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Comics and Movies: We're going about it all wrong.

One day I wound up shooting a wedding. Not in that "oh my, too many violent video games these days" manner, but in the video manner. Of course, me being "into computers" as everyone else likes to say, I decided to do a little editing on the computer. That stupid poorly shot badly edited craptastic DVD did one thing for me: it got me into editing.

Ever since, I’ve had a little crush on the art of editing. It's a sorely under appreciated job - the editor nearly has as much control over the quality of the final product as the director. I never really thought about it in relation to comics though - there's no real direct comparison to be made. Artists don't send five versions of a panel to be sifted through and cropped and chosen to be placed in an ever so particular spot on the page.

When I was doing Hello, My Name is _____. (If you're wondering what that is, it's one of my side projects. Go read it if you want - it's only 24 pages long and they have about six words a piece.) I was thinking that comics were sort of a direct equivalent to an animation storyboard. Story boarding is a fairly different place to be in - it's all about showing everything, and how it happens. So I used close up shots and large segmented panels to show the reader, "this is what is happening" without them having to do a whole lot of inferring as to what's going on. (Sort of. I left a lot of characterization up to inference.)

I was doing my new side project in a very similar manner - showing how everything happened, meticulously planning every move of every character. It forced me to ridiculously slow pacing because of the way the whole thing worked (it's set to music - shh! Don't tell anyone - it's a secret.) until I watched a movie on editing.

It was about 30 minutes into the movie that I suddenly realized, "hey, comics aren't story boards - it's a whole lot like editing." and there was this silly "eureka!" moment. Comics are sequential - so are shots in a movie.

Take a foreign film, mute the sound, and pause it on each shot for as long as you like, and basically you are watching a comic. A shot of a man, then a shot of an apple, and the man is hungry. The same man, then a shot of a woman, and the man is lustful. The same man again, a shot of money, and the man is greedy. (Actually that's a historical editing experiment paraphrased - copy and paste a blank expression in sequence, people gave the actor rave reviews for being so expressive in the parts he played.) The same thing works in panels.

This whole theoretical construct (and it is barely that, I’m just winging it.) brings so many interesting concepts to the table. Take Jaws for example - how does one recreate the scene where the lead character is realizing there is a shark in the water - not by him standing up and "SHARK!" but the editing leading up to that moment - the quick cuts zooming in whenever a person passes by? That little sequence is marvelous at generating intensity in a quiet manner - it's the perfect build up.

Even more intriguing - how does one imbue the same sense of action the shark's shots have while keeping them feeling quick? Action panels seem to usually be full-page epic monstrosities that force you to stare at them.

I don't know if this has a point - but I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. The problem is I’ve a pretty slim exposure to comics as a whole. I would love to hear any thoughts or ideas.

I've been thinking a lot

I've been thinking a lot about this. I wrote another post about it.

Gordon McAlpin: The things you note - changing panel size and having two beats in a frame - have been done. (See: the new Hulk movie, as for two beats in a frame - since the frame can be called analogous to the shot it's been done.) As for McCloud's books - i have been meaning to read them, and have read a lot about them, but don't have the money.

RemusShepherd: a lot of what you noted i addressed in the new post, and a lot of it will have to wait for another. Pacing is a lot of what i'm getting at, but it's more than that - the way the panels are laid out, the shape of the panels, the order - i'm thinking about how all of that compares and contrasts with the editing process and how i (maybe we) can learn from it.

DAJB: I actually quote you in the next post, and a lot of it addresses what you said. At first, i thought you were disagreeing, but now i'm not so sure.

I'm no writer, so thanks for slogging through my mashed up thoughts guys.

This is: how it's all connected.

This is: how it's all connected.

Composition vs pacing.

RemusShepherd's picture

Could this be a difference between composition and pacing?

The composition of a comic panel is a lot like the composition of a movie. You have a limited amount of area to fill with imagery, and you want it to have the most impact. The webcomic artist is analogous to the director of the film, trying to best place the contents of every scene.

The pacing of a comic is very different than film. As mentioned, a comic is essentially still frames, with each frame (usually) depicting a period of time, and all of them put together in a way that the story unfolds and changes in intensity at a desired rate. A film creates time periods and paces their plot by assign a time and movement to every camera shot. Those assignments are often made by in the editing process, making the pacing of comics analogous to the editing of a film. But because film and comics differ so much, these two forms of editing are alien to each other -- similar in goals, but using completely different methods to achieve their effects. That's why a film storyboard using four pages to show characters running can seem reasonable, but in comic form it can be a huge, boring waste of time.

So we're all director/editors, saddled with the demands of both composition and pacing. Oh, and don't forget writer/producer/marketer/gaffers, too...




I'm inclined to disagree

Gordon McAlpin's picture

I'm inclined to disagree with DAJB, but only to some extent. Comics and movies are very similar -- but he's right in that people often make too much of these similarities.

You can approach comics VERY much like film (in his own example, and some of my strips have uniform panel sizes and use the same "shot" in every panel -- much like an extended shot in a film), but there's much more than you can do with comics that you can't in film: for instance, changing panel sizes, or containing more than one beat within a single panel (for instance, a panel where two people speaking one after another are both drawn with their mouths open -- usually, they're not intended to be talking at the same time, and usually we don't "read" it that way, either, so you have a progression of time within a single panel).

Anyway. CW, Scott McCloud covers a lot of this sort of thing in his books Understand Comics, Reinventing Comics and (presumably) Making Comics, which is just about out. Check 'em out; they're pretty interesting, whether or not you agree with every assertion he makes.

Multiplex is a twice weekly humor comic about the staff of the Multiplex 10 Cinemas and the movies that play there.

Actually, I agree with the

Actually, I agree with the points you make but disagree with the conclusions you draw. To my mind, one of the recurrent problems in comics at the moment (both mainstream and indy/web comics) is that too many creators fall into the trap of thinking that comics are like storyboards.

They're not. Storyboards exist to help someone envisage a piece that - when finished - will be moving. Comics, even in their final form, will be a series of static images. In practice that means the techniques that work for screen writing are often very different from the techniques that work for a comic.

This is particularly true for elements that affect "atmosphere" like pacing and suspense.  Take Bendis, one of the generally acknowledged masters of the medium today. In one issue of Sam and Twitch he uses three or four pages to show one of the heroes running across rooftops. No dialogue. No reaction shots. No cuts to other events. You can see how the scene must have played in his mind ... a fast moving 10-minute chase punctuated by dramatic music. You can even see how exciting it would look on a set of story boards with every jump and near miss breathlessly illustrated. But as a comic?

All the reader gets is four out of 20 pages that do nothing to advance the story or develop the characters. 20% of what he or she has paid for can be flicked over or torn out and lost and the story would be just as effective without them.

Comics are not like movies. Not even storyboards.

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Forgot to note: you can

Forgot to note: you can email me at or I suppose you could post a comment - it just might be a while 'til I get back to you.

This is: how it's all connected.

This is: how it's all connected.