Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jessie Lam on Digital Art and Neozoic

Completing my collection of Neozoic creators Jessie Lam, Neozoic's colourist, consented to an interview. I tried something new this time and instead of just emailing out my questions, Jessie was nice enough to work with an IM based conversation. There's no real need for further introduction, enjoy!

Gwen: Many comic book fans have no idea how much of a book gets it's look and feel from the colourist - you all are under appreciated.

Jessie: It's a bit of an understatement, but yeah - just wish there was more love for the craft to go around in this business.

Gwen: Well, mostly people just don't realize how much work is put into such things - I'd have no idea if I hadn't wanted to digitally color one of my sketches. It looked so awful that I made a friend (Corey Beahon) teach me the basics - and I still haven't gotten the hang of layers.

Jessie: Ah layers, it's really a matter of personal preference, and one's take on how to organize their workflow. I know one illustrator who averages 300!

Gwen: I use practically no layers as they drive me insane - and yeah, Corey is up there with his layers. Do you have time to talk shop now?

Jessie: Anytime you're ready.

Gwen: Well, to start off with, maybe you could describe what you do in your own words? With so little information about colourists out there it would help to educate our readers. [smile]

Jessie: Hnn. My job is to digitally render the linework I'm given in a manner that suits the visual style and overall story approach. Sometimes I'm given complete liberty of how to go about my job, and sometimes I'm given a few guidelines from the editor. The idea is to try to get it right the first time, and if there are revisions, get them done as quickly as possible. If I'm given the greenlight, I pass it onto the next guy down the line, the letterer.

Gwen: What program do you use?

Jessie: Photoshop 7. I know of colourists who've used Painter, or Photoshop, or both simultaneously.

Gwen: How did you become involved with Neozoic?

Jessie: Paul Ens approached me about colouring Neozoic because J. Korim personally recommended me. Korim and I had previously worked together on a comic as well as other commercial projects on and off. I was still in school at the time, finishing off a Bachelor's of Applied Arts in Animation at Sheridan College. Korim graduated there as well, years before I had. Even gave me his animation disc!

Gwen: I see on your website that you have your own art with your color work as well. Do you prefer collaborations or your own pencils?

Jessie: I don't mind both really. What matters to me more is being able to have fun while I'm at it. But truth be told, I prefer being able to make my own mistakes on my own time as well.

Gwen: Is it more challenging to color other people's art work?

Jessie: It often depends on their artistic approach, so it varies. If I'm being made to paint the same way for every piece of lineart I get, it's going to be quite difficult; sometimes some styles might not go very well together. What matters in the end is the final product. In a collaboration you don't want people to see any sign of clashing. What you want people to see is how well you work with the person you're collaborating.

Gwen: I would think that a lot of coloring work would have to do with how well you can translate someone's pencil work - like the battle scenes in Neozoic. Seeing how your work helps to define the action in such cases how hard is it to work out the details?

Jessie: Oh man, the battle scenes... I'd go nuts only if I have a dinosaur orgy on my hands.

Gwen: Haha, I'd imagine those take a lot of work. And some of those scenes practically qualify...

Jessie: That's usually the thing with action, sometimes it works better from a visual stand point if you don't get to see everything. Other times you have to be able to maintain a visual contrast of all the elements on the page so the readers can tell exactly what's going on. If it isn't with the use of lights and darks, it's with the use of colors as well. Working in black and white is infinitely easier than working with colors.

Gwen: How do you decide what kind action scene it is?

Jessie: Actually, I don't. I go by the information given out in the script compared to the pages Korim sends me. On occasion he'd give me visual cues to work with in terms of where the lighting might be going, or how many visual effects are needed in certain panels. With the FCBD (Free Comic Book Day) short he sent me some page samples from J.Scott Campbell's MySpace page as a light reference for the overall look.

Gwen: On occasion? Do you have to make lighting decisions on your own the rest of the time?

Jessie: Yes I do, but I base them all on where the light sources are in previous pages. I get to make up alternate light sources on new pages, mostly the interior ones. Sometimes I even have to keep track of what time of day certain pages take place, and how much time has passed. Issue 3 was a perfect example of that.

Gwen: What type of lighting is your favorite to work with?

Jessie: Backlighting. It's usually easier for me to see shapes in silhouettes.

Gwen: Do you also like working with the sharper contrasts?

Jessie: If they work with the page, sure.

Gwen: I guess I'm trying to get at what type of lighting is the most fun for you to work with.

Jessie: I don't even know anymore -

Gwen: I assume you have some fun that is.

Jessie: I go into spirals of giddy joy when Korim gives me pure silhouette panels to work with.

Gwen: Hah, I'm definitely quoting you on that!

Jessie: Ah please, I'll bet you 90% of the colourists out there would say that too [laughs]! But as I said before, whatever looks best on a page tends to stick with me. In my case, rather than having a favorite type of lighting, I go by what panels were the most fun for me to work with. I know it sounds vague and all but it really varies.

Gwen: Well you're my first professional colourist, but I'll be sure to ask any others that I talk to!

Jessie: Coloring can be a serious business, only if the colourists take it seriously.

Gwen: I agree, but I also think it would helps for the fans to have more of an appreciation for the color work.

Jessie: I think certain things are best experienced first-hand. In my case, I never truly understood what it was like for a a colourist, or a team of colourists, to work on a book until I tried it myself. When I got the chance to colour a comic, I was petrified. Performance anxiety to the max. It wasn't just a matter of being able to do a good job overall, but doing a good job in the amount of time I'm given. That means having to cut corners, or working differently than I was previously.

Gwen: Really? Your work is gorgeous, I find it hard to believe you'd have any reason to be nervous. Are deadlines that intimidating?

Jessie: Back when I was working on Rotogin: Junkbotz as a flatter, and gradually to lead colourist, yes. It was a monthly title under the Image banner. So it definitely felt like having a gun pointed at my head the whole time. It's scary to colour a book all by yourself at a certain visual quality. In a team, that anxiety can be shared so it's not as bad. With time and practice you could get accustomed to it.

Gwen: Have you gotten to that point yet?

Jessie: Getting there. Not yet. Maybe I'm just being too hard on myself.

Gwen: In my experience every artist is too hard on themselves. Where do you hope to go with your work? Do you want to stay in comics, or expand to other types of projects?

Jessie: The main reason I was back in comics was because of Korim, I thought it would be great to work with him on a project again. I'd love to be able to draw up my own graphic novel ideas and such later on. Otherwise, I'd like to be able to go into animation or video games.

(here’s a link to Jessie’s 2007 demo reel: )

Gwen: Back to comics though, did you choose the pallet for Neozoic? I remember the first time I looked at the book thinking how well the colors set the tone for the story and the world.

Jessie: Paul asked me to go for really the earthy tones, nothing too specific, so I kept that in mind and just played around until I found something.

Gwen: You obviously work well with Korim, but are there any other comic book artists out there you'd like the chance to work with?

Jessie: Damn, uhm... I dunno really, but off the top of my head... LeSean Thomas? Maybe Jock [aka Mark Simpson] as well!

Gwen: If there's anything else you'd like to add - now is the time. As I said before, there's not a lot of information floating around about colourists in the comic book world, so if there's something I haven't covered in my 'interrogation' let me know.

Jessie: Most of the negative stuff about colourists working in the business can be found in this article.

I was interested in colouring comics when I first saw the work that Dreamwave Productions put out back in the late nineties. Even had the chance to moderate their forums for a time. Gradually as I grew to appreciate the amount of work that goes into colouring, there's also the business aspect to consider as well.

Gwen: What do you mean?

Jessie: Overly tight schedules, budgets, the people you might get to work with, the books you might get to work on... It's hard not to get jaded working as a colorist sometimes - mostly because the adverse effects might show up in your work.

Gwen: I can see how that would be a concern.

Jessie: This is even more reason to be able to love what you're doing, because it will show through even more.

Gwen: Has Neozoic worked out well for you then? What with already knowing at least part of your team going in?

Jessie: Neozoic is what we might call a labor of love. Is it working for you? If it does, then it works for us.

Gwen: Yes, I would think that you guys care a lot about the book by the type of end product you turn out.

Jessie: Comics are supposed to be fun dammit.

Gwen: Yes, they are. It's sad when people forget that.

Jessie: They can always remember.

Thanks again to Jessie! It's interesting to hear about a book from an oft neglected perspective. Hopefully colouring will gain appreciation as time goes by. Oh, and if you haven't been reading Neozoic you've been missing out.

Here are the previous Neozoic creator interviews if you're interested:
Paul Ens - Story
J. Korim - Pencils

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