Monday, May 25, 2009

General Principles of Sequential Visual Storytelling

A few weeks ago, I posted the first part of a memo I’d written when I was an editor at Marvel Comics. The second part of the “Guidelines for the Appraisal of Story Structure and Visual Storytelling” memo focused on the basic principles of sequential visual storytelling.

Here is the second section:
Visual Storytelling in Comics

Here are some general principles that should be taught to new artists, writers and editors.

Always remember—
-It’s your job is to tell the story in the clearest and most compelling fashion.

-Design should be in the service of storytelling, not at the expense of the storytelling.

As cinematographer Joseph V. Mascelli said, “Be truly objective in judging a new (visual storytelling) method or idea. Try it. If it plays – if it is acceptable – and the audience comprehends and enjoys it – use it. If it simply confuses, teases or even distracts the audience from the narrative – discard it!”

-Visual storytelling is the art at the core of sequential visual media including comic books, film and video.

-The principles of sequential visual storytelling allow creators to tell stories in a compelling manner. They also allow creators to experiment from a base of knowledge instead of from naiveté (a nice word for ignorance!).

-Show, don’t tell. Clearly show all visual information so the script doesn’t have to include descriptive information—the script can then concentrate on non-visual information and subtext.

-Strive for clarity and keep viewers immersed in the story. Viewers should not have to pause to figure out where their eyes are supposed to go to next or to wonder what is happening in the story. Otherwise, they will be pulled out of the flow of the story, breaking the suspension of disbelief.
If the comic creator is doing his/her job well, it will not be readily apparent to the reader. The reader will be too involved it the story to actively appreciate the tale’s visual storytelling techniques (at least on the first read).
There may be times when the artist wishes to be unclear in the service of storytelling. For example, if the story is from the POV of a confused or delusional character, the visual will reflect that state of mind.

-Do not attempt to show every minute in a scene. Pick the “highlights”/key frames to show.

-What is “in between” panels is important. The viewer will often fill in the “gaps” between panels with visuals they generate internally.

-Clearly establish cast, environment & scenario. Keep the environments you establish consistent. Do not arbitrarily change a room or a scene you’ve established as you draw successive panels. If you show that there is only one door in the room your establishing, keep is consistent throughout the scene. If the status quo of a scene is purposely changed, show the transition action and clearly establish the new status quo.

-Maintain action flow continuity. Establish and maintain the movement direction of characters, vehicles and other objects within the story environment. This is a concept that has not been getting as much attention in comics or film as it used to. This is due in part to the influence of chaotic, quick-cut, documentary-like music videos and 3D game environments. In linear visual stoytetleloling environments however, it is very important.*

-Three Types of Shots:
Long shots are generally used to establish a scene. Clearly show where everything and everyone is in relation to each other. Pretend you’re setting up a stage or film set. Know the environment from every angle.

Medium shots are often used to show action. These shots usually show full-figures in action. The extremes of an action — the action’s beginning or ending — are usually the most dynamic parts to show. Think of John Buscema’s diagram in How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way where he clearly shows that the wind-up and the follow-through are the most dynamic parts of a punch.

Close-ups are often used to show reaction.

-Now, you can — and often should — show action and reaction in the same panel. Instead artists will often show an isolated shot of character “A” shooting a gun in one panel and character “B” getting hit by the shot, isolated in a following panel. It is often better to show both characters involved with an action/reaction relating to each other in the same panel (“A” firing the gun and “B” getting hit by the bullet in the same panel.)

The action/reaction issue is related to “condensed storytelling.” When faced with a lot of visual information to convey in a low number of pages, newer artists sometimes panic. Their solution is to break down all of the separate actions and reactions into a series of small panels. This approach has its place when used as a pacing device but should not be used in place of good visual storytelling design. Kirby and Ditko got across a ton of information in each panel while also being dynamic. They did not break down each bit if visual information or action into its own panel. They confronted storytelling problems head on and solved them. Study and learn from the maters!

-Mix a variety of layout design styles including symmetrical, asymmetrical and balanced asymmetrically designed panels.**

-Panel frame shape and size affects the viewer’s impression of panel content. ***

-Keep the reader’s eyebath clear. Page and panel design should be in tune with the readers’ natural eye path inclinations.
*See the “Map Orientation in Visual Storytelling” on this blog posted on Saturday, August 23, 2008 for more details.

** See the “Composition, Layout & Design: Types of Balance” on this blog posted on Wed., October 8, 2008 for more details.

***See the “Frame Formats and Visual Storytelling” on this blog posted on Fri., Sept. 12, 2008 for more details.
That’s it - as always, I’m very interested in hearing your comments!

1 comment:

heravarice said...

Great stuff as always, Professor Potts! Have you considered releasing an educational video series or something along those lines?