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The iStock Steel Cage — Beginner's manual

A Little History

The original Steel Cage was started by Peebert in 2003. In the first version there was no actual coded infrastructure on the site. Members emailed the psds back and forth to each other and posted the jpegs in the forum. When the original cage shut down in 2005 Sirimo had the winning record.

The Steel Cage we have today went live In August 2005. Steve Burke had just started work at iStock as an applications developer and tackled a fully automated version of the Cage as a way to learn what could be done with some of the back-end code.

To celebrate the 1st anniversary of the Cage in 2006, we held a massive tournament — King of the Cage. The tournament is now a regular annual event called the Battle Royale. See the past tournament Champions here.

Jumping In

The Steel Cage is a massive challenge. A lot of the people in there regularly have dozens of matches under their belts and create unbelievable work. They all started out somewhere though. Don't be intimidated — the best way to learn is to jump in and do it.

Watch other matches
Any forum thread at iStock — including those in the Steel Cage — has a handy 'Subscribe' button on top. Make good use of it. Watch the Cage, follow matches, and study those full-sized jpegs. Before you know it you'll be rating blows and piping up from the sidelines.

Ask questions
The Steel Cage regulars, when they aren't busy bludgeoning each other in Battles, are actually the most helpful, forthcoming and supportive bunch you're likely to come across on the interwebz. Pop into the Watercooler thread any time if you've got a question. People will line up to help you out.

Keep a lightbox
Start a lightbox for future Cage matches. Sometimes you will be searching images for other projects and an image will jump out at you and say "I am perfect for the Steel Cage." Watch for background textures, easily isolatable characters, pictures of people making strong actions. Drop all these in that Steel Cage lightbox even when you aren't involved in a Battle, so that you're ready next time you are.

Know the rules but takes risks
Yes there are some hard and fast rules but there are also a lot of places to experiment and grow. Don't feel like you have to do things like everyone else.

Have fun
A whole lot of work gets poured into a 5 round Steel Cage match. It's easy to spend a lot of time in front of the computer. Don't let yourself get frustrated — it's just a game after all.

Honing Your Craft

Plan Ahead
A Steel Cage volley is a design. And like any other design, it's better to think ahead and plan than to make it up as you go along.

Sit down with a pen and paper. Rough out some shapes in Photoshop to get a general idea about composition. Do whatever it is you do in your daily design workflow to come up with a strong concept and execute it properly. Don't just open your opponent's .psd and start isolating objects without a plan.

Whatever You Do, Do It Well
72 hours is not a lot of time. Just long enough to tie your own noose. Probably the biggest mistake that people of all skill levels make is biting off a bigger concept than they can pull off within the time frame.

So you plan to stage a massive robot battle scene, each individual robot hand-made from painstakingly isolated engineering photographs and vector gears? And you want to composite the background together from six different photographs? And the whole thing is going to be underwater? Do it right and yes, people will be wowed.

The trouble that you will run into with an overly complex idea is that when there isn't time to do things right, it isn't going to look good. Isolations take time. Tweaking lighting layers takes time. Adjusting blending modes to make different layers hang together properly takes time. And its those finesse touches that really make the difference in how something looks.

It's better to plan out a design strategy that you know you can actually do. Remember, you won't get the whole 72 hours to work on your volley. The real world is likely to intrude, but the Cage clock won't stop. Set yourself realistic goals and execute them. Your finished product will be the better for it.

Storytelling and Realism
Everybody responds to a story, and the Cage audience (and Judges) are no exceptions. A volley that seizes on the narrative element of the previous one and responds to it in some fashion — either continuing it or tweaking it in a new direction — is likely to draw high ratings and scores.

Don't feel that you have to literally follow the story though — or even design your image with a narrative element in mind to it. There is definitely room for abstraction and purely graphic approaches. Remember, the basic requirements are that you have to work with the previous elements, leave some of them visibly involved, and pass on editable layers. If you can come up with a new and inventive way to do this, it doesn't necessarily have to involve straight-forward storytelling. All that matters is that you do it well and that it looks good.

The same goes for Realism. The current style in the Steel Cage is all about photorealism. People like to make scenes that look like film stills — frozen action from the latest sci-fi blockbuster. A few of our regular combatants have this style down to an art and regularly blow people's minds with the incredible realism that they can bring to even the most outlandish scenes.

Just because other people have had a lot of success with this work though, it doesn't mean you have to work like that. We're interested in technically accomplished and visually interesting work — that doesn't have to mean 'photorealistic.'

Pre-arranged Rules

We've seen some really remarkable results when players discuss before hand and agree on additional parameters to follow. Here are a few memorable examples:

Aaltazar vs. mstay
We often get illustrator's challenge each other to all-vector battles. These can be really fantastic.

Ryuneo vs. rosen_dukov
A single headshot is kept in place throughout and designed around.

chieferu vs. 5Starrebel
The letterbox battle.

pdtnc vs. dawnl
This match was all about negative space.

How It's Done

We've gathered some of the Cage's collected wisdom for you to soak up. Three of the Cage's best talents have posted looks into their workflow. Take some time to study how they work.

jc_design
The 2009 Battle Royale champion has created some really detailed videos that show him at work straight from start to finish. Check out his YouTube channel here.

ryuneo
Perrenial heavyweight ryuneo shows the steps that went into some of his best entries on his portfolio site.

rosen_dukov
Rosen was the runner up two years ago and always creates knock-out stuff in the cage. Check out the 'Before & After' tab on his site.