Thursday, March 6, 2008
Comics & Cinema: Stories and Storyboarding
Shifting gears today. In Word and Image 2, I am leading a project which requires students to produce an animatic for an imaginary movie trailer--or, more precisely, a compressed narrative that tells a story and communicates a provocative, unresolved conflict at the end. The students select their "films" from a diverse set of titles with specified characters.
What is the problem, really? Unlike an illustration, which may present a central focus with multiple secondary foci, a filmic image must show a single 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 typically we must learn those things one at a time.
The problem really takes us to the discipline of storyboarding. Storyboarding was invented at the Walt Disney Studios as a project development technique for the extremely expensive medium of animation. The image below is a frame from a storyboard for Steamboat Willie (1928).
But the mental and creative act of visualizing a story in a sequence of images is older than that. Examples abound from the history of proto-comics, or 19th century sequential stories.
Wilhelm Busch produced wildly popular bilderbogen, or illustrated pamphlets with amusing, if somewhat dark, stories of children’s misadventure. Here is a sequence from Potted Peter, about a boy who falls through the ice and is frozen solid.
Note that each frame describes a single action. (The reading order runs in columns top to bottom, then right to the next one.)
The action goes as follows:
1) Peter sits on an icy rock to put on his skates
2) Peter attempts to get up as his pants stick to the rock
3) The pants rip and Peter topples forward, off balance
4) Peter tumbles through a hole in the ice
5) Peter clambers out of the water
6) Peter starts to run home, dripping water
7) The dripping water begins to freeze solid
8) Peter’s momentum is slowed by freezing
9) Peter is frozen in place
These images are structured like beads on a necklace. One after another, the pictures do their work.
Note also that the pictorial unit and the point of view both serve as controls. Each frame is a square of equal size. And to the extent that the “camera” moves, it does so only to keep Peter centered in the frame. This is a crucial point.
The film project described above requires one of these controls, but not the other. That is, the screen does not change size. Today’s ill-dressed newspaper comics page does not reflect the visual panache of that medium’s past. But panel scales and shapes were once highly plastic.
For our purposes, consistent scale is a blessing, since there are plenty of other things to worry about.
Back to Potted Peter’s second control: point of view. Cinematic thinking exploits camera position to communicate dramatic action. Variable cinematic point of view has become the most basic human language to appear in the modern period. We may need subtitles to understand the spoken language in a film, but not the visual language of the shots.
A profound thing, that. A hundred and thirty years ago, there were no motion pictures whatsoever. Today, the world “speaks” film.
But the development of that language took time. For our purposes, the language of comics and the language of film prove to be siblings. The adventure strips of the 1930’s provide a case study of cinematic thinking brought to comics, as well as a significant innovation in the use of that language, to the benefit of film.
One of the all-time great sequential image-makers is Milton Caniff, the guy who created Terry and the Pirates and later, Steve Canyon. Below, check out this sequence of frames from a Sunday strip at the end of 1946. (Update: April 1, 2013. When I wrote this, I had not burrowed into Caniff's career as much I have subsequently. The significance of this particular strip is substantial: it's the last one Caniff ever drew of Terry. Caniff took six weeks off and launched Steve Canyon (1947-1988), which, unlike Terry he owned outright. Caniff drew Terry from 1934 through 1946. So in these panels, Terry and Jane are saying goodbye, even as Caniff is saying goodbye to them both.)
Frame 1: Terry and Jane shake hands in parting
Frame 2: Terry watches Jane walk toward the plane
Frame 3: Jane looks back at Terry
Frame 4: Overhead shot: Jane runs through the snow back to Terry
Frame 5: They embrace.
Frame 6: Jane boards the plane, covering her face.
Frame 7: Terry waves weakly as the plane takes off into the waning sun
Frame 8: Terry trudges back to his jeep at twilight.
This sequence shows shifting point of view from character to character (first Terry, then Jane, then omniscient overview, then back to Terry). There are no words in the entire sequence. We do not need them. I have been looking Caniff’s work a lot in recent months, and must say: how wonderful. What control of narrative, supported by great color and atmosphere. What a pro.
Here is another sequence that captures even more cinematic range of thought, and which serves as a textbook example of clarity, speed, and visual pleasure. Below find a page from Secret of the Unicorn by Hergé, the Belgian creator of Tintin. In this case, variable panel size helps to create emphasis and a compelling page design. For present purposes, ignore the change in scale. This page provides an especially good example of the kind of compressed visual story-telling necessary for the completion of the project. Let’s ignore the words altogether.
Frame 1: Establishing shot. We’re at sea on a big clipper ship.
Frame 2: Two guys talking. Exposition.
Frame 3: Guy in crow’s nest. (Something sighted!)
Frame 4: Captain on deck looking through telescope.
Frame 5: Over the captain’s shoulder. A ship in the distance!
Frame 6: The Captain alarmed!
Frame 7: POV through telescope: A pirate flag!
Note a number of jumps: the captain with his telescope is established in frame 4. That is one idea. We build on that by looking over the captain’s shoulder in the next frame. Without frame 4, we’d be confused by frame 5, because we wouldn’t know what to focus on. (Who’s that guy? What’s that thing? What’s the red bar at the bottom? Wait, is that a ship?)
Also: we never really see the pirate ship. We see a glorified speck, and then we see a flag. But we fill in that blank because we have already established the ship language on our vessel.
In a film, unlike a book or a comic, we can’t turn back. So the sequence and accumulation of cues is even more important.
Images: Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates Sunday masthead, December 29, 1946; Walt Disney Studios, storyboard frame with textual description, Steamboat Willie, 1928; Wilhelm Busch, bilderbogen image sequence, Potted Peter, 1864; Milton Caniff, Sunday comic panels 12/29/46, Hergé, comic book page, The Secret of the Unicorn, Volume 11 in The Adventures of Tintin, 1942-43.