Thoughts on Real Magic

Magic is real. It’s not quite like you imagine it to be and certainly not like the tricks of stage magicians. But what exactly is it, can it be measured, and can it be scientifically proven.

This is the premise of Dean Radin’s Real Magic. Radin holds a PhD and has done many experiments for psi research.

I listened to this in-between finishing A Flaw in All Magic and Solve for Happy. I could only take so much of this book at a time. And just as the process would have it, some of the sections I listened to in conjunction with Solve for Happy were entertaining. Sometimes it felt as if the two were at extreme odds with either other and I got to see two sides of how scientific minds explore similar topics. At other times, they were in agreement, but saying it in two ways based on their own life experiences.

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When Passion Shows Through

I have a passion for story. This much is clear. I love telling my stories and listening to others tell their stories. Sometimes, when the writing or painting isn’t going well, I know it’s time to take a break and fill my head with other people’s tales.

Recently, I had picked up a bunch of movies just because they looked interesting. One of the movies I watched was by Lightning Rod Studios called Dark Nemesis (though their website lists it as Shadowlands and IMDB has it as Dark Knight).

Now mind you, I wasn’t expecting much from any of the movies I picked out. I just wanted to be engaged in someone else’s story.

Starting this movie, I saw instantly that there was going to be a lot of computer graphics and that the acting would be mediocre at best. Still, there was something about it…

Having played Dungeons and Dragons for many years and my children now role playing, we sat back and laughed. Where did the armor go after the first major battle and several people deserted the main army? Of course, if you were trying to escape and maybe wanted it to look like you had died, maybe you would leave your armor behind.

It was only one of several things that really needed to be explained further. Throughout the movie, I felt like I was missing about half the dialogue. Not only that, but I knew what they were going to say next. I felt like a god whispering to them. Still, I give full credit to the script writer. It’s the basis for the movie. Someone had an idea and decided to make it a reality. The writer started the script, worked at the project, and finished it. They also weren’t afraid to show what they had done to someone. I’ve spent enough time writing to know that the writer was doing their best but still hadn’t honed their craft yet. A little more digging to reach that next level and the writer will be well on the way to being a decent scriptwriter.

It quickly became apparent that they were honestly doing their best with the CG animation. They really did want it to look good. I swear I’ve seen the same tutorial on making floating, burning cinders that they had seen. A lot of time and effort went into it. I’m betting they learned a lot of skills as they needed to know them. Nothing they learned here is going to go to waste. They can use these skill on their next movie and get better. Isn’t that one of the things I’m always touting here? Honestly, it was because of their care with the CG that I realized how much passion they were putting into this movie. Anyone with money and people can make a movie look good. But when you have a small budget (this movie had a budget of $10,000) and only a few people who all have to have multiple jobs, you’ve all got to run on passion and do the best you can with the skills you have.

The actors did what they could with a script that wasn’t fully fleshed out. A lot had to be based on visual clues. Hard, brooding stares ran amok and usually without verbal emphasis to back it up.

The setting was well thought out and the costumes a good attempt — in fact, it was all well done except for the white masks. Those were just laughable. Quite frankly, ditching those really wouldn’t have changed the story a whole lot as there really was no story reason for them.

The music was spectacular. While I suspect it was purchased from a stock library (a good thing rather than bad), it still takes time and care to select songs which reflect the mood of the story.

IMDB has a rating currently of 1.5 stars for this movie. When I thought about how I would rate it, I’d give it 3 stars. I have seen worse. It was only in trying to identify why this movie succeeded while others from bigger studios and more money backing them had failed, it was because of the passion they (cast and crew for Dark Nemesis) put into this. no, it wasn’t perfect, but it was obvious they had given it their best attempt. They were having fun. They were putting together their art backed with their need to tell this story. I got that. Their passion really did come shining through. Huge kudos to them.

I hope that Lightning Rod Studios keeps up what they are doing. Each movie will get better and better. Movie-making, like every other art form, is a skill that improves as one practices. I’d love to see their passion for storytelling continue. Good luck and thank you for taking me on an impassioned journey!

Doctor visit for the computer

Unless you’re a digital artist or a graphic designer, a computer might not be thought of as a primary tool for an artist. But if you’re submitting digital images to shows or selling online, it’s as important as a good brush, a chisel, or a pottery wheel.

My laptop is the workhorse of my operation as an artist. It stores my manuscripts, photography, and images of my paintings. I draw one of my comics completely in the digital realm. Any time I need an image, I get it from my hard drive. Software for digital imaging, records of my artwork and collectors, e-mail, Internet, website maintenance, etc. is all done on my laptop.

That said, if you’re an artist like me who has everything on your computer, you’ve got to make sure the heart of your operation is taken care of. That means thinking about your software and hardware needs at all times.

Fortunately for me, I spend part of my life as a computer techie. I enjoy computers and I know what they’re capable of. I laugh at their personalities. Yes, computers have personalities. Spend enough time with several different computers, really working with them, and you’ll realize this is true. Just like individuals, computers need to be taken care of.

That said, first and foremost, backup your data! And make sure the data is truly backed up. The worst thing you can do is think that it’s backed up only to realize that it’s not. I’ve seen people cry over this.

Back up your data!

But I didn’t really start this blog to convince you to backup your data. No. I wanted to tell you about a piece of software from SmithMicro, the developers of Manga Studio and several other great programs. It’s a doctor visit for your computer.

Why would you care about checking the health of your computer’s hardware. It’s either working or it’s not, right?

Wrong!

There are usually signs ahead of time that something is malfunctioning, but they can be easy to miss, or rather to dismiss as outdated drivers, bad updates, or just needing to reboot. Fortunately, you can find problems before they take out your system with SmithMicro’s CheckIt Diagnostics.

Downloading and installing the program is simple and quick. Startup checks the components of your system. Once you’re in the software, it does help if you have basic knowledge of computers because the program just jumps right in. There are 5 tabs across the top and several “component” buttons below. You can see these on the screenshot below.

CheckIt Diagnostics screenshot - opening screen

Each of these “component” buttons has a series of test that can be run. To begin, start with the first tab, first “component” and start running tests. Once you’ve gone through all the components, then go to the next tab. Each test will either come back with “Success” or “Fail” as a result. Some test require that you plug in a flash drive or insert a CD/DVD — again, the program reads the hardware of your computer and adapts the tests to your system. Of course, the point is to always have it say “Success” on all your tests. The reality of it is that something, sometime will fail.

CheckIt Diagnostics screenshot of fail link information

CheckIt Diagnostics screenshot of Troubleshoot button information

If you suspect a problem with one part of your computer system, you can narrow down the tests to select just that component on your system and run those component’s tests or just one test instead of having to run through all the tests. You don’t have to have a complete check every time.

So now you’ve checked your system and you know there’s a problem. What then? Knowing you have an issue is just the beginning. Clicking on the “Fail” link will allow you to see more information. From here, CheckIt Diagnostics has the ability to send the error reports via email (like to your tech support person) or to export it to a text file. If you click the “Troubleshoot” button, you’ll get extra information which might help figure out why you received the test failure.

CheckIt Diagnostics screenshot of fail link information

CheckIt Diagnostics screenshot of Troubleshoot button information

Overall, I wish the failure reports did have some more detail. From the ones that I went through on my laptop, I didn’t feel that from a tech support position I had a whole lot of information to work with. However, giving the diversity between computers and systems, this might be an overwhelming task for any piece of software. So again, knowing that you have an issue with a particular piece of the hardware is merely a starting point. When you’re looking for that needle in the haystack (which often is the case when diagnosing computer problems) CheckIt Diagnostics will at least give you a starting point.

From both a tech support person and a user point of view, I find the main value of the program to be in wealth of information about your system that it gives you in one easy spot and the fact that it will narrow down issues with a computer. It’s easy and quick enough to use that I can incorporate it into my usual computer maintainance routine as a checkup for my hardware. So many programs have been dedicated to checking for malware, viruses, rootkits, registry cleaners, etc. that’s it’s nice to find a program that cares about the hardware side of the computer equation too.

Manga Studio 4

We interrupt the normally scheduled eBay auction blog, to bring you this special software review!

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Stepping back about six years or so, I came to a decision. Though I’ve always loved telling stories, I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be writing stories as novels at that time. Drawing had entered my life and turned my storytelling world upside-down. It was then I decided to start telling my tales as graphic novels. At first, I started sketching by hand while I took a moment to learn what all went into making a comic. It didn’t take me long to discover the illustrating a comic was a lot of work.

Since I’ve always been one to work smarter, not harder, I hoped someone had some sort of comic book drawing software on the market. Why try to figure out how to do a comic on the computer if someone had already done the work for me? It didn’t take me long to find Manga Studios 3.

I bought the EX version (over the Debut which is significantly cheaper, but has fewer tools) even though I knew that for me it was probably overkill. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, there’s nothing more frustrating than knowing that you should be able to do something in a more simple fashion and you could do it if you had that one version higher.

I produced four graphic novel chapters with MS3. My only lament was that I wished it had color.

Now enters Manga Studios 4 and guess what? Yep, you can color pages with it. Back on January 2, 2010, I had a note in my blog post about MS4. Originally, I’d added an ending line of something to the effect that if I was supposed to have MS4, I’d be granted a way for it to happen. I deleted the line, but it was very much in my heart as I posted the blog. To my complete astonishment, the “way” knocked on my door and I now have MS4. To the Universe and all those involved in my opportunity, please let me once again say, “Thank you!”

So, what do I think of Manga Studio 4? How does it compare to MS3?

Does “WOW!!!” cover it?

Okay, I’ll be more specific. When I first started up MS4, I had an option to start up the Beginner’s Assistant. The Beginner’s Assistant is a sidebar tool that allows you to see tools and layers in a way that actually illustrates the difference between the tools. It also includes pop-up hints to guide you around. I’ve had to go back to the standard mode because I’m so use to finding my way around in MS3, but if I’d started out with this feature as a complete newbie to both comics and the software, this would’ve simplified my life and saved me lots of time with my learning curve. I have switched back to the Beginner’s Assistant if I’ve wanted to find out how to use a tool more in-depth or to play with a tool because of the visual nature of the Beginner’s Assistant.

The feel of the pencils has changed. When I sketch offline, I like to use a mechanical pencil. In MS3, the mechanical pencil tool never felt right. I can’t say it’s perfect in MS4, but it does have marked improvement. The Most Recently Used Files option on the File menu has also been moved up the list and I appreciate this change.

I love the new Story/Page tabs. I can move back and forth between pages in my story in a fraction of the time. There’s also a pullout menu on the left side of the screen that allows you to click on the Story tab when you’re in a page and you can view a page while not leaving the one you’re working in. This is great in keeping continuity in panels without interrupting workflow.

The new Story Editor allows dialogue to be written for several pages and it automatically places the dialogue on the page at the top left so you can distribute the text over the page as needed, but you can also see the text written as you’re sketching the page. Since I do everything for my webcomic, Weblinks, in Manga Studio, I’m always thinking several pages ahead and this feature will help me out greatly.

The way dialogue is added has been changed greatly. If you look at Weblinks, you’ll see that I have one font that I use for thoughts and another for when people are speaking. These are two different styles. In MS3 I had to always change the font style and settings for each line of the dialogue. Having both Weblinks and Sacred Knight comics, I had different styles I was always have to remembers which was which. Now, I can save the settings for each style so I can spend more time concentrating on the story and less time focusing on keeping the look uniform. There are also several more dialogue balloons to choose from. In fact, there are many more tones to chose from too. Tones are now listed under the materials palette — a change I’m having problems adjusting to, but it does make sense.

Let’s talk about the rulers for a moment. MS3 had very nice perspective rulers in it. I saw the potential, but I have to admit that perspective is still a weak area for me. I’ve been trying to improve. To do Sacred Knight efficiently, I’ll need to be good at perspective. Perspective rulers are a feature that make MS powerful. In MS4, a perspective grid has been added for making 3D objects. I can’t wait to sit down with my perspective books and these tools to figure out how to use them effectively. Symmetry rulers have been added too. These are way too cool. They start off as two point symmetry rulers, which are good for drawing eyes and making sure they are even and level, all the way up to 12 point symmetry. Need a round stained glass window? Just decide how many parts you want for your window and start drawing. Whatever you draw in one part is copied in the others. Below, I’ve put in a page from my Manga Studios digital sketchbook showing a quick doodle that I made with a 12 point symmetry ruler.

Manga Studios sketchbook page
© 2010 Dawn Blair

I used a 6 point symmetry ruler to quickly sketch a flower that I put into a character’s hair. There are so many possibilities for the symmetry rulers!

Another added tool that I find exciting is the Select Layer tool. This is one of those tools that is only available in the EX version. I’ve often needed to find what layer a line is on, usually because I’ve accidentally drawn something on the wrong layer and now I need to make a correction. Before, I’ve had to go back and click the eye icon on each layer to turn off the view until the lines I’m seeking vanish. Then I know I’ve found the layer. Now, I click the Select Layer tool, then click on the line I want to find. The layer I’m searching for is selected and all other layers are lightened into the background. I learned this trick on mangastudio.net. In playing with this, I found that a tone layer can mess up selection of a line, so if the Select Layer tool always selects a tone layer instead of the line, use the Eraser tool to erase the tone above the line. You can then select the line, make your changes, then fill the tone back in.

The preferences menu has changed and several new options have been added. In exploring around here, I discovered a place to change the look of the cursor for tools. This was available in MS3, but I wasn’t aware of it there. I like this because I’ve always been frustrated by the eraser tool and knowing what size it is and where exactly I’m erasing this. Now I’ve been able to change the cursor so now I can see the eraser’s boundary. I haven’t changed any other tool, but I’m glad I know I can.

Have I found anything I wish I could change? Yes. I wish I could set up tools a little more specifically than I can and rename them. Much like the styles in the dialogue, I have several different settings I use with different tools in both Weblinks and Sacred Knight. The one that really comes to mind is when I’m doing Caitlyn’s hair in Weblinks. I start by coloring in the section black. Then I come back with the G brush set at .3 and white “ink.” I scratch in a bunch of white lines, then I change it to black and scratch in more lines until I get her “salt and pepper” look. I’d really like to be able to set up a G brush specifically for Caitlyn’s hair and label it that way so it doesn’t take me so long. Right now, if I have one G brush set in my custom tools, I can’t have another with slightly different settings. Or at least I haven’t found the way yet. Overall, it keeps me from using the custom tools exclusively and sticking with old patterns instead of exploring new ways of doing things which in the end is probably a really good thing.

All this and I haven’t even mentioned the coloring yet — the feature I was most excited about. Coloring is tricky and I haven’t figured it out completely, not with so many other great tools to explore as well. But don’t fear. After watching several tutorials and reading about the coloring process, I’ve seen what it’s capable of and I’m looking forward to using it to draw and color my children’s book later this year.

Is Manga Studio 4 worth the upgrade? Oh, yes! And stay tuned. In the next few months I’m planning tutorial videos showing my workflow process. You’ve heard me state before that I enjoy learning how other artists work and now it’s my turn to reciprocate. By then, I hope to have the coloring process down and I’ll do a tutorial on it as well. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get more tips and tricks posted on my blog. Okay, you know I will!

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Tomorrow, the normal eBay auction blog will be posted. Go now to see what’s still available!

Manga Stories – Rurouni Kenshin

A few years ago, my son and I were sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for his appointment. While he felt horrible, I was secretly glad to get a few more minutes in to read Rurouni Kenshin. I think I was on volume 13 or so. My son asked if he could see my book even though he hadn’t started reading the series yet. Humoring him, I handed it to him. He flipped to the end of the book and announced, “Aren’t you going to be sad when Kenshin leaves?”

What!?!! I snatched the book back from him. No! Kenshin couldn’t leave!

That’s the way the story was going. I had feeling it was going to happen, so I knew but I was in denial. I flipped to the end to see what my son had seen in one little flash: Kenshin walking away. And in that moment, I felt devastated. The rest of the volume just wasn’t the same after that.

If you’re wondering what this “manga” is, let me just give a short description. It’s a thick comic book (usually compiled of several “chapters”) started in Japan. As such, the book reads from right page to left page, opposite of what Americans are use to. There are also Korean comic books that look similar but read from left to right. We’ve also come to know them under the umbrella term “graphic novel.”

Rurouni Kenshin was the first manga that I’d encountered with both great art and a multi-layered character. They weren’t just two-dimensional representations though the lines on the page said otherwise. I fell in love with the characters and their stories. As such, I devoured all 28 volumes as quickly as I could. Yes, even though my son had thrown a spoiler in, I kept reading – I just had to know what happened to these characters. At one point, I was even crying over the story line. Isn’t that what great writing is about? Involving the reader deeply enough to make an emotional investment in the story?

Rurouni Kenshin

The author, Nobuhiro Watsuki, also had little “interruptions” in the story to tell you about his life. Since I’m someone who loves to see how other artists work, this was a wonderful insight for me. I loved these clips and felt like I got to know Watsuki personally. It was like a little blog in the story. This is what inspired me to put my own “end notes” in my chapters for the printed versions of Sacred Knight and Weblinks.

And the artwork, have I mentioned the artwork? Not only are the colored prints included the volumes beautiful, but I learned a lot from Watsuki’s raw sketches included at the beginning of some of the chapters. And I used the building to work on perspective exercises.

I had a heck of a time convincing my boys (who were the ones that got me hooked on the Yu-gi-oh manga) to read Rurouni Kenshin, but once they did, they were reading it as quickly as I was. It’s still a manga we all treasure — spoilers and all.