November, 19th is a date worth marking on your calendar. It’s the day Upon the Flight of the Queen (St. Martin’s Press), the second installment of Howard Andrew Jones’ Ring-Sworn Trilogy debuts. I loved For the Killing of Kings, the first book. You can read my review of it here. It’s a terrific swords & sorcery tale with a heavy dose of swashbuckling. If you haven’t read it yet, it should be clear I heartily recommend it. It’s felt like an age since my last post here at Black Gate. I’m still not sure when I’ll return here with any sort of regularity, but for books like this, I’m willing to make an appearance.
I’m old, so the idea of doing a trailer for a book isn’t something I’ve ever thought of. Apparently it’s a thing and it can be pretty cool. Up above is the brand new one for Upon the Flight of the Queen and it was done by Jones’ son, Darian Jones, an animator (as well as many other talents as will become clear later). As trailers are a whole new concept for me, I figured I’d ask Darian about himself and how he created the one for Flight.
Fletcher: So, Darian, can you please, tell us about yourself and your animation background?
Darian: Hello! Well, like my father, I have always been a performer and a storyteller. As a kid, he and I would be unable to watch a movie or listen to a song without taking it apart and analyzing it together. Animation seemed like the natural marriage of writing, art, and music, all things I loved to create. It started with simple comics during middle school at recess (and anytime the teacher wasn’t looking). Then I tried my hand at stop motion using stuffed animals and action figures. Over time I just fell in love with the medium. There is a vast storytelling potential in animation. I believe it is the best way to make any story visually beautiful and expressive. Unlike film, animation grants its creator the most minute control over every detail. I determine exactly what colors I use scene-by-scene. I determine how a character gesticulates and how their face emotes when they speak. I can give them shark teeth or hair made of drifting clouds if I want. My commitment to the study of animation earned me straight As and a position as Lead Animator on our class’ student thesis film. My professor said it was not only my skills with the medium but also my ability to negotiate calmly and effectively during times of extreme stress that won me the title. Now I have graduated college and I’ve been making little animations every chance I get to build my portfolio and, hopefully, win new positions at studios. Until then, I’m doing freelance work for writers and businesses.
Can you describe how you made the video from a technical standpoint?
This animation required proficiency in several computer programs, however it began on paper. I sketched the characters, monsters, and cultural aesthetics over and over again for about a week, gradually feeling out the visual language my dad wanted for the video. In addition, I wrote a schedule with a series of deadlines for stages in the project. Also during this time, I hopped into Finale Notation Software and composed the musical score (based on my dad’s melody) for the video. Then, I made something called a storyboard. Similar to a comic, this is a series of thumbnail drawings of all the important moments in an upcoming animated production. They’re like visual roadmaps, or story outlines for animators. In a storyboard, an animator figures out how to best communicate a message with nothing but visual language: what colors to use, how the character should stand, the clearest way to imply tension, action, sadness, triumph, et cetera. I also planned out the emotional scenes so that they coincided with key moments in the music. The storyboard took only two days to complete and one day to edit to my client’s liking. Then I opened up Toon Boom Harmony, a 2D animation software, and used my tablet to animate four of the eight scenes. This process begins with sketchy “rough” animations in which I figure out how each movement should be timed out. I took reference videos of light moving across a ring, people drawing swords and bows, and even people walking, in order to make sure the animation moved in a believable fashion. Next, I drew over the top of these roughs with precise linework and dropped color into the cells. I digitally painted all the backgrounds by hand in Adobe Photoshop.
I also created the other four scenes in Photoshop. E.G. for the monster, I drew a background, a body, and then three separate heads in various stages from closed to open. Then I imported them all into Adobe After Effects and animated them as puppets, raising and lowering the opacity of different layers so that they blurred into each other. The most challenging scene was probably the intense zoom scene near the end where the camera starts on Varama’s ring and then pulls out to show the burning city and the balloons crashing down. Toon Boom actually has a really nice 3d feature. After painting at least seven layers in Photoshop, I imported them into Toon Boom and pulled them apart so that each one was on top of another, with the sky in the back and Varama in the front. Then I animated the camera so that it would pull away from her, slowly at first, and then faster. All this was done while the fire was flickering, Varama’s khalat was flapping in the wind, and the balloons were glowing and falling down. The scene was so large it very nearly crashed my computer! Once all the animation and artwork was done, I imported all the scenes into After Effects and edited them together in time with the music I’d composed. I added extra visual effects like the blue gleam on Varama’s ring and the smoke in the background of the marching army. I also added vignettes and altered hue, saturation, and contrast where needed. When that process was done, I exported the video to Adobe Media Encoder to be rendered in full HD quality. The process in all took a tight two months, but ideally in the future, I would like to take three months to complete a similar project, to avoid staying up three nights in a row.
How did you come up with the character designs?
My client (Dad) was in close contact with me throughout the project. I read over the descriptions of each character very closely and drew variations of their faces until I found designs that were both visually appealing and that pleased my client. It helped that, as a member of the family, I had been one of the early beta readers, helping him flesh out the character descriptions from the start. I had designed their uniforms (khalats) a few years back and it had been referenced by the cover artist so I used this design again to inform my shape-language and color schemes. Each character’s distinctive personality needs to come across in the details of their face and body. Kyrkenall, for example, is a handsome, roguish, trickster with a fondness for poetry and a penchant for killing gracefully. He’s also described as having black eyes, long hair, and dark skin, but those are his least important features. The true communication of his personality comes from the way he holds himself and the shape of his features. I gave him a pointy, dangerous-looking nose, a jagged jawline and sharp cheekbones, and narrow, crinkled eyes to show that he was used to drinking and smiling wryly. All these features suggest a competent, dangerous, road-worn hero.
I especially love the shadowed face of the Queen. Can you tell me something in particular about her design?
It took more than the average number of tries to sculpt a perfect face for the queen. Her scene, in fact, was the very last one to be fully completed. According to the text, she needed to be beautiful in a strange, alien way, elegant and gaunt, with mildly insane, dispassionate eyes. I originally planned on a more literal interpretation of corruption, showing her reflection in a Hearthstone as she turned away from the Naor invasion. But, I quickly realized that a scene like this wasn’t very evocative or dynamic. So I looked back at my inspiration. My client and I had discussed at length our favorite cartoon theme songs. One of them was the theme from Batman Beyond, which, coincidentally, also showed a visual example of corruption. Theirs was a simple drawing of police hover cars. And yet, the drawing evoked a foreboding, sinister feeling. They had managed to communicate the idea of corruption with nothing but a dark, high-contrast color scheme, a skewed camera perspective, and some intense shadows. This is why I decided to obscure the Queen’s eyes with darkness. I wanted to imply shady intentions and veiled motives by covering up the windows to her soul.
I found the music striking, is it supposed to be the theme of the Altenerai? Could you tell us about how you composed and arranged it?
The theme music started as a melody my dad wrote. He was thinking of using it for his magazine, Tales From the Magician’s Skull, along with a simple Jonny Quest-ish title montage. But, as the deadline for his new book approached he considered the possibilities of using it for an ad. I took it and ran with it. It could very well be the theme of the Altenerai. That is a question for my client. The notation software I used is called Finale and it works pretty simply: you enter the notes onto a staff and it plays them back with synth instruments. The quality is good enough to pass as a real recording if you don’t listen too hard. My client wanted the arrangement to sound exotic but not grounded in any particular culture, so I mixed the driving bass with classical horns, Middle-Eastern woodwinds, oriental harmonized strings, a Spanish trumpet blast, and some intense ethnic drums. The bass guitar was my dad’s proudest accomplishment (he has a knack for writing great bass riffs) so I decided to highlight this. He asked me to add some McCartney-esque runs as well. That was fun.
Finally, what are your tastes in fantasy?
I love fantasy! I tend to read and write YA series, having grown up with The Edge Chronicles, Peter and the Starcatchers, and Neil Gaiman. More recently, I’ve gotten into pulp sword and sorcery, with my dad’s guidance of course. I started reading Harold Lamb and Robert E. Howard in high school and college. Needless to say, I also enjoy fantasy in animation. Some favorites include Avatar: The Last Airbender, Mighty Max, and Studio Ghibli films. I also love adventure stories with a hint of horror and mystery. There’s nothing like a good creepy monster or a truly rotten villainous plot. As time has passed, I’ve gotten more and more into macabre fantasy likeSandman, Courtney Crumrin, and Hellboy. I’m currently working on my own urban fantasy horror comic, the first chapter of which should be up on my website in a month or two if all goes according to schedule. However, it’s important to note that a scary monster does not a good story make. The priority is always to make the adventure fun, the characters compelling and consistent, and the conclusion satisfying.
If you want to see more of my artwork or drop me a line, you can find me at darianvincentjones.com.
So there you go. It’s really impressive, and more than a little daunting, to realize how much effort went into the trailer’s creation. I think it does a great job conveying the dash and excitement of Howard’s writing. It’s definitely got me looking forward to starting Upon the Flight of the Queen this weekend. I’ll be back with my review in a couple of weeks, so stayed tuned.
PS: After the interview, Howard dropped me a line providing some extra insight into the composition of the trailer’s music.
What he doesn’t say in that answer about music is just how fast he is with Finale software, and it may not be clear just how excellent a musician Darian is. I played him the theme I’d composed on keyboard, with a few chords, and then hummed him the bass line – well, actually I hummed while playing the air bass. The next day he dragged me away from my laptop and suggested some additional chords, which I approved. The day after that he took three hours – only three – and composed and arranged the score, every instrument, start to finish. No errors. He can sit down with Finale and just drop in the notes without consulting a keyboard, he’s so certain of what he hears in his head. Watching him work is like that moment in Amadeus where Mozart is calmly scratching out a new piece while messing about with a billiard ball in his off hand. I’m a trained musician and can read music as well as work things out by ear, but his musical ability astounds me.