Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Sequential Art: Story and Panels

Over the next few posts I'm going to walk through some of the steps of drawing a comic book page. Why? There are already good books out there and I'm a lousy artist anyhow. The reason is entirely selfish; explaining it out helps me sort things out in my own mind.

That also means these posts are not going to cover everything. They aren't even going to try to be complete. They are going to be more like a list of notes, of things I've found useful to get around the specific weaknesses of my own skills and the particular goals I currently have.

So, before I say anything else, those books I mentioned:

Making Comics by Scott McCloud. Filled with stuff, fun to read, inspiring. This is the desert island book for comic book art; if you only get one, get this. Both practical and very deep.

How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema. It is thin, brushes over important details, but is not just a fast and entertaining read but is also the most concise and to-the-point review of the entire process you will see anywhere.

And you are pretty much good here. You can get a few of the ever-growing How to Draw Manga series if you like -- even when you aren't interested in the specific subject listed on the cover, they tend to be fairly interchangeable boxes of interesting and potentially useful tidbits and, of course, general inspiration. But once you have Scott McCloud, your next purchases should really be anatomy and perspective and rendering books. Which I'll go into in later posts.

But if you really must keep collecting general texts...

Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative by Will Eisner. This book goes deep (deeper I suspect than Scott, but also more difficult to follow). It is also more narrowly focused on specific aspects of translating story to sequential art. There is almost nothing here on how to art, or even how to story; it is all about how to handle that specific narrative form. It is also, honestly, mostly a showcase for Will's work -- but unlike the lamentable Cris Hart books, at least the art is worth it.

The Idiot's Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel by Nat Gertler and Steve Lieber. Gets a nod here mostly because no other book even touches on how to cut a page into panels. This book is wordy; thin on graphics, and often too abstract, but it does provide an overview (and a more detailed one than the Stan Lee perennial.)

That will do for now. For the specifics of today's post, however, I am also going to mention one other book:

The Five C's of Cinamatography by Joseph Mascelli. The reason this book gets recommended will become clear shortly...I hope.

Not actually going to talk about story here. Story is story, whatever the medium. Sequential Art has specific needs that have to be solved in developing story. There are specifics also in genre expectations, and restrictions imposed by the format. The pacing, length, kinds of beats, the strengths of the medium are also specific.

Be that as it may.

I develop in Scrivener now. I find it is useful to establish a Scrivener text page for each comic page, and try to write out the dialog before hand. I use Scrivener to document my plans for page and panel layout and similar, but the actual planning of the graphical end of things is on a sketchpad.

Scrivener is also useful, of course, for keeping research notes, reference images (you can import, scale, and crop), and text samples both for spacing and as a reference for special effects fonts (which I have been hand-drawing).

Once the story exists, the next problem is how to tell it graphically. Pages take time to read, panels take time to read; roughly, the perceived narrative pacing is changed by increasing or decreasing the number of pages used, and the size of panels used. A series of small panels reads quickly and tends to feel like a lot is happening. A large panel feels more contemplative -- given a static scene it can read as a great deal of time passing, but given a moment of action can also read as a slow-motion shot for dramatic emphasis.

Before you get too crazy on figuring how decompressed you want to be, however, figure out how much space your dialog is going to take up. A lot of talk means a lot of pages, period. There's only so small you can make the lettering. And panels that are 70% filled with text "read" a lot differently than panels which are mostly art. The former can't help be perceived as "talky" and somewhat static, like a "Thin Man" movie.

I'm using computer lettering, and it is only a little measuring to figure out how big it will be on the original un-reduced artwork. I know for instance that a single-line balloon needs to be 3/4" of an inch high in the pencil art. For the length, however, I'm just typing up the dialog on the computer in the same font and roughly eyeballing it for proportion. I think I used to measure; it isn't much labor to simply set the text to display at exactly "print" size and hold a ruler up to the monitor.

For a while there I was leaving a space for the balloon and constructing it to size in PhotoShop after typing out the dialog there. But doing the balloons in ink makes them more organic and fit closer with the drawing. And is faster, overall. I'm all about faster. (Which is the primary reason I no longer hand-letter).

For me, at the current time, the strongest tool for figuring out what is going to fall on what page is understanding the rhythm. The pace, the division of meter (aka how often do panels fall), and the beats. I'm drawing a four-panel strip currently as well as a monitor-proportions web comic for instance, and for each I'm working to hit a "beat" at the end of the each page.

The four-panel format basically ends on a joke or a "take." It is a well-established form. For a master, look no further than Howard Taylor of Schlock Mercenary; long multi-arc stories, yet every single weekday strip hits that comic beat before closing.

With the larger page, I'm able to use the page break in other ways; as a convenient "chapter" divider, as a cliff-hanger, as a punchline. And that gives me a lot of options to consider while planning the pages. Right now I've got a party of adventurers approaching a dragon's cave. Is it best to finish a page with a hero shot of the cave, or will it work better to hold that reveal across the break by having the adventurer's say "Here we are..." and then have the cave itself shown after a page turn? (And, actually, due to other story beats I'm having to consider, I'm taking a third option).

And, yeah, there's a lot more to say, but I'm going to move on to something I both find personally difficult, and something that is annoyingly almost never discussed in any of the "How to Draw..." books. And that is panels.

How to panelize a page. Even the four-panel "newspaper" strip has choices. And, yeah, you can (and many have) go through an entire book on the same equal divisions, but it gives you potentially useful artistic choices to break up the panel size. And more. Odd-shaped panels, open space between panels, overlapping panels, panel breaks, full bleeds, even material that exists outside of the panel.

(The latter I think of as a Shoujo Manga technique. They particularly like doing a full-length figure outside the panel arrangement, the better to show off details of an outfit. Of course many manga fill inter-panel space and gutters with flowers, snowflakes, whatever.)

Panel size and shape and arrangement can nuance the pacing and flow. There are also certain arrangements that tap into the shared language; a series of small overlapping panels, for instance, can be easily interpreted as snapshots of a single contiguous action.

But parallel to the needs to shape panels to speed or slow the eye and break or jump appropriately to emphasize moments or to create pauses, there is the need of panels to, well, hold their contents.

Which brings us to blocking. Because before you can finish cutting out the panels you really need to figure out the way the story is being told visually. Close-up shots versus establishing shots, for instance. High angles versus dutch angles. Two-shots versus talking heads.

And, yeah, I've found one of the things that it really helps to keep track of when blocking your cast and planning your shots is the Line of Action. This is the subject of the 180-degree rule; if Sally is on the left of the frame and Richard on the right, you confuse the viewer by having them switch places. This doesn't mean you can't go over-the-shoulder for Sally and for Richard, though; you just have to visualize that imaginary line running between them and keep the camera on the same side of it.

This is where cinematography sources are so helpful. For a masterful dissection of a, well, masterful sequence making creative use of the Line of Action and Match Cuts and other tools, look no further than the analysis at Temple of the Seven Golden Camels (a storyboard artist's blog) of the truck chase sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And, yeah, I shouldn't have to say it, but if you are doing multiple panels of the same scene or even in the same setting, then draw a map. Work out where the people are. Heck; Gerhard (the background artist for Dave Sim's Cerebus) spent so much time in the same city he made a scale model of it to keep his backgrounds consistent.

A couple other helpful notes. Scott McCloud talks about the space between the panels. Often, things are understood to be happening between panels. You rarely see a punch land in a superhero comic book, for instance; the usual shot is right after the punch, with the hittee reacting to it.

A panel is a thin slice of time. You can't have multiple actions that each require a beat; you can't have in a single panel someone entering a room, seeing someone they didn't expect, then backing out again. can cheat a little. Since we read left to right and top to bottom, you can in some cases have more than one thing happening in order through the panel in that reading direction. (Remember, however, that the reader's eye will also grab towards the large or contrasty or otherwise focal points, and may chose to perceive those as happening first in the narrow slice of time concerned).

Oh, yeah. And as tempting as it may be to use odd-sized panels in whatever arrangement fits the material best, you can't force the reader to follow them in order. You can only make it so the instinctive direction the eye goes is indeed the panel you want read next.

There's a lot more to consider about what should be in the panel, from focus to eye leading to rule of thirds...but this bleeds into material I intend to cover in following posts. Suffice to say that the process of breaking up a story into the actual pages, the process you will undertake using rough page layouts and thumbnail sketches, is one that straddles and borrows from story telling and the actual "art" art; light and shadow and perspective and so on.

And, yeah. My big weaknesses here are still thinking in form, thinking in deep space, and thinking in color (or even in lighting and shade) when I am planning panels.

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