Excellent Advice From Shaun Tan

…for those of us both writing and illustrating our own books. This conversation between Neil Gaiman and Shaun Tan was published a while ago, and has helped me edit my own work:

I usually refine the text last, partly because pictures are harder to do so it’s easier to edit words – I use text as grout in between the tiles of the pictures. I always overwrite, really awful, long bits of script and then I trim it down to the bare bones and then add a little bit to colour it in. At the end of all of my stories I test for wordless comprehension. So I remove the text and see if it works by itself. And if it does I feel that that’s a successful story. I don’t know if that’s an important principle but it’s helped me structure things.

Narration and Reading Aloud

Narration

Why not a female narrator?

Men’s voices are scarier. At least they are to me. (Unless we’re talking Kathy Bates inMisery.) Since Baby Grand is a suspense thriller, I wanted its telling to be pretty darn creepy. And I got some pretty creepy samples sent to me too. But, keep in mind, I also needed this male voice to be able to carry those chapters in which Jamie was the narrator, so I needed a male voice to have a pleasing quality, with only a hint of creepiness.

Why I picked a male narrator for the ‘Baby Grand’ Audiobook

It would have been nice to have a female narrating Midnight Feast, since it’s a story about a girl, and also because there are too few female narrators to achieve anything like a gender balance, but when I read the post above I realised it’s okay to have reasons for stuff like this.

The nice thing about storyapps is that they are narrated. This makes them good for a wider variety of age groups. Here’s a short article offering 5 ways to use audiobooks to help struggling readers. Naturally, narrated storybook apps are included in that group called ‘audiobooks’.

 

Reading Aloud

READING ALOUD: WHY IT MATTERS – A GUEST POST BY SPEECH AND LANGUAGE THERAPIST PRIYA DESAI at the Nosy Crow Blog

Lake Bell’s ‘In A World…’ Explores Why Women Aren’t Used To Narrate Trailers

The Dream House Made Into A Picturebook

floor plan of Midnight Feast
floor plan of Midnight Feast

Do you have a dream house that exists only inside your head? Perhaps it’s somewhere you hope to build one day, or a mixture of great spaces you’ve been to in your lifetime. If you were asked questions about this dream house, I wonder how specific you could get?

  • How many bedrooms does it have?
  • How does one get from one bedroom to another?
  • Where do the inhabitants keep their clothes?
  • Their shoes?
  • What would I find in the larder?
  • Which direction does it face?
  • If I flew into the air above your dream house, what does the surrounding area look like?

As Gaston Bachelard says, quoting Rilke in The Poetics of Space, those of us who keep dreamt-up houses in our heads haven’t worked out the details. Details such as: How does one get from one room to another without a connected corridor?

[The imagined dream house] is not a building, but is quite dissolved and distributed inside me: here one room, there another, and here a bit of corridor which, however, does not connect the two rooms, but is conserved in me in fragmentary form. Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me, the rooms, the stairs that descended with such ceremonious slowness, others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement, in the darkness of which we advanced like the blood in our veins.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, quoted in The Poetics Of Space

I realised that the house I had imagined inside my head wouldn’t necessarily work. And the architecture of the house is essential to the plot, which is certainly not true of many other picture books.

I wonder if it’s common for picturebook illustrators to draw a floor plan when illustrations are set largely inside a house. It really helped me out a lot, to spend half an hour visualising the entirety of Roya’s world within the story, down to the wallpaper.

Once I’d sketched a layout of the apartment, illustrations progressed at a faster pace*. I didn’t have to consider the interior decor, of her non-imaginary world, at least. I’ve heard art advice to the effect that you need to understand the entirety of a subject even if you’re only going to be depicting a single facet. I was imagining a banana when I heard that advice, but it certainly applies to houses and floorplans. Otherwise you’re liable to draw a house without any doors.

(By the way, I decided the toilet and bathroom are communal, downstairs.)

*This particular piece of paper also has the honour of helping a super poisonous Australian spider into a glass for deposition at CSIRO, so it’s come in handy indeed.

Decisions To Make When Storyboarding For Interactivity

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.

Stuart Dredge at The Guardian

Breakdown of an App… what makes an app?

Have you ever wondered what goes into an app? Here is a detailed breakdown of “The Artifacts”, perhaps shining some light on how much work it is to create an app like this.

Sound Effects:
202 different sound effects.
10 MB.

Here are the sounds effects for page 6 (click to play):
wind03
wind02
wind01
crash-of-bin
chimes02
chimes03
chimes04

Graphics:
Over 1000 separate graphics frames, on 240 individual files. Many frames are combined into one graphics file to make it faster.
68.7 MB.
Here is one of our graphics sheets, from the Caterpillar page (page 6).

Music:
2 Music tracks.
6.9 MB.
You can download the music from The Artifacts (it’s free) here.

Code:
Around 12,000 lines of code, not counting framework.
Around 5 MB.
Here is a sample from the Fireflies page (Page 20), this piece of code adds a new firefly.

-(void) addFireFlies: (int) count: (CGPoint) loc
{
    NSString *fireflyname = getRelevantFile(@"firefly-%02d", @"png");

    for( int x = 0; x < count; x++ )
    {
        firefly[fireflypoint] = [CCSprite spriteWithSpriteFrameName: 
                         [NSString stringWithFormat:fireflyname, 1]];
        scaleToDevice( firefly[fireflypoint] );
        [p24sheet addChild: firefly[fireflypoint]];

        [firefly[fireflypoint] setPosition:loc];

        [self stopAnimWings:firefly[fireflypoint] data:fireflypoint];

        fireflystatus[fireflypoint] = FF_NOTMOVING;

        fireflypoint++;
    }
}

Hopefully you’ve found this enlightening, we had a lot of fun creating it! If you have any questions on the development of an App, I’d be happy to answer them for you.

Pros and Cons of Universal Apps

Most of you are probably already aware of what Universal apps are, but for those who aren’t let me give a brief description:

On the App Store, there are two device categories. iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch. Each device category has its own App Store, with its own list of apps.

Universal apps are configured to run in both categories, and should work on all supported devices. Now this is a great deal for consumers buying apps, because you basically get 2 for 1. Buy an app on the iPad, and it is linked to your iTunes account, so that you can then download and use it on your iPhone or iPod Touch at no extra cost. Our first app, The Artifacts, is a Universal app. You can tell a Universal app, by the little ‘+’ plus sign next to it in the App Store.

Ok now that I’ve explained it, lets go through a few pros and cons of this system;

 

Pros

  • Savings: Consumers can use an app on any device that is linked to their account, and they only have to purchase once. Obviously a pro for the consumer, and generally speaking, a happy consumer makes a happy developer.
  • Convenience: You might hear about a great app from someone you know.. but you only have your iPhone on you. You can buy the app on iPhone, and then later download it on the iPad, because it’s linked to your account.

Cons

  • Development time: It takes quite a lot of extra work to be able to support all device types in the one app (different screen resolutions, memory requirements, etc).
  • App size: Because you need to support different device resolutions, you need to have all the device graphics in the one app. This makes for a much larger app, especially for the smaller devices. The Artifacts for example is around 92 MB. It would be reduced to about 40 MB if it only worked on the iPhone/iPod touch. Our next app, Midnight Feast, supports iPad Retina images (2048 x 1536), which are 4 times larger than iPad images. Apple could provide some support in this area. If we could make “custom” versions of universal apps, it would fix this problem. It would work in a similar way to having different device versions of the same app for sale (so you’d have to buy two copies. One for iPhone/iPod touch, and one copy for iPad), but just make it universal instead so you only have to buy one.
  • App Store ranking: Now this is a biggie. Any developer knows that it’s important to get a high ranking in the App Store. The problem is, if the app is universal, it’s effectively ranked by each device. This means that if someone buys an app with the iPhone, it only affects the ranking for the iPhone store. This is clearly a poor solution, because it puts universal apps at a disadvantage. I’d like to see Apple give rankings for Universal apps based on the total downloads, not on downloads from each individual store.

It’s really hard to tell, because Apple do not provide the stats, but from the store rankings alone, we notice that we’ve had quite a few downloads on the iPhone/iPod Touch side of things.

We’ll continue to make universal apps, but I really hope Apple starts to support them in a way that helps the publisher AND consumer.