The other day I promised to provide a few hints about projects that Cthulhu Reborn has been working on for different Call of Cthulhu publishers … and in a few days I hope to be able to provide a bunch of information about something special that I have been working on for Sixtystone, that is veeeeery close to being ready to go. The great thing about that project is that not only have I done some funky work on character sheet design … but Sixtystone have also trusted me to completely design the look of the book, create the layout and provide most of the art! Watch this space for more soon!
In the meantime, though, I thought I would talk a bit about something altogether different … I am working on a project for Chaosium (as yet unannounced, so I can’t say too much) that involves creating a mountain of prop documents with a “1920s Arkham, MA” feel to them. Readers of this blog will know that I’ve done lots of period props before … but the sheer scale of this particular job was quite astounding. Below is an example of the kind of thing that I have created.
Doing a lot of this type of work in a short time frame has been quite an interesting experience, and it has really honed my skills at … well, at making brand new things that look like they are really old. Over time I have developed quite a selection of techniques for using digital tools — designed to make crisp and precise artworks — to make things that are not at all crisp or precise. I thought that folks might be interested in seeing how different techniques can come together to make something like the example above look old … so here’s a quick run-through of how I approach creating designs like this.
Although the techniques I mention below make particular reference to features in Adobe Illustrator (my tool of choice), I’m sure that most if not all of them are also available in other drawing packages. BTW: for all images shown on this page, you can click to see larger versions.
The first key design decision for prop documents is the choice of fonts … its usually pretty easy to find fonts that look vaguely period-specific, even using free fonts or the standard set that comes with modern Operating Systems. Usually I try to find a period-specific referemce image of the type of prop I’m designing, then pick fonts that are “close enough”. Here’s the “Burial or Removal Permit” prop in its raw form — just a bunch of text formatted with some vaguely 1920s-looking fonts:
While that already looks pretty reasonable, there are a few things that stop it looking truly vintage. One of the first things I like to do is to tweak the inter-character spacing in text (technically called the “tracking”) of the text. Modern fonts and computer typesetting seems to usually create text where the letters are quite tightly spaced, but old hand-set type was much, much looser — doubtless there’s some historical reason for this. Once you’re used to looking at true vintage typography, samples spaced in a “modern” way just jump out at you as non-authentic. Fortunately, modern drawing and typesetting tools give you a fair amount of control over a number of parameters (including tracking), so you can tweak away to create that wider-spaced look. Here’s a screenshot of Adobe Illustrator’s way of doing this:
And here’s what our sample looks like with some wider character spacing for most of the text:
To my eyes, this is already starting to look more like an old document. The next thing to address, though, is the crispness of the lettering — most fonts (and typesetting software) aim to create things that look crisp, but here we want something that looks a bit rough around the edges. One easy way we can make things look less crisp is by adding a stroke (basically a line) to the outside of the text. Adobe Illustrator lets you pick the width of the stroke as well as its colour, so you can achieve several different degrees of de-crisping:
And here’s our prop with thin black outline strokes added to all the lettering.
See how that beautiful crispness of the original typeset text has been grunged up a little? But we can go even further … Old typesetting methods were pretty error-prone: real-world offset type would pick up ink unevenly and if there was dust or other grime around the place it was pretty easy for lots of randomness to creep into the outline of letters. If you don’t believe me, go look at some scans of 1920s newspapers! Adobe Illustrator has a nifty way of similarly adding randomness to shapes — and thankfully also to lettering — by means of its “roughen” filter. This basically divides up a shape or letter outline into lots of small segments and randomly perturbs each one by an amount within a range you specify. Here’s how you can use it to add some randomness to our text:
And here’s what the prop looks like with everything grunged up just a bit. This effect can easily go overboard, so it’s important to show some restraint (otherwise the text can get entirely unreadable) — here I am telling Illustrator that it can only perturb the outline of text by at most 0.1mm but that it can randomly shunt things around 79 spots per inch around the perimeter of the letter.
The next thing I usually do to make text seem even more “indistinct” (in a vintage printing kind of way) is to give it a variable level of opacity to model the differing amounts of ink that were picked up by different parts of the type. While some letters will have picked up a whole bunch of ink, dust and grime will have caused other letters to pick up less than they should, and in extreme cases maybe left part of the letter entirely free of ink. We can digitally do something similar using my all-time favourite feature of Adobe Illustrator — the Opacity Mask. You can read detailed descriptions of what these are elsewhere I’m sure … but effectively Opacity Masks let you specify how see-through an object should be at different points across its surface by providing ANOTHER monochrome bitmap or shape (the mask). Wherever the mask is white, the original image will show through perfectly; where it’s grey it will show through partially, and where the mask is black the source image won’t be visible at all. When your mask looks like this:
you can create a subtle effect which makes you subconsciously see grimy old type instead of nice, new computer typeset type. You put the mask on top of the text you want to make grungy, select the two and tell Illustrator to go:
Here’s the result for our prop — it’s pretty subtle, but quite effective.
There’s still another way in which we can try to emulate some of the grungy effects of real-world printing. Depending on the type of paper being used, real-world samples tend to bleed a little bit around the edges (this happens even with inkjet printers a bit) — that makes the edges seem sort of a bit blurry or faded. We can model this using an “outer glow” effect in digital drawing tools. Here’s the same prop but with a small amount of black outer glow added to all text:
Notice how this makes everything seem just slightly blurry … but in a way which looks like something printed a long time ago. Finally, we can add in some realistic paper texture to make things looks like a real-world document:
When adding paper, I have found it is usually a good idea to make the text ever-so-slightly transparent (maybe setting opacity at 90%). That way, some of the paper texture still shows through even in the printed parts, and it generally looks more like a printed document instead of a piece of paper with some text perched in front of it.
And that’s our prop … I hope this brief tutorial walk-through of the vintage prop creation process is helpful or instructive to other designers and artists out there. I have used all of these techniques (sometimes separately, sometimes together) to create a LOT of different period props — when it works, they can look very convincing indeed! At least to my eyes . . .