Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Paper to Pixel to Paper Again: Part 18

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A guide to creating the best looking line art in print in the new digital print world

Part 18
Negatives Miscellanea


This is the eighteenth installment of Paper to Pixel to Paper Again, a series that explains (in an overly thorough manner) the how-to's of preparing line art (and later in the series, color art!) for print.

And as always, if you have any questions, please let me know in the comments!

This week we'll wrap up the discussion of negatives with some stray observations about working with negatives in general. 

A) As mentioned in an earlier installment, it really is important to clean them of any developing fluid/gunk/tape stickiness/anything else that's visible on the surface before you scan, unless that discoloration etc happens to be in the clear, i.e. separated from the art in a way that would make it easy to clean digitally.

The temptation with most digital processes, I think, is to "fix it in the box," but you're almost always better off getting the cleanest capture of your materials as possible and only saving it for digital cleanup when you really have to.

And then you have situations like the below image, which would be a total disaster to try to deal with after the fact, the mechanical tone making most of the go-to cleanup options impossible. 

B) The best negatives can be very good.

Because we've spent so much time here detailing how to fix problems with negatives, you might make the assumption that negatives are difficult to work with, or always give you mediocre results.

Well, I'm here to reassure you that the best negative can be pretty darn good. 

Take a look at this portion of a page from Church and State. I had cleaned the negative (below) prior to the original artwork (above) coming in from IDW. And at least on this scale, on a screen, these look identical or almost identical to each other.

But the differences, slight though they are, are instructive.

C) Assuming an equally quality scan, original artwork is almost always going to give you a better result, especially in the finest areas.

The above extreme close-ups are pretty good examples of this phenomenon. Although this is a very well-shot negative, there's still some loss of detail in the fine areas. This is actually very similar to the amount of detail you might expect if, instead of scanning your original artwork to color and then sharpening before making your bitmap, you scanned straight to bitmap. Depending on the optical sharpness and resolving power of your scanner, you'd see as much or more blow-out of detail. It's an issue of optical resolving power. The softer the imaging system, the softer the details, and the more likely blowout is. That said, how noticeable this kind of thing is in the printed art is really dependent on the reader's observational keenness, and the, let's say, durability of the artist's individual style.

There's a reason that the Milton Caniff, "Make everything super chunky black and bold as if there's gonna be some color on top of it" style dominated American comics for so long.

D) The tone on a negative is not always the same density as the tone originally placed on the art board.

Just a stray, time-capsule-style observation for anyone reading this now or in the future. It took me a while to figure this one out. Camera operators shooting film negatives would routinely over-expose (actually underexpose, since it was in reverse) sections of very fine tone in order to prevent clogging or dot gain on that tone on press.

When I say routine, I mean that it was done by at least two of the three Canadian printers that worked on the early Cerebus books, and an older prepress person at another modern printer mentioned it to me in conversation. I haven't seen mention of the process in any of the prepress manuals I've read, however, these kind of tricks were likely to travel around in less formal ways.

The process would be something like this—before photographing a page, the camera operator would identify any tones that were of a very high LPI (lines per inch), i.e. tiny dots more prone to gain. Then the operator would cut a mask to cover the tone during a certain length of exposure, and then uncover it for the rest.

Sometimes this mask covered only the figure. Other times it covered an entire panel. Some months, they seem to have experimented with spiking the exposure for the entirety of the issue (leading to much burned-off detail. See Cerebus issues 74 and 75, which are radically different in the original art.)

Here's a sample, from the same page as above. The top one is from the original art. The bottom is from the negative. This entire panel has had its exposure spiked. Notice how everything is fairly uniformly smaller, and some of the detail is burned away.

I don't know that anything should be done about something like this after the fact. I certainly have avoided this kind of thing myself in creating new editions of the books, as it mucks with the overall values of the page when you make some things a different density mechanically than the artist saw them on their board. But there's not really any way to turn back the clock on something like this unless you have the original artwork to compare it to. I mention it for your edification alone.


E) If something applies to one page of an issue, there's a pretty good chance it applies to the rest of the issue as well.

Since we've spent the past three installments talking about correcting existing problems in negatives, it seems worth mentioning that, if you're working with negatives that were created for a serial publication, whatever the "best" solution you've arrived at is for a certain page of an installment, it most likely applies just as well to the remainder of the pages of that installment.

This is because negatives for an entire issue were usually shot one by one, in sequence, in a single session. Same camera operators, same stat camera, same film.

Which gets us to the last observation, for now—

F) Working with negatives is a lot easier than working with original art with aged mechanical tone.


-Easier to "gang-adjust", i.e. script the majority of the work.
-Cleanup is easier, as some long-toiling camera operator and stripper already did the worst of it for you in past.
-Although they can get dirty, they can also be cleaned. And nothing on a negative is shrinking or gradually self-destructing, unlike that acid-filled art board with rubber cement and Letratone continually eating away at the surface.

Next week: Newsprint, at last!

Sean Michael Robinson is a writer, artist, and musician. See more at


Jeff Seiler said...

Sean, once again, a fascinating discussion of arcane stuff of which I have no earthly clue.

Except that, when I'm proofreading CEREBUS; the various volumes (out of order); I often have to ask myself what Dave intended on the given page.

Was he intentionally misspelling words because of a given dia-ah say, DIalect, or did he just screw up the spelling.

Your work, Sean, is far more technical than is mine, but we both have those moments, I think, when we sigh, raise both hands in the air and mimic a balance scale and go, "Eh."


Sean R said...

You're absolutely right, Jeff. You reach a stage with this type of thing where there's not really "better," there's just "different". In my case, this has also involved reminding myself that each book or even printing has the opportunity to be better, as my knowledge, selection of printer, working w the technical staff at the printer etc, has improved.