Wednesday, February 10, 2010

California Trip / Blizzcon 2009

[This is a mix of a recap of my trip to California and a convention report of sorts for Blizzcon 2009. Fall 09 was not a great time for me and I didn't get to finishing this post for awhile. If you are just looking for BlizzCon information, look for the bold "Blizzcon"below. Pictures from my trip can be found on my Flickr: California and Blizzcon.]

In the middle of August of 2009, I was able to spend some time in California with my friends for Blizzcon 2009. It was a great trip and something really welcomed at that time. A lot had been falling apart one right after another; and so it turns out taking some time out to collect myself was something I really needed. Sometimes stepping away for just a bit to catch your breath is necessary. I wasn't going to go because I couldn't get a ticket for Ruby, but she insisted. She told me that I needed the fun and that I should go; this is why I have such an awesome girlfriend. So in exchange she got my swag bag from the con. I also owe the trip to Nam and Kim, who helped with my way there and the Blizzcon ticket. They are the reason why I had such a great time out there.

The trip was awesome. [Funny Note: our plane to Cali was FULL of Blizzcon attendees. I saw dozens of WoW apparel, and even the senior couple in front of us were talking about their paladins. It was hilarious). Nam's cousin Kim let the group of us crash with her for the week. I hadn't seen her in years; back when she use to call me Looney Tunes (for reason I'll go into if you ask me, but the short of it is that people use to pronounce my name "Loon"). So being able to hang out with her was pretty sweet. Kim and our friend Nancy have been out in Cali for a while so it was great being having people who knew all the great places to eat around town. They took us to some of the best eateries I have ever been to; I want to go back just hang with Kim and Nancy and eat all day. It was that amazing.

Kim lead us on a tour of the Blizzard Campus. It was amazing; it is the ULTIMATE workplace. The environment was pretty casual but had a real sense of high, professional standards. Because we were with Kim, we got a slightly different tour of the buildings than the regular press people. It was really personal and we got a chance to really check out the place. The creative areas were exactly the environments I dream of working in. Being able to see these workplaces actually exists really helped my spirits and determination. It was a great month for seeing various workspaces and how they reflect the personalities that are involved (see Atlanta Road Trip! post). You can tell that the company works really hard but also has a lot of fun. Kim later showed us the DVD of their company-wide Rock Band competition. It wasn't a little competition in a break room. I'm talking outdoor stage, lights, fog machines, and costumes of a competition. Even the president of the company was in one of the bands. Seriously an awesome company.

The real highlight of the tour was meeting Trent Kaniuga. Kim had gotten wind that I am a big Kaniuga fan and led us through the maze of the campus to find Trent. He has been a big influence on my art style. Anyone who seems me draw can see it. Several times someone would look at my art and ask "Have you ever heard of a comic called CreeD?"; it's that obvious. I had brought all my CreeD books with me just in case I had the chance to run into him. I hadn't expected Kim to take us by his desk. I'm naturally an introvert so it was really difficult to not have it become an episode of the Chris Farley Show. Trent was really nice though and put up with my fanboy-ism. He's seems to be a really humble guy; and was nice enough to give us some of his mini-comics (i say mini-comics because of the size, these were full color books on some really slick paperstock) and sign my small stack of books. He told us of his first convention at the age of 16 or so. If I remember correctly, the convention was at a mall (I KNOW!) and his publisher was dressed up as Spider-Man trying to get people to come over to their table. He said it was horrible but amusing to look upon. I hope I didn't come across as too much of a fanboy.

As for the Blizzcon itself, it was a freaking madhouse. I dubbed it LineCon as there was huge line for EVERYTHING. However I will give it to the Blizzard and the convention center that lines were really organized and everything really moved at a brisk pace. Example: to get your pass for the con, they had people checking paperwork throughout the line so when you get into the front it was all easy peasy, click, scan, boom! We never stood still for more than a minute. Except for opening day. The line to get in for Day One wrapped around the building. I heard people were there since pre-dawn (doors opened i think at 11). I'm so glad we got to crash with Kim in her hotel room. Finding a place to park would have been a nightmare.

The con was awesome and HUGE. The space was epic; which was needed to house the few thousand attendees, the booths, and the platoons of computers. Because of how the convention center is setup, everything was really easy to find. You really felt welcomed by Blizzard and they really showed their love for the fans. The panels were great for fans of any of the various franchises, the gaming areas were super sweet, and for the most part the attendees were pretty laid back. You can tell a lot of them were there as hardcore WoW players. But we were eagerly awaiting to get our hands on the Diablo demo. We went through the line several times, trying out all the classes. The Starcraft demo left me craving for more; and the WoW: Cataclysm demo reminded me why the game is so damn good. Our swag bag came with a little bottle of hand-sanitizer, which we used liberally after every demo.

Security at the show was pretty annoying, but nothing like the airport. They just had to check you bag every time you entered; but it wasn't an involved search. Just a quick visual scan and off you went. Oddly enough they didn't allow you to bring in drinks; even bottles of soda that you bought INSIDE of the convention hall. You could see the soda machine from the security checkpoint. I asked one of the security guys about it; he just shrugged and said he knew it was silly but it's a rule of the convention center. Luckily they had cash bars all over the place, which incidentally were cheaper than the hotel bar.

The concert was awesome and through the roof Crazy Train. People were already sitting down for the concert (which starts at 4PM) at noon. The Artists Formally Known as Level 80 Elite Tauren Chieftain (aka TAFKAL80ETC) were great. They're an in-house band made up of Blizzard employees; which includes senior art director Samwise Didier on vocals and company president Mike Morhaime on bass. I only tell you this because it was surprising how many people didn't know who these people are. I mean, c'MON, they only make the games you love so much and play EVERYDAY. And how awesome is it for a bunch of game designers with essentially their garage band open up for the Ozzy Ozborn himself? The Ozzy show was a pure bedlam. They tried to keep the fans out of the aisles but the power of the Prince of Darkness drove the crowd to rush to the stage. The security just gave up and it was on from there. I was able to get about 20 feet from the stage, but it was like trudging through mud: just wet and smelly. The wet wasn't just the fans, Ozzy was throwing buckets of water at the audience. I had to leave. We left to another hall to watch it on the massive projection screens there. Ozzy put on a great show, but I think he was a bit thrown off by the fans. I mean, gamers are great people, but they do not have the absolute rabid ferocity of pure metal heads. It was wonderful show though and Ozzy can still rock the mic. He completely owns the stage.

Overall it was an [Awesome Con]. It was very well organized and you can tell they are having as much fun as the fans. The con was also filled with company swag, not only from Blizzard but from all the vendors as well. I brought home a whole goodie bag of stuff. Unfortunately everyone else wanted the same swag so there were a lot of lines for swag that had to be won via some sort of carnival game. If you are a fan of any of the Blizzard franchises, you should find a way to get to this con when they have it again.

Monday, February 8, 2010

So you want to be a freelancer?

Some of us freelance while in school, some of us freelance on the side of our main jobs, and some of us freelance full time. I freelanced full time for three and a half years; and I did it even longer if you count the side gigs I did during my college years. I’ve recently aquired a full-time position as a production artist so it looks like my corporate freelance days are over. So as I work through a whole other set of rules and proceedures, I wanted to write about some of my experiences as a freelancer and leave some tips that I've picked up over the years.

One of the main difference so far between working full-time and freelancing is actually social. As a freelancer, people are fleeting. Names are forever temporary; more than likely you’ll only deal with a small number of people at any given time. For the most part, I was always assigned to a single designer or art director. Most of my contact with the company was through this one person. I do the work, hand it off, and it evaporates somewhere into the company. It’ll come back magically with red marks from various hands from clandestine meetings that I never saw. This means I never see much of the company past the creative department. That would change once you get into long term assignments; but for the most part, onsite gigs will fall between one day to a month.

Parking is always a fun adventure for a new gig. Sometimes it's fairly easy, just a big parking lot with some reserved spots. Other times they ask you park in one area and stay out of the "Visitor" spots. And the most fun times is when the gig is downtown, where finding a spot is all sorts of headaches. I try to take the DART rail when it was a downtown gig; most places are within walking distance from one of the stops. So on your first day, be sure to ask someone if you parked in the right area.

Dress codes will change from place to place. Some are very casual, some are a bit more business. For the most part you won't be needing a suit and tie as a freelancer. One of my agencies was fairly consistant with informing me of the dress code. However, if I don't have that information up front, I'd default to a polo and slacks both usually in black. I always wore my Vans instead of your usual business shoes. I just made sure they were always of a solid dark color. I never had anyone comment on them. I always kept myself fairly well groomed; nothing too outrageous. After the first day you can assess what the office policies are.

Over the years I developed a “freelance bag”. It was a dedicated bag, separate from my art bag, that I took to all my gigs. I added and subtracted items over the years; but anything that I put into the bag stayed in the bag. It just became a hassle to try to remember to take stuff out or put stuff in constantly. VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: You everything you bring into a gig, you have to take with you at the end of the day. There was one occasion where I got an email after I left the office that the gig is over. I never got a chance to get back to the office for my stuff. And honestly, offices have the gamut of different personalities. You never know who's going to be slim shady; so only leave behind stuff that you feel you can easily replace.

Mouse: This is really important. You never know what sort of mouse you’ll be assigned when you come in. Sometimes the scroll button doesn’t work; or it will only scroll one way. For a while I kept getting mice with an actual ball instead of an optical. When you are on assignment for a single day, it’s much easier to just have one handy than try to find a spare one from the tech guy.

Notepad: You’ll be taking a lot of notes; and I mean a lot of notes. UserIDs, PWs, server addresses, file locations, phone numbers, extensions, meeting rooms, etc. I use a small 6x9, top spiral bound lined notebook. Finding scrap paper for notes can be a real hassle. Best to have one ready.

A Good Ballpoint Pen: Office pens are horrible and usually out of ink. The ones you find around the office are usually the scraps because the office manager is strict with handing out office supplies. I recommend a ballpoint because it can right on most surfaces and won't bleed through the paper. You’ll be filling out form for job spec and initialing proofs on all sorts of paper so it’s best to have something universal. Plus ballpoint ink will not bleed if it gets wet.

Highlighter: At every place I’ve worked, changes were always marked up on a printout. So i would mark the changes I did as I went along. Highlighter are the best for this because you can still read any text after you marked it. I do not recommend getting a yellow one. Yellow highlighters don't stand out on white; pink or blue really pops on the page.

Jump Drive/External HD: As a freelancer sometimes you don’t have access to email, some servers, etc. This is the best way to get your files around the office. You won’t always find a blank CD/DVD to burn to. Plus it’s a handy way for you to carry around your reference files and preferences. Though remember to double check with your AD about any stock photography/patterns that you would like to use. This include fonts; only use the fonts that they have loaded. Companies have a responsibility to show proof of purchase for any stock/font used in their designs. I only bring with me textures and patterns that I created myself.

Hand Sanitizer: The office is like kindergarten: it’s a freaking petri dish of germs. You’re in a small enclosed environment for hours at a time. Bathrooms, printer stations, etc. are used by everyone in the office. And as a freelancer you don’t get paid sick-days.

Headphones: My philosophy with headphones is the bigger the better. You’ll have audiophiles tell you that it’s about directional speakers or sound proofing or whatever. Putting on huge headphones is the office signal for “leave me alone”. There’s a lot going on in the office around you: meetings, office chatter, personal calls, TV talk, etc. As a freelancer, most of the time you are there to help out an understaffed department/team. So more than likely you’re going to be slammed with work. Being able to block out the world to rock and roll on InDesign files is probably in your best interest. Plus it’ll come in handy when you get stuck next to talkative co-worker. Ug.

Cash: I’m talking actual cash, dollah dollah bills, ya'll. I carry a small handful of change in my bag for the vending machines. Being able to grab a snack or a drink is always a good idea. A few $1 won’t hurt either.

Traveler’s Mug: Most offices will have some coffee around for free. One gig even had a free soda fountain in their break room. At the very least, all offices will have a water fountain. But they won’t always have cups for you.

Badge Holder: I’m talking about the one with a clip, preferably one that is retractable. If you do get a badge, two things are pretty likely. One: with security awareness on the rise, you’ll need to have it visible at all times. Two: you’ll need to scan it to get in and around the building. Having it on a retractable clip is easier than having it in your pocket or around your neck.

Tablet: If you can swing having one with you, I'd say do it. You'll never know when you'll be ask to do an illustration or a retouch on a photo. Having the tablet will make this much easier. You'll be able to grab the drivers from the website at any time. Whether or not you'll have access to install them is another story.

File Folder: Handy to keep all your freelance paperwork together like timesheets, NDAs, office policies, etc. Anything you sign, ask for a copy. Your paperwork is your own business, and you'll have to look after yourself. One freelance agency that I used had their own timesheet/invoice so I kept a few copies in there. On the actual folder I wrote the agency's main number and fax. Every office has different internet security, I never know whether or not I'll be able to get into my personal email to get those numbers.

Being able to handle yourself well and working at your best is really important as a freelancer. And the best way to do that is to be prepared. You performance on any given day will determine the likelihood of getting called back in the future. Plus the design community is actually very small. Having ADs and HR speak highly of you to industry friends will be a great help to your career and bank account.

Friday, February 5, 2010

ICBW: The Inside Story

[Photos can be found on my Flickr account and the Breaking Comics Facebook page. Feel free to tag yourself and your book on the Fb photos. NOTE: this posting was created a while back, I thought I had posted it before. I guess not.]

My last post was the very beginning of Indy Comic Book Week and I think it would be appropriate to pay it off with an insider's recap of sorts. ICBW started out with a flyer made by Kyle Latino and his concept of Deadline '09. It got passed from one creator to another before it reached us at Space-Gun Studios. Matt really jumped on the idea and bought the ICBW domain; and I took it upon myself to write up a posting for it. Though hesitant because we were essentially swiping Kyle's idea for Diamond's Skip Week, we moved forward as fast and hard as we could due to the amount of time we had. (Thankfully we were able to contact Kyle and he was actually happy that we were doing something with his idea. So much thanks to Kyle for letting us run on our own with this event.)

I was in California for BlizzCon at the time with friends including Nam and Kim, both of whom i give mighty and big thanks for helping me take the trip. And much thanks to Ruby who essentially made me go have fun. I'll try to get a recap for that trip at some point. Anyways, when the idea of ICBW was born, I was sitting on the floor at the coffee table with my laptop (given to me by my lovely girlfriend). The laptop isn't setup for work so I had nothing loaded on it in regards to graphics and fonts. I was lucky enough to remember that we had one of our projects still on the server; so then I had to wait for the 500MBs to download. While the zip file downloaded, I was trying to find the right words for the post, help Nam with dinner, play with the lovable dog, and come up with an idea for a graphic. I'm surprised it came out as well as it did.

The entry was posted and it was off to the races. The blog entry had a bigger reach than I had expected and the twitter hashtag started to spread. Paul was elected to come up with a logo, Matt worked up a website and found someone to do a proper press release for us, and Jake and I went to talk with Jeremy, the owner of Titan Comics here in Dallas. We met up with him for a brunch of sorts and this is where we got tricked, TRICKED i say! We went into the brunch hoping for two things: contact information for the indie friendly DFW shops, and an idea of what the retailers would need from us (as ICBW and creators). What we left with as a massive list of stores across the nation and various contacts for distributors, sales reps, and retail sites to send our press release. In that one talk over breakfast foods, we suddenly had a LOT of people to contact and a much wider scope to contend with.

At this point ICBW essentially turned into a tag-team match. During these four months we all had other projects to handle outside of running ICBW. I had just gotten the script for an educational comic that I was hired to illustrate; and I had a massive amount of pages to letter for Jake and Matt. Matt was doing side gigs to make the bills and he also had to finish up his ICBW book "Senryu". Jake wrapped up his educational comic, do ANOTHER book for them, and then immediately had to finish his script for "Solomon Azua" to begin production. As each of us tagged out to work, the others held down the fort as best as we could. It was pretty fast-paced and hectic four months with high levels of stress. There was a few moments were one of us played the role Ricky Morton, but we somehow got the hot tag and kept the momentum going. We all eventually finished our projects and were able to hit the triple dropkick on the final month of promotion.

We broke up the time leading up to ICBW into three different segments; each segment had a different target market: creators, retailers, and fans. First we talked to creators who were interested in releasing their books for ICBW. This was mainly done through blog posts, twitters, and forum postings. Our goal here was to get everyone signed up for the blog and start posting stuff from their books. This created the momentum we needed to approach the second group: retailers. Tony Shenton really helped us out by posting our press release to his list of retailers. The online activities on the blog and twitter gave retailers something to look at as a means of gauging interest. So when we contacted each shop directly, they had already heard of ICBW from somewhere. With both creators and shops signed up for ICBW, we had a louder voice to get the word out to the fans. At this point the various news sites and podcasts started their coverage of ICBW. We had sent out our press release much earlier. But we didn't see much movement in terms of news coverage; which was expected. We found that information going out to the fans really wouldn't be effective until about two weeks before the event. Trying to keep fans interested for three months would have been near impossible to maintain. So December got flooded with interviews, reviews, and podcasts.

Much like our experience with Synesthtic, we were dealing with a wide array of personalities, attention spans, and intentions. Most were pretty understanding of our focused goal for ICBW and were easy to communicate with. Others had their own agendas and were ignoring everything we were putting up on the web. The headaches were few but they were pretty loud. We did our best to keep these out of the public light as to not taint the positive vibe we were putting forth with the event. The independent market is already stereotyped with the jaded, elitist creator; and we didn't want to have that sort of image represent ICBW.

I think because of this professional and positive attitude we were able to really gain a lot of momentum. This is the outcome of a very important lesson: people will treat you with as much respect and professionalism as you put forward. And sometimes you can super pro about a situation but the other party will still come back at you with a foul attitude. With a project this big and wide in scope, there is a lot of diplomacy involved when dealing with difficult personalities. I find that if you never stoop to their level, they will have no legs to stand on in future arguments. This is especially true in today's email environment where any heated exchange can be recalled with a simple click. And with the nature of ICBW, nearly ALL of communications was done via email. It's a tough standard to hold sometimes, especially with ignorant and stubborn personalities. But I think it is worth it in the end. ICBW was fairly well received as an event and as a group. Hostilities were kept to a minimum, bridges were formed, and we all benefitted from it.