful and thank them. I can’t count how many times my work and career has been helped by tips and tricks from artists who are better than me.

Then there is the other kind of criticism.

Most artists who work on a computer inevitably experience the pretentious ‘traditional artist’ who jumps at the first opportunity to explain how digital art isn’t really art because the computer is doing all of the work. I must admit, there are days when I wish that were true.

Many creative types are insecure by nature, and feel the need to criticize the work of other creative types. I recently showed Jason Seiler’s caricature book to some artists and it took less than a minute for an argument to begin over whether or not he was using and manipulating photos to get his distinctive caricature look. Even though I explained that I’ve seen his process, start to finish, and that I know he doesn’t use photographs (other than for reference), I wasn’t believed. A few years ago, I would have argued until I was blue in the face. These days, I don’t see the point, so I just let it go.

Other common criticism…I’ve been told more than once that I’m not a real artist because I sell my work. Seems that if you’re not struggling and suffering for your art, then you’re a sellout. I’ve also been asked on numerous occasions where I went to art school and have been met with obvious derision when I explained that I didn’t. My lack of a massive student loan has somehow affected my credibility.

Anyone doing this for a living (Sellout!) needs to develop very thick skin or learn to ignore destructive criticism. If you don’t, you’ll just spend all of your time bitter and angry from constant arguing. I learned that lesson the hard way on an editorial cartoonists’ forum a few years ago. It became a train wreck, and was certainly not one of my prouder moments. I often wonder what would have happened if I’d just kept my mouth shut.

I’ve experimented off and on over the years with incorporating 3D elements into my editorial cartoons. The reason for this is practicality more than anything else. Today’s cartoon was created in 3D and Photoshop. I knew what I wanted the object to look like, so rather than draw it, I just decided to build it.

Construction in Hexagon

While I could have done this by establishing 3 point perspective and drawing it traditionally, this just seemed a better idea, because I wasn’t sure of my composition. In 3D, I can just move the object, adjust the lighting, the material, and the camera angle, all quite easily.

Scene, Lighting and Rendering in Carrara

After that, I simply exported it to Photoshop, added the appropriate logos, and messed about with painting texture.

Import to Photoshop from Carrara

Texturing and Final Render in Photoshop

This didn’t really save me any time. It was simply a different way to produce the image in my head. Does this mean I’ll be using 3D in future editorial cartoons? Absolutely. Does it mean I’ll be using 3D in EVERY future editorial cartoon? Certainly not. It’s just another set of tools in the toolbox.

Bottom line…if you want to be an artist, don’t worry about the title. Just be creative. Try new things and experiment with new media, and old media for that matter. Happy accidents and fantastic failures will lead to great successes. There are so many ways to be expressive that it seems a waste not to explore them.

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Stephen Harper Caricature

Now that I’m free of planning the Cartoonists’ Convention, I find I’m once again motivated to continue improving my work. I’ve got a number of projects on the go, some for clients, others for myself and I find that I’m quite inspired.

Because of the short deadlines required for editorial cartoons, I haven’t put as many caricatures into them as I’ve wanted to, primarily because of the time it takes to paint them without sacrificing quality. This caricature was an exercise in speeding up my process by cutting a few corners, and refraining from painting any real detail until later in the painting.

A caricature sketch will usually take me a couple of hours, largely because I enjoy sketching and I don’t like rushing it. I’ll then scan the sketch into the computer and begin painting. Since this exercise was about speed, I decided to skip the sketch completely and started with a big brush and a blank screen in Photoshop. I painted this first rough in about a half hour.

Originally, I had planned to have him standing at a podium, hence the line across his midsection, but I decided that it wasn’t necessary and simply scaled the image so that line became the bottom of the image. This next image is about 2 or 3 hours in, roughly halfway.

Looks like Canada should be into a federal election next week as a result of Prime Minister Stephen Harper going back on his word again. A politician breaking a promise…what a shocker!

Here’s the final cartoon. The talk bubble refers to the fact that when Harper’s Conservative minority was elected into office last time, after years of Liberal Party rule, he constantly referred to it as ‘Canada’s New Government,’ in every press conference and media release. The problem was that he called it NEW for about two years. If he wins a majority this time around, I fully expect him to do it again.

I could have easily spent another four or five hours on this, cleaning it up, refining the likeness and details. If this were for a magazine or a private commission, I certainly would have. But editorial cartoons need to be done as quickly as possible, especially for syndication, so I had to force myself to refrain from hours of nitpicking. I’m surprised that I’m still quite happy with it. An image like this would have taken me 10-12 hours less than 2 years ago. This one took me about 5 hours from start to finish. Since I consider that a reasonable time for an editorial cartoon, I expect to be putting more caricatures into them from now on.

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Wasn’t that a party?

Terry Mosher (Aislin) and myself hamming it up.
Herding kittens…that’s how more than a few people have referred to the arduous task of organizing a bunch of cartoonists. I now know why.

The Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists Convention ended late Saturday night…actually Sunday morning if you want to get technical. It took me a couple of days to recover, not because I drank too much (although I may have on the first night) but because I didn’t sleep the first two nights and was constantly managing details and keeping an eye on the schedule. I can usually sleep anywhere, so insomnia two nights in a row was a foreign experience. Friday night, with a little help from Unisom, I managed to sleep well, which meant that Saturday was much more enjoyable. Those who’ve organized this convention before me seemed to understand exactly what I was going through. It really was a trial by fire, but I did have a great time.

Badeaux, DeAdder and Mosher talk about book publishing.

A number of people arrived on Wednesday afternoon and I was surprised at how easy these folks are to get along with. People I have only talked to on email were greeting me with big smiles and bear hugs. Wasn’t long before Bob Krieger and I had all of the Tree beer picked up from the liquor store downtown (two trips!) and loaded into our hospitality suite, which turned out to be the perfect amount of space for everyone. We basically had a 2 bedroom apartment that everyone flocked to each evening. Krieger (The Vancouver Province) and Bruce MacKinnon (The Halifax Chronicle Herald) brought their guitars and if they ever give up cartooning, they could take that show on the road. A couple of very talented individuals without whom the party would have been greatly diminished. On Saturday night, Bruce played a song he wrote about the trials of editorial cartooning that was nothing short of brilliant. We forced him to play it twice and I dare say that everyone in the room sang along the second time.

L to R: Chapleau, LaMontagne, Powell, Badeaux, Krieger, Cummings & MacKinnon’s Head.

Everyone else arrived on Thursday, and the convention was underway. Dinner that evening led to another night in the hospitality suite and more consumption. We had sessions all day on Friday where I learned that cartoonists can’t be on time for anything, but as Terry Mosher (Aislin of The Gazette) told me the first morning…I just had to get used to it with this group. So I resigned myself to the fact and tried to wing it.

MacKinnon, Krieger, Larter

Daigle (with camera), Badeaux, Peterson, Powell, Dewar

Following the sessions, we took a bus to the Sulphur Mountain Gondola (they all showed up on time!). At what seems like the top of the world, I got to show off why I love living here. Christian Daigle’s brother Eric is a professional photographer, and just happens to live in Banff. He volunteered to be our group photographer.

Most of the cartoonists and guests at the top of Sulphur Mountain. Click to see larger image.

I’m supposed to be getting a CD of the shots this week, but this is a sneak peak, and I believe we just may have got the best group shot of any convention. Unfortunately, a few people stayed behind due to a fear of heights or a pounding head, so a few attendees are missing from the shot.

The Town of Banff from Sulphur Mtn.

The top of Sulphur Mtn.

Ezra Levant turned out to be quite an interesting speaker, and not the reactionary grandstander I had incorrectly assumed he would be. I had the pleasure of dining with him before the speech, I found him to be a likeable, well-informed individual with some excellent and frightening points. Turns out that Canadians looking down on the US for the freedoms they’ve given away to The Department of Homeland Security should take a long hard look at our own Human Rights Commissions. No qualifications, auditors, oversight committees or warrants necessary for these folks. All it takes is an accusation, and you’re guilty until proven innocent. One step removed from Big Brother, and a short step at that.

The hand-off of the caricature

All in all, a wonderful time. Nothing (aside from my lack of sleep) seemed to go wrong and many of the cartoonists took the time to personally thank me and tell me they had a great time. Having never attended a convention prior to this, I did put forth my best effort so I was relieved that everyone enjoyed themselves. Michael DeAdder presented me with a card at the final banquet that all of the cartoonists had signed. A real collector’s item and memento, one I’ll be framing with the group photo for my office.

Prior to the convention, I felt no real connection to this organization I’ve belonged to for a few years, as I’d only met a couple of them. To be honest, I could have taken or left it. After meeting this great group of people in person, however, I’m very much looking forward to the next convention in Hamilton, Ontario in 2010.

Especially since I don’t have to organize it.

New President Graeme MacKay…and host of the next convention.

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Cartoonists Arrive in Banff

This was the last cartoon I had to do before the cartoonists convention. For those who don’t know, the images on the Cascade Mountain (overlooks Banff) are Stephane Dion, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Jack Layton, all leaders of the 3 major political parties in Canada. This cartoon will appear in the local weekly I work for, The Rocky Mountain Outlook, which comes out (coincidentally enough) on Thursday, the day the convention officially starts.

Spent the last four days stopping in to different venues, making phone calls, and confirming details. If anything goes wrong, it won’t be for lack of planning. Should be a great time.

I’ll spend tomorrow refining my lesson plan for my brushes and painting session and then I’m officially incommunicado until next Monday morning. Just bought a Nikon D60 Digital SLR, and this will be the perfect opportunity to take some photos, some of which I’ll be sure to post here.

Until next week, then.

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Ezra Levant Caricature

Ezra Levant

Ezra Levant Closeup

Ezra Levant is a Canadian author, journalist, lawyer and conservative political activist. He is the former publisher of the Western Standard magazine. Borrowed that sentence from the Wikipedia entry on him, because it just about sums it up.

He is most well known recently for republishing those controversial cartoons when he still owned the Western Standard. Yes, THOSE cartoons, the ones the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Denmark first published. The ones about Muhammad. Human rights commission charges ensued as did protests, riots, etc. Lots of people not happy about it.

He is going to be our speaker at the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists’ Final Banquet in Banff next Saturday night. This caricature appeared in the Rocky Mountain Outlook article about the convention. We’ll see what Ezra thinks about it, but like it or not…I’m sure he’d defend my right to paint it.

As with most of my caricatures, I had a lot of fun with this one, and I’m pleased with the result…for now.

Here’s the article in the Rocky Mountain Outlook, if you’d like to take a look.

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The Convention Planner

I apologize for the shortage of new work on here recently. The culprit…I am organizing the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists Convention in Banff, Alberta from August 20-24, as mentioned before on this blog. At last count, the tally is 22 cartoonists and a number of spouses and guests. Should be between 35 and 40 people. The increase in travel expense has kept a few regulars away, but it still promises to be a lot of fun.

I now have a whole new respect for the amount of work my wife did planning our wedding 13 wonderful years ago.

Most of it is finished, but there are a few little details still to be ironed out. I likely won’t relax until everybody is here, or more likely, not until the day after it’s all over. The hardest part of all of this is getting my regular work done at the same time. I spent this past long weekend working on editorial cartoons and a couple of caricatures that I need to get done before the convention. Can’t elaborate or show them to you yet, but I will in the next couple of weeks.

In addition, I need to get 5 or 6 extra cartoons done between now and then to cover the week I’m taking off. One of those challenges that comes with being a freelancer.

For you regular visitors, thanks for your patience, and I’ll have some new work up when I can, hopefully sooner rather than later. But I promise…September is going to make up for August. A lot of very cool projects scheduled for the Fall that I’m looking forward to…

…if the convention doesn’t kill me first.