Marco Patrito’s Sinkha is one of the earliest, and most famous, computer rendered comics. Touted as the “3D Computergraphic Novel”, Sinkha was a massive undertaking. Partway between film and comic book, Patrito’s space opera is a thoughtful embrace of the digital medium in its online, CD-ROM, and print formats. While the story can be hard to follow, the sheer sense of wonder inspired by each of the books’ epic landscapes and imaginative characters ultimately make Sinkha into an unforgettable space-fairy tale thanks to its embrace, and not just use, of rendering software.

Episode 0

Sinkha: Episode 0 tells the story of a young woman named Hylen. Hylen lives on the planet Ogon in the city of Thalissar. Thalissar is the only hospitable place on Ogon, though to even call it hospitable – or even a city, at that – is a stretch. Once a great colony, the purpose of Thalissar’s gargantuan machines have long been forgotten, their purpose neglected or bastardized by the scant populous. Many of the people in Thalissar live in quiet despair, filling their empty days with biomechanical drugs. Hylen longs to leave the planet and find the Sinkha: an immortal race of beings capable of transcending form.

The book’s opening three pages are comprised entirely of landscape shots. The faint glow of a sun can be seen off in the distance, muddled by the thick yellow fog that lingers in the air of Thalissar’s sprawling mechanical canyons. The vantage pulled back to show the surface of Ogon, we see the surface cracks leading down to the refuge (if you can call it that) of the city below. Lightning storms berate the rocky surface, a narrative box scoring the bleak scenery with, “An agonizing screech of dying structures, the weeping of steel without a future.”

Moving back inside, we follow two individuals – a robot and a humanoid with cybernetic implants – as they cross a suspension bridge overtop a reservoir of water. Once on the other side, the pair discover Hylen asleep in a container of support liquid. Hylen emerges from the vat after being scolded by the man with implants. The liquid soaked through her skirt, she gathers her belongings without responding to the pair, rushing off to safety.

The wet concrete and metal surfaces here showcase some great-looking reflections. The action in Hylen’s movement is accentuated by her hair as she escapes on page 7. Rendered characters can often look stiff in their stances and movement, and Patrito was clever in including this detail so early on. The wet drapery texture of Hylen’s clothes too gives the character a more flexible look, and the way she fits her jacket and boots further avoids any notion of stiffness.

Hylen soon meets with her grandfather in another sector of Thalissar, asking him to tell her about the star portals. The colour hue here changes to a warmer collection of reds, oranges, and yellows. Light emits from the various pillars and lamps, with ornate designs melded into the heavy industrial architecture. Patrito decorates this area with a trio of reptilian looking creatures, giving the scene a sense of life, comfort, and calm compared to the white, grey, and sickly yellows seen in the previous pages. The framing also stays more focused on Hylen and her grandfather’s faces as opposed to the environment, giving the scene a more intimate feel.

Her grandfather’s account soon moves to space, showing the great star portal first hand as a ship emerges from the tubular craft. Four frames stacked to the page, they expand as the ship descends down, the vantage rotating to show the small vessel emerging from interstellar travel. The repetition of frames persists for the next several pages, showing crew as they move to the bridge.

Back in Thalissar, Hylen and her friend spy a Sinkha from across a massive lake of shimmering green liquid. Hylen confesses her desire to meet one of them. Her youthful dreams of adventure in mind, the scene changes to Hylen and her friends relaxing on the “sun beach”. A steep overarching shot of the grey canal opens the page, eventually focusing in on Hylen as she sits, eyes closed, while her friends tease her for spying on the Sinkha. A trio of frames in the middle of page 17 highlights Hylen’s anguish through her facial expressions before she turns away to gaze out at the bleak horizon.

Hylen then decides to go to a dermoscultor (a surgeon of sorts) to modify her appearance. On the following page, three panes of Hylen’s face stack to showcase the surgery, with her scar being removed and her lip and eyeshadow colour being tattooed. This close-up view shows the texture swap used for her face, with some effects like the water droplets and recolouring likely being after effects.

After the surgery is complete, the dermoscultper ushers her out, with the frames switching vantage quickly, giving scant glimpses of the lab through a network of bars overhead; its interior far less glamorous than the facade. The page ends with Hylen walking back across a wet stone surface, alone, her reflection captured in the grainy texture.

Back home, she prepares herself for the journey to meet the Sinkha, changing into a blue dress before rowing out across the green reservoir. Disembarking off her raft, she is suddenly consumed by an orange blob.

Encapsulated in an egg-shaped sphere of goop, Hylen is escorted by two robot guards to the Sinkha. Two of these Sinkha are crustacean-like (one of whom is named Jerod), with beady eyes and exoskeletal builds. They float in the air, their appendages stiff, while the last Sinkha resembles a human. As they decide what to do with Hylen, reading her mind and revealing her feelings for the “hunky” humanoid Sinkha, Aker, she is dropped from her slime container onto the floor.

Aker confronts Hylen, though she is too petrified to respond. The Sinkha then leave Thalissar for their ship, Darcron, deciding to take Hylen with them.

The following page gives way to several radical landscape shots, with the Sinkha shuttle taking off from the haze of Thalissar and across the surface of Ogon. Hylen looks out the shuttle window, her mouth agape and eyes wide, the amber hue of the sun shining through the window and illuminating her face. The outer walls of Thalissar are intricately detailed with pipes and coils, the exhaust from the shuttle trailing below the fort’s buttressing as it ascends. As they approach Darcron, one of the Sinkha explain to Hylen that the ship is more a portal than a city, leading to an entire alternate universe.

Outfitted in a new dress, Hylen soon finds herself smelling pleasant salt air and chlorophyll and as a breeze passes over her in one of Darcron’s realities. The painful hum of Thalissar gone from her ears, she sets out to explore this fantasy seaside paradise, the following page being a full frame shot of a sunset over the shallows of this lush network of islands.

Hylen’s Sinkha guide informs her that it is all a virtual reality called Eyen, a civilization of 900 billion beings (and counting). Hylen and the Sinkha walk along the shoreline, the height of frames cinematically lowering as they walk away.

On the ship’s bridge, Aker and Jerod discuss what they have learned about Thalissar. The bridge is a round control room, the outside being a transparent net of coordinates overtop a view of the outside space. Back with Hylen, a fairy-like creature greets her as she emerges from bathing in a pond. Interestingly, the vantage starts out underwater, showing Hylen’s jaw from below, the surface ripple reflecting her lips and chin. The following frame moves above water, again showing her face reflecting off the surface as she emerges (curiously producing no ripples on the water’s surface). Two fairies carry a towel to greet Hylen, the fabric draping convincingly as they move to wrap her within it.

The shadow of foliage is used to outline the top of the page’s final frame. Patrito’s choice to frame an already framed render is curious – and with stark shadow, at that – though it does add a bit of intimacy to the picture.

The following page is yet another set of stacked frames, zooming in on Hylen’s face as she contemplates her memories of Thalissar. Then, she asks Darcron to see outside. The landscape around her dissolves, becoming partially and then fully transparent over the course of two frames, revealing Darcron still hovers over Ogon. The fairies dissolve into the orange goop seen before, showcasing Darcron’s illusions are in fact elaborate optical and textile constructions.

Page 38 is one of the more awe-inspiring pages in the book, showing off so many transparency and reflection effects at once. The page almost mirrors itself, with the top three panes keeping Hylen in the same pose as the last two, seated on a rock (turned glob). A wind effect is modeled into her hair in the second-to last frame as well, further highlighting the change in environment, suggesting the winds of Ogon’s atmosphere only affect her once out of the illusion.

The book then switches from a white page to black, forgoing stacked frames in favour of a storybook layout. Kahaltar, a being beneath Thailissar, is introduced. Red text runs beside the frame, intertwining narrative and speech, like a book.

Reverting back to the white backdrop, a stack of four frames zoom in on the corporate vessel’s descent through the Ogon’s haze. The crew then drops to the surface of Thalissar via shuttle to proceed with their research. Spotting something moving on the hull, the ship goes dark and we are ushered back to Darcron, where the Sinkha observe the corporate vessel’s plight from afar. Aker decides to go down and take a look. A full-page render follows, with Aker moving from an extendable chute via hoverboard into Thalissar’s central pit. This shot gives a good look at the scale of Thalissar, with Darcron hovering above the shaft’s entrance, easily fitting within the wide gap; the bone-like pattern of metal and stone covering Thalissar’s walls seen in full.

Moving to an opening in the cliff face, Aker discovers the corporate vessel’s wreckage. The last frame on page 50 shows Thalissar’s scale up close, with the vantage pointing towards the seemingly bottomless pit. Some of the texturing’s flatness is evident in this frame, with the bump-mapping not looking as well, bumpy, when viewed up close and from the side, but the effect of the sharp decline is emphasized by the falling streams of water, adding to the nauseating sense of verticality.

As Aker continues his journey through the dark wreckage and into the caverns of Thalissar, he questions a series of movements out of the corner of his eye, wondering whether he is hallucinating. Darcron then informs Aker of its sudden departure, stating it senses an imminent danger present. Abandoned on the surface, Aker has no choice but to continue his search until Darcron can return.

Kahaltar returns to frame, once again with a black backdrop and storybook style text, warning of the Sinkha’s ignorance to the danger they present. Back with Aker, sitting lazily on his hoverboard deep within the bowls of Thalissar, the mineshaft-like caves here are a sight to behold, with a wet coat of muck and rust clinging to the surfaces of rock and infrastructure. It’s yet another fascinating wing of the city, its construction wholly alien from parts shown before, further stressing just how vast, and mysterious, this place is.

Aker breaks through a wall. Here, he finds himself not in another corridor, but a nightmarish landscape. The sky is made of shimmering red cirrus clouds, while the ground is a vast ocean of yellow-tinted liquid. A monstrous collection of globs form before him, morphing from an untextured grey mass into a collection of hideous muscles giving birth to Hylen’s face through a vagina-like opening.

Before Aker can question what he is seeing, his defense drone begins firing at the mass, stating it is a virtual reality artefact (not unlike those found on Darcron). Kahaltar is then revealed to be behind the illusion. Uncoiling from its perch, the reptilian monster takes the form of Hylen once again, and Aker watches in horror as she is once more blast down in front of him.

Holding her lifeless body in his arms, Aker curses his drone. The drone goes on to explain that the virtual reality generator was inside of Hylen, and that Kahaltar had used it for cover to get close to the Sinkha. Rushing Hylen back to Dacron before she becomes brain dead, they plan to rejuvenate her, though if the process is successful, she will be stripped her of her humanity, making her a Sinkha.

Scaling

Thalissar, and the allusions to its history through art design, is the focus in Episode 0. The city is gargantuan, almost fractal, twisting and morphing into massive, radical builds deep below the planet’s surface. Catwalks span the mouths of giant tunnels that run towards a seemingly infinite horizon. Metal twists into ornate patterns, somewhere between decorative and industrial, making it feel as though parts of this complex were indeed purposed for living and not just work. It’s both confusing and beautiful, with any hint of what these buildings could have been used for completely hidden under decay and repurposing. Despite the desolation of it all, the tour of Thalissar’s grand vistas and intimate corridors build the city into a fascinating place, and it’s easy to lose one’s self staring into any given frame.

Thalissar has a constant humming, described as, “the weeping of steel without a future”, and Patrito’s extreme vantage points lend each landscape a sense of this monumental scale, regardless of frame size. The thick fog gives both a stillness and toxicity to the scenery, adding to the overwhelming feelings of loneliness and space.

It looks as though textures are blanketed across some environmental surfaces in Thalissar, (and Ogon), though thanks to excellent framing, any abnormalities or warping are completely hidden. Clothing and skin textures are well applied, and show a surprising amount of detail for early render work. The android worker on the corporate vessel looks great with her metallic grey patterned skin. The Sinkha too benefit from varied reptilian or insectoid patterns texturing their shelled bodies. Sinkha has that early CG, almost plastic or hyper-idealized, look, though Patrito has stated that he was never aiming for “realistic” (Henault 2003). One of the artists Patrito names as an influence is Carlo Rambaldi, a Hollywood special effects artist. Rambaldi stated about the movie industry’s move to computer graphic effects:

Any kid with a computer can reproduce the special effects seen in today’s movies. The mystery’s gone. The curiosity that viewers once felt when they saw special effects has disappeared. It’s as if a magician had revealed all of his tricks… There’s no question that these computer films are well packaged but the charm has disappeared… If Spielberg were to film E.T. today using the latest technology I’m not sure it would be a hit because the techniques they’re using at the moment couldn’t reproduce the tender expression of ET’s eyes, for example. The secret of creating what technology is unable to express lies in the work of the artisan, who is able to develop characteristics that touch our deepest emotions.

(The Telegraph 2003)

Though idealized, Patrito’s characters avoid that doll-like plastic feel thanks to his smart use of both framing and facial expressions. On building his characters, Partito stated:

Even if I look with immense admiration at the great talents, who leave us flabbergasted with their characters of ‘real’ flesh, I would like to point out that super photorealism isn’t my final target. In some cases I choose to disappoint who’s waiting for an image such as to mistake reality. As long as I’m able to keep a small trait d’union with the traditional illustration, I like to give away a sense-of -wonder in the pictorial image at the cost of something a bit fake in lights or materials. I direct rather my attention on the realism and quality of the facial expressions. It’s very important, I believe, because it represents the ability of your digital actor in acting his part.

(Henault 2003)

One particularly good example of Patrito’s attention to detail is showcased on page 6 when Hylen emerges from the tank of liquid. According the scant information available about Patrito’s work, it appears he used rendering software Strata Vision, along with Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, to create Episode 0 over the course of nearly five years. Though it’s difficult to find the software’s exact capabilities circa-1990, these screenshots give you an idea of what Patrito was working with.

Achieving effects like wet drapery through a combination of these programs was bold new territory. While I can’t find a database of base assets included with early versions of Strata Studio, Patrito has stated he built Sinkha from scratch. In a review covering the CD-ROM edition’s release, it states Patrito and his team built over ninety models and hundreds of locations, backdrops, and maps. The article goes on to state that human modeling figures were not available in rendering software in 1991, meaning they did in fact have to model all of the characters themselves (Sosia n.d.) Patrito trained as an architect, though never formally became one (Henault 2003). His drafting skills seemingly were put to good use here, meticulously building this vast three-dimensional world.

His meticulous modelling of both the interiors and exteriors of craft go a long way in showing just how much work he put into this seemingly infinite universe. Rendering a variety of alien races is one thing, but showing how they operate differently from one and other in terms of technology and setup through the builds of space craft adds a notable layer of depth to the story.

One area where the CG assets end up looking more like movie sets (not in a good way), or preview window renders, is the space sequences on page 10. The vacuum of space can be hard to build, with focal point, debris, or gas cover the only references for depth. Here, none of that is produced, and as a result the scale of the planets and ships feels out of whack. On page 27, when the Sinkha shuttle takes off for Darcron, the scale looks far more natural, and the sense of space is restored thanks to transparent effects of fog and the up-close framing of the ship leaving the atmosphere.

You can see where the water abruptly meets the sand. Despite the idealistic beauty of these early renders, the limits of blending effects are evident.

While the lighting and reflections are quite high quality, one area where Sinkha: Episode 0 does show its age is the water modeling. These highly reflective and flat water textures are indicative of early render art, and Partito’s heavy use of water throughout Episode 0 date the comic in the best way possible. Though Patrito submerges his models in water throughout the book, showcasing them from several angles, the surface always remains perfectly flat, bump mapped with static ripples.

Ray traced orbs too make an appearance, which are about as retro as you can get in this medium, highlighting the “wow’ factor of computer technology by rendering what is among the hardest things to replicate by hand – spherical reflections. This is 3D rendering in its infancy, and this retro style is incredibly nostalgic.

Print Vs. Digital

The version of Sinkha: Episode 0 reviewed here is the digital print PDF released by Heavy Metal’s (now defunct) digital line in 2012, though Patrito’s work was also published in several Heavy Metal issues (Special Edition – Fall – Vol. 10 No.2, Siren Special – Fall – Vol. 18 No.3, Forbidden Special – Summer – Vol. 34 No.5). On the Sinkha website, readers can click through the frames as individual pictures, though only a few frames from certain books are available for preview. This format, frame by frame and on a screen, is actually how Patrito intended Sinkha to be viewed. We’ll cover the digital versions of Sinkha in a future post, though it is important to mention them in light of the print book’s formatting. Frames that may have been full-screen pictures have been shrunken down here, stacked and arranged in an effort to replicate that cinematic effect.

In the print release, action never breaks out of frame, further highlighting the individual nature of each render. Some frames appear to suffer from minor stretching or resolution drops in order to make up for space.

That said, Patrito has arranged the frames in a meaningful way for the print versions, keeping things like hue and line of action in mind. The repetition of shots lends the book a cinematic feel, and goes a long way in emphasizing what makes Sinkha different from other comic books. Action doesn’t change vantage every frame, with many shots used multiple times per-page. This slows the eye, making readers follow at the intended pace, and further accentuating the scale of the environments.

Though the Sinkha can take a variety of forms, ranging from starship to humanoid and everything in-between, the bulk of the characters in Sinkha: Episode 0 resemble the later. Considering some characters’ limited screen time, the fact Patrito has made the effort to render so many unique models is a testament to his embrace of this medium. Male characters are more differential than the female ones, with the commander of the corporate vehicle, Dhyna, for example, bearing a close resemblance to Hylen, though the few other female characters introduced in Episode 0 do have their own unique looks, avoiding the ratio redundancy that’s all too common in comic books (and render software for that matter).

Though Dhyna bears something of a resemblance to Hylen, albeit with a darker skin tone, the rest of the crew all look unique. Hena’s bump-mapped skin looks great, as does the co-pilot with his shaggy hair and beard.

Eject

Immersive and ground-breaking as it was, Sinkha isn’t exactly easy to follow. Patrito released an encyclopedia for the universe online and at the back of Vol. 2: Atmosphere, though it’s too much too late, and anything clarified is quickly buried by the mounds of new information given. Still, it’s fascinating lore, and the fact that the series only touches upon small parts of this incredible universe just goes to show how much work Patrito put into constructing it; awkward as his communication of it may be.

It should be stressed again that the print versions of Patrito’s Sinkha were not the original format. In fact, Sinkha: Episode 0 was originally released on CD-ROM, with the panes and renders moving in a more cinematic form. We’ll explore this version later on, comparing how the story plays in its original multimedia format compared to the static reshuffling of still images made for the print releases.

For the next three volumes, Patrito switched to Maya and 3DS Max and from Mac to PC for the rendering and 3D builds (Strata liked Sinkha so much that they used an image of Darcron for the cover to Strata Studio (Sosia n.d.). Moving to Episode 1: Hylen, we’ll examine the differences in technology used to build the next three volumes of the series.

References

Henault, Jean-Eric. 2003. “Interview with Marco Patrito.” Cg channel. http://www.cgchannel.com/2003/02/interview-with-marco-patrito/

1991. Sinkha Universe. Last Modified 2021. http://www.sinkha.com/home_e.htm

2012. “Carlo Rambaldi.” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/9590601/Carlo-Rambaldi.html

Sosia, Silvio. n.d. “An electronic novel: Sinkha by Marco Patrito.” Delos Science Fiction. Archived . https://web.archive.org/web/20100629144636/http:/www.fantascienza.com/delos/ie/sinkha.html

2015. “Strata Vision 3D 1.4.” Macintosh Repository. https://www.macintoshrepository.org/16316-strata-vision-3d-1-4?ns=1

Patrito, Marco. 2012. Sinkha: Episode Zero. Massachusetts: Metal Mammoth Inc.

Lostboy. 2021. Heavy Metal: The Adult Illustrated Fantasy magazine Fan Page. Accessed September 14, 2021. http://www.heavymetalmagazinefanpage.com/index.html

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