Im­prove your keyframe skills

Film and video game artist Kan Muftic de­picts a scene in a story and con­veys emo­tions through ges­tures

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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.


Colour base

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.


Be­gin blend­ing

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.


Warm­ing up

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.


Hall­way light

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.


Body lan­guage

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.


Win­dow pro­jec­tion

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!


In­ter­est­ing faces

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.


Wall poster

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?


Re­fin­ing Clown­face

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.


Fin­ish­ing up

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.

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