My First Dio-Story

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Dios for dummies

So you want to tell dio stories?

Who wouldn't? After all. It's a chance to express your creativity while indulging in a hobby we all enjoy (playing with little plastic men) and carrying on the proud tradition of putting a story to the figures, as started by Larry Hama with those first Joe file cards back in the day. But I'd be lying to you if I told you it was going to be easy.

There is probably no greater authority on the subject of dio stories more active in the Joe community today than our very own General Hawk. And there's probably nothing I could tell you about shooting your first dio that he hasn't already covered in his article on the subject (written under his civilian alias, Justin Bell), which appeared in the August 2006 edition of the G.I. Joe Collector's Club newsletter.

However, as a relative newbie to the art who learned most of what he knows from trying (and often, failing) to copy Hawk and many of the other talented storytellers in this community, I can give you an honest appraisal of just how much posing, bending, contorting, shooting, re-shooting, cursing and editing is involved when you're just starting out.

For the moment let's put aside the notion of a multi-arc epic storyline and focus on what it takes to stage a single-shot dio. I know you probably have aspirations that go way beyond that, but if we take things one step at a time, you'll see just how much can be involved in using even a single image to tell a story. Then you can decide how big of a story you want to tell and how many additional images it might take to tell it.

The Story

Since we're already there, it's probably the best place to start. Even for a single shot dio, there's got to be a story. Unless you've got a character or characters actually appearing to do something in your shot, what you're doing is taking a display picture of a figure or group of figures. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not a dio.

In every writing workshop I've ever been a part of, the first thing they tell you is that story comes from characters - specifically, characters doing stuff. So the first thing you need to do is determine which character or characters are going to be the focus of your story (you'll want to base this decision largely on whether or not you have figures to represent the characters).

The cast for this scene.

Fortunately for Joe fans, there's a plethora of characters to choose from and most have been pretty well sketched out for us in the file cards. That's not to say we can't take some creative liberties but, if we're keeping things within the realm of the Joe we all know, then it's a pretty safe bet that Outback won't be giving etiquette lessons in your single shot dio (unless you're going for humor, in which case all bets are off).

For the sake of simplicity (and so I won't have to write a lot of dialogue, which I'll touch on later), let's use Snake Eyes as the hero of our first single shot dio. According to his file card, there's lots of stuff Snake Eyes likes to do. But what he seems to do best and most frequently is sneak into places he's not supposed to be. In fact, there's a pretty iconic image of the character doing just that on the cover of one of the more famous issues of the Marvel comic (if you haven't checked out G.I. Joe #21, I hereby revoke your official Snake Eyes fan club membership card). Since we aren't doing dialogue in this starter dio, why not use that concept as our template?

Whether you write it out or not, it's essential to think through what your characters are supposed to be doing in the picture. Let's say Snake Eyes is scaling the wall of an enemy installation he wants to infiltrate. It's obviously night time (because Snake Eyes is a vampire in addition to being a ninja and a commando) and, just to make things interesting, let's say we've got a couple of guards keeping watch right near where ol' Snake is trying to make his entry, perhaps forcing him to change his plan on the fly.

On Location

The next thing we'll need to determine is the setting. This includes not only the general setting (geographic location and time of day for your story will influence decisions like whether you shoot indoors or outdoors, lighting and possible backdrops) but the more specific location, which will determine what, if any, physical props we need.

Some dio artists actually shoot their stories in the great outdoors, utilizing nature itself as a special effect. However, this requires quite a bit of practice with camera angles and perspective to make sure the figures don't appear out of scale. This being our first outing, I'll assume we're a ways off from that.

Since the geographic location for our hypothetical enemy installation isn't important to the story and the time of day is night, I'm going to go ahead and recommend shooting against a plain colored backdrop. If you want to take the easy route, pick a deep blue backdrop. Whether that's poster board or a piece of cloth stretched between supports, you'll want to set it up in a well-lit area with that light coming in from different angles and sources to minimize shadows (trust me, you don't want to have to use a flash). White light is best. I'm actually going to use a white backdrop and Photoshop a background in during the editing process, but that's a matter of personal preference.

As for props, for this particular shot we need a wall - preferably with a balcony or a window to serve as the potential point of entry and conflict - and some tools for Snake to use in scaling it. Time to check our inventory.

The Materials

The set and props for the scene.

For the wall we need, you could take a number of approaches. If you collect a lot of 1:18 scale toys, you might have a Ghostbusters firehouse or a Batman Wayne Manor or even a Fisher Price castle sitting around that would do the trick. Or you could detail the sides and bottom of a shoebox using pens or printable brick patterns. The shoebox approach, while taking more work, would allow you to configure the window opening however you want (you'd just need to cut it out and find something to place inside the box for the bad guys to stand on). I'll be using a piece that came with the modular Eversparkle Military HQ set available through KB Toys a couple of years back.

For other props, between recent Joe releases, PTE, The CORPS! and BBI, there are plenty to choose from. And you'd be amazed at the level of detail a simple thing like a computer terminal, a phone, a crate, a barrel, a walkie-talkie or a pair of binoculars can add to a photo. People appreciate these little touches of realism, so don't be afraid to add them.

And, of course, you should have a digital camera. I know that kind of goes without saying, but I've actually heard of folks using film and scanning the images into their computers after having the pictures developed. I can't imagine the extra time involved in something like that. If I couldn't view the shots as I was taking them, I'd go nuts wondering how much of what I shot was useable. So get a digital. I'll talk a bit more about the camera later.

Setting up

The scene with the figures positioned and ready for shooting.

Putting props in place is usually pretty easy (and sometimes fun) but the actual posing of figures for a shot can be the hardest part of the dio process, depending on what action you are trying to depict.

The most important thing to consider when arranging the figures is what each character is supposed to be doing in the shot. If you are putting a character in the shot, he or she should have a purpose other than just standing around to fill up space.

For our demonstration, Snake Eyes is going to be the most difficult to pose, so we'll leave him for last. The two guards should be relatively easy. We'll assume they had been on watch until a moment ago when one thought he heard something. That one is now standing in a state of heightened readiness, looking around nervously, while the other is peering through image intensifiers to see if he can spot anything.

Snake Eyes, who until a moment ago had been climbing, should appear to be paused and rapidly coming to the conclusion that some very quiet brute force might be necessary to accomplish his mission. Fortunately my wall prop has some points of attachment for the grappling hook accessory (you may need to use tape if you went the box route). I need to loop the string around one of Snake's hands, posing his legs as if he's climbing and, with his other hand, depict him drawing the knife from his boot. If you wanted to depict Snake jumping, you might use clear string attached at two different points on the figure to suspend him in the air or simply shoot the figure separately from the set and edit his image into place after the fact. When not using image manipulation, my experience has been that it's always best to get the figure posed the way I want him before trying to hang him in place. There will likely be some trial and error in a process like this, not just during set-up but during shooting and editing to achieve the most "realistic" look.

Now you should be ready to start shooting.

Snap Away

Did I forget to tell you to make sure your camera batteries are charged? There's little more frustrating than getting a dio shot all set up only to realize you don't have the juice to shoot it. And I recommend having some hot spares handy, just in case, because you can never take too many different shots of the same scene.

As for what kind of camera to use, I could give you a list of specs for my dream machine but even I don't own that yet. You make do with what you have. Hopefully you're working with at least 3.5 mega pixels and a good zoom feature. If the camera has a close up setting, use that. If not, you may need to play with the focus and try a couple of different distances from your subject. You'll want to try a few different angles, regardless, because things often look different on your monitor than they did in the little display screen. If you have one, a tripod can be a great friend on a dio shoot. A steadi-cam/anti-shake feature is especially nice if you aren't using a tripod.

As far as knowing when you're done shooting? Assume you aren't. Even when you go to download the photos onto your computer, don't strike the set. You never know when you might need to come back and reshoot.

Editing

A scene after being edited.

It's easy to be dazzled by some people's skills with photo editing and image manipulation software. After almost two years, I'm still getting the hang of Photoshop (which I recommend even for applications outside of dio stories... it's just a darned useful program). However, fancy software and special effects are not absolutely necessary to good dio story telling, especially if your lighting is good during the shoot. It all depends on what you want to do.

For several months, I worked exclusively with Microsoft Paint. This allowed me to crop pictures and add dialogue (which, again, we aren't doing for this shot) as well as do limited cut-and-paste effects from one picture to another (which can be very useful in pulling off a jumping character or a flying vehicle). Once you have the hang of it, though, Photoshop makes all of this much easier and allows for the addition of fun effects like motion blurring or the use of photo-real backdrops. I'm employing the latter technique, which involves selecting all of the white from my colored backdrop (except for the portions in the windows and doorframes which would lead inside the installation) and then using the inverse selection to isolate the elements of the shot I want to preserve. Then, I simply copy that image data and paste it onto a nice photo (found most easily through Google image search by typing in just a few key words) of a night sky. For a final touch, I'm filling in the remaining white with a solid shadow color.

And there you have it... a single shot dio that tells a story (without a single word of dialogue). Now imagine repeating this process over and over and you'll get a sense of all that goes into those 30- and 50-image story segments you see people posting.

Of course, those epics often employ dialogue, which adds another element to the mix.

Scripting

A scene after having dialogue added.

If you want to use dialogue effectively, you're going to need to figure out which characters are saying what and how. More often than not, the what and the how stem from asking "Why?"

At this stage, you've gone beyond the idea of depicting a simple action or interaction visually to plotting character motivation and complex interactions through dialogue. So you might want to start writing things down.

One of the hardest parts of writing dialogue is giving each character a distinctive voice. I could spend pages on this alone, but it really is something that comes easiest through listening to the way different people talk under different circumstances and understanding why.

For starters, let's add some dialogue to the single-shot dio we just made.

Snake Eyes is easy. He doesn't say anything (maybe that's why Hama liked him so much?). His actions speak for him. But the two guards are coming from different places to the same situation and, if you want them to be believable in that situation, should probably express their feelings about it differently.

Let's take our nervous guy, first. He's scared. He thought he heard something out there and, being on guard duty, probably isn't a terribly experienced soldier. So he gets a little defensive when he mentions his concern to his more practical partner who, being more experienced, seems to believe it might just be the first guard's imagination. The second guard is going to come off as both reassuring and condescending (possibly because he's trying to convince himself there's nothing to worry about as much as he is the first guard but doesn't want to let on that he might be worried, too). Now we have the right tone for each of the two speaking characters in the scene.


If you really want your characters to be believable, this is how you should approach pretty much every line of dialogue. Like the old actor's cliché, ask: "What's my motivation in this scene?" Put yourself in the character's shoes and, more importantly, put the character in your shoes (ask yourself how you might react or what you might say under the same circumstances).

As with anything, if you practice most of the elements of good dio story telling, eventually they become easier.

General Hawk's Recommended Reading and Resources

Since we started this article with a reference to General Hawk, it seemed only appropriate to ask him for his input. In response, he's compiled a list of links to some of the better dio stories out there and some extremely helpful resource sites for would-be dioists.

Comic-Based Fonts and Word Balloons

  • http://www.blambot.com - Professional comic book lettering and font experts, but also have free fonts and speech balloon templates for download.

Downloadable Backdrops/Props

  • http://www.niubniubsuniverse.com/ - A Star Wars based diorama resource site, but it can definitely be used for Joe set building as well. Lots of wall textures and such for downloading and printing.

Related Software

  • http://www.gimp.org/ - GIMP is a free for download open source image manipulation program that is designed to be a more accessible lighter weight "Photoshop" alternative. For folks who don't have access to Adobe Photoshop, GIMP is a great thing to use to start your Dio-Story "career".
  • http://plasq.com/ - Plasq is the home of "Comic Life" a Macintosh only (currently) comic creation software. Arrange comic panels, add dialogue and export in many different formats. Apparently they are currently working on a PC version.

Photoshop Tips and Tutorials

Dio-Story Sites

  • http://www.joedios.com - Lots of dio-story fans and producers all in one place. Especially check out the fantastic "G.I. Joe Vs. Transformers" dio-story by Self-Modifier, which can only be found on Joe Dios.
  • http://www.checkpointalpha.com - The former webmaster of The Bivouac first started the whole central custom repository site, and has now moved on to Dio-Stories.
  • http://www.cobratheinnersanctum.com - Everyone knows about Violentfix's stuff, and if you haven't checked it out, you're doing yourself a great disservice. Some of the best in the "biz."
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