Interview with Brian Miller from Hi-Fi Colour Design

Brian Miller is the founder of Hi-Fi Colour Design and co-author on the books Hi-Fi Color for Comics, Master Digital Color, and How to Paint Comic Books with the iPad. Chances are that if you read comics, then you’ve read a comic that Hi-Fi has colored.

His website can be found here.

SEQUART: Tell us a little about Hi-Fi Colour Design.

Brian Miller: Hi-Fi color design is an comic art studio founded in 1998 to bring together talented creators with one goal; great visual storytelling. Hi-Fi is best known for comic book coloring, but Hi-Fi also produces full comics, painted storybooks, artwork for game & toy packaging, art instruction books and more. Hi-Fi works with major book publishers, comic book publishers, movie studios, toy companies, and video game developers. Behind the Hi-Fi name stands a team of talented color artists working around the clock bringing your favorite comic books to life with beautifully painted color.

SEQUART: You and Kristy Miller wrote How to Paint Comic Books with the iPad. How did this project come about?

MILLER: Having written two previous books about comic book coloring, Hi-Fi Color for Comics, and Master Digital Color, Kristy and I thought we had put on paper everything we had to say about the subject. Then the iPad 2 was launched an it created an entirely new reality for comic fans and creators. Overnight there was a convergence where you could create comic book artwork and also store and read your comic collection on the same device. This idea that the medium and the media had merged intrigued me and I thought that the next art instruction book we write should be about creating art with the iPad and the book itself should be exclusively available for iPad.

How to Paint Comic Books with the iPad debuted at Comic-Con International in July and since then we have been overwhelmed by the response. Our goal was to highlight what can be done with the iPad today to sketch and paint amazing comic book super-heroes. The challenge for Kristy and I was to take all the feedback we have received for our first two books and apply it to this new book. As an example, many people who attend our art instruction panels at comic book conventions say they have an, “a-ha moment” when they watch me demonstrate certain techniques on screen. Making this book exclusively for iPad we were able to include video tutorials on the same page as the text. You can read the steps to a technique like, how to paint faces, then watch the video to see exactly how it is done before attempting the tutorial yourself.

Another instance of how this book helps aspiring creators are example images. In a print book we were often limited to 2-3 example images. Sometimes I would get a tutorial back from an editor and entire pages had been trimmed. How to Paint Comic Books with the iPad features tutorial images that you can swipe through step-by-step to see the progression of an art technique. We are no longer limited to what will fit on the printed page. Plus you can tap-to-zoom and see those images full screen if you like.

There are more interactive features in the book and they all are put to good use to help readers but what really counts is starting with good content. Readers are given access to download the artwork used in the tutorials so they can follow along step-by-step learning each new skill and technique. The book also includes handy information about light and shadow which is an area I find many aspiring creators have many unanswered questions about. We also included tutorials for making color palettes, making brushes and how to paint using certain brushes to create various levels of highlights. Many of techniques are not iPad specific, they are fundamental art skills an artist can apply in any digital or traditional medium. Kristy and I thought it was important to provide the user with solid art foundations, not just directions to follow. While we do want every reader to complete each tutorial in the book, it is more important to us they are able to utilize those skills beyond the book and apply the techniques to their own artwork as well.

There is so much more I could say about How to Paint Comic Books with the iPad. I truly believe this is a groundbreaking book. I encourage creators to visit the iTunes store to learn more, download a free sample tutorial, and purchase the book.

SEQUART: How did you get interested in coloring comics?

MILLER: I think I was born to color. One of my earliest memories is coloring with crayons in pre-school. By elementary school I had earned the nickname “Marker-Happy” because I was always so busy coloring everything I could find with markers that my hands were often stained every color of the rainbow.

I colored my first indy comic book around age 18 and never stopped. I’m lucky my wife, Kristy, has always been super supportive and even when coloring was only a hobby she never discouraged me. When I quit a cushy creative director gig to start Hi-Fi and color comics full-time, she never pressured me to give up. The comic book industry is not very stable and there have been many highs and lows over the years. I count myself lucky the highs outweigh the lows. I look at the hundreds (or possibly thousands) of comics Hi-Fi has been involved with over the years I can’t imagine doing anything else with as much passion or pride as coloring comic books.

SEQUART: Can you describe your process for coloring a page?

MILLER: Before I begin coloring I read the plot. As a visual storyteller, I need to fully understand the time of day, setting, and the emotional state of the characters. Only then will I dive into the artwork.

First, I open the black and white artwork and pre-visualize the finished page. I ask the artwork what it wants from me. I determine how many levels of depth each panel needs to clearly communicate the action to the reader. I look at which areas are most important to the story and how light, shadow, and hue can help guide the readers eyes though the page. I see the page completely colored in my mind and know how I want it to look before starting.

Like most colorists, Hi-Fi uses a network of flatters to break down the page so the backgrounds and figures are unique colors. I start by swapping out the colors the flatter used for the colors I want to use on the page. I work from dark to light so I tend to choose values that will represent the darkest or shadow areas for each object and character. I arrange my colors to create the most depth of plane and focus the readers eye on the important characters and action.

With the page re-flatted, I start by rendering the background and I like to work from back to front. It could be the fine-art painter in me but I can not imagine coloring a page without coloring the background first. I believe you need to create a believable environment for your characters to inhabit before rendering the figures. Because I have some theater background, I think of this process a lot like building sets for a stage play and setting up the lighting rigs. If I work out the background objects, set pieces, and lighting while coloring the background there will be few unanswered questions when I render the figures.

Once I’m happy with the background, I will move to the figures. I try to move quickly but often find myself noodling over a face or some anatomy too long. I’ll paint in the basic highlights on a character and then build detail from there. It is important to work from the general to the specific and focus on creating a consistent level of contrast and detail throughout the entire page. Once I’m happy with the way a figures looks, I’ll paint in any secondary or reflective lighting needed to help the character pop and this extra effort always makes a difference. While working, I try to make the lighting in the pages I color believable but never photo-realistic. Reality is boring, people read comics to escape reality, my goal is to make characters more exciting than reality. I can’t stand comics where every character looks like they have a 60 watt light bulb directly overhead. If you were the lighting director for a movie or stage play, you would be fired for that boring weak approach so don’t bring it into my comics please.

With the backgrounds and characters rendered to satisfaction, I’ll move on to color holds, that is changing areas of black inked artwork to a color. An example would be the line-art for Booster Gold’s goggles is changed from black to a deep gold to give the impression that the goggles are transparent. A comic like Spongebob Squarepants may be 95% color holds where as a George Perez Worlds’ Finest page may have one or two color holds or none. The key is to be tasteful. As a color artist, my job is to assist the storytelling and make the artwork more clear with light, shadow, and color, not distract from it.

After I make any color holds needed, I am ready to add special effects. This is a sensitive subject as this is an area where many editors like to push for more, more, more, even when good taste and storytelling may require less. I will paint light effects like the muzzle blast from a gun, the glow of a lightsaber, or super-powers on a layer above the color rendering and line-art. This way I can always go back and make changes if needed.

With all of that done, I will make a CMYK color separation and send the finished color file to the editor or publisher for review.

SEQUART: What is the most difficult part of coloring a comic?

MILLER: Deadlines. Color artists are the final members of the creative team to touch the pages before they go to press. We are often asked to perform deadline miracles, we work most nights and weekends, and beyond coloring, we will be the ones to fix any areas of artwork that need changes late in the game. It is amazing what is approved in black and white only to be changed when it is seen again in color. I’ve had to remove cigars from characters mouths, redraw costumes when the character is wearing the wrong one, and fix a myriad of other things that editorial decides should be changed before a book can be printed.

SEQUART: How often are changes made after you complete an issue?

MILLER: I used to take pride in the fact that many comics colored by Hi-Fi would be approved with no changes, or maybe 1-2 corrections. Over the past few years, as the way publishers make comics have changed, I now find every issue typically has 1-2 rounds of changes. Today, a writer may be working on the plot even as the pencils, inks, and colors are in progress. Also, most of the titles Hi-Fi works on tie into other ongoing story-lines. Nothing is ever 100% locked down anymore and many more people are involved in the approval process. Where once an editor had final say, now there may be a movie studio, corporate big wig, and toy company who all need to have their input and sign off too. It can become frustrating especially when these entities contradict one another. I try to have a thick skin and realize changes are not an attack on any person’s creative choices but rather editorial and others trying to shape the book to fit the mold they want.

That said, when you have a really great idea and it gets thrown out it can be upsetting. Usually a project comes along shortly thereafter where the idea works better. Sometimes, the first attempt is like the practice round. It is gratifying when you are asked to make changes, and more changes, only for the final change to be exactly what you started with. Sometimes your great idea needs to become someone else’s great idea before it can be approved.

With so many people involved in the approval process, some great ideas do get lost forever. Some of my favorite comic stories were made when the storytellers were allowed to create with freedom. There is a lot more scrutiny now and I know several writers and artists who are struggling with this new approved-by-committee approach. It may be great for the tie-ins and crossovers but you have to wonder how many original stories are we missing out on. You have to ask yourself, could something like the original Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns be created in this current environment?

SEQUART: What project are you most proud of and why?

MILLER: This is a tough question as it is constantly changing. I’ve been so fortunate to work with great creators and the talented team of color artists here at Hi-Fi that it is hard to point out one project without doing a disservice to others. I think I’m most proud of the legacy Hi-Fi is building each and every day. As a boy, I played with G.I. Joe’s, Batman & Superman, Transformers, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and more. As a man, I get to help shape and craft these same amazing characters for enjoyment by future generations. Kristy and I also present panels and workshops along with our art instruction books to train new talent. The legacy Hi-Fi is building creates better comics today and empowers the creators of tomorrow.

SEQUART: What comics are you really enjoying right now? What should people be reading?

MILLER: Terry Moore is killing it with his Rachel Rising series. I’m a color artist telling you to read a black and white comic book. That’s how good it is.

I’m really proud of the Marvel Origin storybooks Hi-Fi is painting. I’m not sure if these have caught on with comic book readers, but I can tell you kids and parents love them. Each book tells the origin story of a classic hero or team like Spider-Man or The Mighty Avengers and each book is fully painted. Every comic fan should be collecting this series of books and using them as the perfect introduction to the world of comics. Someone new to the world of comics may roll their eyes at a long-box of Iron Man comic books but if you can hand them one book to read that gets them up to speed on the character then you may have created a lifelong Iron Man fan. Multiply that times many characters and the fan base could grow by leaps and bounds!

You may have seen the recent Green Lantern Annual featuring artwork by Ethan Van Sciver with colors by Hi-Fi. I have a real love for Ethan’s artwork having first colored his work on X-Men a decade ago. Green Lantern Annual sort of took a lot of fans by surprise. I’m not sure people had seen the dark and creepy side of Van Sciver and Hi-Fi before. This has a lot of people asking if Ethan and Hi-Fi will be teaming up again anytime soon. I can’t say what the project is or when it will come out, but I can say we are collaborating with Ethan on something that will be shocking when it is released.

Another great comic to pick-up will be Fury of Firestorm #13. This issue reunites Hi-Fi with Dan Jurgens and we could not be more excited about it. I am thrilled with Dan’s take on Firestorm and his artwork is so full of life and energy. This issue is the perfect jumping on point for new fans who want to check out Firestorm for the first time with all new story and artwork.

I am also really excited by the new Sword of Sorcery comic coming soon from DC. Christy Marx, Aaron Lopresti and Hi-Fi are handling the creative duties for the Amethyst stories in this book and so far I’ve been blown away. We’ve colored Aaron’s artwork in the past on Wonder Woman, Justice league: Generation Lost, and Justice league International and I can tell you he is bringing his very best to Sword of Sorcery. He draws these powerful women with the same beauty and reverence he brought to Wonder Woman while incorporating all the Dungeons and Dragons-type fantasy elements Christy has written into the story. If you are not familiar with Christy Marx, you should be; she was the head writer for cartoons like G.I. Joe, Jem, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She knows how to craft a mythology and build a world you will want to escape to issue after issue. People may not know what to expect from this comic and I would tell them to imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets the Lord of the Rings. Don’t miss Sword of Sorcery.

SEQUART: Thanks so much for talking with us!

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Cody Walker graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelors and a Masters of Science in Education. He is the author of the pop culture website and the co-creator of the crime comic . He currently teaches English in Springfield, Missouri.

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