Process of the Artist: Reynolds on "Let Me In"

The dark and truly unsettling story of "Let Me In" continues in comics this December, courtesy of Dark Horse. Based on the film directed by Matthew Reeves, which was in turn based on the Swedish novel "Let the Right One In" by John Ajvide Lindqvist, "Let Me In: Crossroads" by writer Marc Andreyko and artist Patric Reynolds explores an earlier period in the life of childlike vampire Abby, as she and her caretaker do what is necessary to survive while fending off another kind of predator, a real estate tycoon with his eye on their home.

CBR News previously spoke with Andreyko and Reynolds when the project was announced, and in advance of the miniseries' December 8 launch we spoke with Reynolds again for an inside look at his artistic process, from initial thoughts on a writer's script to layout and coloring considerations.

Patric, when you first receive a script, how do you begin to interpret how you're going to illustrate what's being described? How do you approach making decisions on layout, perspective in various panels, etc.

Patric Reynolds: I love movies that haunt you long after you've seen them. I don't necessarily mean horror movies; just ones that you can't get out of your head. "Donnie Darko," "Waltz With Bashir" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (to name a few) all reminded me that perception is subjective and can be manipulated in terrifying ways. I try to think about how I can make the artwork as visually memorable as some of the best movies I've seen. In comics and in film, the panel and the shot are not only images, but also pieces of a larger story. They have to stand on their own and be part of a larger whole at the same time. Not only do I have to depict what going on the panel, but I also have to take into account what's going on between the panels, too. I have to be incredibly clear and very explicit in terms of storytelling because unlike movies, I can only use visual cues.

When I get a new script, my first goal is all about dividing up the real estate of the page. After I've read through the script once or twice, I begin laying out a page at time. With each page, I make little visual "notes" next to each panel description, deciding if it should be basically horizontal or vertical (I mean, you're pretty much limited to those two options, right?). In making this decision, I keep in mind how much dialogue there is, what emotions are involved and what each character has at stake emotionally, among other things. Then I start to ask myself several questions: Is one character shy, and not willing to open up to the other one? Is the other feeling compassion for the other? Is the one character hiding something? Is one character in more control than the other one? This will affect the angle at which I'll "shoot" the frame. If character is the protagonist or aggressor, maybe I'll move them to closer to the viewer, give them more visual weight. If I'm doing an establishing shot were the environment is an important element, I might compose the panel at an extreme low angle to make the environment seem more prominent, or oppressive. These are just a few examples.

One of the things constantly going on in my mind is, "how can I make these characters and settings resonate visually and compositionally?" One the most visually interesting movies I've seen recently is "No Country for Old Men." Every shot is so well thought-out, that's hard for me not to pause the movie and just marvel at the visual compositions. For instance, Anton Chigurh's character is shot so that he's almost always in the center of the screen, like he's the fulcrum or the deciding force between good and evil (this also reinforces the motif of his coin - which is a deciding force between life and death). This is also a much more confrontational compositional design as well. The ability to invite this level of thought and interpretation makes these images richer, in my opinion.

After I get all of these notes scribbled down I compose all of these together in a rough sketch, often right on the script itself. I'll then do a final draft of the layout based on these notes. You can see there's a lot internal dialogue going between the page and I. And yes, I talk out loud to myself quite a bit. Thank goodness I work alone.

These comics are set in the world of the American film rather than the Swedish film or novel. How much reference do you use in terms of the actors involved, and is there any other reference or modeling you use for various situations and locations?

Well, luckily this story takes place in rural Indiana, and not the snowy landscape of New Mexico like in the film. I say "luckily" because right now I live in Utah, and geographically there are similar landscapes out here (with addition of some serious mountains) such as wide-open fields, barns, forests and especially farms. I remember it taking me twice as long to drive back from the San Diego Comic-Con to Salt Lake City this year because I kept stopping to jump barb wire fences and shoot pictures of endless farmlands that were out beyond the road, like outer space. Writer Marc Andreyko had given me the synopsis of all four issues, with a pretty detailed description of the setting. At that point I knew I needed a visual library of that environment, because I had to "build" this world on paper.

I don't have a lot of experience drawing comics (relatively speaking), so it's difficult for me to just make up and environment or character from scratch. I need to use reference. The main characters in "Let Me In" are two children, about twelve years old. These characters have specific body types, so I needed real kids that were about that age to pose for me. Luckily, my girlfriend had a friend that had a boy and a girl who were about that age, and they were willing to help me out. These kids, Peter and Audrey, were natural actors, and also patient as hell with me. I sometimes spent hours underneath a porch light shooting photos of them, trying to get just the right angle and lighting.

Another challenge that this series has is that it contains scenes where people are doing, um, activities that are a little scary and unnatural. For instance, in issue #1 a very creepy scene takes place in a barn at night, where a chain from the wooden rafters strings up a victim as he waits for Abby to seal his fate. The only light source is a pair of car headlights shining into the barn. Now, I can't make that up. Thank goodness that I have very helpful and understanding friends and family members. My sister-in-law's brother owns a barn, and I had two friends that were willing to drive 45 minutes out to it with me to be strung up from its rafters while I shot pictures of them. Actually, I had my poor friend Brandon pose as the victim, and had him holding onto the chain with a pair of work gloves in such a way that it looked like he was hanging, We had to stop and lower him down to have him rest every few minutes so that he could get the blood flowing back in arms, but he never complained. He's such a warrior. My other friend, Skyler, is a tall bald guy with glasses who I had pose for the character of Thomas (Abby's caretaker). He doesn't really look like Thomas does in the film, but that's a good thing. When I shoot reference, I just want something "kinda close," not exact. Otherwise I'll tend to follow the photo too closely and the image will look referenced and stiff. So, I'll draw Skyler, but add the details of Richard Jenkins (the actor who plays Thomas in the film) to his face. Richard Jenkins has a great face to draw - its so full of sad and craggy. When I have to get likenesses of him and other celebrities, I'll go out and rent other film that the actor or actress has been in. For Richard Jenkins, I bought a copy of "The Visitor," where he was the central character. After watching the film several times, I got a pretty good idea how he as an actor portrays certain kinds of emotions and how he reacts to certain situations. When I came across a scene or a facial expression in the movie that was close to what I needed in a particular panel, I'd pause it and use that as the reference. I think this is more effective than just Googling a picture of the actor, as they are usually movie stills or posed headshots that don't reveal a lot of expression.

At what point or points in the process do you run your work by your editors? What would be some typical feedback you might receive, or an example of feedback you found really useful?

I used to do two different layouts for each page and have the editors pick the best one, but time constraints forced me to settle on one idea and trust myself with it. I also found out that my first idea was usually the best one, anyway. After I get all the layouts done, I send them to the editors (Samantha Robertson and Scott Allie) and writer Marc Andreyko. They give me notes, such as, "can you make this a more of a close-up down shot on Thomas instead of a medium shot so that he looks more menacing?," or, "can you adjust the placement of the two characters so the dialogue balloons aren't in their line of sight?" This particular note I found makes a lot sense (and is something I never really thought of before), because eye contact is important and having an element that interrupts that is pretty disruptive and diminishes the emotional content between the characters. Also, I tend to forget just how much space dialogue balloons really take up, and Sam is really good at reminding me to keep that in mind and add more dead space. However, I rarely get told to completely redo a layout.

When all the layouts are approved, I move on to the pencils. Not only do I have to send the editors the pencils (usually in batches of six pages), but they also go to the licensors of the film for approval. I really have to nail the facial expressions at this stage, especially with Abby (played by Chloe Grace Moretz). Her character presents a special challenge because she's a savage vampire animal, but still a little girl. She's still going to pout and be shy like a kid. I've had to adjust her expression a few times at the request of my editors to make her less of a snarling beast and more of girl who isn't getting her way. It's rare that the licensors give me anything to change, and it's usually a case of me making Abby look a bit "too old."

I like to get most of these kinks and details ironed out in the layout and pencil stage of production, so that I can just worry about trying to ink the hell out of page, and nothing else. Inking is where all the magic happens.

One of the things that stands out in the inked pages is exactly how much black you're using, particularly in the first three pages. What does this effect achieve, in contrast to depicting night in some other way? And how does this complement the aesthetic of the film?

I like to think of black as an element, whereas white is void. Black is something. I treat it almost like a force, almost a character in and of itself. All of the artists who had the most impact on my aesthetic used black in incredibly descriptive ways, both emotionally and compositionally. R.M. Guera, Jorge Zaffino, Jason Shawn Alexander and particularly fine artists like Kathe Kolllowitz use black for contrast, eye movement, emphasis, suggestion and emotional embellishment, among other things. In my work I try to use black in similar way, especially in the "Let Me In" film where contrast and space are involved a very palpable relationship with the characters. With this series, the characters are all confined to a space - a cramped apartment, the back seat of a car, a bathtub - and black helps define that. The characters are always trying to breach that confinement and reach out beyond it (symbolically portrayed by Abby and Owen reaching out and touching windows in several reoccurring shots in the film), and what they usually find is terrifying. At this point, it's hard for me not to use black, and that gets me into trouble sometimes. Sometimes I end up relying on it too much to cover up mistakes, or to take shortcuts. I'm trying to figure what voids need to be filled, or just left alone. But that's kind of the crux of inking - making decisions and living with them. In the back of my head I'm always thinking, "Are you sure you want to do that? You're never gonna get the white of the paper back, y'know." It's always at least a little terrifying. I'm learning (with the help of my editors) to stop blacking out night skies and just let Dave Stewart work his coloring magic on them. That being said, I like to ink the book as if it were to be finished only in black and white. I want the inks to be able to stand on their own, and each page should be a finished cohesive piece (even though I know that Dave is always going to make these pages look incredible). I just don't want to rely on someone else solve visual problems for me. I'd like to make Dave's job as easy as possible.

Speaking of Dave Stewart, one of the best colorists in the business, I'm hoping you can speak a bit to how you work together, whether you discuss how your art will be colored or how your b&w art and his colors "speak" to each other.

Dave has a lot of experience working with artists who have a more painterly style, most notably Jason Shawn Alexander. When I got my first gig with Dark Horse, Dave actually made contact with me first, and asked me to share my ideas about how to best color the inks that I did. It was quite an experience- here was one the best colorists ever to grace the field of comics and he was asking ME for suggestions! I can't tell you how thrilled I was when I got the first color proofs back. After seeing these, I got a pretty good idea of how Dave works: He is very sensitive to the emotional use of color, and how it can be used as an expressive element, and not just to create separation or differentiation. Also, he uses color like a fine artist, and employs pretty formal color schemes (complementary, analogous, etc.) I have a formal training in illustration and sequential art, so I think about and render images like a painter or fine artist. Combine this with Dave's formal sensibilities and it's easy for us to establish a pretty good rhythm with one another. In fact, during "Abe Sapien: The Haunted Boy" and "Serenity: Float Out," Dave and I rarely conversed with each other about the aesthetics of the books. I knew Dave understood what technique would best compliment the inks (a more painterly and thick acrylic-paint-type look) that I would do. At the same time, I try to give Dave enough space to be creative with his coloring. I like to ink a page in such a way that Dave can interpret the color any way he wants, so that he can add something very tangible to the story. For example, sometimes I'll imagine a character colored a certain way while I'm inking it, and I'll hand it off to Dave and he'll give back with a totally different look. Then I'll think "Damn, that's so much better than what I had in mind - I never thought of it that way!" He's an easy person to trust with color. Its like we're two halves of one artist's brain.

Working with Dave on "Let Me In" is a little different, though. Dave again made contact with me first when the series started going forward. Dave and Scott Allie really wanted to make this project special, make it memorable by using different techniques. Dave showed me some fine art paintings by Jason Shawn Alexander which were very gestural, loosely rendered figure paintings of musicians and the like. Dave wanted to consider doing some sections in the book like this for emotional emphasis. I thought this was a great idea. I've been looking to loosen up a bit as well, and here was my chance. I thought it would be a good idea get several ideas and build up a library of images from multiple artists to inspire us. So we created a "Morgue File" we could both add to and share with each other. I found some great stuff by Austin Briggs, Andrew Wyeth, Jon J Muth, Kent Williams, and Greg Ruth. When I came to a section of script that I thought called for a looser, more expressive technique, I'd let Dave know what I had in mind. In issue #1, I thought the aforementioned "barn scene" would look pretty cool with a Jon J Muth-esque brush only technique. The light source and contrast of heavy blacks on white in the photo reference that I shot of that scene was better suited to rendering it with thick heavy shapes, rather than line. There were little to no middle tones, so this simplified my decision making process. It was either a black brushstroke, or the white of the Bristol board. I had to be very thoughtful of how I established the relationship between positive and negative space, because I had no lines to contain and separate the forms. I told Dave my idea, and he liked it. I showed a preview of the finished inks of this page and he started getting ideas of his own. He thought a flatter, less textured use of color would compliment this scene a great deal, and he went for it. We've collaborated like this throughout the series, and the results are going to be pretty dynamic. Every issue is going to have a scene (or two) where things get a little crazy visually. Hopefully this series will leave people haunted.

Powers of X #3 Narrows its Scope and Looks to the Future

More in Comics