Improve your keyframe skills
Film and video game artist Kan Muftic depicts a scene in a story and conveys emotions through gestures
Kan Muftic depicts a scene for film use.
Films, TV programmes, video games and even 30-second adverts need great stories. In most cases, these stories are written and handed over to an artist, whose task is to transform the words into a single example of engaging imagery: the keyframe. The main goal here is for the image to be able to tell a moment of the story without any additional description.
This is what I love doing the most, because it requires all of my skills: composition, light, colours, character design, anatomy and suchlike. It’s also important to mention that keyframe illustration doesn’t always require a huge amount of detail, as long as it describes the scene.
These days it’s quite common to achieve this by combining a collection of photographs, resulting in a quick and dirty painting. Indeed, I do that myself a lot for my clients. However, in this workshop I won’t use any photographs because I believe a lot of originality becomes lost through photo-bashing. It’s our responsibility as artists not to let this speed technique take over the more traditional approaches, and to paint whenever possible.
Read and digest the script
The first step I normally take is to read the script. It’s a incredibly important stage because it sets up everything I do from now on. For the purposes of this workshop I conjure up a moment in a story called The Pyjama Knight. Jack is sitting on his bed at night, staring at Clownface and his friend Chubuscus. A strip of light from the hallway indicates a slightly open door and Jack’s fear of the dark. Clownface is saying, “They have taken everything. We have no one else to go to, Jack…”
Imagining the scene
I don’t just jump in and start doodling. Drawing is a form of communication, therefore I think first before I start saying anything with images. I relax with a cup of tea, close my eyes and imagine the scene unveiling in front of me. And soon, the important questions start popping up. Where would I observe this from? How do those characters behave – are they hectic or calm? What do their voices sound like?
Sketching out ideas
Having answered some of those questions, I decide to go for a Spielberg meets Miyazaki type of scene. A fragile kid is visited by some bizarre but friendly characters from a different realm. They’re seeking Jack’s help, which is the main point of this keyframe illustration. So I centre the two characters around Jack’s bed, which will make him stand out as a protagonist – and the eventual hero of the story.
Designing the light
I always try to use light as a design tool, just like I do with shapes and colours. In this scene, I want to illuminate the room with the moonlight, but I also want to have a secondary light coming from the hallway. Cool moonlight will complement the warm interior light. For this stage, I use very flat but clear values – all in black and white.
Moonlight will illuminate most of the room, so I create the base with a simple bluish tint. I do that by going to Image>Adjustments>Hue/Saturation and checking the Colorize box. Then I play around with sliders, finding the right tone. I always establish my base colour from the predominant light source. If this were an exterior scene set in daylight, I’d start with a warm colour.
Now that I have my base, I move the Color Picker slightly towards grey and start blending in the warmer tones. I say warmer tones because grey next to a cool colour appears warm. I don’t jump straight to reds and yellows – instead, I approach them gradually to keep the overall harmony. This is usually the messiest part of my process.
I decide to bring in more warmth to the room, because I don’t want the scene to look frightening. I create a new layer and set it to Overlay. Then I pick an earthy colour and start blocking it in from the lower left corner, away from the window with the cool moonlight. I place my strokes where I believe the cool light doesn’t reach. However, there has to be some mixing, so I carefully blend in the strokes with the background.
Apply rim lights for clarity’s sake
I want to further downplay the bluish tint, so after warming the room up I add bluish rim lights that suggest at outdoor light. They also help to define edges and the location of objects. When doing this stage, the colour progresses towards the colour of the light, not just towards plain white. I still keep everything fairly low in saturation.
I roughly place in a stripe of warm light coming from behind Chubuscus and over the bed and Jack’s face. The idea is to lead the viewer to Jack and present him as a character who’s hiding in the shadows. All of this works on a subconscious level and it’s exactly the kind of thing that helps tell the story better. Some of the light is reflected on Chubuscus and Clownface.
Jack stays slightly obscured by the stripe of light, but I want the other two characters to be expressive and connected to Jack. Clownface is a gentle giant while Chubuscus is a bundle of energy. When telling stories with characters, posture is everything. Jack is displaying insecurity, Chubuscus is curious and Clownface is exposing weakness.
I decide to get rid of the bright patch behind Clownface. It’s an unwanted focal point and also it isn’t quite accurate. So I simply paint it out by extending the colours and the tone of the wall on the left. I want to make this fantasy encounter as realisticlooking as possible – even if that sounds like a contradiction in terms!
As I mentioned earlier, I want to make those two characters slightly strange-looking but friendly. I’m making Clownface look very gentle, adding large lashes and a harmless mouth expression. Chubuscus gets more puppet-like features, such as nose and chin. Getting his facial expression to look tense is tricky.
Jack is a bit of a geek and I imagine him being a fan of video games. Perhaps that’s where he meets strange people who reveal incredible mysteries, maybe even an unseen world that Clownface and Chubuscus are from. And what if there’s a yearly gathering of similar-minded kids like Jack? Surely he would have some sort of poster as a memory or a statement?
I work on some details, mainly his face. I add a hint of his upper teeth, which instantly gives him more personality. I get caught up in rendering his hands, but realise what I’m doing and simplify them so as to not break the overall distribution of the detail. As I darken the whole environment, some of the highlighted features pop out. I’m achieving quite a cartoony palette and I’m happy with it.
I tweak the colour scheme towards yellow and place superhero toys in the lower left corner, for more visual interest. Next I fix the wallpaper and make the clouds on it smaller and cleaner. I add details here and there, but don’t overdo it because I want to keep the focus on the scene as a whole. And there it is. Our Pyjama Knight keyframe illustration.