Dick Tracy Reimagined - Making Of
Since May 2021 I have been actively working on a short film based on the comic series Dick Tracy, which debuted in the 1930s and is currently public domain. I have done several concepts prior to this date, but I'm only now taking it a step further and making a film out of it... well, part of a film.
My script is supposed to have 3 acts, but due to time constraints, I am focusing on just the first one, which will be roughly 1 minute and 30 seconds long. For a one-man production, it is still quite a bit of work, but working alone on a film has its advantages.
One of the pros is that I can work less on specific designs. While I still like to make clear and easily understandable designs, some assets that are done mostly to communicate to other artists how things work in the film become unnecessary and can be skipped.
Another advantage is that since the only person working on the project is the one with its vision in mind, fewer iterations are necessary and misinterpretations are a lot harder to happen.
Now, of course, it can be quite limited when you don't have the input and ideas from other creative minds, and it's still a lot more work to do even though cutting corners are a bit easier. Not everything is an advantage after all.
That being said, I'd like to share some of the assets that I've done so far for this film. There is a heavy focus on backgrounds, so you'll be seeing a lot of those in this post.
Early Concept Stages
I started this project when I was in Vancouver Film School, while term 4 was far more deadly than it currently is. The main course of that term was all about remixing and redesigning an existing public domain IP from a list the instructor provided us.
In that list, Dick Tracy was one of the options, and I ended up picking that one. Not because I was familiar with it. In fact, I had no clue of what Dick Tracy was before that term, but after researching a little bit about it, I had ideas I liked right away. I knew then this is what I had to go for.
The idea was to take those corny but fun comics and turn them into something darker, noir and graphic, with more geometric shapes. Instead of a good and loyal cop, we have a furious, hateful policeman blinded by vengeance, willing to do whatever it takes to bring down the leader of Homeville's crime empire: Big Boy Caprice.
I had a few different inspirations for this project. Although the direction has shifted a little bit, I initially referenced the graphic styles of Robert Valley and Patricio Betteo quite a bit, although my work and theirs are not the same. Color-wise, Sin City inspired me with its gray colour palette with occasional vibrant colours. I thought I could make good use of it not only because it matches the noir style I was going for and it helps Tracy to pop in the scene, but also to separate what's evil and what's no-so evil (red and yellow).
I also used the colours to connect Tracy to the city, as both he and the Clock Tower - the main and tallest building there - share the same hue. Homeville is a character of its own, decaying due to the effects of the gangster "parasites" taking over the city. Tracy is the only one capable of curing the city, which is why they cooperate to take Big Boy down. Hence why the chromatic similarity.
The 2-year gap between initial iterations and the final ones was really beneficial to improvement in quality. I thought for a while that my original design for Tracy was good, but then little by little I started not liking it anymore. The face seemed like it was sinking into his shoulders, and the body itself wasn't pleasing me anymore.
A few months ago I did a pencil test with the original design I had, which was great for me to realize that the design needed to change. I didn't feel like the mouth was working that well for lip-sync, and body proportions were bothering me since a while ago. In other words, I didn't like animating him that much.
The animation is a little stiff, but it helped me to see how much the design needed to improve.
After that enlightenment, I went ahead and redesigned the character. The graphic and geometrical feeling I initially tried so hard to get through ended up getting toned down in the end, and perhaps for the best. Now Tracy feels a bit more like it came from a Batman world, which works just fine with the film's mood.
I only had designs for Tracy and Big Boy Caprice when I first idealized this world, and in this film, he only appears in the beginning on a wanted poster. The full script has other 2 main characters: Flattop Jones and Chief Brandon.
Big Boy Caprice in a wanted poster. Taken from a storyboard rough.
Chief Brandon was easy, as I had an unused design of a police chief from a different project. I just did some minor changes and made him part of this world. Turns out I only saved some time to my future self, as this character does not appear until Act 2, which is not coming out anytime soon.
That left me only with Flattop. I had nothing remotely similar to Flattop before actively working on this film, so there were no shortcuts. I had to design him from scratch.
I had two things in mind when designing Flattop: the first one is that the top of his head had to be flat! Sounds obvious, but when I say flat I mean a straight line! The second is that he had to look ugly in kind of a grotesque and deformed way. The second one was actually a very nice tip from my dad, who had a lot more contact with Dick Tracy than I ever had. This is a rule that applies to every villain in this franchise, and it will be one that I will always keep in mind for future bad guys if they ever come to be.
I haven't really animated or done any pencil tests of these new designs, so I am not sure of how good they are yet. Flattop's neck makes me a little bit concerned, but we'll see. I still don't know how these characters will sound like completely, and once again Flattop is my main concern.
Locations and Environments
Being the only one in this project and having limited time to work on it, I needed a strategy to get things done fast. Easily one of the most time-consuming tasks is drawing and painting backgrounds, so I used a lot of digital tricks to get it done as fast as possible, which allowed me to get up to 5 backgrounds finalized in a week (avg of 1 a day).
My first trick was to reuse assets as much as I possibly can, and in order to do that, I created them early on. The line-up of buildings right above are some of the assets I heavily used (and still use) to create backgrounds.
The second trick is to use 3D for repetitive locations. I created a scene in Blender with mostly flat images that were put together like a papercraft for one specific location in this film. Almost no 3D modelling was needed, except for a very simple model for a trash dumpster and another one to give depth to a building at the end of the alley.
These 2 tricks helped me to save a lot of time. I still had to draw and paint new assets and background elements, but mostly I was just skewing assets into perspective.
The downside of this method is that it can look a bit flat in some areas, but I found that the full-black shading helped to cover this up a little bit. Ideally, I would go into these backgrounds and create depth on the areas that need it, but time is short and there are several BGs to work on.
Here are some examples:
Here are some other location designs. Some will not be in the film as they take place after Act 1.
Here is some extra stuff that very likely will not make it into the final film.
Dick Tracy has a kind of smartwatch from the 1930s to-1960s on his wrist. That is actually a pretty popular prop from this series, and there's a scene that focuses on the watch at the beginning of Act 2. Since I am not working on Act 2 in this film, the design hasn't been finished yet.
Some prop designs. I also used some of them as assets for the backgrounds, such as the light post, the hydrant and the trash bin.
Some office prop designs. It's only for Act 2, so I never really finished, but one day I believe I will.
This about wraps up this post. This is mostly a summary and a walkthrough of what I have been working on during the past few months. It shows the approach I took to the pre-production of my short film, the sacrifices I had to make and the shortcuts I had to take in order to get things done.
When I started this project 2 years ago it was supposed to be a simple design pack of an idea for a possible film. Actually back then I designed thinking about video games. I ended up liking the direction it was going and continued to work on it every now and then. Now I am dedicating my school time to create an animated film, which is about 1/3 of what I actually had in mind. It goes on expanding as time pass.
It's also cool to come back to this project with fresh eyes and a better skillset to make it even cooler, just to look at it another couple of years in the future and think "wow, I can do a lot better now." It's very easy to think you've stopped growing and stagnated until you revive an old project and realize that you actually improved quite a bit. It's just that it's so gradual and subtle that we don't even notice.
Can't wait for this future where I look at my portfolio and think "time to do it all over because it's all crap compared to what I can do now."
I should be back soon to share more stuff from the Production stage. It'll be challenging since animation is not my forte, but I believe I might surprise myself with what I can do.
In the meantime, take care and stay safe!