A Little Background

Next Vampire Poets is coming up soonish, in the meantime I thought I might as well put up some of what I’m working on with User Experience, my other giant project (well, one of my other giant projects!).

I sketched up a quick little size compare of George and Ada and then I couldn’t stop.. click for bigger!

User Experience takes place almost entirely inside the Difference Engine, which is full of spiral staircases and gears with tons of teeth and complicated machinery all of which add up to that uninspiring word.. PERSPECTIVE.  I’d really like to bring up the standard of background drawing on the comic though and really didn’t want to do my usual squiggle-and-black shortcut. I’m pretty lazy when it comes down to it but also I just happen to work all day long on a thing created expressly for the purpose of producing three-dimensional simulacra of rigid complex objects.

So I fired up my very rusty modelling skills and started manufacturing.

At first I assumed I’d just arrange a set, print it out, and then trace it out in Painter, but that’s a heck of a lot of detail so I wondered if I could get away with what’s called a toon render- the upper cog is a toon render and the lower one is traced– click for bigger if you’re interested.

More as they’d be used in the comic:

At first glance the trace looks better– but a lot of that is because the models are cookie-cutters and simple shapes now. They would need to be wonkified and cartooned up. Also rusty as I am at modelling what I know about rendering and lighting can be summed up as, “send it down the pipeline to the rendering department, where I guess they push buttons and stuff”. If the models were done nicer and lit and rendered right, I think it could look pretty awesome, and I could get a lot more atmosphere and detail in. So at the moment I’m thinking of sticking with the renders and see if I can rope someone in to help me with the shaders.. I’ll keep you posted!

Of course the very extremely dangerous thought that snuck into my brain while building these bits is how actually not THAT hard it would be to model and sim a Difference Engine for reals…


  1. Charles Smyth on January 23, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    The analytical engine cometh :-)

  2. Malcolm Ryan on January 11, 2012 at 2:16 am


    I would be very disappointed if you went with the toon-rendered version for your backgrounds. They are unmistakeably computer-generated and have none of the lovely expressive lines of your hand-drawn work. They present the FACT of the cogs rather than the MEANING. The machines in your comic are delightful for their crazy implausibility. Rendering them in this way seems to pin them down with a precision that (to me) is at odds with this feeling.


    • Kaazz on January 14, 2012 at 1:53 am


  3. Elizabeth on January 10, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    If you’ve got a model, DAZ Studio is free, can import .obj or COLLADA, and has some decent toon render options, including a sketch shader (pwSketch). I’d be happy to help with rendering. Particularly if it would mean I could use the models in Lovelace & Babbage Fan Art. :D

    • sydney on January 20, 2012 at 10:22 pm

      Gosh, that’s a very fine offer! I’m working with Maya, which I have for professional reasons, but I think it can export in a variety of types.. I’ll certainly put the models out there when they’re done, if people are interested!

      • Elizabeth on January 27, 2012 at 7:26 pm

        This might also be helpful to you: http://freestyle.sourceforge.net/ It’s a non-photorealistic renderer that can import .3DS models, which I imagine Maya can export.

        There are some commercial models of difference engine parts here: http://mirye.net/babbages-mansion Renders of these can be used without further royalty payments. I know you can model, but some items from this kind of set might save you time in filling in background of backgrounds. ;)

  4. the doodler on January 9, 2012 at 3:32 am

    I’d go for tracing — it saves you the onerous task of AAGGH PERSPECTIVE, but keeps your lovely scribbly style. But honestly, I sort of like all the options.

  5. Rachel H White on January 7, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    I’m of two minds on the toon render vs trace. I use SketchUp for a lot of my backgrounds, and I just take a screen shot and paste it into Manga Studio and work a layer over it. What I like about doing that is I can decide how much detail or thickness of lines goes into it, what bits are important and what’s not. You have this lovely wild, loose style in this comic that I think you should use if you trace: just loosely block in (or black out) anything far off in the distance and keep only certain parts detailed and semi-precise. On the other hand, the toon render has this interesting contrast to the squiggly characters. It’s almost like you have a technical etching and you’ve drawn on top of it. Add a little grunge around the edges, maybe overlay a hatching texture (on your drawing, not the model) and it’ll look like it’s a vintage print. So I kinda like that idea too. Anyway, that’s my two or three cents. :)

    • sydney on January 20, 2012 at 10:21 pm

      Photoshop in post seems to be wildely agreed on as the way to go amongst my colleagues I’ve talked to..

      I think I can preserve the, er, informal look by roughening up the models, actually! –

  6. Karen on January 7, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    I’ve returned to the Shop for more of your glorious merch. but there are no new designs on offer…Please offer some more shots of Ada and perhaps one of the newer ones of Babbage from Vampire Poets….

    Warmest Regards and Best Wishes to your Muse

    • sydney on January 20, 2012 at 10:20 pm

      Argh, yes, sorry– I’ll put something new up soon!

  7. Ryorin on January 7, 2012 at 7:35 am

    To me it seems that the toon rendering doesn’t mesh well with your figures, more because of the lack of your awesome cross-hatching than lack of variation.

    • Ryorin on January 7, 2012 at 7:37 am

      And Kevin rendered my point moot while I was still typing it.

  8. Kevin Marks on January 6, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Do you have any shader hackers around that you can show your tracing to and see how close they can get?
    I’ve seen crosshatch renderman shaders before, eg:


  9. Danny on January 6, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    Oh, and most important! Who are those two stern people at the left of the line? They look a tad peeved. Minion seems alarmed. (izzat Minion?)

    • sydney on January 20, 2012 at 10:19 pm

      They are guest starring in an episode soon!

  10. Anne on January 6, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    Love that there is a horse in there.

  11. Danny on January 6, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    Speaking of digital models..

    So, this gentleman, an Argentinian engineer, developed some models and animated them into gif files years ago, not apparently based on dimensioned drawings, amazingly enough, but with a good eye and a CAD program. He has some extremely good textual descriptions of the engine’s operation and mathematical basis BESIDES having the cool animated pictures. His inspiration came from a personal visit to the London Science Museum’s reproduction of Difference Engine 2. He says the files are now long gone.(*see footnote 1)

    See his introductory page at http://www.satyam.com.ar/Babbage/en/index.html, a sample animated math operation at http://www.satyam.com.ar/Babbage/en/restore.htm, and a carry mechanism gif animation at http://www.satyam.com.ar/Babbage/en/seccarry.htm. Pretty stunningly cool, eh?

    *1 Daniel Satyam Barreiro, personal communication.

    • sydney on January 6, 2012 at 6:32 pm

      Ah, bless you! Just what I need.. still not sure if I can commit to building a whole engine but would love to make at least a few little visualizations, this is great!

      • Danny on January 6, 2012 at 7:20 pm

        Well, no.. maybe you want all us nurds with too much time on our hands to do the modeling???? It could be a collaborative experiment, maybe? sharing our little model files, like, if that’s possible between Maya, Blender, 3DS3, AutoCAD etc. files. Collada files, like Goggle SketchUp™, maybe?

        Oh, and access to the Science Museum drawings would be cool, too.. know anyone? (wink, wink..)

        maybe you could just LET us build the engine models.. :0)

  12. Michael Keidering on January 6, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    In my entirely underqualified opinion I find the contrast between hand drawn character and the toon-render looks really good It accentuates the difference engine is a way I find appealing. however, the decision is of course yours as I am simply a physicist not an artist. I love the comic and am certain whatever you do will be awesome.

  13. ConFigures on January 6, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    @John: “Because if I’m not automating things, I’m a huge asset to the organization, I guess, and not avoiding doing my job.”

    What. The. Hell.

    If automation saves time, reduces risk (human error), and loses nothing from the manual process, it’s worth doing.

  14. Dick Selwood on January 6, 2012 at 10:45 am

    For the next step in madness, you could take your models and use one of the new 3D printers to actually “print” the compnents and then build a real difference engine.

    • EFH on January 9, 2012 at 3:29 am


      • Dan on January 22, 2012 at 10:13 pm

        Dick and EFII! you stole the idea right out of my head!

        Grr.. darned internet.. get an idea, and then find out that it has been had by someone else, long ago.. with the design work sketched out, as well..


        Maybe a printer can make up the parts, and try them for fit? I don’t know that any have been printed from these designs yet!

        And these models come from this work, I believe!

  15. Jeffrey on January 6, 2012 at 3:50 am

    The size comparison sketch?! Oh, you SO need to ink that and make it giclee print-worthy! Pretty please!? Good! In the meantime, I’ll look into steampunk-ish weathered leather for a matte and a pipe frame with a bit of patina on the brass. :D

    Love the work, Sydney!

    • Kaazz on January 6, 2012 at 9:12 pm

      I 2nd this request! Would love to have a frame-worthy print of this!! :-)

      • Kaazz on January 6, 2012 at 9:14 pm

        You know – in your spare time. ;-)

  16. John on January 5, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    I had the same thought regarding the simulation. Blender (an open source animation system, which I only barely understand beyond “buttons and stuff”) includes a game and simulation engine. So a model converted to its format…

    Also, as a programmer, I’ve been in surprisingly loud arguments with various bosses that I shouldn’t be trying to automate so much. Because if I’m not automating things, I’m a huge asset to the organization, I guess, and not avoiding doing my job. So I certainly get the “just use the 3D software” idea. But like Richard says, I’m at home with squiggle-and-black, too. (But just the same, if it frees you up from doing the parts you don’t enjoy, I don’t mind getting overruled.)

    In any case, I haven’t tried anything like it, but (continuing with the open source theme, because I’m not spending money on software for artistic tasks unless artistic talent–where I’m sorely lacking–actually comes in the box) GIMP has the ability to turn a selection into a “path,” which can then be traced with “jitter.” It might not work well enough for something as fussy as as a rotating computational column, but that or an equivalent Photoshoppy process might be close enough.

    Also: The lineup certainly seems like something that might be at home…hm…perhaps on a wall, somewhere. Or everywhere.

    Also also: For the Queen. Assuming said Queen is also cool with Tie-Fighters.


  17. Barnesm on January 5, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    ” model and sim a Difference Engine for reals…

    and that way lies madness I fear. But the modelling I think would ge excellent given what you have shown so far.

    Wonderful work.

  18. Richard on January 5, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    I love your “usual squiggle-and-black shortcut” approach to backgrounds. That said, I can’t wait to see what it would be like inside a fully rendered differential engine. Especially if it were fully animated (*wink wink nudge nudge*)

  19. Pedro Luchini on January 5, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    The toon render looks excellent! From what I gather, you rendered just the black outlines and did the shading with a gray brush in Photoshop? It looks pretty good, and prevents the “conspicuous CGI” effect that’s often seen in mixed 2D/3D compositions.

    • sydney on January 20, 2012 at 10:18 pm

      Yep, that’s exactly what I did! I think a mix of renders and photoshop will do the trick eventually..

  20. Tealin on January 5, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    You have much the same perception of lighting/rendering as I do, which is personally reassuring on m y part at least. Buttons! Things! Magic!

    I wonder, though, if instead of shaders etc., you could feed the lines generated from the toon render though some sort of filter that would junk them up a little to take the shiny perfect CG-ness off. That might take another program, and still wouldn’t look quite as nice as tracing, but would be a lot less work!

    I have already saved your lineup for my very own. :D

    • Danny on January 6, 2012 at 6:02 pm

      Maybe processing the background layers separately with a scratch, or hatch texture, or maybe a fabric-like texture, to make the backgrounds fade away a bit (to “fade into the background” which an artist does almost unconsciously, but render machines would never ever even WANT to do), might work visually and not be too process intensive.

      The Toon render is equally detailed across the image, and my attention is drawn to the stacks of cogs and carry mechanism levers, rather than our poor user, George, who should be central to the experience. The bottom of the top step and the bottom of the lowest rail baluster is just as prominent and detailed as the steps she’s on..

      Hee hee.. I prefer the sketched and traced, I guess..

  21. Brian on January 5, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    The trace actually doesn’t look bad, but it’s not at all consistent with the style of 2-D Goggles that I’ve grown so comfortable with. In its own context it would be fine, but sitting right next to the trace version it simply can’t compete.

  22. Kaazz on January 5, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    Thanks for the glimpse into what goes into the making of this Fine Comic. Those folks who, like me, simply consume the final product, figuring it springs whole from your brilliant mind & fingers, can now appreciate just how much WORK is necessary, even for one such as Magically Talented as you, Ms. Padua!

    Tres interesant! ;-)

    Looking forward to the next episode, whenever it should appear!!