Monday, September 20, 2010

Real-life heroes

I spent the weekend helping Nicole Le with her prep work for the upcoming trailer project. (Note for the newbies: Nicole is a friend from high school who volunteers her artwork to help make Masks look good because I can’t just post the whole book online. I pay her in fast food, usually tacos or Flame Broiler bowls, and the negotiations are … interesting.) She’s gotten heavily into painting of late, and picked up a few ideas from an Alex Ross artbook she found in the local library. Ross does a lot of superhero paintings and works heavily from photographs, and because a) Nicole’s camera doesn’t work and b) I have, from time to time, worked as a news photographer and/or videographer, she asked me to help her out with the technical side.

We didn’t have a live model for Trevor—basically, we didn’t know any guys of the right build and facial cast who were (and this is critical) short enough to pass for Trevor—so there was some pulling out of photos from old yearbooks and the like. But for Rae, we had a real live human being—Carolyn Kabelitz, younger sister of Amber Peters, one of my best friends and (in my humble opinion) the finest living American coloratura.

We didn’t have an actual Peregrine costume lying around for Carolyn (how crazy so you think I am?), so we improvised with an old hooded tunic/shirt I made a few years ago when I was testing how a Peregrine-style tunic would hold up in hot weather. (So, that crazy … and for the record, I walked around in it all day at a theme park in July, and became neither overheated nor sunburned—take that, spandex monkeys!) Carolyn’s slimmer than I am, so we took it in at the sides, hiked the sleeves a bit, and adjusted the hood so she looked more like a superhero and less like a Nazgul. And then we took some pictures.

It was … odd.

I’ve known Carolyn for more than a decade, since she was tagging along after her big sister and sitting in on our anime DVD-a-thons. I’ve lived with Rae in my head for about as long, but hadn’t really put the two of them together until my artists began asking me for visual reference on Rae. My early drafts of the book didn’t describe her until the third chapter or so (an oversight that has now been corrected, although Rae’s view of herself and what Trevor sees when he looks at her later are slightly, and significantly, different). I had never considered her physical appearance particularly important, perhaps because she doesn’t think it’s important, and goes out of her way to disguise it. Rae, in my head, was a voice. But artists need a face. So I grabbed the nearest brunette of the right build and got to work.

At first, I was just looking through my viewfinder at Carolyn and trying to get her to strike whatever poses Nicole had sketched out in her thumbnail roughs. I focused on lighting and position, getting the folds in the cloth to stand out clearly so Nicole could see them when she used the photos as reference later. Carolyn giggled and mugged between takes—she is naturally cheerful, much more so than Rae, and takes a staggering amount of joy in life. I yelled out random words to try to get her to make whatever face Nicole said she needed, and generally tried to make the real person line up with the imaginary one.

But then—briefly at first, then more and more regularly—I began seeing flashes of somebody else when I lined up my shots. Something in Carolyn’s eyes as she glanced up at the camera, the curve of her mouth as she looked down to adjust her costume, the ruffle of her hair in the breeze. For heartbeats at a time, I could almost see Rae standing there. I could see little bits of my character coming through. Carolyn’s been a Masks reader for years, and while she hasn’t read the current draft, she has a pretty good sense of what Rae’s like. Yet I’m fairly certain she wasn’t trying to act between shots. She was just finding the little bits of Rae that were already in her … bits that probably went into the character when I had to design an indomitable teenage girl who enjoyed yanking supervillains’ chains.

Makes me wonder how many people I know went into the people I made …

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