Monsters vs. Robots: Getting to Done

How do you finish a large project? Honestly I don’t know. I have a sizable graveyard of abandoned projects and it’s something I continually struggle with. But here are some of the processes that helped me finish creating Monsters vs. Robots.

I started by doing sketches of the main characters, Dr. Tinkerton and Dr. Zadok, and I wrote a descriptive paragraph for each of them, comparing and contrasting their physical and emotional characteristics.

I should have done more research on picture book formats and standards, but instead I grabbed a few books off of our shelves and counted the pages. It seemed like anything around 30 pages would do. I wrote a basic outline for the book with a single line describing what the story should do on each page. Similar to:

1: Tinkerton intro
2: Zadok intro
3: Contest setup

I used this outline to plot the story beats, making sure that it conveyed the dynamics of a complete story – that it introduces the characters, builds tension, and leads to a final resolution.

Then I started writing the story rhymes for each page. For some reason writing in rhyme was a lot easier than writing it in prose. (I don’t think I even tried writing in prose.)

Once I had a rough draft of the story, I laid out all of the pages in InDesign. I created a blank Photoshop file as a placeholder for each page’s illustration and linked each one to its page in the InDesign document. Then I could scroll through the whole book and start filling in the illustration details and refining the text. This gave me a framework, a giant hunk of clay to start shaping. And from InDesign I could easily export a draft of the book for preview or sharing with others.

I also made a spreadsheet to track the progress of each page. Each line in the sheet showed which stage the page was in: sketch, drawing, final rendering, etc, similar to a Kanban board. A"Next Actions" column showed if there was anything blocking the progress of that page, like needing to find reference photos for some detail. Seeing the progress of the book in this view was a big motivator. I just had to keep nudging each page towards the next stage.

This may be a more structured approach than other creative types use, but it really helped me complete the book by having these systems in place.

Monsters vs. Robots: Character Design - part 2

The character designs for the two mad scientists in Monsters vs. Robots, Dr. Tinkerton and Dr. Zadok, were made to contrast one another.

As you can see, Dr. Zadok is tall, thin, and angular, while Dr. Tinkerton is short, stout, and square.

Dr. Zadok has untamed spiky hair, like many of his monsters, and Dr. Tinkerton’s glasses are round to match the eyes of the robots he creates.

They also have contrasting background environments. Tinkerton’s surroundings are more Mid-Century Modern and retro futuristic, while Zadok has a Victorian aesthetic (verging on Steampunk).

The characters themselves share a common color palette to show that while their approach to the sciences may diverge, they actually have a lot in common.

Monsters vs. Robots: Character Design - part 1

When designing the characters in Monsters vs. Robots, I wanted all the robots to look like they were created by a single inventor. In addition to giving them the same color palette, I tried to create a family resemblance between the robots by giving each of them the same style of eyes and antenna. This gives them a unified look, even if the rest of their body shapes diverge.

I did the same thing for all the monster characters, who all share similar horns and eyes.

Additionally, I wanted the robots and monsters to share some characteristics, both as a way to add cohesiveness to the illustrations, as well as to show that in the end they’re not so different from one another. So I made their eyes all the same light yellow color. And while all the robots have antenna coming out their heads, the monsters all have corresponding horns.

Monsters vs. Robots: Color Choices

When illustrating Monsters vs. Robots I put a lot of thought into how the colors would help tell the story.

Early in the process I defined a color palette which I mostly stuck to throughout the book. I wanted the robots to have cool, monotone colors, with a few bright accents.

In contrast, the monsters have warm, wild, and bright colors. For unity, these are the same colors used as the robot accents (their buttons, and fiddley bits).

The robot backgrounds are blue, the monsters are on red. When they are together the background is purple. (Subtle, right?)

Having a limited palette is actually creatively freeing because you’re not overwhelmed with too many options.

Monsters vs. Robots: Consistency

The most challenging aspect of illustrating Monsters vs. Robots was trying to keep a consistent visual style between the images for all 30 pages. As I completed pages I would learn new things or try new techniques that would then have to be re-applied to all previous work.

I experimented with doing things in batches, doing all the work for a specific detail throughout the book, like all the robot eyes or monster horns.

I also intentionally worked out of order so that the beginning pages wouldn’t look out of place next to the final pages.

After I had all the images “done”, I did several final passes, touching up each page to make sure the details were consistent.

Idea: Cars Prequel

A Cars prequel about the extermination of mankind at the hands of powerful intelligent machines.

It's the only explanation for why there are no people, but the cars retain remnants of humanity, like seats and steering wheels, and why they mimic human culture.

Fake Spoilers

The Resistance leaders are in the war room planning their next move. “Are we walking into a trap?,” asks Leia. Everyone in the room turns to look at Admiral Akbar. He shrugs.


Out of nowhere, a bounty hunter steps out of a corridor, blocking the group's passage. Without hesitating Han Solo whips out his blaster and takes him out. Everyone is shocked. “What, do you think I don't shoot first,” he says, winking at the camera.


Han Solo carries a toddler (his long lost grandson) out of a family restaurant. He tips the waiter, “Sorry for the mess.”

Movie Idea: “Back to Back to the Future”

A meta sequel to Back to the Future:

Just as Doc Brown has a vision of the Flux Capacitor that leads to the invention of his time machine, the movie Back to the Future is the inspiration at the heart of a new time machine's inventor. Enthralled by his favorite movie, he dedicates his life to building a real time machine.

He's now a much older man but he's managed to create a working time machine. As an homage he even uses a DeLorean. To test out his invention, he goes back in time to the set of Back to the Future on the Universal Studios lot during its original filming.

Everything is all wrong! What's going on, is this an alternate timeline? Eric Stoltz is playing Marty?! The making of the movie is in jeopardy. An external force, maybe other time travelers with an agenda (Dr. Who Fans?), are trying to sabotage it. A battle plays out behind the scenes and sets of the original movie. He's able to put things right and see that all the right details get put in the film.

As he departs back to his own time, it's his DeLorean that is filmed (Earlier on in the story he's seen in the DeLorean and so he assumes the identity of a stunt driver.), and we find out that the famous flame tracks were never a special effect at all but the actual time machine becoming part of the original movie.

To Do

  • Needs to have a younger partner in order to recreate the Doc Brown/Marty relationship
  • Needs higher stakes in place. Somehow, the successful filming of the movie has far-reaching consequences, similar to Bill & Ted's music leading to future world peace. It resonates in time, or becomes a pivotal moment in history.

I'm a Time Traveler

When I was a kid, I used to think that the extra day gained during a Leap Year was from changing the time back and forth each year. All this mucking about with time somehow compounded into an extra day every few years. Even then it made me uneasy that we took such a lax attitude towards this yearly flip-flop.

I still don't like setting the clocks back in the fall. A few years ago I tried to protest by maintaining the same relative schedule. But it didn't last long because I don't have enough discipline. It was too hard to go to bed when the clock said it was an hour earlier.

I've never met someone who thought our time changing was a good idea and made their life easier. Much like the anachronistic QWERTY keyboard layout, it's an archaic system that we maintain out of habit and tradition, not because it benefits us in any way. It's no longer relevant to how we currently live (assuming it ever was).

Our yearly time change might have looked good on paper, but it doesn't account for actual human behavior and our need to maintain a consistent biorhythmic cycle. We can't all just switch our internal robot clocks to a different time. We need regularity and consistency.

Moreover, if a large part of the population mopes through an off week because of the time change, that compounds to a huge amount of disorder that we're basically sanctioning into our calendar year. It's scary to imagine how many sleep-deprived people are driving around and there are statistics that show an increase in traffic accidents during the week following a time change. It's institutionalized chaos.

It's hard to adjust to 5pm sunsets. It signifies having to winterize myself and hunker down for the coming cold dark rainy months. I don't like having to become "Winter Andrew", who's always irritable and depressed. It's like having to put on cold wet clothes. You unpack your winter clothes and find that they're ugly, restrictive, and smell like moth balls. But you have to force yourself into them and try to maintain yourself as this other person. After a while you forget who you really are and accept your winter self. It's only until the spring comes that you catch a glimpse of freedom and realize how constrained you've been.

It's a good thing I'm not a pessimist or I'd be in pretty bad shape right now. Thanks a lot Ben Franklin.

Revisiting Old Work

One of the most difficult things about doing any kind of art is the constant self-criticism. You're attempting to create art, not just because you find joy in the process, but because you enjoy a particular form of art and want to participate in it. But because it's something in which you've already cultivated some level of taste, it's frustrating that your own attempts don't meet this level. It's a learning curve that a lot of people, especially with something like mastering a musical instrument, never get past and they end up giving up.

And so even if you find yourself progressing in your craft, it's hard to look at old work (up to and including last week) because you only see its flaws. It's tempting to want to go back and just clean up that one little detail. That's one of the drawbacks I find with digital artwork. Unless you do something dramatic like trash the working files, there's no way to close a work off from future tinkering.

But it's important to resist the desire to tinker with past work. For one thing, you can use it to gauge your progression, and so each work can exist as a kind of stepping stone. And if you go back and modify these, you're robbing yourself of a valuable snapshot in time. It'd be like editing your childhood photos so that they look more like you do today. It's also symptomatic of a misaligned mindset, focussed on the past. Unchecked, it can lead to a death spiral of continual editing because it will never be good enough, and there will always be some nagging little detail that you could have done better.

This form of obsession is not limited to the domain of artists. The world of computer programming is littered with examples of successful developers who created a very popular initial version of something only to scrap it and start from scratch building an improved version two. But the new version is never completed because the developer becomes so bogged down with a quest for perfection.

At this point I'm obliged to mention George Lucas, the epitome of tinkering with past work. Contrast that to his friend Steven Spielberg, who's had a much more successful and prolific career, always moving forward with new projects. Several years ago Spielberg flirted with the Dark Side when he made the Special Edition of ET, which featured a computer animated version of ET as well as editing certain details to make them more PC. Fortunately he has admitted that this was a mistake and vowed to never modify his films again:

I’ve resigned myself to accepting that what the film was at the time of its creation is what it always should be for future generations. I’m no longer a digital revisionist.

As with life, there are no do-overs. You can only try and learn from you're your mistakes and apply that knowledge toward the future.

What's with all the Robots?

A while back I had the idea of trying to program a faux Facebook game about a robot on a journey. The "game" would do nothing except send random status messages to the user's timeline about what their robot character was doing like, "Andrew's robot completed the Sar Chasm mission" or, "Andrew's robot solved the mystery of the abandoned Moon Mine". A player would do nothing except sign up and their robot would be off on its mystical journey, sending you dispatches along the way. Your robot would complete missions, earn badges and mayorships, and other goodness. I thought it would be fun to create, in addition to poking fun at pointless Facebook games. (Fortunately Cow Clicker did a much better job at this kind of satire.)

I started thinking about what kind of website I would design for the game sign-up and figured it would feature large rotating illustrations of robots in different environments. After a few doodles I decided to see what it would be like to actually paint one rather than doing it in Illustrator or Photoshop. I was fairly pleased with how it turned out and it was really fun. I decided that doing similar works would be a bit more worthwhile than spending time developing a fake game.

In the process I began exploring the idea of creating characters and an environment that suggests a larger narrative, making images that look like they belong in a storybook. Or creating a scene that makes you wonder "what's going on here" in a way that's not just surrealist juxtapositions.

It's also an artistic principle that any kind of image with another person in it is instantly more engaging than one without. And robots, being simple geometric forms, are much easier to draw than people, but you get some of the same instant engagement & empathy for free, especially by showing them doing human activities.

Just beware of the uncanny valley.