Slap Happy Larry is a two person development team of Dan Hare (coder) and Lynley Stace (art and story). Dan and Lynley live near Canberra, Australia, though Dan is originally from the central NSW coast, and Lynley is from Christchurch, New Zealand.
They have one daughter, Hannah, who comes in useful for user testing, and a Border collie who happily helps out with sound FX (at least when it involves munching noisily on kettle fried chips.)
Episode 59 of the 99% Invisible Podcast explores what happened when artists were brought on board to work with architects on a project in New York City. Some of the architects didn’t like this much, being used to owning the creative talent and having the artistic sway, but the project manager told them to like it or lump it. Artist input did result in a creation quite different.
This made me wonder how things would be if programmers were given more creative sway in publishing houses, especially as big publishers move tentatively into the digital world. Programmers are not known for their creative bones, instead for their attention to detail and methodical mindsets. Yet the programmer in this house counts photography among his hobbies. Creativity and attention to detail go very well together, if only creative streaks are let loose.
On the one hand I can’t understand why we’re not seeing far more creative storybook apps coming out of the largest publishing houses, who I presume have much bigger budgets than ours, and who could really push the boat out if they wanted to. On the other hand, I can see that if programmers are not adequately invested in a project — if they’re paid by the hour, say, and told what to do by the designated creatives — the acquisitions team (and author illustrator teams) may not have the foggiest idea of all that is possible. It takes an experienced programmer to know that.
Header illustration: One of the illustrations by Mike Wilks from ‘Pile- Petals from St Klaed’s Computer’ by Brian Aldiss (1979)
Whether an individual picture is static or conveys motion, the more details there are in a picture, the longer its discourse time. The common prejudice is that children do not like descriptions, preferring scenes and dialogue. This must be an acquired preference, imposed on children by adults, since all empirical research shows that children, as well as adults, appreciate picturebook pauses and eagerly return to them.
– from How Picturebooks Work by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott
First things first: Does this story require an active and alert reader, and do the interactions reward interactivity and alertness?
1. Should interactions be user-initiated or autoplay? A mixture?
I prefer narration to autoplay, with the option of turning it off completely from the main menu. When I have to press a button to start the narration on each page it takes me out of the story. As for the rest of the page, a mixture of autoplaying actions and user-initiated interactions works well in many cases, as long as any auto-play noises are not too irritating. Irritating = loud, unpleasant tones or even a pleasant sound that’s on too short of a loop.
2. How much animation, if any?
Too much animation and the storyapp runs the risk of emulating a film, losing its true interactivity. For small development teams, too much animation is costly and therefore not an option. When simple animations are utilised, which ones help to tell the story?
3. Should interactivity be allowed before the narration is over, or must the reader wait?
I still get frustrated when I can’t start the interactivity when I want to, regardless of whether the sound that accompanies the interaction drowns out the narration. It’s about user control. Also, I prefer gentle sound effects, which don’t drown out the narration even if played simultaneously.
4. After an interactivity has played out, should the user be able to cycle through again, or will the page fall inactive, waiting for the reader to turn the page and move on with the story?
The advantage of looping is that readers can linger on a page for as long as they like, which makes the reader feel more in control. The disadvantage is that younger readers in particular may lose the thread of the story, derailed by the interactivity. We used both finite and infinite loops of interactions for The Artifacts on a case-by-case basis. I’ve grown to slightly prefer finite looping, because if readers really want a specific page they can jump to it via the navigation pages, or simply turn onto the page again from the previous, losing no control — only a small bit of convenience.
5. Should the developer offer hints with flashing/arrows, or should the reader have to find all the interactivity themselves?
We believe young readers are more than capable of uncovering any interaction we think we’re hiding in an app. We hear quite a bit from parents that children find Easter eggs in apps that they never suspected were there. We don’t believe everything needs to be handed to a child on a plate, and goes with our general philosophy of ‘try it and see’ — an important attitude when using any type of technology.
The best children’s apps are successful because of a pair of more traditional qualities. Great storytelling. Strong characters. It seems apps aren’t so revolutionary after all, but that’s a good thing.
Since I am intimidated by a white page, the first thing I do is fill the page with a midtone colour. Later, after the page is no longer blank, I’ll delete that layer of brown.
Next, using the default pencil in Artrage, I sketch the bedroom. These lines are actually as straight as I could get them without making use of the ruler stencil, but the wobbliness is the look I’m going for. In other words, if I aim for straight, I get pleasantly wobbly. If I’m too careful, the picture will end up looking like an off-kilter photograph rather than an illustration. Besides, this pencil sketch will only serve as a guide and, like the ugly brown layer, the lines will be deleted after I no longer need them. On second thoughts, I never delete these ‘wireframe’ sketches — I just hide them. Who knows when I’m going to need them again later, perhaps for a different page. Although this whole book has been storyboarded, and I know I probably won’t need them… you just never never know.
As you can see, this room is sketched in one point perspective, looking down onto the beds. I’ll need the viewer to be able to see Roya tossing and turning later, because she won’t be able to sleep.
By the way, the outlines for the beds are each on their own layers. By keeping objects in their own layers I can easily change the size and positioning of one thing without affecting the other things. I’m not yet sure about the positioning of those two mattresses, because they’re meant to look lower than the bed. These things will become more clear as the painting progresses, I hope.
Above is a screenshot of Artrage.
Since I’m working on the large canvas (iPad size = 2048 x 1536), which won’t be scaled down this time (to make use of Apple’s beautiful new retina screen), it can take ages to fill in large areas such as walls with the felt pen tool, so even though the felt pen strokes are what I’m after, first I use the roller to cover area fairly quickly. I’ve already sketched a different view of this room, so I’m keeping my eye on that as I look at the basic shadows. As you can see, I’ve imported a screenshot of that into Artrage to use as a reference. I am holding the Wacom pen in one hand. My other hand is hovering near the keyboard, pressing Alt to pick colours from that reference photo to use in this one.
Now the walls have been covered with a roller.
The room has to look the same from one page to the other. This poses a dilemma — not from an art point of view but from a storytelling point of view. For this story, each page has two versions: the version that happens in the real world of the main character (Roya), and the world which happens inside her head. For the majority of this story, Roya’s imagination has transformed her shabby, drab apartment into a luscious, brightly coloured interior. Yet she hasn’t quite gone there yet. Instead, she’s still using her imagination but not to good effect. The reader needs to realise that she is still in her bedroom, too, and it’s early in the story, so I’m caught between deciding whether to make use of the drab colour palette or the new one. I’m going to have to experiment with that. At this stage I’m thinking I’ll probably export the final background into GIMP and fiddle with the levels of blue. Then again, I may have to do something inside Artrage itself. As you can see, for the meantime I’m painting exactly the same room as before.
I have put the floor on a layer of its own because I wanted to use a concrete overlay. This is just a photo of some concrete, which I imported as a tracing image, converted to paint (in a layer above my gray flooring), then adjusted the blend mode to overlay. This is exactly the look I was going for. The good thing about skirting boards (in life as in paintings) is that they exist to cover up messy edges. So I don’t need to bother cleaning those up too much.
In the story, Roya has trouble sleeping partly because it’s too light outside. For this reason the curtains will have to be substandard. I’ll make them a bit raggedy at the bottom. This will come in handy because Roya will imagine monsters coming under these curtains. I’ve heard a few people say they had this fear as children. I’m yet to find out (via user testing!) whether this is TOO scary for a middle grade audience, but I’ve found that worrying too much about the end experience is counterproductive, so I’ll stick to illustrating the story as I would enjoy it.
I have chosen blue for the curtains from the bright colour palette reserved for the b-version of pages, even though I know this is going to be too bright for the otherwise drab room. I’ll desaturate it later. I’m doing the curtains in two layers – first, the opaque layer, where the curtains overlap the wall. No light can shine through here.
I continued to fill in the rest of the curtains in the same colour (and at 100%) opacity on a new layer, then dropped the opacity of the diaphanous layer (the part of the curtains which cover the window itself) to 75%. I can rarely guess the right transparency of a layer. I started by guessing 50%, but that was too much, so next tried 70. I couldn’t decide whether 70 or 80 percent opacity looked the better but life is too short to spend too much time worrying about such things, so 75 it is!
I then merged the layers and blended around the joins with the ‘instant blur’ tool in Artrage. Next, the spotty overlay, which I had in my library of overlays. I was really pleased at how the whiteness of this overlay meant that the world outside is also bright white. I haven’t yet painted the outside scene, so I don’t really want to show any of it! I’ve also added to the opacity by using the eraser at very high softness and about 20% pressure. Also, I desaturated the blue by -44, which looks better to me.
Sure enough, I had to move both beds over a smidge, so I was glad I put them on their own layers. I have also put a texture over the bedroom wall, but I’m not sure whether I’ll keep it yet, as the entire picture might look too ‘digital’ and not ‘handdrawn’ enough. Textures, like anything, need to be used sparingly. I have also put a poster on the wall above Roya’s bed. This serves two purposes: it tells the reader (at a subliminal level, I’m sure) that this is Roya, in the bed beside the window, and that there are four people in her family. I coloured the mattresses with grey and white, and I chose a grey portion of the yellow range so that when the white and grey mix together, I get a nice yellow colour. I’ve learnt it pays to be mindful of which grey I choose, for that very reason. Even in digital painting, blacks and greys are slightly complicated. There’s more to these colours than meet the eye!
After a few months’ break, I came back to the story and decided that Roya was older than about seven — as a foodie she can be about 12 or 13. This meant that the poster above her bed seemed too juvenile, unless it was something she’d done years ago, in which case she probably would’ve taken it down by now anyway.
Since Roya is a true foodie, it made sense for her to paint a roasted chicken. In my mind her full name is ‘Roya Gourmand’, though this won’t come up in the story. Room 13 sounds appropriately ominous since 13 is an unlucky number in some cultures. It’s fitting that Roya has an interest in painting because she has an excellent imagination. It’s likely she’d want to express herself somehow, with paints or whatever.
I had to desaturate the painting somewhat from the one above because in dim light, everything tends towards black and white.
For several reasons, I decided the little sister should have a poster above her bed, too. First, it’s likely that she’d look up to her older sister, who is a good few years older, and emulate what she does. Second, I’ve been wrestling with whether to give her a name. There are several reasons not to: it emphasises the familial relationship (even though it’s probably clear enough that these two are sisters), and makes the character more universal.
So I decided in the end to keep referring to her as ‘Little Sister’. In many languages, this is perfectly normal, but I’ve noticed from critiques in writing groups that some English speakers consider failure to give a character a name of their own is almost disrespectful. So if anyone feels like this and really wants to know what the little sister’s name is, here it is: I called her Afya, which in Arabic means ‘shadows’. Afya has only a supporting role in this story, so in a sense she’s in the shadows.
I considered getting the resident four-year-old to do me an authentic juvenile portrait but unfortunately she’s going through a pink phase, where every single thing she draws has to be pink. She also likes playing with all the different Artrage tools, like airbrushes, sticker sprays and gloop pens, whereas I wanted this to look as if it’d been done by hand with splatters of actual paint. So yes, I did that myself, taking cues from typical four-year-old paintings that I’ve admired of late.
This is pretty much the final version of this page, though I’m experimenting with a drop shadow on the text. I’m not a fan of drop shadows because I think they’re overdone, but when I minimised the picture on my computer monitor to 25% I got a vague idea of what it will look like on the iPod and iPhone screens. I couldn’t easily read the text without drop shadows. But the PC monitor isn’t a great gauge of readability because Apple mobile devices have screens a lot better than my cheapo computer monitors.
Also, when the four-year-old woke up screaming because of a hand moving in the shadows across her bedroom wall I strengthened my resolve to keep the ‘scary on-or-off’ functionality. I’m pretty sure it was this picture which gave her nightmares. Not recommended for under middle-graders, though I noticed that Monster House has a scene in it where a hand comes in through the window, so I’m confident enough that older children can cope with it! Monster House, too, is for middle-graders.
Dan is having problems with memory, because the precursor to this page already has so many assets, so I’ve been advised to err on the side of minimalism. For that reason, I decided not to have Roya tossing and turning in her bed, and I also decided not to have Little Sister’s blanket moving gently up and down with her breathing.
I’m not sure yet, until Dan tries to cut the code, whether we’ll be able to leave both hands coming in towards Roya, because each animation has about 30 frames. I look forward to seeing how the animations look. I’m not at all experienced with animation, so even basic animations such as these are plain old guesswork. I never know how it’s going to look until I see it in action.
There are some researchers, who’ve been very lucky with their funding, who have studied the ways in which pets resemble their owners. If you’ve ever been to a dog show you’ll probably have noticed the phenomenon yourself. Sure enough, it’s been noted that when shown a random mixture of owner/pet photos, people are able to match those owners with their pets at a higher than random rate.
I sometimes wish I could see photographs of illustrators alongside their pictures. I bet illustrators most naturally draw people look like themselves — similar face shapes and stature, even if they don’t mean to. Indeed, even if they go out of their way. Because we spend a lot of time looking at family members, and they tend to look like ourselves. We must also have a ‘default setting’ for a face, and that default is ourselves.
Do you look like your pet? We own a rather attractive Border collie. Though if I think harder, he hasn’t had a good brush in quite a while, and I have to admit I care about my own coiffure just about exactly as much. Think I’ll duck off to the bathroom and run a comb through my hair…