If you are not a professional artist, fear not! Neither am I! You can still use tools to create decent quality comics. If you have a story to tell, I share here with you the steps I go through to create static and animated comics.
2D or 3D?
Your first decision is whether to create 2D or 3D characters. I started off with 2D using Adobe Character Animator. More recently I moved to 3D using Unity to create animated short clips. Is 3D better? I think it is important to understand that creativity and story are more important for an engaging comic than the artwork.
How simple can creating comics be?
Using VRoid Studio for creating characters (free), VSeeFace for posing the characters (free), and Microsoft Powerpoint (for composing pages and adding speech bubbles), you have the tools you need to create a comic!
The above videos give a quick feel for what is involved, but I plan to go into it with more depth. The different stages you need to think about include:
- Story and Plot. A story is a sequence of events. There is a chronological order to the events. Sam woke up. He got dressed in a funny hat. He went to school. A plot gets more into they reason for that order. Sam had to get to school on time because he was making a presentation and the funny hat was to reinforce his message, but also leads into a later joke. The script may never say that directly, but its important to think through the relationship of events. Put another way, a plot is a story plus causality. If there is no reason for part of a story (it has no causality), it might be something to remove.
- Script. Once you have your story and plot, you need to write a script. This can use anything from notepad to Google Docs. Scripts are dialog heavy, but also include details such as location and camera directions. I often start with a bullet point outline, flesh it out with dialog, then turn into a table with a row per frame with a shot or frame number per row, the dialog (which will go into speech bubbles) and camera/location directions.
- Storyboards. Once you have a script, it can be useful to create a storyboard of your cartoon. This involves rough sketches of the different frames or shots in your creation. It is the next level of refinement. There are dedicated tools for this purpose, but I found using Microsoft PowerPoint on an iPad pretty good too as it allowed me to draw onto each page with the Apple pencil, as well as type up notes directly on each slide. There are however dedicated tools you can use. More recently I skip this step as I am not much of an artist. I just use the final tools to quickly pose characters and grab screenshots. This allows me to preview the final creation to get a feel of timing, am I getting the message across I want to, etc.
- Character Creation Tools. This includes drawing tools like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Fresco (e.g. on the iPad). There are many more of course. These tools are good for creating 2D artwork. I personally have used Adobe Character Animator a fair bit for 2D animation, but there are other tools from Reallusion and Live2D. But then there is VRoid Studio, a free tool for creating 3D avatars and exporting them as “VRM” files that other programs can then load. All the 3D characters I use in my own comic were created using VRoid Studio. There are other free tools like Blender, and a number of paid tools, but VRoid Studio I like because of how easy it is to create new characters with it. Note a full character definition also includes a bio – a description of their needs and wants, personality, character traits, and so on.
- Posing Tools. Once you have your character created, you need to pose the character in different positions. That is, for each frame of your comic, you don’t have to draw the character again from scratch! Just pose the character and take a screenshot! Character Animator can be used for posing 2D artwork. Adobe Illustrator also has a “puppet” mode which can be used for simple posing. But for the 3D world I use tools like VSeeFace and Unity to pose 3D avatars. I like the extra camera angles I can create using 3D.
- Speech bubbles. You need to then draw speech bubbles and put text into them. PowerPoint has a “callout” shape which is a speech bubble. That is a pretty easy way to create speech bubbles. You can also use Adobe Illustrator or Adobe InDesign to draw an oval, then pull a little tail out of the oval. Pretty easy once you know the commands.
- Backgrounds. Next, you need to decide what sort of backgrounds you are going to have. You can have blank backgrounds – it depends on the story you are trying to tell. I use 3D location models I purchase from the Unity Asset Store. It saves me a lot of time, and the location of the characters becomes much clearer. (When I started on my first comic, it was the backgrounds that almost caused me to give up. My drawings were terrible! I ended up using Unity and asset store purchase to take screenshots for background locations. It saved my life!)
- Frame and Page Composition. Once you have your characters, you pose them taking screenshots or similar, you are then ready to compose a frame (one panel of a comic). You can use PowerPoint for this step, or other drawing tools such as InDesign, PowerPoint, Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. Pick whichever tool you feel happiest with. Once you have frames worked out, you then have to compose multiple frames into one page. This is often complicated by artwork not staying within their own frames. It can look nice though. You can use standard frame composition tools, but be aware if planning to publish to WebToons or similar, they use a vertical image format. You scroll down the page on your mobile device to read the whole comic. You need a tool able to handle very tall and skinny artwork.
- Publishing. Next, you need to decide where you are going to publish your cartoon. You could create a free WordPress account for example, or publish your content on Instagram, or create a little video clip for Google Video search. There are also comic publishing sites such as WebToon.
- Animation Tools. Animation goes beyond posing a character and taking a screenshot. I use a combination of tools, including for 3D VSeeFace.icu, and Unity. For 2D I often use Photoshop or Illustrator with Adobe Character Animator.
- Audio, sound effects, and music. If doing a full animated cartoon, you need to think about issues like voice actors, sound effects to add greater depth, and background music. To convey emotion, never underestimate the impact of a human voice. It can convey deep and rich emotions. For an early comic I did, I found voice recordings were a small percentage of the total effort, but might be 50% of the total impact. But I also found it hard to have friends act as voice actors over an extended period of time.
- Video Composing Tools. Once you have little clips, do you want to create a longer animated sequence? I am not trying to create an animated film. That simplifies the task. You can then publish on YouTube, Vimeo, and Web Stories.
- Discovery and Monetization. You need to decide where you are going to publish your content. This often needs to be done very early on, as different platforms require different formats for content. Platforms often have an existing audience and tools to help you promote your content. Social Media can also be used to drive more traffic (as well as paying for advertising if you are keen!). If you want to monetize your content, you need to think about strategies for that as well. Does the platform you are on support direct monetization? Should you have your own website where you can display ads? Should you have merchandise (t-shirts, mugs, etc) so people can buy physical goods containing your artwork?
The following is the workflow I am following to create episode scripts. By having a process, it helps me move forward without getting stuck. But it is a guide – I feel free to break the rules at any time.
Propose a set of Arcs
I start by planning out a few arcs. Broad concepts of how I want the story to develop. For example, my first few arcs are friendship, good thoughts (thinking the best of people rather than the worst), and encouragement (helping others who are struggling). I use these as a guide, willing to change them at any time.
Flesh out the first Arc
For an arc I then use the heroic journey pattern per arc. Heroic journeys involve the hero starting at home, heading off into the unknown, struggling, overcoming, returning home before the next journey. For example, my first arc is Sam and Hank building a friendship. The heroic journey stages in more detail are:
- Adventure calls
- A mentor or friend
- A bad feeling
- Homeward bound
- A final test
From this I think about a series of episodes and place them around the circle. For example, the first episode should not feel *too* uncomfortable – everyone starts in a known place. Then things get progressively more out of the comfort zone of characters until the big climax of the arc. For my Friendship arc, the climax is Hank swallowing his pride and accepting Sam’s offer of help. I basically write a few words per arc against the above headings to make me think it through.
I then start fleshing out a check list of questions for myself about the next episode to write out. I don’t have to answer all of these questions, but they get me thinking about the overall structure and look at the episode from different angles. This question list I built up from Aristotle and Pixar.
- What is the dramatic question I am trying to answer?
- What is the goal I am trying to achieve by the end of the episode?
- What is the basic story in a few words?
- What are the actions that need to take place?
- What conflict(s) occur during the episode. Conflicts are interesting, so there are particularly important and worth refining.
- What is the climax?
- What reversal (if any) could occur? (optional but good)
- What recognition will occur? (optional but good)
- What pity or fear will happen?
- What are the wants of the main character? Wants are particularly interesting.
- What are the needs of the main character?
- What is the emotional curve I want through the episode (do characters start happy, then get worried, then scared, then determined, and finally triumphant?) I write out a bullet point list.
I then go through Freytag’s pyramid to start roughing out what should happened, for how long, and in what order. Freytag’s pyramid gives a guide for ordering and duration. But, as always, it’s a guide. It’s a starting point, and it’s a good way to review the script later to see if it’s out of balance. It is not absolute.
- Beginning (exposition) – 1/5th of an episode. Write a sentence or two (might be 7 frames of comic)
- Conflict (an initiating event) – a moment (a comic frame or two)
- Rising action – 2/5ths of episode (12 frames). As a result of the conflict / initiating action, things start building up.
- Crisis – a moment just before the climax
- Climax – a moment when reversals and recognition tend to occur, for dramatic effect. What is the pity/fear related to the moment.
- Falling action – 1/5th of the episode, where the reversals and recognition are fleshed out so the reader fully understands
- Ending (resolution) – 1/5th of the episode, where things are brought to the conclusion
- Hook – a moment where something happens to get the reader interested in the next episode, thought provoking to get the imagination of the reader going
These stages overlap with the first set of points, but the idea is to start working out how much of an episode each area is going to be allocated. For example, if the introduction has consumed half the length already, you might need to prune it back. If the falling and ending are too short, the reader may be left unsatisfied. You brought them on an emotional journey. Let them fully feel that emotion – don’t rush it.
Each set of questions above helps me firm up what is going to happen in an episode. I frequently go back and adjust, think about who is the focus of the episode. Sometimes I want to flip to a different character. Is it a good idea? Should I adjust it to keep focus on a single character throughout the episode? It is less confusing for the reader.
Then I write down a bullet point list of actions, in order, knowing they are going to have to align with the stages of Freytag’s pyramid. Yet another list? Yes, but each pass makes me think about what is happening a bit more. Can I drop something? Is there another edge I can bring in? Each pass helps me refine and review my thoughts.
The bullet points are then allocated to the stages in Freytag’s pyramid above.
Characters and Locations
In parallel to the above, I am thinking about what locations I want to use (can I reuse a location? Do I need to create a new one?) You want variety for depth, but you also need to keep the effort low.
Next I start writing out a script. Just bullet points, the character’s name, and what they say. I also include key actions that need to take place – not everything, just key points. I then go back to Freytag’s pyramid and see if around the right length has been allocated to each stage. I cut lines, add lines, change the focus to the right character, etc.
As before, at every stage, it’s a chance to review and adjust. Is there another angle that can be drawn out? Some additional conflict? Is it interesting?
For example, I started with the first location with Sam helping Mrs B and Sam running up eager to help. Mrs B was appreciative. Sam left to school. It was to say “wow, Sam’s a great kid!” But it was BORING! So I spiced it up a bit more. Sam is running late for school so would rather not help, Mrs B tricks him into helping, and so on. It made the script more interesting (in my opinion anyway!)
I then create a table with 3 columns per location in the episode:
- Shot number
- Directions (notes about the scene, camera directions, etc)
I then start allocating shots numbers (010, 020, 030, etc). I increase by 10 so I can go back and insert new shot numbers without renumbering existing ones. After reworking the first sequence, I ended up on the first location with shot numbers of 010, 015, 032, 034, 036, 038, 040, 050, 070, 080, 085, 090, 100, 180.
As a part of this, I write in key shots and camera angles to reinforce the feelings that should be going on. There have to be “normal” camera shots too, so the key shots stand out more.
Once the key shots have been identified, I go back and flesh out the in-between shots. If the character needs to be in two places at different key points, the shots in between have to achieve the character moving between the locations.
Storyboarding in Unity
I tried my hand at true storyboarding (drawing pictures per shot), but I ended up following a different path. Instead of hand drawing mocks of screens, I just load up Unity and start creating sequences per shot, dropping the relevant characters into the shot, working out which direction they are going to face. The dialog starts going into speech bubbles. That is, I don’t create storyboards – I just do draft recordings in Unity, then refine them iteratively.
More revision. More checking the timing. More making sure the original goals are being met
At this stage I often create a web comic from the contents and play it to myself. That is, I render out the contents with speech bubbles (but no movement), getting the timing right based on the number of words etc. Is the pacing right? Is the dialog flowing naturally? Are the right questions being asked? Etc. It is also a chance to start assigning durations to shots, based on the amount of dialog. This can help with checking the overall feel of the episode. Is the pacing right? By reviewing the episode recording clip durations, that can feed back into how long to make the animation for each frame.
Finally, once I am pretty confident, I start animating the episode. I use a combination of predefined animation clips, hand animations, MoCap animation (using VSeeFace, TrackingWorld, or AniPlaymaker). Hand gestures (finger movements) are added, as are facial expressions.
I render periodically to check on how progress is going. Is it hanging together? Animation takes a lot of time, so its good to spot problems early and address them. I will do multiple passes, adding lower body movements and poses (walking, sitting, etc), then upper body movements, facial expressions, hand gestures, etc. Whatever helps me get the message across appropriately.
Then I just keep going through an episode, improving each shot one by one until I am happy with it. Okay, until I get sick of changing things. I am rarely ever completely happy with what I create!
The above may seem daunting. Well, okay, actually it is daunting! This is where I find it useful to develop personal action plans. I write out a to do list for myself. I find lists like the above useful to better understand what I am getting into before starting. For example, I decided to go with a comic (no sound) to eliminate the effort of voice, sound effects, and music. I am a one-man-show, so to get things finished I have to cut corners. So thinking through everything involved up front and having an answer for them can avoid later pain and anguish of rework (or worst abandonment) in your project.
Check out the child pages for more advice for each area in greater depth.