Howard Wong is a writer, who actively works in the animation, videogame, toy and comic industries. He has been nominated for a Joe Shuster Award - Outstanding Canadian Comic Book Writer - and received numerous accolades for his work including After the Cape (Image Comics).
This is the second of a three-part article where Howard shares his insights on writing and storytelling through years of experience collaborating with artists, editors and producers.
If you missed the first part of the article, you can read up on it here, A Writer's Perspective.
Conquering Creative Challenges By Howard Wong
When I last left you, I talked about the importance in understanding what you contribute and how it affects your ability to tell a strong story. What happens if you want to do something in a medium you never tried before? How do you approach it? What do you do if you can't figure it out? How do you convince others that you can do it?
The dynamic challenges you face in creative industries can feel daunting and may hinder you from creating. Sometimes all you need to do is look for a solution that bridges the problems you're facing by looking at things differently.
A recent problem became a very interesting experiment in sequential storytelling with someone not familiar with the comic book medium.
Justice Wong is an artist I met while working on an animated film project. He's a terrific digital character and environment concept artist who works in animation, video games and trading card games. He knew nothing about North American comics. After talking about doing a comic together, I shared what I knew about the art side of things through my comics. I explained how the different elements came together as a whole using my core books I've read countless times and continue to draw things from: Will Eisner's Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, Comics and Sequential Art and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. I also directed him to the most used (and for good reason) cheat sheet for making talking heads look exciting, Wally Wood 22 Panels That Always Work. Even if you don't think you would like to get into making comics books, I suggest that you pick up these books for their wealth of knowledge in how to construct powerful visual storytelling narratives.
We were well on our way to many, many false starts. The hurdle for him was panel layouts, which I even tried to help by roughing them out for him. He just couldn't wrap his mind around that aspect in sequential storytelling. Though he thought it was over, I just couldn't let it go. Here's this talented young artist, whose digital art style was just screaming to tell a story.
The epiphany came to me while watching TV - "Along the River During the Qingming Festival". A famous Chinese scroll painting was being recreated into a living panoramic painting for the 2010 World Expo. It told many stories all on one long scroll - without panel layouts. If Justice couldn't wrap his mind around panel layouts, why use them? Could we tell a sequential story in a long scroll format? There was only one way to find out: dive head in and see what happens.
You shouldn't shy away from new challenges. Instead be daring and face them. We took ideas and techniques from different narrative mediums that we were familiar with and threw them into the creative blender. We looked at storyboards, oil paintings and comics. We went back and forth, figuring things out as we went along.
We needed to capture the pinnacle of each scene since we had no build up from sequential panels to do so. I went to film as inspiration for a way to show transitions between scenes. You've probably seen in movies where they use one continuous shot of a character walking from one environment into another, or along a street while all the seasons change. I sketched layouts showing how I thought we could mimic the film transitions, showing one environment slowly changed into the next scene's environment. Justice loved the idea and built on them, layering scenes with images that help drive the visual emotional aspects and themes of the story.
You gain perspectives outside of the one you're working in by drawing upon different media when creating. Though we thought out of the box, I wouldn't say we reinvented the wheel. We took parts of mediums we understood and applied them differently than the norm.
It was challenging and exciting, frustrating and rewarding, and in the end we found a way to tell a story through our collective knowledge. When you have the freedom to break rules, you have the chance to accomplish something you might not thought possible.
I mentioned that taking a risk gives you the opportunity to gain experience through your trial and errors. Your experiences mix into what becomes your knowledge that will guide your decisions and help with problem solving situations you encounter.
Thinking out of the box seems a natural course to take when you work in creative industries, but the opportunity to do so isn't as abundant as you may think. There are parameters to follow so that your project satisfies the conditions to be successfully accepted in the market. With that said, what if you had to stay in the sandbox and think in the box? Can you still be creative playing by the rules?
As a writer in video games you find yourself often in this situation. You're doing a balancing act between what is already there and adding new content that furthers the gamer's experience. You can't ignore or drastically change what's already there, since you'll end up alienating players who have connected with the established content. Yet if you simply rehash things gamers lose interest and you'll lose them. It goes without saying that isn't a good thing.
I've walked that fine line as an English localizer on a massive multiplayer online game in China. In a role like this, it's seldom that you only have to translate the content. You usually end up creating new content like non-playable character banter, item descriptions, character dialogue, and quest details. It's to deal with content inconsistencies I find when auditing content, as well as the nonuniversual cultural differences that make the game inaccessible for English speaking players.
For artists, it's pretty much the same dance. You find visual inconsistencies, which results in making changes to what you're asked to originally do. The mindset I have is to refine and enhance what's there, add what's needed and not to automatically take a hatchet to it all. You strive towards making subtle accessible changes that resonate with and move the gamer's experience forward.
There's no question that you're going to edited, which you'll have no control over the end results of. And you're restricted with the predetermined characters, situations, animated cut scenes, etc. that were all created with little thought of a story or even a theme to tie it all together. To top it off, you're usually on an impossible deadline.
I go into this by figuring out how to gravitate all the elements I'm given and make it all work in a cohesive manner. You create relationships and situations that connect everything through the content you're building. Try to give purpose to what the characters do and why things look a certain way in the game.
I found that working to solve such situations is a lot like building with Lego bricks. After learning how to build sets, you gain knowledge of building techniques that you can now use to free build things from your imagination. So, even if you were building a set with missing pieces, you could figure how to replace them with pieces from your assorted Lego brick bin.
So many of us race towards reinventing the wheel for the sake of doing so, but sometimes you just need to look at what's in front of you to find what you need. When you understand the structures and purpose in building something, you're able to see and discover solutions that may only require you to use the wheel in a different way. Think of the potential in having a team thinking this way; people from different disciplines providing a variety of paths to take the project to fruition. It's creativity perpetuating creativity. This is why I love working with people from different backgrounds.
Creativity empowers our resiliency and versatility to problem solving, and perspective in the potential of the world that's in front of us. It gives us the ability to see hidden possibilities and opportunities, as well as alternative ways to act upon them.
Using creativity to see and seek opportunities is something I'll talk about in my next article. As well, I'll take some time to talk about contracts, intellectual property and other dirty bits you'll encounter when you create something and put it out there.
Until then, do something creatively different.
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