Framing: Fancy, Focused, Fast, And Furious

[Note to language buffs / grammar boffins: The use of adjectives in the title is questionable, except for fast, a legit flat adverb. Chalk it up to Confusingly Corrupted Headline Grammar.]

Comics are a visual medium for storytelling like movies or TV shows, but they differ from those in some important aspects. For one thing, they are even more visual, because there is neither sound nor music, which are often used to great effect on the screen.

But there is also a purely visual difference that comes from what I call the self-adjusted reading speed effect. When scanning the comic page for page, panel for panel, the reader goes ahead at his/her own speed, unconsciously adjusting for the time needed to comprehend the full information presented, which will differ depending of the size, complexity, and richness of detail of each panel.

This effect makes it impossible to use time in the same way as movies and TV shows do it:

  • Showing the approach of an enemy as fast, indicating imminent threat, or slow, indicating looming danger.
  • Forcing the viewer to watch, for a predetermined time, a scene where little happens, where there is no or only regular movement, e.g. a person walking down an empty street.

This does not happen in a comic the same way; if the creator e.g. uses many identical panels to indicate passage of time, the reader may get the meaning, but won’t experience the time, because the eye scans quickly over multiple identical panels. Panel size and page layout (e.g. overlays) are used instead to convey both timing and the associated meaning.

Note: My description of the self-adjusted reading speed effect is in disagreement with expert opinion: “Time will slow down with more panels because the reader’s eye will typically linger over the panels at the same rate.” I think this disagreement is in degree rather than in absolutes, though.

The self-adjusted reading speed effect is quite important, in my opinion: The decoupling of visual complexity and perceived speed of action allow comic creators wonderful freedom to use great visual effects without constraining other variables of storytelling.

Now this last sentence is probably impossible to understand without some examples.

These examples will come from the webcomics Next Town Over, Trekker, Space Mullet, Lady Sabre & The Ineffable Aether, Deep Dive Daredevils, and Opportunities In Space.

You can read up these webcomics now if you want to avoid SPOILERS; there will be few major ones anyway, because I don’t refer to the plot much in this post.

I will use examples from different webcomics to illustrate four different visual effects that come from good framing which I describe as being fancy, focused, fast, and furious. [Note: I use the word Framing for both the trimming of the individual panel (the shot) and the composition of the whole page from different panels (the page layout).] I use examples that I find interesting and instructive; I don’t want to give the impression that because I include a webcomic in one particular section, it does not excel in other categories as well. Great webcomics demonstrate excellent technique in many ways;that’s what makes them excellent.

FANCY

The simplest way to present multiple panels on a page is to arrange them in a regular pattern and leave whitespace between them, aka gutter. But webcomic artists can do better; they can do rather fancy things, like using ornaments or symbols instead of whitespace, making panels non-rectangular, and let panels overlay each other in spectacular ways.

The webcomics that does this best is, to my knowledge, Next Town Over.

  • In this Gambling Scene in a Wild West Saloon, the panels almost look like old pictures framed in gold, like you might see in an art gallery; an effect that works really well with the oval panels in the second row: These look like portraits, very fitting for close-up panels.
  • In this multi-panel overlay, the frames are all rectangular, nothing fancy, keeping the focus on the great composition of the page. It is worthwhile to note that this page would also work as a fine example for the FOCUSED and FAST categories below.
  • And this beautiful page has everything: Panel shapes, fancy frames and gutters, and an overlay technique that provides the image of fire burning trough the paper, giving a strong impression of secret revealed, or maybe hidden even deeper.

The fascinating thing about these examples is that neither the fancy design nor the beautiful colors take anything away from the bold action, the dark mood, or the disturbing characters.

In contrast, when a movie uses artistic elements and opulent visuals a lot, it usually overwhelms plot and characterization. This is what happened with the movie The Great Gatsby.

FOCUSED

Webcomics that present action and adventure often switch focus between action, adventure, background, and character moments. An example how this can be done very effectively is Trekker, a cool story about a bounty hunter in a science fiction setting:

  • Here, the left panel provides an establishing shot that tells us where the scene is happening, and it spreads about the whole height of the page to anchor the panels on the right. These give details of the people talking, and the bottom panels use the classic shot-countershot technique for one-on-one discussions, made even more interesting here by the change from look-up to look-down (in the spacial sense, not figuratively).
  • This page illustrates a storyline change from talking politics to talking pragmatism with very effective visuals.

Last weeks post about diligence on details mentioned Opportunities In Space, a webcomic that show the same diligence when it comes to page layout:

In the very first post on this blog, I talked about the Deep Dive Daredevils, focusing on plot, but the same comic also provides examples for today’s post:

  • For the first page of End(s) of the Earth(s), I will simple repeat what I wrote in a comment when that page was posted:
    Leading in with the close-up, zoom out to the establishing shot of the big background panel, zoom in a little and sweep over some detailed scenes, and finally zoom to an extreme close-up of Dev’s eyes. (Like good moviemakers, you also never run afoul of the 180 degree rule.)
    It is particularly great how the the two zooms leading in and out are both of Dev’s face, but the first one is vertical, indicating reflection and pensiveness, whereas the second one is flat and wide, thus emanating an apprehensive and tense mood.
  • An interesting example for fading out of focus is this very talky page that switches to action in the middle of the page while the blathering goes into voiceover. The equivalent of crossfading in movies, it marks an important change of pace in the story.

FAST

Changes of focus between panels, as described above, can connect very different viewpoints. In a movie this is a hard cut, and it forces rapid change on the viewer; this works well with action sequences, but not in quiet scenes. Webcomics can change focus fast and repeatedly without disorienting the reader or changing the pace.

  • This example from Deep Dive Daredevils has four different scenes , which are all radically different, on one page, (wonder)fully integrated. Trying to achieve the same in a movie, with four-fold cross-cutting, would be difficult, to say the least.
  • And if this scene, where Trekker falls trough a skylight , would work quite as well in an action movie, it demonstrates at least that webcomics can do this to good effect.

On of my favorite webcomics is Space Mullet, which I will talk about more in later posts, especially about how it establishes a in a unique way. I should also have mentioned it as an extremely good example in the last post talking about diligence on details. But here I will only give two examples of fast but non-intrusive focus switches:

  • In this scene of a spaceship approaching a planet, the panels switch from closeup to extreme-wide shot and back again, forming an integrated picture in the reader’s mind, almost as if one could see everything at all, big and small.
  • This page plays in a small place, the cockpit of the spaceship, but the changes between close-up and medium shot, between front back, and above, occur so fast and repeatedly that the effect would be jarring in a movie, but in the comic the rapid changes do not affect the mood – calm, but intense – of the scene.

FURIOUS

Another interesting visual device used in some webcomics is to show motion, especially motion that is rapid or well-choreographed, in a series of overlayed images in the same panel. Beautiful examples of this can be found in Lady Sabre & The Ineffable Aether.

  • Fencing can be considered both rapid and well-choreographed, and a fine example is provided by Lady Sabre: A Flurry Of Steel, indeed.
  • The irony of naming the most agile character in the story STONE will not be lost on any reader who can appreciate the complex maneuvers involved when she’s Descending from the roof of a building all down to the street.
  • On the page that shows Lady Sabre jumping down from a Zeppelin, the different images of her are separated by gutters, but the page looks still a lot like overlayed motion, because the gutters are placed so unobtrusively that they don’t affect the perception of that page very much.

The movie technique that can be likened to this Furious Framing in webcomics is Bullet Time, where extreme slow-motion, selective magnification, and blurring to show trails of movement, are used to give the audience a more detailed view than a real-time depiction would. The dynamic effect, however, is quite different: Furious Framing increases, but Bullet Time decreases the speed of time perception.

MISCELLANEOUS

Do you know more examples of webcomics that make creative use of the flexibility that is possible with regard to panel layout or gutter style, or some other interesting visual technique? Tell us in the comments!

Next week I will show you some unique ways webcomic creators go to surprise their readers, and the week after I will discuss some examples of science fiction webcomics that create a sense of space, especially outer space, to take us, the reader, completely out of this world.

Next weeks examples will include some webcomics we have already seen on this blog, but also one I haven’t mentioned yet, even if it is featured on my Wonderful Webcomics page: Protege.

[Note: In this post, and a couple of others yet to come, I focus on visual effects in webcomics, which is only suitable for the medium, but makes me feel slightly uncomfortable with the fact that I put only links in the post, and no pictures. I will work on a solution in the future, but even if it is technically simple, the question of designing a good way to include pictures that works on different devices is non-trivial, and I prioritize presenting as many webcomics as possible, and explaining why and how they are awesome, over creating a great design for my own website.]

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3 comments

  1. Timothy, great insights! Additional thoughts: I’m mostly in agreement with your reader self-directed reading speed. It is an important fact that in graphic novels the reader plays a more significant part than in watching a film…a partnership with the creator in some ways. Also of note is the fact that I do believe that the level of detail in the art and in individual panels can influence a readers tendency to linger over the work.

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