Sunday, February 4, 2018

"AVALANCHE" (Know Before You Go)

An idea was pitched to me a while back about doing a sort of public service announcement style piece on the topic of avalanche safety. Here’s a process post on the evolution of the concept and the various manifestations along the way.

As I’m frequently fond of mentioning, one of the reasons why cartooning is a continual source of inspiration is the diversity of possible subject material… by default you wind up accumulating so much incidental information about an eclectic and diverse set of information and trivia. Case in point here in that I really learned a LOT over the course of doing research about avalanches, in particular how important it is for training in the skills of observing the terrain and familiarizing oneself with the signs of potentially unsafe situations.

This is so fundamental to playing it safe in Alaska, and in particular the zone of Interior ranges that are a hallmark of local outdoor playgrounds: these are uniquely susceptible to avalanche conditions, as opposed to the coastal mountains which have the benefit of wet, heavy snowloads (hence the stock eye-candy footage of epic adventures in heliskiing, snowboarding etc. stemming from that area). This compared to subzero temperatures that alter the composition of the snow itself, by sucking all of the moisture out and in essence creating a layer of tiny little iced marbles extremely susceptible to sliding under the weight of the next accumulation of snow.

Hence the existence of a subset within the Alaska Avalanche Information Center specifically tailored to the regionally unique situations encountered in the Easter Alaska Range Avalanche Center (also on Facebook).

Also consider the audience for such a PSA: young and overwhelmingly male, who are targeted with slick advertising campaigns that market the allure of power and speed. Having no safety training, no licensing whatsoever, is a perfect recipe for disaster, and there is unfortunately no shortage of sobering examples in the area of rescue and recovery efforts. “Live to ride another day” is the catchphrase used in marketing educational efforts, and hopefully my cartoon will inspire a second thought towards assessing the terrain and gauging the potential for trouble.

Then there’s the whole other aspect that of survival: sobering statistics that show how slides are triggered in unexpected areas, and how much awareness of conditions can make the difference between life and death. Over the course of my cursory immersion in basic safety, it was humbling to read and watch the extent of training and the extensive use of science that’s utilized by professional out in the field. Knowledge about the anatomy + technical mechanics of slide behavior informed my sketching (along with valuable editorial insight). One glaring (in retrospect) example being how badly the initial concepts erred in showing a concave versus convex starting point for the slide.

When I bounced the initial concept sketches off coworkers + random folks not a single person recognized the slide as such, it looking more like a road. So I set out to rework it with combining the avalanche-in-progress as sketched in the “unstable” panel… but in the end used a field of snow-rubble instead, which employed exaggerated foreshortening to simultaneously ground the viewer and push pictorial depth in the composition.

As with a lot of cartoons, the trick is to find a balance in-between taking a topic too seriously (killing the joke), or pushing it too far in the other extreme and making light about a deadly important matter that, like bear attacks, unfortunately affects an awful lot of folks in this neck of the woods. Also there’s the matter of rendering the drawing too realistically (killing the cartoon) versus staying somewhat true to a basic design that faithfully illustrates a set of core concepts.

An example of being “too cartoony” in this case would have been actually depicting the avalanche in action, or, later on in the sequence, showing antlers + hooves sticking up from the rubble. I personally feel very strongly that having the event be largely implied engages the viewer more by virtue of having them “fill in the blanks” as it were. Or put another way, drawing by the maxim of “less is more.” As previously mentioned in an earlier process post gaze cues and other compositional elements like foreshortening aid in enhancing the compositional arrangement and giving depth.

The piece's symmetry is annoyingly and deliberately unbalanced: the initial variation has three ‘boo on each side, as opposed to the finished version with three on one side and two on the other. Honestly it bugs me to have it be so off-kilter, but that’s a subconscious thing: think of it as akin to a “missing man” formation (or more accurately in this case, a missing caribou).

The final element with adding a layer of snowfall was a nice touch, and was the main reasoning behind adding some subtle value (peachy orange + seafoam green) to the background so as to provide a contrast with the white. Kinda proud I didn’t resort to any grays for the wash on this one… such a strong reflex given how much of my world is normally black + white and all the shades inbetween.

After working off a color key, fifteen colors were utilized in the first version while waiting for the ink to dry on the final. I dropped a teaser shot of the work-in-progress on Facebook for a sneak peek.

The nuts + bolts: the background imagery as specifically requested by the client meant scouring the web for reference images and compositing together the Eastern section of the Alaska Range. But you can only go so far on-line...

... nothing's better than the real thing: The iconic profiles of Mount Hayes (13,832 ft), Hess Mountain (11,940 ft) and Mount Deborah (12,339 ft) (L-R as seen from the north) viewpoint from a scenic pullout along Troth Yeddha'. It's a tiny little detail that’ll be lost on most folks, but hey, for those of our viewers keeping score at home!

This was also the one piece I chose to enter in the annual faculty exhibit for the fall semester. On a whim I went with a shadow-box picked up at the last possible minute at the local art + crafts chain store (hat-tip once again to Date-Line Digital Printing), solely for the purpose of accommodating a pile of poop. And that led to the year’s most amusing phonecall to my friends who run Running Reindeer Ranch (website here + on Facebook): “Hey do you by chance have any caribou poop I can score?” “Sure – come on over and help yourself.” No charge even.

Best part was drying a pan of the poop on a cookie sheet in the oven, which infused the cabin with a warm, hearty aroma not unlike being in the herbal tea section of the health-food store.

And of course it goes without saying I had the best shit in the show.

One critique I got in person at the reception was along the lines of “I don’t get it… is it an avalanche? It’s not high up enough” …which was exactly the point of the picture, since it portrays a realistic setting as opposed to the typical Hollywood version of where most people expect a stereotypical avalanche to occur. Which, incidentally, is quite often the reason people unexpectedly die. Hopefully the panel will make a few viewers have a “ha ha – oh hey… hmm” moment, and maybe, just maybe, that moment will be maintained in memory, and even carry over into contemplating the next slope in a different light.

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