Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Statistics! And, the inevitable distortion of reality

Mara Sedlins:

As of today I’ve finished cleanup for 112 pages of C & S I, not counting about a dozen more that are “mostly done.” I’ve been meeting with Sean about once a week to go over issues that could use another pair of eyes (e.g., do these fine lines need to be strengthened more? can you tell that I filled in the tone there? does that lettering look okay? etc.) as well as discuss cleanup techniques. Although the restoration workflow is pretty streamlined now, we both continue to look for ways to improve the process as we go. A specific example of this in a minute...

As part of my workflow I record how much time I’m spending on each page, for each type of page (sourced from negatives or original art). This helps keep me organized, and also helps us to plan for deadlines and make sure we’re pricing our work fairly. We’ve been expecting the original art scans to be more time-consuming, cleanup-wise, than the negatives – but so far they’re only taking me on average about 5-6 minutes more a page. This might be because I’m spending more time than necessary on the negative scans, though.

Just for fun (because I’m a huge nerd), here are a couple frequency distributions of my per-page times (excluding a handful of “trauma” pages I spent a lot more time on):

Clearly I’m still in the habit of thinking in terms of empirical questions and data collection. Let me know if there’s any other information about the pages or cleanup process you think I should be collecting. On what proportion of pages does Cerebus actually appear? How does this change over the course of the book? Who is most likely to be present when the “icy” speech bubble style is used? What is the statistical correlation between the appearance of the Wolveroach and the use of the word “destiny”? (Seriously guys, I can answer these questions for you. Science!)

Returning to the topic of innovations in cleanup technique:

There’s an interesting feature present in each Photoshop image file I receive after Sean’s completed his adjustments: the topmost layer is always the Threshold setting. What this layer does is transform the underlying greyscale image into a black-and-white-only bitmap image. For the purpose of printing, each pixel has to be either black or white – and so the threshold setting marks the tipping point along the continuum at which Photoshop “perceives” a given pixel as black.

Most of the time I’ve been working with the threshold layer on, because that’s how the page will ultimately look when it’s sent to the printer. But I’m becoming more savvy about when it makes sense to turn the threshold layer off so that a greater depth of information becomes visible.

In the example below, you can see areas where each strategy is useful. 

With the threshold layer off I can see exactly where tape was affixed to the corner of this negative, as well as the edges of the affixed tone. I can easily differentiate that image “noise” from the intended white marks at the edges of the textured landscape of Mind Game IV.

But, I might waste time painstakingly erasing all those dust specks if I didn’t also check the image with the threshold layer on. See how most of them disappear on their own: 

So I’m experimenting with toggling this layer on and off more often. It’s weird though – both Sean and I have noticed that with the threshold layer on, the resulting image changes just a little bit depending on what level of zoom you’re at. Pixels at the edges of shapes shift slightly. White specks appear and then disappear illogically. Nothing that would be visible in the final image file – but disorienting evidence of the distortion that occurs when a complex underlying “reality” is forced into binary categories.

It makes sense that my mind is going to latch on to this idea of black and white vs. shades of grey – to quote at medium length from my dissertation (forgive me everyone except my grad school advisor):

“Categorization is an essential process in making sense of the world. However, it simplifies perception in a way that distorts reality to some degree. For instance, the color spectrum is a continuum of wavelengths; but colors are grouped into linguistically defined categories (Berlin & Kay, 1969). Although people can tell the difference between different hues within a category, they are better at discriminating colors from different categories than colors from the same category, even if they differ by the same degree in terms of physical wavelength. Harnad (2003) describes this process as 'warping' perceived similarities and differences so as to compress some things into the same category and separate others into different categories.’”

I find it interesting to consider the concept more broadly, as “the usefulness vs. arbitrariness of socially-constructed categories” – such as color names. Or racial categories. Or, for example, the idea that a fictional character has to be either a good guy or bad guy, which I’m sure is still mind-numbingly dominant in the summer blockbusters we all have to look forward to.

My understanding is that one of the aspects of Cerebus that appeals to Dave’s readership is his refusal to simplify his characters or their situations. In spite of the unlikeability – or even despicability – of the eponymous aardvark, you don’t get to look away. You’re cursed with the hope for redemption even as you watch him stumble over his own character flaws again and again. Or so I’ve heard. As I continue to experience the actual story content first-hand, I’m looking forward to storylines that “turn off the threshold layer” on their characters’ realities and reveal something of life’s fascinating ambiguity.


Jeff Seiler seilerjeff said...

"Ooh, ooh! I know, I know!", he says, standing on tippie-toe, raising his right arm high into the sky.

The "icy" word balloons are most likely to appear when Astoria is "on-screen", right?

What do I win? Huh? Huh?

Seriously, Mara, I find your dissertations absolutely fascinating and you have a very enjoyable style of blending very technical information with excellent word-smithing (if that's a word).

My only regret is that we (so far) can't seem to find some incentive for you to post far more often.

Thank you for this superb update.

Max West said...

It's amazing how computers are a mainstay in the toolbox of making and printing comics. Even those who work traditionally (like me) need to digitally process or at least touch up files for print or even just for display.

Eddie said...

"..disorienting evidence of the distortion that occurs when a complex underlying “reality” is forced into binary categories" sounds like it could have been a title of one of the issues during Church and State.

Graphs! All right! Now we're getting somewhere! More graphs (or pie charts. Mmm pie charts)

Sean R said...

Hey Max,

It's hard to imagine how a cartoonist would avoid a computer these days, if you want your work in print. Unless you own a photocopier or have some serious print making chops, computers are basically your only choice now for prepress. Regardless, the work we're doing now would have been impossible to do in a pre-digital era, particularly replacing or repairing tone...

iestyn said...

Here's one I'd be really interested in -

the percentage of image drawn by Gerhard v's percentage by Dave