The Opti Interview - with Malabarista

1 Conversation

A magic biro

Opticalillusion: Hello and welcome to another edition of The Opti Interview. This week we are in for a very special treat as we will learn not just one thing but two things from the great Researcher Malabarista.

Hello, Malabarista, please pull up a chair and make yourself comfy.

Malabarista:Hello, Opti, hello, . Learning things from me? Really?

*Pulls up chair, turns it around and straddles it*

Opticalillusion: For those out there who have yet to make your acquaintance, how would you describe yourself and the role which you play on h2g2?

Malabarista: Let's see... Both on hootoo and out in the real world, I think the best way to describe me is 'everything at once, please'. Athanasius Kircher, Thomas Young, and even Archimedes have all been nominated as the 'last man to know everything', but that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to try for Renaissance Woman status... Since that's not very practical, and I enjoy marching to the beat of a different drum, smiley - drumroll I have the most fun when I'm doing and learning things that are considered a bit obscure. Why know just what everyone else knows?

I spend entirely too much time on hootoo, but there's just so much to do here! It suits my style perfectly, jumping back and forth between different activities constantly. (I usually read several books at once, too...) First, I like to write Entries on whatever's caught my interest at the moment, to give me an excuse for further research. I take delight in the eclectic. It probably just means I have a short attention span. Since I spend so much time here anyway, I decided I might as well become a Sub-Ed and a Scout, probably because it gives me a licence to nitpick. Also, I have a lot of wonderful friends here that I can chat with while working, so I don't get lonely during those long days and nights at the (digital) drawing board. And they come with me when I move!

Opticalillusion: What drew you to becoming an Artist?

Malabarista: There are a lot of great blobs to be found in the hootoo archives, but like so many volunteer schemes, the Artists had more or less died out by the time I got around to volunteering. The few people I found with Artist badges who were still active on hootoo didn't respond to my attempts to ask them about joining. That made me all the more determined to revive it... It later turned out that there were still a few Artists around; they were just staying under the radar. While the Photographers scheme is wonderful, I believe that some Entries are simply better suited to having a blob drawn for them, be it because the subject is abstract or because it would take time travel (or a big special effects budget) to photograph something suitable.

Of course, I'm not doing it all out of the goodness of my little heart. We're meant to be doing quite a bit of drawing at Uni, both by hand and on the computer. But when I started my own webcomic last year, it taught me more about using Photoshop and various hand drawing techniques than Uni ever did. Hootoo blobs are a great way to continue experimenting, because you don't have to come up with a subject yourself, they're relatively quick to draw and colour, and they don't really have to fit with the other blobs style-wise - each one stands alone.

Also, remember when you were a child, and wanted to give someone a gift, and all you had to do was draw a picture for them and they'd love it? Being in the Artists is just like that! I can't quite explain it, but it seems that getting a blob for your Entry is considered an honour! smiley - wow

Opticalillusion: How long have you been an Artist?

Malabarista: I can't remember when exactly I got the smiley - magic e-mail that I'd been accepted into the Artists, but I drew my test blob on 5 June, 2008, for the Entry on 'How To Make Satay Sauce'. At first, I was just finding Entries to illustrate myself - whatever caught my eye while I was browsing - but it's gotten to the point where people are actually asking me to draw blobs for them now! And three more people have joined the Artists since then, so we just might get the scheme off the ground properly again. (Yes, this is what we Germans call 'der Wink mit dem Zaunpfahl' - 'waving with a fence-post'. A very broad hint. Come on, you artist types, we need you!)

Opticalillusion: Fairly recently, I understand, you became an Artist for The Post, challenged yourself to create pictures for new Entries by Researchers who have never picked up one of these smiley - biro and helped create new smileys, what's next in the pipeline, so to speak?

Malabarista: One thing I'd really like to see is the possibility of putting more illustrations in the body of EGEs - explanatory diagrams, for example, which is currently only allowed under very specific circumstances. And it would be great if we could do animated blobs again, which are no longer accepted. But those aren't things over which I have any control, alas.

I hope to have some free time soon in which I can learn various computer programs I've always wanted to be able to use, including Flash and Cinema 4D - and what better way to practice those new skills than cooperating with the Aviators? Surely, some projects would benefit from being animated rather than filmed. There is also my new project that runs in The Post and is meant to encourage contributions by people who wouldn't otherwise think of submitting drawings to h2g2. It has started really well. The latest project is the h2g2 Picture Library - Community Art Edition, where we're trying to index all the blobs which don't appear as a collection elsewhere on h2g2.

Opticalillusion: Now I understand you wanted to show us all something special.

Malabarista: As most people will be aware - even the Goo users, hopefully, by the time this is published - we've acquired 14 new smileys not too long ago. I'd like to take this opportunity to show that there's no magic involved, just hard work and a lot of pixel pushing. Here's your very own 'Smiley: Making Of'!

Let's start with the smiley - flyingpig, since that's the first one I finished. I started off by hand-sketching that and a lot of the others that were on the list the Eds gave us. Since the finished smileys were going to be so small, I didn't bother inking, just used a soft pencil. Here's the pig, at original size.

I scanned the drawing and adjusted it in Photoshop until I had nice, crisp lines, then coloured it a bright, piggy pink, with ivory wings.

Next, I did a little shading, to get that ham gleaming.

The more observant of you may have noticed that that drawing doesn't look like the smiley - flyingpig - the posture is totally different. That's because when I shrunk it, the details were lost, as there was nothing for them to contrast against. So I went back to the bigger version and partly redrew it for more interesting negative spaces. It looks like it enjoys flying a lot more now, too!

Finally, I cropped it close so I'd not waste any height on empty space, and reduced the size to 16 pixels high - and then had to adjust the outlines again so they'd be darker and crisper.

Since reducing the image in size also antialiases it, and the pixels at the edge are semitransparent in Photoshop - something that is lost when the file is saved as a gif - it was now only a matter of putting a white and a blue background behind them and saving two different versions, for Brunel/Alabaster and Goo. You won't normally see the rectangular background in conversations, but since people are fond of putting them on their personal spaces with a variety of colours behind them, or even passing over each other in marquees, I saved them with transparency enabled for the background colours so you don't get the rectangle.

The second one I'd like to explain is the smiley - drumroll, because that one was made a bit differently. First, I drew it entirely on the computer - no pencil touched paper for this one! The contours and colouring were both done with the path tool, something I'm still practicing. You can see the 'stair steps' on the curves, but only at the original size. That's why we antialias... Then, I added drumsticks - two pairs, in fact, one pointing in a more downwardly direction, the other nearly horizontal.

Each drumstick is on a separate layer, so I can simply turn them on and off for the animation. The colours are on different layers, too; the Goo version of this smiley is red and white instead of red and blue, for better contrast. Just like the smiley - pggb has a purple umbrella for white backgrounds and a red one for blue backgrounds, and smiley - shrug changes shirts depending on which skin you're in. But back to smiley animation...

Basically, it's just a matter of turning on the right combination of layers for each frame. The drumroll is animated in four frames, to give it a nice 'rolling' effect rather than just alternating the drumsticks - I tried that in a two-frame animation first, and it didn't look very good, though the finished file was, of course, smaller. Each drumstick is in the same position for two frames, but they switch in alternate frames, and the frames are each displayed half the length of time they were in the two-frame animation. Oh, it's probably simpler just to show you: on the left is the drumroll smiley as it would look animated in two frames, on the right is the smiley as it is now, for comparison.

The principle is the same for the other animated smileys. smiley - pggb only needs three frames to animate, while smiley - simpost takes nine, but it's really just a matter of turning layers on and off and pushing elements to different positions. I made all my smileys using a combination of these techniques, relying more heavily on computer drawing for the later ones. Maybe if you're all very good, I'll put together a parade of pictures from the rejected ideas gallery sometime...

Opticalillusion: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule and letting me interview you. May you have many more happy times hootooing.

Malabarista: Thanks for letting me talk!

*waits for people to queue up wanting to join the Artists*

smiley - flyingpig

The Opti Interview Archive

Opticalillusion and Malabarista

23.07.09 Front Page

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