Spend some time in the hallowed forums at Action Figure Insider and you’ll quickly discern that many collectors are also serious comic book fans. So I though it might be interesting to spend some time talking with comic industry insider, Brian Miller. No doubt, you’ve seen his coloring in some of the many titles he has worked on over the years. Comics colorists are often the unsung heroes of the creative team producing comic books. Gone are the days of non-artists laying down flat color in assembly line fashion. Colorists are now pivotal in helping to tell the story.
AFI: How long have you been working in the comics industry?
BM: I fell into comics in 1992 hand coloring Captain Crafty for creator/artist Brian Rice. By 1994 we had the first fully digitally colored copies of Captain Crafty for sale at Chicago Comic Con where I met other creators like BIlly Tucci, John Byrne, and Terry Moore. I quit my day-job as a creative director in 1998 and started Hi-Fi with 3 or 4 of us penciling, inking, coloring, or lettering any projects that we could find. In 1999 Rob Liefeld called and asked if Hi-Fi could help out with issue #75 of Cable. That was certainly the big break Hi-Fi had been hoping for. Now Hi-Fi is celebrating our 10th anniversary and even we’re surprised by all the cool comics, toys, games, and other cool projects we’ve been a part of.
AFI: What comics have you been coloring recently?
BM: Hi-Fi has been coloring a lot of comics for DC lately and I couldn’t be happier about it. My personal favorite is Booster Gold. When editor Michael Siglain called after 52 ended and asked if I would be interested in coloring Booster Gold re-vamp I told him I only wanted to do it if Booster Gold creator Dan Jurgens was involved. As luck would have it Dan was already on board as was Geoff Johns add inker Norm Rapmund to the mix and I think we have a creative team like none other. The new Booster Gold is essentially a riff on the Quantum Leap TV show with Booster bouncing around through various time periods in the DC Universe righting wrongs and stopping calamities from happening to begin with. The blend of action, humor, and amazing visuals is a perfect match for me and remind me of Captain Crafty from all those years ago. I feel like everything in my life was a prelude to coloring Booster Gold.
So, if Booster Gold is the dream job, coloring titles like JSA, Legion of Three Worlds, Superman, Nightwing and Birds of Prey are all icing on the cake. I mean, that is what I love about working in comics. There is so much variety and excitement out there with all of these amazing characters and we have the opportunity to help tell these incredible stories with our coloring. Never a dull moment.
AFI: You mentioned "Birds of Prey." There are a lot of fans sad to hear the title is coming to an end.
BM: You know, I was really sad to hear that. We’ve been coloring Birds of Prey since issue 47 and today we’re working on issue 125 and by the time the series ends we’ll have colored over 80 consecutive issues. I think that really speaks to how hard we work to keep the colors on Birds of Prey consistent and fresh. I make an effort to sort of re-envision the look for Birds of Prey one or twice each year. To make sure we don’t become stale or stagnant. We never want to rest on our past successes. Birds of Prey fans tell us they appreciate whenever a new creative team is rotated into Birds of Prey, Hi-Fi has been there to make sure that the identity of the core characters is not lost in the shuffle.
So, yes, losing Birds of Prey is a huge blow. I am so heartbroken that the book is going away. On the other hand Nightwing is also going away at the end of Batman R.I.P. and I can’t help but wonder if DC doesn’t have some bigger plans for the Birds of Prey characters and Nightwing in the post R.I.P. DC Universe that they haven’t revealed yet. What do I know? Nothing. It’s all speculation at this point.
AFI: So you’ve been working primarily with DC. Has it always been that way?
BM: For a long time Hi-Fi was associated with Marvel. We colored Cable, Wolverine, New X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, Avengers, and more for years. It seems like Marvel and DC come and go in waves. Quite a few of our DC editors used to be at Marvel and vice-versa so as much as the fans sometimes want to take sides, working within the industry we enjoy working for DC and Marvel equally. Who wouldn’t want to color Batman on Monday and Wolverine on Thursday?
What a lot of fans may not know are all the other comics and projects we’re involved with in the US and internationally. We are coloring some Spiderman comics for Panini, who has the Marvel license in parts of Europe. We color comics for Titan Magazines UK that are based on DreamWorks properties like Shrek and Madagascar or BBC properties like Torchwood & Doctor WHO. We color for toy companies like Hasbro and Mattel. Some for package design, some for comics inserted in with the toys, but most of it is pre-visualization work that the consumer never sees. We also color quite a bit of film and TV properties like Star Wars, Star Trek, Ghost Whisperer, Farscape, and more. Not to mention all the top secret stuff I’m not allowed tell you about.
AFI: Can you explain to us some of the process involved in coloring a comic?
BM: Great question (laughs). Most people have no idea what a colorist does or how we color comics. I would say 90% of people are amazed to learn that comics are digitally colored and most have been for the past decade. Even editors and other creators seldom know exactly what black magic we are working on our computers. The sad news is there is no "color button". Coloring is a real craft just like penciling and inking. The big difference is a colorist has to be as proficient at technical art as an architect and as creative as a traditional oil painter. The combination of technical and creative skills is rare as it takes a sort of right brain/left brain person to be good at both.
We start by bringing the art into the computer. Sometimes we scan the art at Hi-Fi, other times we receive digital files from the client.
We prep the pages for coloring and start with Flatting. Flatting is the process of selecting areas of an image and laying in flat color fills. At this point the pages look reminiscent of 1950′s era comics.
Once the image is flatted we can start the Rendering process. Rendering is exactly like painting. At Hi-Fi we work from dark to light like the renaissance oil painters. In real life we see things when light is "added" and reflected off of objects so working from dark to light creates a look more analogous to our real work experience. This is also the way 3-D studios like PIXAR work. The main difference is we do all the rendering by and over hand drawn artwork.
I usually start bey rendering the background first. My approach is to create a believable environment for the characters to exist in. While rendering the background I establish where my primary and secondary light sources will be. That makes rendering the figures easier and it removes much of the guesswork.
Once the background is complete I render the figures, or in this case, figure. I want Magog to be illuminated by the burning pit below and behind him so there is almost a halo around him. Based on the inked artwork the glow of Magog’s staff does not feature as a light source on the figure so I’ll keep the staff’s energy tightly focused.
Once the rendering is complete we may change some of the black inked lines to color. This is called Color Holds. Then we’ll add any special lighting effects needed to complete the image. Finally we use our own special process to create a high resolution CMYK color separation file ready to be printed on a commercial printing press. As you can imagine, this CMYK color file needs to reproduce very closely to what we see on out monitors. Could you imagine if R2-D2′s blue areas printed green? We would be out of business.
Final image with effects:
AFI: Besides coloring comics what other endeavors have you been up to?
BM: I’ve been doing some personal art projects for fun. IDW asked me to paint some covers for their Ghost Whisperer and Angel comics books and while it is a lot of work, it is a lot of fun too. Star Wars artist Joe Corroney also brought me into the fold of Sketch Card artist for Topps. I’ve drawn several hundred sketch cards for Clone Wars, Indiana Jones Masterpiece, and I’m currently working on Star Wars Galaxies. These cards are a lot of fun and good for the fans since each one is a hand drawn original. I’m a fan too, I would love to pull an original Drew Struzan drawing from a pack of cards. Who wouldn’t?
The comic book industry has been so good to me over the years that my wife and partner, Kristy, and I wanted to give something back. Last year Impact Books released Hi-Fi Color for Comics. The book features step-by-step tutorials for coloring comic artwork, advice from industry pros like Gail Simone, Terry Moore, and others, along with a bonuses CD full of art to practice on, Photoshop brushes, action, & scripts. The book has been well received by aspiring artist and is being adopted by some colleges and art schools. Our goal is to give any creative person out there who is thinking about a career in comics, toys, games, etc. the information, tools, and techniques they need to succeed. There is very little art-education available for people wanting to break into comics, specifically coloring, so anything we can do to help prepare the next generation of comic book talent would be a legacy worth more than all the success Hi-Fi has experienced over the past decade.
AFI: Now, as you know this interview will be posted on an action figure collecting web site. Have you ever worked on projects that cross into toy territory?
BM: Oh yes. Our first gig with Hasbro was coloring all of this concept art for a line of Batman figures. Not to mention projects for Go-Bots, Transformers, and Mr. Potato head. Easy to forget about all those Potato head variants they make. Plus we’ve worked on comics that were inserted into GI Joe toys for Hasbro and Comics for He-Man toys for Mattel. There is so much crossing of the streams when it comes to comics, animation, and action figures.
For consistency it is nice to be involved in all fronts sometimes. I was very pleased with some of the Micronauts figures that were re-released. Hi-Fi was working on the Micronauts comics, the toys, and a movie poster (wondered whatever happened with that project) all around the same time. Lots of fun. We also were involved with the Marvel Megamorphs from day one. It was interesting, challenging, and fun to have a comic, toy, and packaging continuously changing and evolving up until production began. The final products were huge and cool looking. Wolverine and Ghost Rider were my favorites.
Sometimes we are not directly involved but a toy will come out and we’ll see it a character where we created the original color scheme so that is always a special treat. When the DC 52 figures were first arriving It was pretty amazing to see how closely they mirrored what we were doing in the comics. That’s the fun of this collaborative medium. So many creative people making so many cool comics and toys. It is a privilege to be a small part of it.
AFI: Do you have any favorite licenses that you’d like to see reproduced in action figure form?
BM: I’m a sucker for old-school sci-fi… sometimes even the cheesy stuff. I always wanted to do something with the old Disney Black Hole ships and robots. The movie may not be highly regarded but the actual designs for some of that stuff is pretty amazing. If those toys were re-made today they would be infinitely cooler now than what was possible in the late seventies.
I loved some of the Speed Racer toys that came out around 2000. I still have the box-art from the Mach5. One of the best toy package paintings I’ve seen a long time.
It would be cool to see more play sets based on the DCU. Sure we get a new Batmobile every time a new movie is released but I want a Hall of Justice, Rip Hunter’s lab with Time Sphere, Oracle’s Clocktower, Superman’s Fortress of Solitude… something fun to play with and cool for collectors to build display around their figure collections with.
AFI: Could you share any memorable experiences you’ve had working in the comics industry?
BM: My favorite story is about Wolverine. Wolverine likes to smoke cigars and in one particular issue of X-Men Wolverine is smoking a stogie on every page… sometimes in multiple panels on every page. The issue was penciled, inked, and we had finished the colors. Marvel decided to team-up with the American lung association and guess what? Hi-Fi had to go into each and every page and remove the cigar, create new art to replace the cigar… mouths, hands, etc. and make it all work . It was an all nighter but we got it done. Sort of funny now but a lot of stress at the time. Stuff like that happens all the time but you rarely hear about it.
One of the best aspects of comics is going to conventions and meeting the fans and hearing their stories. If it wasn’t for the fans there would be no Hi-Fi. When we do a presentation on coloring and there is standing room only in a 600 seat ballroom I know they are not there to see me. They are there because they love all the amazing comic book and toy characters and want to peek-behind-the -curtain and get a glimpse of how these characters are brought to life in the pages of their favorite comics. There is no feeling quite like talking to a fan about an issue from 5 years ago and they remember every detail of the story and color like it happened yesterday. It is exciting to know that the art we color has such an impact on people around the world. Thank you to fans for everything. At Hi-Fi we’re working for you night and day to bring the best looking comics to you each month.
AFI: Thank you very much, Brian! Its easy to see why you’ve earned such a fan-friendly reputation. I’d like to let everyone know they can check out your Hi-Fi web site and blog here.