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.

Point of view. Where is the "camera" relative to our two characters?

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).

Space missions. Moving the camera around provides a sense of variety.

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: how wide or tight is the shot on our character? How does our sense of what the shot is for change with position and cropping?

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

The position of things–even important things–does not have to be central every time! 

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 (now a broken link–gotta get back to that) I cited Hergé and Milt Caniff as examples; I'm returning to them here. Above right, I posted 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.

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.






At right 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, have a look at the top of this post on the right: a nice page from Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, a 70s revisiting of his famous manga and television vehicle. This source 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.



Right, 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.

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.


Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates, December 29, 1946 Sunday strip. 


Hergé, panel from 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.



Hergé, page design from King Ottokar's Sceptre. 



Love this shot. Er, panel.



The motorcycle chase scene broken down into abstract compositional studies. 

The second and third registers on the chase scene page. 

Milton Caniff, Steve Canyon Sunday strip, August 1, 1948

Caniff, detail of 8/1/48 Steve Canyon Sunday strip. Panel. 

Caniff, detail of 8/1/48 Steve Canyon Sunday strip. Panel. 

Caniff, detail of 8/1/48 Steve Canyon Sunday strip. Panel.