Making the Magic: How Stories Become Visual
Updated: Mar 20
Have you ever wondered just how we turn ideas into stories, and stories into experiences? Well, let’s take a peek behind the curtains and learn just how it’s done!
Hi, I’m Sam. I’m the current digital media intern for The Story School. It’s my responsibility to help the team make our camps magical. That means getting down and dirty to take photos for social media, spending a few hours gathering, retouching, or even creating visual assets for camp, and sometimes writing articles for the blog.
Today, I’m going to take you through my process in creating a visual for a story-- whether that’s an illustration, logo, or prop for online camp-- from concept to final design! The process can be broken down into a few major steps: Brainstorming, Sketching, Refining, and Finishing.
Let’s get started...
Brainstorming is the first step in the creation of anything. Whether it’s your favorite film or a short essay in the news, somebody, somewhere, has to sit down and think of something to make. That process is made a lot easier with a goal in mind. For example, let’s take a look at some of the visual assets I’ve been working on, to start.
I was approached by Paul, our Curriculum Coordinator, and asked to start gathering and retouching stock photos to use as visual backgrounds for online camp. We talked about what he was looking for and eventually came to the idea of having a standard set of digital “props” as well.
The concept itself is pretty neat; Paul wanted to create a library of visual assets so the counselors could create and modify scenes for online camp as needed, allowing the campers to have a more dynamic and immersive experience. This means if the campers were, say, trying to find a key to a chest with a magical treasure inside, the counselors would go to the visual library and be able to import images of these things. The campers could then interact with them in-game. It also would give the counselors tools to create extra stories on the fly, as campers are (understandably) chaotic and unpredictable.
Thus, the goal of the visuals, in this case, is to aid in storytelling and help the campers understand scenes. With that goal in mind, I was able to give myself a few basic requirements:
The visuals needed to be generic and variable, so that they could be used over and over throughout different sessions.
The visuals needed to stand out enough from the background so they’re easily identifiable as intractable items.
There needed to be a wide variety of versatile visuals for different situations.
You might be wondering how I’m able to draw on the computer, when mouses and trackpads are really difficult to control with any sort of precision, and attempting to do so often leads to a very, very sore wrist. The answer: I use a graphics tablet with a stylus.
It basically functions as a paper-sized trackpad that moves the cursor with my stylus. My hand-eye coordination is a little funky since I don’t have a screen tablet where I can see what I’m drawing on the tablet’s surface. Instead, I have to look at my monitor. However, the fact that my wrist does not throb after each drawing is more than worth it, plus, I rather appreciate the unique capabilities of digital art programs.
Back to the actual props.
With my goals in mind, I open up my “sketchbook,” in Photoshop. Now I’ve got a blank canvas, and I create a new layer, grab my pencil brush, and-- wait. How do I even begin to start? The dilemma of having a blank expanse of white pixels is something every creator dreads.
Luckily, some basic art principles come to the rescue. Everything we see in real life can be broken down into simple shapes. Rectangles, circles, triangles, you name it. A wooden sign? It’s a couple of rectangles intersecting. A head? Circle for most of the skull, trapezoid for the chin, rectangle to overlap and connect the two. Using that principle, I’m able to turn my canvas into a bunch of simple shapes, which I then can add details on top of.
Over the course of the next couple of hours, I concoct about twenty-five different items, sketched out. Some of them are pristine, clean lines and simple, flat surfaces. Others are jagged, broken, in need of some lineart. I keep my sketches simple, cartoonish, sticking to my goals of generic, variable, visually identifiable props. It’s then time to send them off to Paul for the next step.
Normally, the Refining step is when I get feedback from my “client,” and they tell me what they want to be changed. It’s also when I clean up the images, preparing them for the process of Finishing. Refining tends to be the longest step since there’s a lot of back and forth discussion. My feedback from Paul is enthusiastic. “I LOVE ALL OF THESE,” makes me laugh. It also means he’s happy and that I don’t need to spend time changing things for him, so it’s up to me to clean things up.
First things first: I make sure that all of the different items are on separate layers. That way I can manipulate them individually. “Layers” in most art programs function as if you were drawing on a clear piece of plastic, a la traditional animation. The only opaque part is the part that you’ve actually drawn, so you can move it around, resize it, etc., without affecting the other parts of the drawing.
Next, I begin adding clean linework to the images that need it with a smooth, solid ink brush. Hard, solid outlines and flat colors are rarely found in nature, so these help the props stand out from the virtual backgrounds (which are photos). Once again like old animations, these features often indicate some intractability by virtue of being so stylistically different.
Finally, we get to some technical adjustments. These files need to be small, with transparent backgrounds so I adjust my canvas size and the position of the items accordingly and make a note to save them all as PNG copies.
Onto the final step!
Finishing a visual can mean a lot of things, depending on the project. In this case, it means adding all the variations and saving the props as individual PNG files.
For many of the “combat” props, I included both broken and whole variants so that the campers could choose to repair them, or so that opponents could potentially have their gear break mid-battle. To save some time, I left these with one color variant each. It’s easy enough to go back later and add additional color variations for specific items.
I included a few different color variations for some of the more generic and plentiful items such as books, coins, and gems. That way, the world doesn’t seem oddly uniform and the colors could even act as parts of a puzzle or narrative. Colors can help imply a story about an item through typical archetypes. You wouldn’t think a crystal of frost magic would be bright red, right? It’d be blue or white. Similarly, greens can be associated with nature, as well as poison.
Color theory is a vital part of visual storytelling. Color archetypes change depending on culture and the associated history of color within the culture's language. However, in the modern-day, an easy way to see color theory and archetypes in action is in video games. It’s a conscious decision to associate red or green with your health bar or have blue or purple represent your magic. That's something I like to keep in mind when designing.
After a couple of hours of coloring and plugging away at saving images, the props are all done! With that, I upload them to the shared Drive where our visual library is stored, email Paul, and stretch my wrist. Now that I’m done with those, I might have time to write that article pitch before I collapse in a heap on the couch.
All in a day's work as an intern.
If you’d like to learn more about how the magic is made, and how we tell stories, let us know what you’d like to see next by leaving a comment. We’re excited to keep sharing stories with you. You can also see my props first hand in our weekly Virtual Day Camps that are currently running and still accepting heroes for the later sessions. Contact us if you'd like to learn more about online camp. Want to see more of my artwork? Check out my portfolio! Happy creating folks!