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Moriash Moreau: My Second Life
Thursday, October 27, 2005
SL Webcomic Tips, Part 1
Now that we (my co-creator, Chrestomanci Bard, and I) have completed over 50 strips, I'm going to declare myself an unofficial expert in the field of SL webcomics. (Marvel at the ego here! Marvel, I say!) And, as such, it behooves me to pass on the wisdom I've accumulated in the past few... Uh... Months. So, for the next indeterminate time period, I'm going to write up some hints and tricks for making your own SL screenshot-based webcomics. Some of these will be pretty obvious, but I'll go ahead and cover the basics for those of you who are new to SL in general. In any case, on with the show!

Addendum 12/2/05:
There are currently four articles in this series (possibly with more to come). They are:
  • Part 1 - Text balloons, fonts, screenshot creation tips.
  • Part 2 - Lighting tips.
  • Part 3 - Tips for dealing with avatars, and their human players.
  • Part 4 - Tips for using poses and animations.
  • Part 5 - Quick miscellaneous tips.

I'll probably formalize (and rewrite, and edit, and trim about half the wordcount from) these at some point, for inclusion in the Plywood FAQ. But, in the meantime, I hope you can find some useful info in the early drafts.

I'll start with the easy question, and the only one that I've been asked directly: How do I make the speech balloons? It's really not that complicated. Take a look at this tutorial by Jim Zubkavich. It will require a basic understanding of layers. (AKA "objects," if you use Corel Photopaint. It's exceedingly frustrating when manufacturers change common names to dodge look and feel suits from their competitors. P-shop and Corel are both bad about this.) Just make sure that every single thing is on a new layer (is a new object). I often have upwards of 80 or 90 distinct objects by the time I'm done.

As for style, well, the only specific advice I can give is to watch the flow. Word balloons (at least for comics in English) are read left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Keep this in mind when you're shooting your screenshots. The first speaker is generally on the left, to keep from having to do odd speech-balloon gymnastics for clarity. (This is something I'm still caught out on, sometimes.) Otherwise, read other webcomics, comic books, and so on. Pay attention to the style. And be prepared to redo your speech balloons two or three times until everything works. Here is a basic primer on common styles of speech balloons (125kB PDF).

For the actual text, just make sure you pick a font that's readable, in a size that works for online viewing. I would suggest using a hand-lettered, all-caps font, if for no other reason than it's traditional, and gives a classic comic feel to the strips. In practical terms, all-caps lettering is also easier to read, so you can make the text smaller. Trust me, you'll be glad to save as much space as you can, especially when your characters launch into nigh-Shakespearean soliloquies.

There are a variety of excellent free fonts out there. But please, please, please don't use Comic Sans MS! Everyone and his grandmother uses that when they want to be cute in e-mails or on the web. Try to find something with a little more style.

As for the actual graphics, the key to a decent screenshot is simple patience. No, seriously. Open your Preferences menu, and go to the Graphics and Advanced Graphics tabs. Take the object detail, tree detail, and avatar detail sliders and push them all the way to the right. If you're taking pictures out in the open, push your viewing distance up to several hundred meters. (If your shot has particles in it, reduce this somewhat, as the particle count will reduce with increased client lag.) Set the "Drop draw distance if FPS<" box to 0. If your shot requires it, turn on local lighting. (But only if your shot requires it. We've only used it in one strip. It often causes more problems than it solves, and it's a huge client lag source.) Set your terrain detail to max, if you're standing on open ground. Basically, turn on all those options you wish you could use all the time.

Now go get a Coke while your screen rezzes, because unless you're on a Cray supercomputer with about 8,192 megs of video RAM, your framerate will have just dropped to around 0.3 FPS.

And if you're saying "But Mori! My computer will crash if I do that," don't despair. Some settings are more important, and more noticeable, than others. I'd say that the detail sliders (especially the Objects slider) have the most impact for our purposes. Keep those at the maximum if at all possible, or at least above 70% or better. (Below that, and curves will turn into a very noticeable collection of straight lines and angles.) You can do quite a bit with lower settings for the other options, especially if care is taken to hide any awkward fields of view that rapidly turn into fog in the middle distance.

Addendum 11/7/05:
I've been thinking about the above paragraph lately. Please don't let your inability to push your machine to maximum settings across the board stop you from giving this a shot. Ultimately, it'll be a matter of style. For example, setting your ground texture detail to low will give a smooth green shading to the ground, instead of the detailed grass-and-weeds. Many people play this way all the time, of course. And it could very well fit the look you are going for in your comic. There are a variety of things you can do to hide the limits of your equipment. I often have to sacrifice maximum detail when lag is bad, or when my mid-specs machine isn't up to the task for whatever reason.

You can try playing with your fog ratio, to either increase or decrease the visible fog at the edge of the viewing distance. Either could be advantageous, depending on the circumstances. More fog (lower ratio), less detail could give a more abstract feel. Less fog (higher ratio) will give sharper detail out to the limits of your viewing distance, then sharply cut off objects as they get out of range. With proper backdrops (such as walls or dense trees, or even textured background panels), this can maintain sharp focus throughout. There are probably other things I'm forgetting here. I'd suggest you just play with settings until you have a combination that works on your setup and fits with your desired style.

I would suggest two other things. First, setup your shot before you change the your preferences to maximum. It's painful to have to move your camera around when you're only getting updates every other second. Second, leave your preferences window minimized. When your detail settings are high, the client lag will make it difficult to open the pulldown menus again when it comes time to reduce your preferences back to sane levels.

Well, that's all for now. Nothing too profound here, so far. I'll get into more practical specifics in future installments. More to come!
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