There is nothing that can make a fantastical setting feel more immersive than a really good setting shot. This is an incredibly effective way to help viewers instantly imagine what the world looks like, and it works very quickly. Whether it’s a simple camera shot showing the Ark of the Covenant being carted away into a warehouse full of treasures in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Syd Mead’s amazing matte-painted scenes of the cities for Blade Runner, all it takes is a couple well-designed shots to immerse the viewers to a world of intrigue and shadows.
For this week’s dose of Shadowrun awesomeness, let’s dive into the shadows and give you fan boys and girls a few tips on drawing setting images of your own. Specifically I’ll focus on cities. Here’s the great thing you have going for you—we live in a time where there is lots of great concept art being created all the time for games, movies, TV shows and more, so there is a vast amount of reference that can be found with a quick Google search. While ‘sci-fi city’ queries will net gamers a wide range of futuristic images, there are a few signature elements about the world of Shadowrun that help to set ours apart from the rest. Here are some things to focus on to help you draw the shadows.
1. In Shadowrun you must treat each city like a star character. Each one has a personality all its own based heavily on its in-universe history, and it needs to be treated correctly. For instance Seattle has become the home to huge megacorp high-rises far beyond the current-day building codes, while Cheyenne, Wyoming has become the capital of the Sioux Nation. Chicago has been heavily infected with bug spirits, while Panama has been nuked and is under the rule of Aztlan. All these details matter and make a marked visual difference in the look and feel of each city—even when viewed from afar.
2. Strike the right balance between real world and futuristic. As is the case with any run, it helps to know your city. Every city, everywhere, at every time is a mix of old and new. All the cities of the Sixth World are built on current day cities—just 60 years in the future (and such a wonderfully dark future it is!) So when illustrating an SR city, start with real-world reference of that city and then determine how much to change. In general I recommend a 70-30 ratio of the current to the futuristic. Some cities will not fit this perfectly, but the rule will serve you well overall. As for the exceptions, see point #1. With a city like Seattle it’s about 60% current day and 40% futuristic. Berlin (which suffered a much harsher fate) would be about 40% current/30% barrens/20% futuristic (though the exact breakdown is debatable.) Redmond, which in the current day is a posh high-tech mecca, suffers a warzone fate in Shadowrun, making it closer to 50% current, 50% rubble, and 100% thrashed. So check your facts first—both real world and Sixth World—because it will save you editing time and hazing from your fellow players.
3. Take the “shadows” literally. When drawing SR cities, it can be helpful to remember that most of the characters live and work in the shadows. Literally. These are areas blanketed in the shadows cast by the megacorps. This means that a shadowy scene, even one in the daytime, can be one of the most important elements of the shot. There are always shadows in any place, at any time of day. Find them in your composition and use them. Remember that we want to reinforce the image of a world of megacorps and shadows.
4. Lit from below. There is an old character technique that says it’s best to light villains from below because it makes them seem sinister, and the rule holds true with cities as well. Most of the lighting from a city comes from the bottom five stories – those closest to the ground. The light sources are street lights, headlights, and signage. Above that there is little lighting other than corp logos on the upper floors of office buildings, searchlights from flying vehicles, or spotlights from the ground aiming up (like a movie premiere trying to attract attention.) This means the buildings and structures should look quite dark, with the only light source coming from windows and ground levels. Staying true to this idea helps reinforce the noir nature of the Sixth World.
5. The city gets all the attention. This is the one kind of image where looking at characters’ backs is actually a good thing, because in a city shot any characters are just there as set dressing. The background is the point, so any figures in the foreground are just there to show the viewer that even the people in the picture are focusing on the setting. By looking at it themselves, they direct the viewer to focus on what lies in front of them. In looking at the shot of Berlin above, the foreground character is little more than a silhouette. The spotlight is on the city where it should be. Because it’s awesome.
6. The city gets all the detail. When illustrating characters into this type of shot, keep them vague and relatively nondescript. This helps the viewer’s eye gravitate toward the point of the shot, which should get all the details.
7. Keep it dark. Remember when we talked about using shadows? Take that seriously. In a noir setting like this, the shadows you lay in are often more important than the highlights. I recommend at least 50% of your scene should be dark, harsh shadows.
8. No flying cars in Shadowrun. That’s right, I said it. I know it’s controversial and that some creative teams on this property over the last 25+ years have thrown in traffic lanes of floating cars, but our team tries to pay attention to the fanbase, and over the last fifteen years the fans have clearly said that the sci-fi floating car craze is an aberration, not the standard. This isn’t Coruscant from Star Wars, this is Shadowrun, and it’s only 60 years in the future. Anyone interesting in drawing SR for me has to remember that SW and SR are definitely not two great tastes that go together.
9. NEVER use a soft edged brush on a Shadowrun setting. Never never never. There are no soft settings in Shadowrun. If you ever even think of using that airbrush tool in Photoshop you should ask your gamer buddies to use a Special Anniversary Blu-Ray Edition of Blade Runner to slap you silly in penance. [No, don’t. That might break it. Just send it to the Shadowrun Line Developer instead—Ed.] Once you’ve regained consciousness, you can have the movie running in the background and be in a much better frame of mind for illustrating Shadowrun settings.
When it comes to crafting the setting as the hero, the devil is always in the details. The best way to save time and pain is to do your homework on the setting first and get your facts right. Thankfully each city is full of juicy awesome details that will likely inspire a whole host of fun twists and infuse your games with gritty realism.
Catalyst Game Labs