Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Saving Sanity While Working With A Microscope

Sean Michael Robinson:

Greetings all,

I've written a year of these weekly updates at this point without ever touching on something pretty fundamental to this process.

Executing a repetitive task, especially tasks to focused on minutiae and the finest little bits of information, can make you a little crazy.

This wasn't really news to me. I've worked on and off as an audio engineer for six or seven years, and it's an experience I've had many a time after a really long, focused comping session. ("Comping," meaning, compiling a finished take of a song or an individual track/instrument/vocal performance from among many, even dozens, of individual performances.) At the end of the process you have something coherent and, hopefully, better than any one individual performance, but the process itself requires such intense focus on such small details-- slight variances in pitch and rhythm, changing timbre, slight shifts in inflection and color and nuance-- that it can be hard to break out of that mode afterwards.

At the beginning of 2014, I was assisting a friend of mine editing audio books. This process, consisting of much less to think about but requiring even more focus on small detail, made me genuinely ill after only a few hours of work. I would leave my studio in the back of the house, walk into the front and try to have a normal conversation, but everything was still being processed through that most critical portion of my thinking. Having a conversation with my wife Rachel, some part of me would be busy picking it apart, instead of hearing the semantic content of the speech, hearing the shifting room tone as she walked around in the kitchen, hearing the small click of moisture as I opened my mouth to speak. This lasted for as long as I was working on the book, which is to say, much too long.

So is it any surprise that the current work can sometimes drive me a little insane?

The above panel is from a new double-page spread of original art contributed by Cerebus Dragnet hunter extraordinaire Dean Reeves. Thanks so much Dean! 

It's no wonder-- what with the standards we've set for ourselves with the cleanup, the attention to detail, the amount of different types of materials that need to be juggled and processed and made to appear seamlessly next to each other on the page. It's easy to get hypnotized by the cleanup especially, zooming in further and further in the page until any sense of proportion has been lost.

But in recent months it's been much smoother, mainly because the materials themselves have been much more regular (thanks to the fantastic negative cleaning and scanning of Karen Funk, for instance), but also because I've developed a whole range of ways to keep myself sane.

I don't know how many people reading this will ever work on a project of this type and this scale, with this much focused repetition, but I thought I'd take a moment to document some of these techniques in case they can be helpful.

Sean Michael Robinson's Tips For Continued Sanity in the Face of Focused Repetitive Critical Work

1. Stay organized

Mara's organizational contributions to this work, as detailed in a blog post two weeks ago, have been invaluable. Keep your files and all of your raw materials available and named in such a way that they can be accessed (and understood/interpreted) at a glance.

2. Keep daily backups

This applies to your data, but to your brain as well. Stress is increased through increased cognitive load-- oftentimes you're still thinking about a task after it's been completed because there's some incomplete element still waiting for your attention. Write it down!

As for file backup, it's hard to beat the simplicity and ease of Lacie's Genie Backup Pro. My more tech-minded engineering friends seem to like Vice Versa, as it's capable of doing bit-to-bit comparison and other handy tricks, but it's a little complicated for me, at least with the amount of time I've spent with it.

3. Scripts!

Write scripts. For EVERYTHING.

Computers are machines, and they do lots of tasks with much greater efficiency than you or I ever could. If there's a repetitive task in your work flow, script it.

Photoshop scripting is really easy to learn. I currently have scripts that--

a. make a page grayscale from color, in two different ways, by dropping different color channels
b. blur the whole page so I can assess tone density
c. save adjusted pages into the correct folder and close them
d. save cleaned pages into the correct folder and close them
e. many many many other repetitive tasks

If you have to do something more than three times, you might consider writing a script for it.

4. Keep a Sense of Proportion

Recently while working on cleanup, I've been forcing myself to continually refer to a previous printing of the material, or a laser printout at-size, to remind myself of the actual scale involved. How big exactly is that area of black you've been meticulously cleaning for the past ten minutes? Some of this of course comes with experience-- any little problem with tone, for instance, is much more visible than a similar blemish on, say, line work. That's because, usually, the brain is interpreting the tone as just that-- a "color" or tone rather than individual dots. And blemishes within that field of dots disturb the brain's ability to "read" the tone that way. So our experience with what shows up in print and what doesn't has aided us in this, as has just not zooming in as far as before, unless it's required to diagnose a problem.

Here, for instance, is a 1 to 1, 100 percent zoom of the above image.

I think when you can see the capillary effect of the crow quill breaking the surface of the paper and then spreading into the grain, you've gone a bit too far into the page, you know?

And lastly, probably the most important suggestion--

5. Make some art of your own

During those short, dreary audio book editing days, the only cure for the effect of that focused editing on my brain was to make some musical sounds of my own. Sing some songs with Rachel, play some piano or guitar or banjo or flute or drums, just spend some time in unfocused, impromptu noise-making. An hour or two and I would feel the clouds lift from my brain and some of my own though processes return to fill in the void.

And the same seems to be the case for this work as well.

After almost a three year break from making comics, after having abandoned my last graphic novel after 400 pages or so,  I'm back at it with a new book, tentative titled A Summer Horse. It turns out that drawing your own teeny tiny lines is the perfect palette cleanser from intensive production work, and the real pleasure I've taken in drawing has surprised me with its intensity.

Of course, at two to three pages a week, it'll be a while before there's a good chunk to read. But in the meanwhile, I'm happy to toil away and watch the stack of pages grow.


Lee Thacker said...

Hey, Sean. I had no idea about your comics work. Your artwork looks really good in ‘Discards’, it would be shame to, ahem, discard it completely and I can empathise with the fact you were completing hundreds of pages (and musical compositions) in complete obscurity while holding down a teaching post. I did the same with my 800 page graphic novel ‘One for Sorrow’. During my early thirties, I managed to produce (pretty much) 20 pages a month (largely inspired by Dave’s ‘Guide To Self Publishing’ tenet of keeping a calendar on the wall and writing how many pages I created each day). Each year, for four years, I managed to get 200 pages of comics done as well as two albums worth of songs recorded on a Fostex Multitracker (a now obsolete piece of equipment – showing my age!) I eventually self published them as 100 page books and sold around 150 copies (Dave kindly wrote an introduction to volume 1). I’m still teaching and I can only just get 60 pages of comics completed each year! I’m currently illustrating the comic book biography of David Gedge from legendary indie band The Wedding Present. I also really liked your 24 hour comic (something I’ve yet to attempt!) and The ‘Victorian Wire’ comic looks interesting. I never watched the TV series at the time but I’m currently up to Season 3 via online streaming – entertaining but a bit too much of the same thing each time. The characters don’t seem very three dimensional to me – maybe they get more fleshed out in later seasons? Anyway, keep up the great (and painstaking) work with Mara on restoring the Cerebus volumes – outstanding work so far!

Tony Dunlop said...

As I was slowly scrolling down, and first saw what turned out to be Bran's corpse's hair and eyes, I thought, "Hey look, Ditko!" Does anyone else see more than a little Ditko in that image? I'd never noticed it before...

Sean R said...

Hey Lee,

Thanks! Yes, I remember being really impressed with your work that Dave shared and wrote about (was it on the Blog and Mail? Following Cerebus? I can't remember at this point...) Any chance of a full collection of One For Sorrow or a web version at some point? Are they still available anywhere?

Thanks for the kind words :)

Jeff Seiler said...

Sean, as a proofreader who currently is proofing two books by a college friend, I can completely relate to your comments about so much time at the microscope. After ten pages or so of reading each line exactingly, interspersed with forays into the dictionary to doublecheck myself, I emerge with a desire for normalcy, not to return to the printed page for at least a half hour. There is also something about the typos and phrasing being so repetitive (in my friend's books) that is just so disheartening.

And, for those of you who have paid attention over the years, this is the friend who first turned me on to Cerebus.