Saturday, August 23, 2008

Map Orientation in Visual Storytelling

Most sequential visual storytelling media frame their visuals in rectangular formats — usually in horizontal rectangles.

The audience has grown up looking at rectangular maps with North is at the top of a map, South on the bottom, East to the right and West to the left.

Viewers of visual storytelling media have this map orientation stored in their subconscious and creators of visual stories can use it to their advantage.

If it’s important to your story that the subject is traveling in a specific compass direction, you can position he/she/it in the frame to reflect that direction. Doing so will resonate with the map orientation in your audience’s head.

For example, cinematographers and directors of old western films usually showed wagon trains moving West with a right-to-left bias within the frame – echoing the western direction of a map.

(If the wagons gave up and headed back to the East, the directional bias of the wagon’s movement would change to left-to-right.)

All shots in a sequence — long, medium and close-up — showing a wagon moving west would have the right-to-left action bias.
A neutral shot (Frame 3 in the sequence above) is where the action moves directly towards or away from the viewer. Neutral shots can be used in a sequence with an action bias that goes in any direction. However, when using a neutral shot, it is best to establish the action flow bias before the neutral shot and then reestablish the action’s bias after a neutral shot.

Note that in the case of Panel 3 above, even though the horses are neutral (moving directly away from the viewer), the dirt path they follow bends from left-to-right, maintaining the sequence’s action flow bias.

This topic is related to the larger issue of action flow continuity – the subject of a future post in this series.

Have thoughts on this topic? If so, please post it in the comments.


Urban Barbarian said...

Very interesting perspective. I never realized that in regards to Westerns, but it makes perfect sense.

Looking forward to the post!

Bill Reinhold said...

Congrats on your blog! Great description on map orientation.
Direction is certainly often forgotten in comics and the reader can become confused.

I look forward to more tips!

Best, Bill*

Visit Bill's portfolio at -

Mike Collins said...

Hi Carl!

It's been one of the key things I've had to learn in storyboarding - unlike comics, right-to-left storytelling is ok! As Dan says, the Western logic is simple and brilliant.
My favourite piece of subliminal storytelling is still the Devil's Tower imagery in Close Encounters. All the way through the movie we're constantly being told -either literally or through examples just how big the mountain is. So, when we have the Mothership appear BEHIND the mountain our eyes and brain are already clued into just how massive the ship must be. Subtle but damn clever!

John Beatty said...

Hey, Carl-

Welcome to the blog-world!

I'll be following along with your posts' and see what's doing.

Seems like forever and then some that I was visiting you and other's up at Marvel.

arturo said...

Hi Carl, good to see your face after years! Another common use of left-right in movies (as well as in theatre) is the convention, probably psychologically biased, that incoming characters or "outsiders" usually enter the frame or stage from the right, while "internal" characters already in the story greet them from the left.

This holds true for the position in the frame of the familiar or the threatening, of the internal and the external, whether physical or psychological. When we first see Mordor in Lord of the Rings it is in the extreme right of the frame and when the hobbit returns home after the ring saga he comes from the left, or the inside.

Mike Baron said...

Carl--why did you have to explain that? it's really messed up my spatial thinking.

arturo said...

Interesting to note that "north" is always where we are going. On a recent drive from NY to Florida my GPS window showed me going "up" the screen or forward, in other words north according to Carl's perspective, event though I was going straight south! So, are we always going north???

I recently heard on NPR that cows and other animals orient themselves north-south as discovered by a researcher examining thousands of cows through satellite imagery in GoogleEarth. The commentator joked that we did not need a GPS anymore, but just a cow! lol

Barry Crain said...

Great start to your Blog--
This is getting into exactly the set of principles
that WB animation wanted me to grasp, intuitively,
during my work with them. However, no one seemed willing to explain..the only concrete advice I got was "Look at episodes of 'The Rifleman', and it's all there." I wound up going back to "The 5 C's of Cinematography" that you gave me, way back when!


Carl Potts said...

Thanks for all of the great comments.

Arturo made a couple of great points.

I guess when it comes to GPS, radar, sonar, etc., it is really a case of “up” always being whatever direction you are heading.

He also brought up the concept of having “outsider” characters brought on stage from the right (against the left-to-right eye path used in western societies) while “insiders” enter from the left.

That comment reminded me of still another approach to determining which direction characters enter the frame/stage and move within the frame.

Since, in much of the world, we are trained to reads left-to-right, all of the protagonists in a story would move with that left-to-right eye flow.

However, when the protagonist experiences a defeat, hits an obstruction or experiences a reversal in his/her journey, the character changes direction and moves right-to-left in the frame — against the natural eye path.

Antagonists would move in the opposite direction that protagonists do. The villains move right-to-left (against natural eye flow) unless they meet with defeat/reversal.

This is an interesting approach but I feel would be far too restricting for the artist or cinematographer for most stories. I’d rather keep the flow of a scene’s established action direction consistent than worry about whether the protagonist is always moving left-to-right.

More on action flow continuity in a future blog entry.