Flatting and Your Web Comic

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Byron’ Note: Hervé submitted this guest article and I felt it was an interesting read. Any views expressed are of the author’s and not of the Webcomic Alliance. Enjoy! For more information on this subject, Google “flatting comics” and you will find a variety of references and tutorials.

Flatting is a virtually unknown but a major production step in major comics. Flatting is a colouring step where large sections of the black and white illustration are segmented into parts with blocks of colours. Later, the colourist goes back to the whole page and starts shading, toning, and creating the necessary highlights for the page. Flatting is often done by a junior colourists, not the actual colourist credited in a comic. Currently, many unknown flatters toil away in silent on many comics we read every day. But what does flatting has to do with your Web comic?

I stumbled on flatting recently. I was shocked at first that so many people do flatting in comics. You can find flatters on many comic skill and production sites, or read their comments on Twitter. It’s often depressing! Flatters often describe their work as dredge work that no one wants to do but that is necessary to create beautiful colour comics. Many flatters are junior comic creators, fellow Web comic creators or multimedia professional who take on the jobs at night.

Flatters are not paid much. I have seen rates as low as $7 but many in the $15-20 per page. Some flatters can produce several pages with flats per day. Hiring a flatter to help you on your Web comic can be a great idea, especially if you intend to produce a printed colour version. My strategy with my own Web comic Johnny, has been to only release the black and white version of the comic. I would not be able to post one page a week if I had to colour them. I have a very clear idea of how Johnny Bullet should look in colour, and it would not be sustainable with my current schedule.

However, the idea of colouring a 100-story is daunting. I could not release new episodes of Johnny Bullet weekly. Something would have to give. A flatter could help make my vision a reality. Do you remember the motivation articles that tell you to dump the kind of work that you can easily delegate and concentrate on stuff that really matter and that you are best at? Well, flatting is one comic production step that is easy to delegate. Flatters do not need to colour using your specific colour palette. All they need to do is block the space under the artwork for you or another more experienced artist to come and do their magic.

Flatters often use Photoshop. There are even flatting plugins for Photoshop. I have read a few people commenting about flatting with Manga Studio and many more with Illustrator. Flatters do not convert your files to CMKY or perform any advanced operations on your illustrations. All they do is create new layers with block coloured zones for a colourist to use. That means that using a vector animation program such as Flash could work. Flash, from my tests is probably faster to use since there is no need to separate the line art from the colours. Even if on the same layer, it should be a breeze to blocks of colours with a vector program.

Speaking of animation program, most animation programs do have colouring module that function much the same way as flatting does. The only issue is that comic illustrations, including Web comics need higher resolutions. Animation programs tend to add a soft blur on the lines to give edge out the crispiness of a cel. But animation is rarely produced for resolutions beyond 72 dpi. If you do use Flash or Illustrator, and that your final colours will be in Photoshop, Painter or even Corel PhotoPaint, be aware that the conversion from vector to bitmap will create soft edges to the borders of the flats. That can create artifacts that will have to be cleaned up by the colourist.

Strategically, I would suggest a flatter only if the cost of hiring one can be absorbed back in a project. Since most Web comics are free and not often well supported by Patreon, Indiegogo, or KickStarter campaigns, you should carefully think about how much you are willing to invest for extra production help. It’s the same situation as paying a letterer for your Web comic. Now, if your comic generates enough revenues or will be printed or distributed as a digital comic for purchase, then retaining the services of a flatter is sustainable.

In my own Johnny Bullet project, I will definitely consider working with a flatter to speed up the eventual printed collection of the first volume. But that is at least a year away. Johnny Bullet is still a new comic and short of the page count needed for a print release. However, unlike most of the industry, I have decided to credit any flatter who contributes to Johnny Bullet. I wish more people would recognize the important contribution of flatters.
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Hervé St-Louis is the publisher of ComicBookBin, a news and review comic site informing readers since 2002. St-Louis, also known as Toon Doctor ®, is a doctoral student researching usable security and human-computer interaction at the Faculty of Information, at the University of Toronto. His comic, Johnny Bullet is about a brash drag racer set in the 1970s.

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