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For her background and layout project, Graphic Designer and Illustrator Sarah Dorey decided to re-imagine the classic tale of Peter Pan, but with a horror/paranatural twist. From composition decisions to focal point advice, don’t miss out on this breakdown, which includes:

  1. Thumbnails
  2. Assets
  3. Lost Boys’ Hideout
  4. Hangman’s Tree
  5. English Bedroom
  6. Mermaid Lagoon
  7. Final Projects

Hi, my name is Sarah Dorey. I am a graphic design and illustrator from Ottawa, Canada, with big dreams of entering the concept design industry. When I graduated high school, I took a paid internship at a local video game studio (Head Games), where I got to shadow artists. Since then, I graduated from Carleton University and Algonquin College with a bachelor’s degree in information technology, multimedia and design. Professionally, I’ve been the ASO (App store optimization) specialist and graphic designer for a mobile game company and have had contracts as a graphic designer in various industries. However, I still want to pursue concept design and illustration!

1. Thumbnails

To best manage my time for this project, I chose an existing narrative; Peter Pan. However, to keep things interested, I decided to tell this version of the story from Wendy’s point of view, and I would frame it as a horror/paranatural.

In most cases, I wanted a feeling of ominousness. However, I also added an England bedroom scene as a ‘happier’ contrast piece. A world left behind. I also added low camera angles when mysterious set pieces are involved and a level camera when the shot is setting the scene. I took inspiration from the Call of Cthulhu, the forest, and other survival-focused games and animation and combined it with recognizable imagery from past depictions of Peter Pan.

I then picked three key scenes I would want to depict. The mermaid lagoon, an already harrowing scene wherein the original play mermaids try to drown Wendy, the Hangman tree (also from the original play) where the lost boys made an underground base, and the pirate ship. Though, some ideas would be left aside in favour of time.

After feedback from my instructor, any centralized compositions were removed. I also noted that other thumbnails would be stronger with a better balance of large vs small objects in the foreground vs background.

Be sure to enroll in CGMA’s Background and Layout for Animation taught by Matte Painter, Concept Artist, and Visual Development Artist Jonathan Hoekstra.

2. Assets

After filtering out functional thumbnails, I narrowed which scenes I was going to do from three to two. I felt the pirate ship, especially an exterior shot, might be too ambitious with the number of layouts I planned to explore.

For the mermaid lagoon, I planned some semi-sunken gravestones of lost sailors and natural rock formations. And in the case of the hangman tree, or the lost’s boy’s hideout, I would do both an exterior and interior.

For the Lost Boys Hideout, I depicted some of the salvaged supplies, what a structure in their underground network might look like, and some rotten food. I decided to play up the idea that Peter, not understanding responsibility or a child’s needs, often insists that imagination is the solution to most of their problems. I felt this played well into the paranatural element where Peter was very fae-like, not understanding the consequences of his actions.

Scroll to see Sarah’s assets for the Lost Boys’ Hideout.

In black, you can note some of my instructor’s corrections. When it came to ‘boxier’ props (such as the basket or structure) he encouraged me to push the shape a little more and increase the depth to make it easier to imagine its relative size. He also gave me some additional points about drawing wood. In particular on the barrel of the supplies.

3. Lost Boys’ Hideout

This week, I focused on the interior of the Hangman’s Tree, which I’ll call the Lost Boys’ hideout. I wanted to depict a space, beneath the tree that felt massive and suggested that either they had created a single haphazard structure or there could be many hidden within the network.

For the focal point, I chose the structure I had previously made in the prop section now expanded upon. Using the rule of thirds I placed the structure somewhat off-centered and used roots in the foreground and background to frame its location.

My instructor filled the background and mid-ground with a few more medium objects to improve shape variety, like substituting the boxy fence with rocks and boxes that better move the eye toward the structure. He also suggested the use of a skylight to both improve the range in values and make the structure the brightest spot in the space.

Ready to take your background skills to a new level? Check out CGMA’s Background Painting and Layout Design Mentorship.

4. Hangman’s Tree

For this stage, I chose Hangman’s Tree layout and decided to design it in a style that’s reminiscent of Disney’s Tangled: The Animated Series. I particularly paid attention to the style used in Season 2, Episode 4 (Forest of No Return). I felt the atmosphere conveyed in these particular backgrounds was just what my layout needed.

First, I refined the sketch in Photoshop, based on my favourite thumbnail from week 01, then used different shades of grey underneath to line layer to both separate the background, midground and foreground, and to plan out the lighting on a basic level.

Next, I used the lasso tool to flat out important elements and the gradient tool to further refine the lighting.

I then began to bring back or redraw the lines I felt best defined the shape of objects, matched the style, and started to render out objects with a clearer light source.

This process continued as I went through the picture, working from larger forms to smaller forms. In the end, I added details such as the writing on signs and atmospheric details such as fog, and the light falling upon the tree from between other twisted branches.

My instructor then suggested adding additional trees to the foreground (left side) to further encourage the viewer to see the hangman first. As well as, some light beams falling over the tree and some additional dappled light hitting the path.

Read “How to Find the Magic in Background Animation: Dinosaur Designs” for a more prehistoric approach to layout design.

5. English Bedroom

In the final weeks, I decided to revisit the bedroom scene. I decided illustrating the gentler piece may be worthwhile to explore and reinforce the idea that this is what the children would be fighting to return to. Home is truly where the heart is and is their goal. All the other layouts are what they wish to flee from.

My process was very similar to the Hideout tree. I would start by refining the sketches based on the appropriate thumbnails and begin to map out the main light sources beneath the sketch layer.

I then would refine the shadowed areas, paying particular attention to having a larger contrast of shades so the focal point would be clearer than my previous layouts.

At this point, the instructor advised of adding reflections to the mirror and increasing the contrast of the light hitting the floor from the window. He also pointed out I should add some shadows beneath the furniture and light hitting the top edge of the drawers.

I was fairly pleased with the final result, though I did struggle with figuring out how to tile the roof. In black, my instructor provided some suggestions for the roof and to lift a floorboard.

6. Mermaid Lagoon

The lagoon process was much of the same, starting with refined lines and the mapping of light beneath them. I wanted the focus to be on the mermaid.

At this point, the instructor suggested adding more reflected light onto the ‘mermaids’ face, further darkening the edges of the layout and adding texture to the overall image, in particular the water. He also brought my attention to the ship. He suggested breaking up the forms with irregular boards and a broken railing.

Want to see more original takes on the Peter Pan narrative? Read “7 Steps to Re-Design Classic Characters: Peter Pan.”

7. Final Projects

I feel pretty satisfied with the improvement I achieved. I still have many areas I would like to improve upon, but learned a lot and I feel more confident moving forward on what I need to do to continue forward. I am particularly proud of the Lost Boy’s Hangman tree. I’m looking forward to colouring it in the future.

Final Thoughts

  • During previous studies, I discovered I wasn’t comfortable drawing backgrounds. My understanding of shape, line quality and perspective was improving, but I felt I was lacking some knowledge when it came to pulling it all together in a cohesive composition. I previously had good experiences taking CGMA courses so I figured a course on background for animation would be just what I needed, and it was!
  • The feedback from my instructor was amazing. You can see only a fraction of it above. Jonathan was incredibly patient and more than willing to break down my weaker areas in an encouraging and informative way. He gave more verbal feedback, and draw overs. I, being a visual learner, got the most out of draw overs where I could refer back to it every time I needed a reminder of what was said.
  • I have previously learned about the use of big, medium, and small shapes when designing props or characters, but this is the first time I had heard the theory applied to backgrounds/compositions. The more methodical approach of making sure to balance the ‘weight’ of the shapes throughout the composition changed how I viewed things.
  • I would recommend this course to anyone whose done a little bit of work on their fundamentals (perspective, sketching, shape design) and are ready to move on to the next step. It helps to build a bridge and tie in a lot of what’s been learned.

LEARN MORE

CGMA provides comprehensive instruction for Art, Games, and VFX industries in a variety of courses for a range of students, from 2D and 3D artists looking to supplement their college studies to industry professionals looking to stay up to date on emerging trends and techniques in the field.

RELATED LINKS

Be sure to check out Sarah’s other work at her ArtStation, Instagram, and/or Twitter.

Be sure to enroll in CGMA’s Background and Layout for Animation taught by Matte Painter, Concept Artist, and Visual Development Artist Jonathan Hoekstra.

Ready to take your background skills to a new level? Check out CGMA’s Background Painting and Layout Design Mentorship.

Read “How to Find the Magic in Background Animation: Dinosaur Designs” for a more prehistoric approach to layout design.

Want to see more original takes on the Peter Pan narrative? Read “7 Steps to Re-Design Classic Characters: Peter Pan.”