The Basic Anatomy of a Lettering Template
Before I start: Feel free to mock - I won’t stop you - but please be kind because I’m no pro. I’m just an amateur sharing the method I happen to use all of the time. Every template is different because everyone uses them in different ways. Also, every project is different - the template I have for Sfeer Theory is different from the one I have for That Which Wills because the two comics have separate styles and separate needs. This list is just to show you things I find very useful when I set up a handy workspace for lettering, so your mileage may definitely vary.
Why work with a template?
Style consistency and work efficiency, basically.
If you happen to be working on a comic and it is more than one page, you will most likely want everything to look sleek and uniform - the text is the same style, the balloons don’t look too odd in comparison to other pages, the page size and format doesn’t vary wildly… that sort of thing. You can still be creative and make all sorts of variations to the presentation of your comic - but you can do it within the basic perimeters you’ve set for yourself.
As for efficiency, imagine you are working on a ten, twenty, or fifty page comic: Perhaps you work on the art of each page individually, so you figure that you will work on the lettering of each page individually as well. But then you have to set up the page size for your workspace, you have to go back and check what the text style is like, and weeks could pass from page to page but you don’t really have a settled 1-2-3-4 step method to get everything in place for the lettering part, so you may forget something that will be important later (i.e. is the text in K100 for print? Is the crop area in the correct dimensions?), which will just take more time that you’d rather use working on the next page. Setting up a template may take an hour, perhaps even two, but that will end up saving you countless times that amount - especially when you are trying to meet a deadline for your project.
The pay off for having a template is that every time you reach the lettering part of creating a comic, you have all of your tools lined up neatly for your use, ready to go. So let’s take a look at the tools:
01) Balloon & Tail Samples
Although balloons come in all shapes and sizes, I like to start out with a squarish oval as found in most comics. A fully oval shape wastes space on either side, so the slightly squarish design lessens the ends and fits closer around the dialogue. I keep a handful of basic balloons and a few other shapes that I made ages ago and collected here. When I want to use these pre-made shapes, I just select a bunch, copy/paste them onto the art board and fit them around the dialogue, fiddling with the shape details until I’m happy. The balloon tails happen to be a larger collection, though I use them in much the same way. Although I can make balloons and tails from scratch, in some cases a pre-made balloon or tail could suit the situation just as well if I position and size them correctly.
It’s a small detail, but I keep up with it. Whenever I start a new page, I type the volume and the page numbers in this corner box to help keep track. It sounds silly since that is what file names do as well, but it’s a nice clear sign in the work area to remind me of which project page I am at and where I am at in the story. This helps me whenever I work on a dozen or more pages at a time while preparing pages for print, for example.
Fonts are your lettering palette, basically. I keep mine limited for my own reasons, but however you craft your “palette” is up to you. The fonts listed here were purchased for its commercial license, so this helps me keep it separate from fonts that are OK for home-use, but not for commercial-use. (Checking the license on fonts can be tricky due to each font designer’s preference, but always important to investigate before use.) Browsing through the list also gives me inspiration on what sort of sfx font style to use in any particular situation. It’s a good reference point for me, though non-essential to other letterers, most likely.
04) Art Board
This is where your dialogue, word balloons, sfx and artwork sits. This is the section that gets saved while the rest of the elements outside get cut out. It takes some time to get the correct dimensions and guides in place, but it is well worth the time and a big part of why having an established template is so lovely. I’ve seen that many letterers do the smart thing and create additional guide lines to define the Safe, Trim, and Bleed areas. However, I tend not to use guidelines with Sfeer Theory, so I simply sized the crop area out to the Bleed. I have used guide lines in projects in the past to ensure that the lettering will work in print, but I haven’t bothered using them since I began working with Little Foolery. Why? Good question. I guess the easy answer is to say I’m a lazy punk, but at the risk of sounding over-awed, the more honest answer is that Chira is a consistent artist with incredibly careful precision when it comes to each and every page she draws. She adhears to the Trim and Bleed areas on every page for her own satisfaction, so at some point I decided to skip the guidelines step - I could see lines clearly by how she drew the panels within the Safe and Trim areas. The double page spreads are a little trickier, but I usually letter pretty deep into the Safe areas in those cases. So, do I recommend guide lines? Oh, yes, I’m being a hypocrite, but actually I do recommend them. If you’re a beginner, it really is very essential. You can decide on what to do farther down the road, but keep in mind that most professionals use guide lines without issue. I’m just setting a poor example by not having them on my template, that’s all.
05) Text Samples
The one thing that destroys me is my love of consistency. I both love it and quietly curse its existence (but that’s another story). When I began lettering for ST, Chira and I had a long back-and-forth about the style of the dialogue font, narration font, and so on. After more than a dozen samples and experiments, we finally settled on a specific font/size/kerning/etc that would be unique to Sfeer Theory. To keep that style consistent, I have samples saved on my template. The content of the text in the samples isn’t important actually - it is just the style format I need. Usually, when I want to input a section of the script, I simply copy paste it into the text sample so that when I pluck out sections of the dialogue from that text box, everything is in its proper text format. It saves so much time!
Layers are lovely things. In lettering, I only ever really need these five layers (in order from bottom to top): Art, Template, SFX, Balloon, and Text. The Art layer is Chira’s artwork - when she send me the page, I place it in this layer and lock it. After I name the page, I lock the Template layer too, since I don’t usually need the elements I keep in that layer other than for reference (this is also a good layer to lock guide lines). The SFX layer I keep either below or above the Text and Balloon layers, though I tend to delete this layer for pages where no sound effects are being used since it’d be blank anyhow. The Balloon layer is always below the Text layer. I keep my collection of caption boxes, balloons, and tails on this layer out of personal preference. The Text layer contains the script and text samples so that those are easily available. I love my layers to bits.
I keep just the specific section of the script that is relevant to the page I happen to be working on because saving the whole script on the template would take up too much space. Even after I’ve extracted the dialogue from the script, I always keep the script in the corner for quick reference. The script is like a detailed recipe: If I’m a good letterer, I’ll reread the it in the process of and after finishing a page to make sure I’ve followed all of the directions correctly. On occasion, I’ve forgotten to double check, but thankfully Chira can point mistakes out to me and I can return to the script to find the bit I’ve missed. Having the script available in the file saves me time from hunting up the correct file or e-mail that holds everything.
And that’s it! That’s my template for Sfeer Theory! It’s definitely not perfect, nor anywhere near flawless, but it is mine and it works for me. It hasn’t failed me in nearly a 100 ST pages, so I think it will hold up for many, many more. The pros might do things differently and you may choose a very different way to go about it and that’s cool. To each their own. :)