Small world, big strokes

The Scorpion Rider’s tattoo would only be onscreen for a few seconds, making it difficult to justify lavishing a lot of time on its design. But somehow its fleeting appearance only made me more determined to get it right.

The tattoo is key to the character’s introduction, appearing even before his face does. But getting it right—really doing it justice—was well beyond my abilities. I wanted more than just a cool, menacing tattoo of a scorpion. Anyone can make one of those. For this project, what I really wanted to create was an Arabic calligram, an ancient form of Islamic calligraphy in which a word or phrase is fashioned into the shape of an animal. Modern practitioners of the genre include the French-Iraqi Hassan Massoudy and Chinese Haji Noor Deen.

But of course, I can’t speak a word of Arabic, nor do I know any thing about calligraphy. The best we were going to be able to do was fake it, using existing calligrams to craft a tattoo that looked kinda like an Arabic word shaped like a scorpion.

And that’s when Dhar Jabouri stepped in. Some of you may have spotted his comments in some of the earlier entries on this blog. Dhar and I have known each other for years, from back when we were frequent posters on the Hash Animation:Master forums. When I asked Dhar if he was familiar with Hassan Massoudy’s work, this is what he responded:

Yeah, I’m familiar with Masoudy’s work. BTW, I’m from Iraq as well :o) I think maybe you’d like this Muslim Chinese calligrapher Haji Noor Deen Minguang Jiang. I know him very well, I translate for him when he tours the US. He only speaks Chinese and Arabic, so I translate for him from Arabic to English and we have developed quite a rapport. His mix of Chinese and Islamic ancient calligraphy makes for a distinctive and unique style. I am usually his pupil as well as interpreter whenever he visits northern California.

And that’s when I decided that this was going to be the greatest tattoo ever made.

Since that conversation, I, Dhar, and designer David Ward have been collaborating on a true Islamic-style calligram—an authentic, dramatic tattoo that lives up to the character of the Scorpion Rider and the world of The Ottoman. Opportunities like this don’t come along very often, and believe me, we’re making the most of it.

The three faces of the Scarab

An updated rendition of the Ottoman’s beetle-inspired mecha has been added to the mecha gallery. This one incorporates more of the homebrew battle gear that the Scarab sports at the start of the Tournament.

Shown below are David Ward’s designs for the unarmored, light-armored and heavy-armored incarnations of the Scarab. All three versions appear in the short.

Scarab armor designs
Armor designs by David Ward; Scarab design by Evans/Walshe/Oda

Working with concept artists: contracting

Once you’ve found artists you want to work with, it’s time to write up a contract. No matter how small the job is, resist the temptation to skip this step. Contracts are vital in protecting you against misunderstandings. Misunderstandings cost money. All sorts of less-than-ideal outcomes can arise:

  • Your freelancer underestimated the amount of time it would take to create your artwork, and is charging by the hour.
  • Your freelancer interprets your instructions very differently than you intended.
  • Your freelancer is juggling too many other jobs, and hasn’t worked on your assignment for weeks.

That’s why it’s so important to spell out exactly what you’re requesting, how much you’re willing to pay for it, and how soon you need it completed. This not only protects you from having to pay for incomplete work, but it also protects the freelancer from toiling over things you don’t need.

Specifying the delivery

What you write here is what you’re paying for, so make sure it’s both specific and reasonable.

  • How many renditions of the vehicle/character/environment are you commissioning? If you don’t specify, that number will be “one.”
  • How detailed do the drawings need to be? Sketchy? Inked and colored? Photoreal?
  • What views do you need? Three-quarter? Blueprint/isometric? Overhead? Don’t assume the artist is going to pick the angle you had in mind.

Determining pricing

Artists like to be paid by the hour. Clients prefer to pay by the job. Either method can spiral out of control when the number of revisions starts to rack up. For smaller jobs, a hybrid approach is usually the most workable one: Ask the freelancer to estimate how long it would take them to do a given task, then negotiate based on that amount. Don’t be afraid to ask for ways of getting that number down—you might be able to get the artist to reduce their hours by working in black and white instead of color, for example, or by agreeing to a hard limit on the number of revisions.

Once you have a figure you can both live with, that’s what goes in the contract.

The kill clause

Sometimes a freelancer just can’t produce the work that you need to move your project forward. Maybe their style is a mismatch with the existing art; maybe they’re too slow or the quality just isn’t there. If you don’t have a “kill clause” in your contract that allows you to abort an assignment and save your money, then you may be obligated to pay full price for whatever the artist delivers, even if it’s unusable for your purposes.

It’s best not to get overly complicated with the kill clause. If the project gets scuttled before it reaches the revisions stage, the artist should half of the agreed-upon sum, and both parties go their separate ways. Don’t argue over blame or try to re-negotiate—you’ll never be satisfied with the outcome. Just make a clean break, hire a replacement and move on.

The deadline

Make sure you specify a deadline to protect yourself against delays. Otherwise, an artist might deliver a concept long after it’s too late to be useful, and you’d be contractually obligated to pay them anyway. There’s no need to get fussy with penalties and notifications, just figure out when you need the artwork by, and say so in the contract. If the freelancer can’t deliver by the deadline, the contract is nullified.


Make sure the contract states that the client assumes ownership of all rights to the artwork upon payment. Most freelancers expect this anyway, but again, it’s safer to spell it out in writing. Unless you have legal reasons to maintain secrecy, try to at least grant the artist the right to display the pieces in their portfolio, as this directly affects their livelihood.

Signing on the dotted line

That about covers it! Send your freelancer a dated, signed contract, have them sign and fax/e-mail you a copy, and you’re good to go. To save time, keep a template contract on hand that you can keep modifying as you work with different artists, and always make sure you negotiate everything listed above before any work begins!

The Desert Ruins

Two new paintings have just been added to the Environment Designs section of the gallery. They depict the eroding Carthaginian ruins on the outskirts of town.

Rather than conveying a majestic, towering lost civilization, I asked the artist to create the opposite: a forsaken graveyard of relics, half-buried under the shifting sands. The scenes that take place here are among the bleakest in the film, and I’ve tried to convey an atmosphere of despair.

Artwork by Vincent Morin
Artwork by Vincent Morin

New additions to the gallery

Several new pieces have been added to the Concept Art section, including this lovely Ottoman costume design by David Ward.

Artwork by David Ward
Artwork by David Ward

Other additions can be found on the Medina and Tournament Pavilion pages. More is on the way!

Tournament parking area

Following up on his fantastic Tournament Headquarters painting, Vincent brings us this striking rendition of the mecha parking area. Love that dusky purple sky!

Artwork by Vincent Morin
Artwork by Vincent Morin

Working with concept artists: Recruiting

In preproduction, most of my duties revolve around managing concept artists: finding them, negotiating with them, art-directing them, paying them. Over time, I’ve picked up some tricks that I thought I’d share with other animators looking to develop shorts of their own.

Once you have your script finalized (and you really do want to wait until you’re done revising the script before you start on the concept work, otherwise you’re just throwing money away) you’ll need every word of it interpreted in visual form. Every character, every location, every vehicle, prop and piece of furniture needs a design.

Finding character artists isn’t too hard, as many concept artists enjoy doing characters. Environment artists are tougher to find, as environment painting isn’t as glamorous, and tends to be a lot more labor-intensive. But you will need both. (Few artists specialize in vehicles or props; generally your character or environment artists will handle these.)

You’ll eventually need storyboard artists too, but we’ll save them for a later entry.

Finding concept artists

The most effective method for finding concept artists I’ve found so far has been to post help wanted ads on relevant forums. I’ve been able to find most of the people I need using the freelance forum on, but there are a number of other job forums out there, depending on the style and genre you’re after:

Once you’ve registered and read the forum rules for posting job listings, you’ll post something like:

The director of Cat Pirates is looking for a character concept artist to design the main and supporting characters for a 5-minute animated short, about cats who plunder the high seas. The style is 3D with a strong claymation influence, especially Aardman Animation. Please send an e-mail to: with your rates and availability, and a link to your portfolio.

Within hours, your inbox will start filling up with applicants!

Making the call

Picking the best artist for your project can be daunting. You’ll have a wide assortment of talented people to choose from, and you certainly won’t be able to afford to hire them all. A good rule of thumb: pick the person whose art style matches the look you’re after. If your main influence is Pocoyo, and a candidate’s portfolio is nothing but anime, they’re not going to be able to give you what you need, no matter how talented they are. You’ll either fail to get the desired look, or you’ll waste money trying to steer the artist towards your chosen direction. Most concept artists will insist that they can handle any style, but what’s in their portfolio is a preview of what you’ll be getting from them.

Once you’ve narrowed your list down to a handful of favorites, contact them. Tell them you’re interested, forward them a copy of the script (send an NDA first, if necessary), ask them what they think, and tell them what kind of art you’re looking to commission. That means you’ll need to know exactly what you require. Pencil sketches? Polished full-color renders? Multiple angles? What level of detail? What style? In return, ask them to estimate how long the job would take them, and how much they would charge.

Their responses will help you determine who your best choice is. Things to look for:

  • How quickly did they get back to you?
  • Did they read the script, or just skim it? Did they “get” it?
  • Did they answer all your questions?
  • Are their visual ideas in line with yours?

If a candidate takes forever to get back to you, or can’t seem to give you a firm answer on what their rates are, drop them like a stone. No matter how good their portfolio looks, people who flake out when they’re e-mailing you will flake out when they’re working for you. Professionals work fast, communicate well, and they know how much they charge.

Going public

So, with IE6/7 compatibility squared away, that makes it official. The main page now links here, the PHP templates are consolidated… we even have a favicon!

There’s still a lot of work to be done—new sub-galleries need to be added to the main gallery pages, and we’ll eventually want some sort of splash page—but this is enough to start with.

Just one problem: where do we spread the word? Who’d have an interest in a project like The Ottoman? Some of the CGTalk crowd maybe, but I’m not really plugged into the whole 3D scene, so I don’t really know.

I guess we’ll play it by ear. Feel free to suggest some sites in the comments.

Enter the Ottoblog

Hello world. Glad to have made it this far.

I’ll skip the lengthy rundown of what the Ottoman project is, since that’s what the rest of the site is for, but here’s the quick RSS-feed version:

Over the last year, an international team of concept artists, modelers and riggers have been collaborating on a short film about the owner of a homebrew beetle mecha and his struggles to prepare for his upcoming duel with a powerful scorpion mecha. The animation is being done in Cinema 4D, with the visuals being modeled after the work of European comics.

Now that the storyboards are nearing completion, we’re getting ready to start expanding our modeling and pre-vis teams, and that’s one of the reasons for the new site. In addition to using this blog to report on our progress, I’ll also be posting render tests, concept art and animation clips, as well as tips for fellow indie animation directors.

Thanks for visiting!