Friday, April 12, 2013

In Pursuit of Variety

I'm working with students on one of my favorite projects in the two-semester Word and Image sequence: the cinematic narrative problem. I've discussed it in this space from time to time, because it's such an interesting teaching challenge. 80 to 100 shots, drawn with Sharpies or brush pens to keep things simple, strung like beads on a necklace to tell a clear story. Packaged and played with nothing more complex than iMovie. In a sustained post on comics and cinema a few years back, I described the sequential narrative that must proceed one action or unit of information at a time, sans narrator.

Unlike an illustration, which may present a central focus with multiple secondary foci, a filmic image must show a single [new] thing at a single time to communicate a story. We are easily overwhelmed by motion and spectacle, so the carpentry of the story telling must be rigorously simple. We must know who is doing what where, but we must learn those things one at a time...

In the last several classes, students have made progress on charting their stories one frame at a time. A welcome development, to be sure. But yesterday's session revealed a certain plodding quality to the image-making itself. "The lights are out," I whined. "I have my popcorn. I'm ready to watch a movie." But movies are dynamic; these things were highly static, more diagrammed than imagined.

And so. I grabbed a Sharpie and began to draw, to show some variety in construction. Specifically, kinds of variety. Knobs to turn. In our discussion, we identified at least four ways to vary images en route to a clear and dynamic story.

Most fundamentally, we can adjust point of view. From which perspective do we view the action? One of the prompts involves a spaceship. As it happened, we were looking at a decent number of straight-on views of two pilots (or two people standing around talking).

Well what if we move around vis-a-vis that action? My doodles show a single space pilot. (The rocket on the launching pad was a related example; what if we're looking down the fuselage, with our characters below and at a bit of a distance?)

Scale provides another opportunity to establish variety. That is, from wide shot to extreme close up is a big range.

Placement, too. If everything is centered in the frame (a bit of a problem) we miss chances to create interest, and even to heighten meaning. (That is, the runner at the far right isn't just running, he's accelerating out of the frame.) We also talked about orientation, or the angle of arrangement.

In the comics and cinema post, I cited Herge and Milt Caniff as examples; I'm returning to them here. Above, a page from Herge's King Ottokar's Sceptre adventure with Tintin, the tuft-headed young detective. The bad guys are escaping in an automobile; Tintin pursues them on a motorcycle; they slow down just a little to permit him to catch up; they brake suddenly, and he collides with the rear of the car. He's thrown over a hedge, out cold, as they speed away.

Love this shot. Er, panel.

Our point of view jumps all over the place. We're positioned to see the action in a clear and satisfying sequence which also remains interesting to us. We don't get bored.

But there's a temptation to see this as only a question of p.o.v. In fact, the page succeeds because the compositions are so good. All those issues noted above meet in the need for dynamic visual images. We had a few conversations yesterday about perpendicular relationships and perfect horizontality, in the classic second-grader earth-as-rectangular-strip-parallel-to-the-paper mode.

Above, I've made quick linear characterizations of thrust for the motorcycle chase page. Note: aside from the word balloon/boxes, there are almost no perfect horizontals. The lines are all diagonal!

As long as we're talking about diagonals, here's a nice page from Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, a 70s revisiting of his famous manga and television vehicle. This page is perhaps a little less relevant to the problem at hand, but I include it to show the dynamism of the page.

Finally a quick look at a few Steve Canyon strips from 1948. Strictly speaking, talking of shots in comics is misleading. Panels differ from shots in two respects: one, (often, as in the chase scene above) they have variable proportions, unlike television (4x3) and movie theatre (16x9) screens. Two, they're really more like key frames, since there are missing spaces in time even when the scene is continuous. I make the point because the problem of visual variety is critical, but not quite as subject to continuity errors. For example, the silhouetted figures of the women in panel 2 yield to more even lighting in panel 3. We understand the shift as a formal device, not a light cue.

Above, a Sunday strip with a few panels of note.

The backlit silhouetted figure is a very useful device to create shape and establish mass.

Emphasis on figures alone as the compositional raw material, with elevated p.o.v. and manipulation of scale for dramatic effect. 

A single, secondary middle value can be a kick in the pants–that is, can be used to provide mass slightly less dramatic than the yes/no of the silhouette.

These last thoughts are just technical supplements to the overarching point of this post: clarity is important, but so too are athletic storytelling and compositional panache.

Images: Herge, King Ottokar's Sceptre, a Tintin adventure that takes place in an imaginary eastern European county governed by a purportedly virtuous but besieged monarchy, 1939. Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy No. 1, by Osamu Tezuka. Mighty Atom (Astro Boy to American audiences) was created in the 1950s. The creation myth, “The Birth of Astro Boy” was a later addition by Tezuka.English edition published by Dark Horse Comics, 2002. Milton Caniff, Steve Canyon daily comic strip, February 3, 1948; Sunday strip, August 1, 1948.


D. Raggs said...

I just wanted to point out that -- at least in my opinion -- conversation scenes (or shots where people are discussing something) are debatably the hardest to maintain dynamic variety of composition. I feel like we have a natural tendency to want to include the two figures at just the right scale and position so that a.) we can tell who they are and b.) we can tell who is speaking.

Doug's drawing of the rocket launch pad was my favorite example of this problem being resolved. Sure, the figures are tiny and we can't really distinguish who is who; but it effectively gets across the point of the shot -- two people are talking in front of a rocket.

Michelle Nahmad said...

As we discussed in class, I think one of the issues of my developing storyboard was it's lack of dynamism, with more horizontals than not. Simultaneously developing characters, creating a clear story, constructing a believable environment, and considering formal properties has been a challenge. As I make progress in one area, I then notice the flaws of the others (but I'm coming to see that that is just the nature of the work).
I found your points on and examples of shifts in P.O.V, scale, and placement very helpful in re-imagining my frames and story progression. I also found it useful to really think of forming this storyboard the way I would shoot a film, as if moving through an actual dynamic and specific world.

Allison S said...

The discussion of horizontality is very relevant to my project. At first, I was very focused on drawing in a way that got the sequence of events displayed most clearly. This resulted in a series of almost flip-book like images, all from the same vantage point. I think the greatest challenge this project poses for me is balancing clarity and variety. How can I create clear images that fit into a sequence while also making each image interesting enough compositionally that they could be pulled out of the sequence and stand alone? Looking at the frames form Tintin was helpful because they show that even with a lot of compositional variety, it is still easy to follow the story.

Sofia K. said...

Similar to what Michelle and Allison said, I struggled with the horizontality of my images. Most were on a level plane, with characters placed directly in the center of the composition. The simple addition of diagonals drastically changed my scenes and made them more dynamic. I never imagined something so simple as diagonals could have such a big effect. I also have been struggling with balancing clarity and dynamic compositions. Now that my story is more defined, I am finding it easier to go back and change images to make them more lively.

Julie P. said...

As many people have already mentioned, I know that I need more variety (with point of view, composition, scale, placement, color code, etc) in order to make my story more dynamic.

What I am struggling in this project is the relationship between the clarity of images by using variety of techniques. How I can make an image easy to understand for the viewers but at same time, make different approches to make my scenes more dynamic and engaging.

It's nice to look at some of our resources to give us more ideas and knowledge about where can we go from here. I think a page from Herge's King Ottokar's Sceptre adventure is a great example for me to loook at in order to develop my storyboard!

Yi Ding said...

This article shows some important device my animatic could employ: scale, orientation, placement of the camera and color. There are a few things I was particularly drawn to.

To use POV effectively, we need to use the camera as an active character to guide viewers, tell them what is important. The page from Herge's King Ottokar's Sceptre adventure with Tintin is a good example because the placement of the camera helps readers to understand the progression of motions. First, the bad guy’s automobile is tiny, almost disappears in the vanishing point. Then we see closer shots of the automobile. The camera keeps jumping between Tintin and the bad guy, and the center of focus keeps changing, and therefore creates tension while keeping the important information clear.

Steve Canyon strips prove an interesting point: the simpler the images are, the more powerful and dramatic they seem to be.

Eden said...

As you say in the post "talking of shots in comics is misleading." An animatic lacks the contextual cues of a comic- you can't look back to the previous panel to make sense of the action, setting or spatial relationships between characters.

I'm struggling to bring the variety of comics into my animatic, in which context (of the kind we see in comics) does not exist. The animatic after all is a curious thing, not quite a storyboard (which is very much like a comic) and not quite a fully animated sequence (which is very much like a movie), the animatic occupies a liminal space that presents unique compositional challenges.

For example, too much dynamism in orientation threatens to disrupt the fragile sense of spatial continuity that the animatic relies on to be understood by its audience. Changes in POV can be similarly confusing. So the ultimate problem becomes: how do we create visual variety in a thing less continuous than either a comic or a film? Or, how do we create visual variety in a thing lacking the context of both surrounding panels and continuous motion?

DB Dowd said...

Eden, I think you are overthinking these distinctions. It's sequential storytelling: we see one thing, then we see the next thing. P.O.V. is important in any event. The project is least like an animation. It's not about movement; rather, it's about a sequence of stills. We can digest montage with surprising facility.

Alex Chiu said...

One thing that I'm struggling with right now are the transitional moments and how to indicate some sort of movement in an interesting way. Seeing Herge's Adventures with TinTin page helps me to better understand this problem. My favorite panel is the one with the car and Tintin following right behind on the motorcycle. Both are shown, and one is smaller, allowing us to understand the space as well as the difference in movement, in a compositionally interesting and clear way.

Kimberly Gagnon said...

As I draw out my 80-100 shots based off of my shot-by-shot outline, this blog post acts as a good reminder to keep them visually dynamic. It's easy to get stuck in a rhythm of drawing consistently from the same point of view but it needs to be viewed as a moving image and so it has to be visually interesting enough to keep the audience captivated. I found myself translating a lot of my simple sentences from my written shot-by-shot outline into similar formats with few diagonals and it was helpful to have the blog to reference when trying to restructure the shots. The part about the compositional aspects of Tin Tin was really helpful for me as I drew my own compositions. I used the quick linear characterizations of the motorcycle chase scene of Tin Tin as a check for keeping my drawings dynamic with lots of diagonals. In a lot of my initial drawings I would take a second to think about the diagonals that were being used and when there weren't any strong ones, I used that as a sign that I needed to reconfigure my layouts.