Friday, April 12, 2013

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.

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).

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

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, I cited Herge and Milt Caniff as examples; I'm returning to them here. Above, 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.

Love this shot. Er, panel.

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.

Above, 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, here's a nice page from Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, a 70s revisiting of his famous manga and television vehicle. This page 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.

Above, 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.

Images: Herge, 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. 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; Sunday strip, August 1, 1948.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Pictorial Actions Update

Slow going at Graphic Tales this year, due to other projects. Bear with me.

I am working with students on a cinematic story delivered simply through iMovie. Here are a few scans of illustrations from To Catch a Thief, a novel by David Dodge that was anthologized in Reader's Digest Condensed Books in Winter 1952. RDCB were issued quarterly beginning in 1950, and became extremely popular. They were hardback editions but printed like paperbacks, on relatively low quality paper (at least early on), with illustrations. Through the mid 50s they used pretty good illustrators on handmade color separation projects. In such cases we get a key drawing overprinted on several runs of color masses. These things have a crude energy.

The illustrations for Thief are by Denver Gillen, a second-tier illustrator who worked in a variety of contexts. Leif Peng has a post on him at Today's Inspiration. His two-color work included Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (above). I must say I prefer Gillen's Rudolph to his other deer, in the "nature illustration" highlighted at TI.

At any rate, I'm showing the illustrations for Thief to highlight two in particular, both of which are useful as cinematic snapshots of an action, in which the position of the "camera" puts us in a spot to see exactly what's necessary to follow the narrative.

Escape Example 1.

Escape Example 2. Both are somewhat complicated images, but made crystal clear through line and mass.

For more thoughts on clear narrative pictures, especially sequences of them, see Comics and Cinema, an earlier post on subject from a few years back. A primer of sorts.