This blog describes my journey exploring storytelling - words, images and the sensations they generate. The lot, basically.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Story Learnings: Plot #3 - The Quest

Continuing my way through Christopher Booker's excellent tome on storytelling The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories, we have reached the third of the seven master plots (You can find my post on the first master plot, Overcoming the Monster as well as an introduction to The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Storieshere, and the second master plot, Rags to Riches, here.):

The Quest

Far away there is some priceless treasure, worth any effort to achieve. When the hero learns about this, the need to set out on the long and hazardous journey to reach this, becomes the most important thing in his life. Whatever perils and trials are in the hero's way, he must go on until this objective has been triumphantly secured. These are the stories we call The Quest and they follow these five stages:

1. The 'Call'
We meet our hero as he finds that life in some way has become intolerable. The mood is one of urgent compulsion. Something has gone terrifyingly wrong. In the midst of all this comes the 'Call'. The hero realises that he can only rectify matters by making a long and difficult journey. Even though the hero and his friends feel under intense compulsion to depart, they often have to face every kind of discouragement and opposition before they can set out.

2. The Journey
The hero and his companions set out. Their journey follows the classical storytelling rhythm of constriction and expansion; tension and release. They go through a succession of terrible, and often near-fatal ordeals, interspersed with periods of respite where they can regain their strength.

The opposition comes in two main flavours. Actually, that should be three, because in stories of The Quest variation, the acutely hostile terrain is almost an obstacle in itself; It will be wild, alien and unfriendly. The other two, more specific obstacles are: Monsters and temptations. 

The monsters follows the archetypical description of monsters from the Overcoming the Monster plot. The Temptation, on the other hand, is usually centred around a promise of some physical gratification, which stands in stark contrast to the hard nature of the task the hero has been set. Underneath the surface, the Temptation have much in common with the Monsters, except that the latter uses direct confrontation and the former uses guile and seduction to lure the hero to his doom. If the temptations are mastered or overruled in some way, they may completely change nature and their relationship with the hero, and become useful allies.

Each encounter ends with a thrilling escape. Ordeals alternate with periods of respite. Along the way the hero and his companions will receive hospitality, help and advice from 'wise old men' or 'beautiful young women'. The hero may have to make part of the journey through the underworld, where spirits from the past will give him guidance.

3. Arrival and Frustration
The hero is now within sight of the goal. However, now on the edge of the goal, a new and terrible series of obstacles surface and must be overcome.

4. The Final Ordeals
Despite the lengthy and perilous journey the hero and his companions have already travelled, they are usually only halfway through the story, when they arrive within sight of the goal. The hero has to undergo a last series of tests (often 3) to prove that he is worthy of the prize. The story culminates in a last great battle or ordeal, which may be the most threatening of all the many ordeals the hero has been through so far.

5. The Goal
After a last 'thrilling escape from death', the life transforming treasure is finally won: A final coming together of man and woman, or the establishing of a kingdom; The hero now has an assurance of renewed life stretching indefinitely into the future - or 'he lived happily ever after'.

The companions of the hero is a distinctive mark of The Quest. They come in four different varieties:

  1. Simply a large number of unnamed people. For example the main body of Jews accompanying Moses in the exodus from Egypt.
  2. An alter-ego with no particular distinguishing marks except loyalty and fidelity. Frodo in Lord of the Rings has the loyal Samwise Gamgee.
  3. An alter-ego with opposite qualities of the hero. Think of King Lear and the Fool, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
  4. A group of people, each with distinct qualities which together forms a 'whole'. In King Solomon's Mines the leader and hero Allan Quartermain is accompanied by the strong Sir Henry Curtis, the rational Captain Good and the intuitive and mysterious Umbopa.

The Helpers
In addition to the companions and all the negative figures the hero meets on his journey, he also encounter some very different figures - helpers. The helpers will offer him positive assistance such as periods of respite or perhaps crucial guidance. Among the helpers two very important figures predominate: The benevolent wise old man and the beautiful young (or mysteriously ageless) woman. In the story of The Quest, their roles are not so much to intervene, but to act as guides, drawing on unusual knowledge and wisdom. In Lord of the Rings we have for example the omniscient old wizard Gandalf and his ally the beautiful, ethereal queen Galadriel.

Some of the most celebrated stories in the world are quests: Just think of Homer's Odyssey, Dante's Divine Comedy, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Steven Spielberg's Raiders of The Lost Ark.

Of the other well-known examples we find: Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines, Watership Down, Around the World in 80 Days, King Arthur's Quest for the Holy Grail, Jason and the Golden Fleece, The Firebird from Slav folk stories, Virgil's Aeneid and many others.

Further variations
From time to time we also see The Quest plot crossed with the Overcoming the Monster the monster plot. Particularly in stories inspired by the Second World War: The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, The Heroes of Telemark, The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story and others.

A dark version of The Quest is Heman Melville's Moby Dick. Here the central figure, Captain Ahab, sets out in an obsessive quest across the oceans to find the almost supernatural white whale. Ahab looks on Moby Dick as a prize of infinite value, worth any sacrifice to seek out. The whale is clearly a symbol for the essence of life. But there is nothing life-enhancing about the way Ahab seeks it. He is only out to destroy it at all costs. Of course such a story can only end in disaster.

The next of the seven basic plots is also based on a journey, although quite different from The Quest. It has inspired some of the most haunting and mysterious tales ever told. We'll look at Voyage and Return next.

Questions and comments are welcome.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Story Learnings: Plot #2 - Rags to Riches

Continuing my way through Christopher Booker's excellent tome on storytelling The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories, we have reached the second of the seven master plots (You can find my post on the first master plot, Overcoming the Monster, and an introduction to The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories, here.):

Rags to Riches

This is clearly a type of story, which appeals immensely to the human psyche. Think of the massive inclination to root for underdogs and the wishful feelings people have, wanting to trade places with celebrities. As the title indicates this is a plot where the hero starts out ordinary, insignificant and unappreciated, but then suddenly steps to the centre of the stage, and is revealed to be someone quite exceptional. The Rags to Riches plot usually follows these 5 stages:

1. Initial Wretchedness at Home and the 'Call'
We are introduced to our hero, or heroine, in a lowly and unhappy state at home. The hero is usually young in age, or has not yet ventured out in the world. Obviously this is a plot, which is concerned with the process of growing up. The hero starts the journey of a human being from unformed childhood and needs to reach the state of complete personal maturity.

To start with, the hero is overshadowed by malevolent dark figures, which come in two distinct varieties: Adults acting in the place of a parent or figures closers to the hero's age and status (evil stepsisters, for example). Something happens to either call or send the hero out into the world.

2. Out into the World with Initial Success
The hero is now out in the world away from the original home, or starting point. New ordeals await, but these are also rewarded with the first limited success, which is also a prevision of the eventual glory, which the hero will find. The hero is thus lifted out of his original state of misery. However at this point the hero is not ready yet for the complete fulfilment.

3. The Central Crisis
Everything suddenly goes wrong. The shadows of dark figures return. The hero is separated from his greatest treasure/friend/love. The hero is overwhelmed with despair at this. Because of the earlier lift in the hero's fortunes and because the hero is so powerless, this is the absolute low point of the story, where it all seems lost again.

4. Independence and the Final Ordeal
The hero gradually emerges from the crisis and is shown in a new light. The hero discovers in himself a new independent strength. This new strength is put to the final test, against a dark and powerful figure, which stands between the hero and his final goal. This dark figure is characterised by egocentricity and incapacity for true, selfless love. Basically the same characteristics as the monster from the Overcoming the Monster plot

5. Final Union, Completion and Fulfilment
The hero is rewarded with a complete, loving union. The hero succeeds to a "kingdom"; a domain over which they will rule wisely and well. By the end of the story no one ever doubts that the originally derided and humble little hero should be worthy of their final glorious destiny, however improbable it looked at the beginning, since they have along the way revealed such admirable qualities which show their true inner worth. And thus the hero has deserved that mysterious central goal in storytelling, where everything at last is perfect and complete.

The Dark Version
The Rags to Riches plot can also be told in a 'dark' variation. The hero will attempt to do the same climb from rags to riches, but in some ways fails to reach the fully rewarding conclusion. The heroes in these stories are not the selfless and goodhearted ones we are used to. In fact they react to any kind of opposition with egotism. Instead of being the victim, it is their surroundings who fall victim to the hero's actions. Although the ultimate symbolic goal of the hero is remarkably similar to the original Rags to Riches plot, the hero in the dark version really is a monster. His ambition is only a means to egotistical gratification and a desire to dominate others. Of course the attempts to reach such a goal will always be frustrated, and surely it brings about his complete destruction.

This plot is very richly represented in stories through the ages and continues to be very popular. Just think of the Hollywood cliché moment where the ever handsome hero removes the spectacles from the plain girl, lets down her hair and gazes at her in awe, "... but you are beautiful!" 

Of the more well-known examples we find: My Fair Lady, Superman (and similar heroes, who go from weedy bespectacled kids to all-powerful superhero), the biblical story of Joseph, Cinderella, Aladdin, Puss in Boots, David Copperfield, The Ugly Duckling, Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, Jane Eyre, Moll Flanders, Great Expectations and many, many more.

The next of the seven basic plots is instantly recognizable, and even more so than any of the other six plots. We'll look at The Quest next.

Questions and comments are welcome.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Story Learnings: Plot #1 - Overcoming the Monster

I am trawling my way through Chris Booker's excellent tome on storytelling The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories. Booker has basically over a life-time gone through the massive mountain of storytelling from the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh to present day James Bond movies, comparing and cross referencing as he went along, until he managed to successfully distil the sum total of man's prolific storytelling through the ages into no more than 7 basic, but distinct plots. Obviously there are very interesting psychological reasons why these essentially same stories have occurred since the beginning of man's history. It is also very interesting and worthwhile to storytellers to note what happens, when you try to bend or disregard the rules governing storytelling, as you end up with a product sadly lacking in impact and satisfaction.

The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories weighs in at a hefty 700+ pages. Even so I am amazed at how there is absolutely no fluff or empty space in this gigantic work. As I am working my way through this huge treasure trove of storytelling insights, I will summarize my findings, or rather Christopher Booker's findings as told to me.

Without further ado, let me introduce you to the first plot of the seven master plots:

Overcoming the Monster

This is a type of story, which the human imagination is particularly fond of forming. As the title indicates this is a story in which a hero is called to face and overcome a terrible and deadly personification of evil. The story is usually presented as a long build-up to the final confrontation between the monster and the hero, and it will usually follow these 5 stages:

1. Anticipation Stage and 'Call'
At first we see the monster, or become aware of it, from a great distance. We gradually learn of its fearsome power and reputation, and how it is casting a threatening shadow over the community. The hero then experiences a 'Call' to confront it.

2. Dream Stage
The hero is now making preparations for battle. For a while things seem to be going reasonably well. The audience still feel comfortably remote from and immune to the danger presented by the monster.

3. Frustration Stage
We finally find ourselves face to face with the monster in all its awesome power. The hero now feels small and alone. He is slipping into the monster's power, and there seems to be only one possible outcome - the death of the hero.

4. Nightmare Stage
The final battle between the monster and the hero, where the odds are massively stacked in favour of the monster. And just at the climax, when all seems lost, comes the reversal.

5. The Thrilling Escape from Death, and Death of the Monster
In the nick of time, the monster is miraculously dealt a fatal blow. This is a moment of fundamental significance to storytelling. In fact, 'the thrilling escape from death' is one of the most consistent motifs in storytelling. The community is then liberated and our hero emerges to enjoy the prize: Usually some kind of treasure, a princess or a kingdom.

The Monster
The monster is characterised by being heartless, egocentric (as opposed to the hero, who is selfless in his deed of risking his life for greater good or the community) and seemingly omnipotent. However the monster usually has a blind spot (often tied to its egocentricity), which renders it vulnerable. 

The monster will have three distinct roles playing through the progression of the story: First an active role as a predator looking for victims; Secondly a passive role as holdfast, where it will sit in its lair jealously guarding its "treasure"; Thirdly the monster takes the role of avenger, lashing out viciously, when its guardianship is challenged.

Constriction and Release
As with all stories, the overcoming the monster plot, follows the general rhythm of tension and release in successively greater amounts leading up to the climax and final resolution; In a story well-constructed, these phases of tension and release alternate, in a rhythm like the heart beat of a story, which provides one of the greatest pleasures we get from stories.

At the climax of the story, we feel the final surge of liberation; and as it fades, we are left with the warming knowledge that the hero has now won a much deeper hold on life, which will last indefinitely into the future - or as the saying goes 'live happily ever after'...

Needless to say, this very straightforward plot has been used countless times in genres of all kinds: 

Melodrama (Nicholas Nickleby); war stories (The Battle of Britain, The Sinking of the Bismarck, The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, The Guns of Navarone etc.); the Hollywood western (The Magnificent Seven - and its inspiration The Seven Samurai, High Noon etc.); thrillers (King Kong, The Three Musketeers, The Final Problem, The Thirty Nine Steps, all James Bond stories etc.); science fiction (War of the Worlds, The Day of the Triffids, Star Wars); disaster movies (The Towering Inferno, Airport etc.); Gothic horror (Dracula, Canon Alberic's Scrap Book, Frankenstein, The Castle of Otranto etc.); myth (St. George and the Dragon, David and Goliath, Perseus and Andromeda, Beowulf, Theseus and the Minotaur, Oedipus and the Sphinx, Jack and the Beanstalk, Epic of Gilgamesh etc.) and many, many others.

The next of the seven basic plots also appeals massively to the human psyche; We'll look at Rags to Riches next.

Questions and comments are welcome.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tutorial: How to Paint Textures the World of Warcraft Way

During the course of the thesis project of my bachelor study at University of Teesside, I experimented with putting together a World of Warcraft style outdoors environment.

Over the course of this project I developed a particular methodology for painting my textures. This ensured both a fairly consistent output, but also helped as a paint-by-numbers backbone when I was stuck on a particular task, or uncertain about how to begin it. Once all these guidelines had been checked off, I would have a product, which was so near completion that it would be easy to make out which parts were still missing. Or as Rembrandt so wisely said, "start with what is known to you, and what is unknown will be revealed."

Though this is all the way back from 2004, perhaps it might help a few people out there.

So here we are in Photoshop looking at how to organise our layers and progress them logically till we have the desired look:

My first layer in Photoshop is a sketch layer. 

1.1 The sketch layer (left) for a grass texture, along with the final texture (right)
With quick and simple brush strokes I lay down a rough design for the texture. The sketch layer will not be seen in the final texture at all, so precision is not paramount. It is more about trying to lock down the composition and placement of the different elements. Also it is a subconscious warm-up for the artist, where you can doodle your way into the world of the material you are about to create. Depending on the type of texture and the projection and UVW coordinates, it is a good idea to save often, and then load up the object in 3D space with the unfinished texture mapped on. This gives the artist a chance to make sure the different parts of the texture is placed correctly before too much work would have to be redone or edited. 

For textures where a solid template has been extracted from the geometry, you often don’t need a sketch layer, if the UV template is self-explanatory. Here the template layer serves as its replacement to offer the proportions and shapes of the final texture. 
1.2 Templates laid out on the canvas
After the sketch layer, it is time to lay down the major colour values. For that I will create a base colour layer for each of the separate objects or fields featured in the texture. In turn each object or section will be organised in separate layer sets, appropriately named for ease of navigation as well as organisation of screen real estate. On the base colour layer a fairly accurate estimate of the materials average surface colour will be painted in with a decent amount of precision. 

Following on from the base colours, the details will be painted in, in a similar fashion, on a layer above the base colour layer. The main objective here is to lock down their shape and general colour. 
1.3 Base colours blocked out
Once we have these, the most prominent colour values painted into the texture, it is time to think about the texture of the surface of the object we are creating a material for. What would it feel like, if we were to run our fingertips over it? Rough or smooth? Is there a particular pattern to the texture of its surface? 

Take polished wood from a tabletop for example. There you will have a very smooth surface marked with tiny grooves, which all run more or less parallel, and furthermore form a pattern of elongated rings. Once a suitable texture has been found as a reference photo or painted from scratch, I will usually set this layer’s blend mode as either multiply or hard light with around two thirds worth of opacity and fill. This will allow the texture layer to mesh nicely with the colours of the base and detail layers, as it increases the contrast between brightness and darkness of the colours below in the pattern of the surface texture.
1.4 Patterns added to the texture
The next layers I work into the stack are some I personally refer to as my curvature or dimensionality layers. What I want to add to the image now, is the illusions of depth. 

try to illustrate the curvature of the surface by creating a light and a dark curvature layer. The first one is the “curvature dark” layer where I, with a loose hand, will paint broad and slightly transparent lines of dark and desaturated purple. Usually the brush settings are not more than 20% opacity, to make sure that I can build up the effect I want in an organic way, by painting over and over till the desired colour depth is established. The idea is to make the parts of the surface that are the farthest away from the viewer the darkest, and vice versa. I do the same with “curvature light” layer, which I place on top of the “curvature dark” layer. Here I use the light yellow to illustrate where the surface of the material protrudes out towards the viewer. 

These two layers will then be taken through the Gaussian blur filter in Photoshop to smooth them out, and make sure the painting is not too conspicuous. Furthermore I lower the opacity to no more than 50% and might even take off a bit of the fill rate too. For the dark layer I usually use the multiply blend mode, and for the light layer, I use the lighten or soft light blend modes. 
1.5 Dimensionality layers in effect
Already now, after these few crude operations we have a decent texture quickly emerging. It has an illusion of dimension and depth. It has an illusion of a surface texture native to the material we are trying to describe visually. It has a good estimate of the correct surface colour. There are still a lot more that can and needs to be done, but after these few fundamental manoeuvres we are well on our way. 

A good technique is to make sure your edges are marked out. Corners which points away from the viewer and other crevasses in the texture, I line with a dark colour, typically dark purple, on a low opacity layer with multiply blend mode. Corners which points to the viewer or edges where the material portrayed ends, I line with a light colour, like light yellow, on a similar low opacity layer with a fitting blend mode. That can be anything from colour dodge to overlay, depending on the situation. The illusion that we are trying to create here is, that at the very least, tiny amounts of dirt will gather in grooves and corners, which will obscure and darken the colour underneath substantially. Likewise protruding edges have a tendency to reflect light in a different fashion than the flat surfaces adjacent to them. This we are trying to illustrate with the lightening effect. Both layers will need to be slightly blurred with the Gaussian blur filter. 

Apart from illustrating changes in local colour from additional wear on edges protruding out and collection of dirt and dust in corners and crevasses, this step is also a bit of cheap and dirty ambient occlusion, where we are painting a touch of lighting information into the texture.
1.6 Edges and corners painted in
If the texture we are painting is for an object that resides outdoors, it needs to show the effects of weathering, or if it is placed by windows where sunlight will regularly bleach the surface, it will need a similar effect. For that we need to desaturate the colours where sun, wind and rain have washed them out. For this we paint with a light grey where we want the desaturated effect. Again the brush needs to be very transparent, around 20% or so, and I find that broad strokes work well for this effect. Generally in texture work, textures will need to be far more desaturated than you think at first, in order to achieve a realistic look. But since this is the highly stylized look of World of Warcraft, we don't need to go to those lengths.

When I am happy with the areas covered I change the blend mode to colour dodge and lower the opacity to around 70% to brighten up the area. Then I copy the layer and change the blend mode of the new layer (sitting on top of the old) to saturation. And the weather-worn effect is finished. 

Another effect of being left outside could be long-term exposure to moisture, which will leave green algae or lichen on the material. Such effects I usually conjure up with a noise filter, and then setting my blend mode to soft light and reducing the opacity with a good 20 percent. 
1.7 Residue of green algae added to the bottom of the bucket
Most any material, which has not just left the factory line, will have scratches, cuts and wear of different kind. So we analyse the material we are portraying, and make out where scratches and tears would gather with normal use. These I usually paint with a dark thin brush. I will then add the layer style outer glow to them, and use the default light yellow glow in overlay blend mode. To use a lighter outer glow, gives the lines a subtle addition of contrast, so they will stand out more. Furthermore the light edges on them will simulate the same effect we did when adding light edges to the corners that are protruding. Then I select the contents of the layer with the surface texture and delete that selection from the scratches layer. This lets the scratches be embedded into the surface, by following the closely the texture of the surface. 

1.8 Leather shield without scratches (left) and with scratches (right)
If the texture has areas with paint, enamel or other materials covering the surface, you need to make sure that the scratches will be etched into the paint. So I select the outline of the scratches and the wear and tear and delete that selection of the paint layer. After that, it can, in many cases, be beneficial to add a bevel and emboss layer style to the paint layer. Just a few pixel thick it will give the illusion of dimension in the paint layer; that the paint is actually added on top of the base surface, instead of it being assimilated completely into the material underneath.

1.9 Painted leather shield with scratches etched into the paint
Where the material has overlapping objects or other things that will cast a shadow on the surface beneath it, we paint lines of dark purple with a soft edged brush. It is a good practise to build up the wanted result layer by layer, by setting the opacity of the brush as low as 20-30%, and then keep painting over and over and over again, until the desired result is there. This allows for a free and painterly style of working, where you leave room for “happy mistakes.” Then the layer is blurred with the Gaussian blur filter, and finally the blend mode changed to multiply and the layer’s opacity lowered to around 30-40%.

1.10 Shadow cast by the rope is added
One of the last things left to do now, is to paint highlights with a light shade of colour, usually a light yellow in this colour scheme. The highlights go where light will bounce off the material; where the material is shiny and smooth; and where the materials protrude out towards the viewer. This is done with a brush of a fairly low opacity, around 20-35%, and then blurred with the Gaussian blur filter afterwards. I set the blend mode to screen and lower the opacity and fill rates to around 60%. 

As the texture is almost finished, I like to go back to my base colour layers and pick out two or three shades of colour analogue to the base colour underneath. These I paint on separate layers in a quick and semi-random fashion with a soft edged brush with no more than 15% opacity. The blend mode stays as normal. This is used to give the colours underneath a more crisp and lively feel. The last thing you want is a flat and completely uniform field of colour, even if that is what you are aiming for. This sounds contradicting, but even if a face of colour is perceived as being uniform, there will always be subtle variations, without which it would not be perceived as real or normal looking. Furthermore with an understanding for colour theory, the base colours can be enhanced immeasurably this way. Take a green for instance, put a light yellow on one side of it, and a purple on the other, and it will spring to life and appear much more crisp and sparkling. 

1.11 On the left the wall is without analogue colour differences, on the right it has the differences painted in

Lastly I want to make sure that no surface, detail or anything else is too uniformly coloured. So my topmost layer consists of very subtle colour noise. This is made by using the filter render clouds on an empty layer with the default setting of white and black for foreground and background colours. Then I switch to the channels palette where I will repeat the same filter in each of the red, green and blue channels. This secures a random distribution of red, green and blue, which will show as a harlequin kind of pattern on that layer. I change the blend mode to soft light and decrease opacity and fill down to at least 40. In some instances you need to go as low as ten. This makes sure that a random pattern of the RGB colour hues is softly changing the underlying colours to break up overtly monotone fields of colour. 

1.12 A colour noise pattern
Notice that one of the absolutely crucial effects needed to conjure forth a realistic texture, dirt, is seldom needed in a cartoony texture. Normally you would use a dirt layer messing up the hitherto so tidy material, typically with a multiply blend mode. But that effectively ruins most stylised looks. 

At this point I have a decent texture, which oftentimes only needs minor tweaking. In the worst cases the details or changes needed, will be apparent at this stage. If the texture includes ornamentation or other decorative details, they can easily be added now, on top of a very believable surface, which will constantly remind you of its make and condition. 

1.13 The finished texture

1.14 The finished texture applied to geometry and rendered out