Action!

The Style May Be Derived from Animation, but Jeff Smith Knows Comics

Well, the style is actually aped, as Smith freely and frequently admits, from Walt Kelly, not Walt Disney.

But I’ll get right to the point: The biggest mistake I see first-time sequential artists make is thinking like animators.  We are not trying to make flipbooks.  We do not need to show every piece of a movement.  The size of a hand on one frame does not need to stay consistent, framed against the same background, and only slightly moved in the next.  No inbetweener will be irked if the thickness of the outline shifts from image to image.

The reader’s brain is the inbetweener.  And our brains will make connections even when none are to be found.  Don’t be afraid to re-frame your shot.

An animator is stacking 30 frames per second, whipping them past your eyes, to create the illusion of movement.  Changes in movement and location within a shot (until a cut) have to be ever so slight to pull this off.

Comics are doing nothing of the sort.  And yet, perhaps because the language of film is so instilled in all of us, time and again I have to tell my students, “Move your camera.  Re-frame your shot.  Show me that movement three minutes later, not three seconds.  Zoom in!”

It is not a pain for the artist to set up a new shot.  We don’t have to haul around equipment, move vans, or spend another hour lighting it.  Just imagine it.

The previous (by which I mean above) posts illustrate those slight movements that require consistent framing.  Subtle shifts should have a consistent background, panel size and look, and should be side-by-side on the page.  But this is FAR FROM the majority of action on your page.

Let’s use a chase scene as an example.  This thing has got to MOVE!  And Jeff Smith can get us humming:

Cartoon Books  © Jeff Smith

art: Jeff Smith book: Bone publisher: Cartoon Books © Jeff Smith

Cartoon Books  © Jeff Smith

art: Jeff Smith book: Bone publisher: Cartoon Books © Jeff Smith

Notice first how Smith expertly subdivides the action by tiers.  Each horizontal is a distinct set piece of the ongoing chase.  This is a great way to start laying out the page.  Notice also the big climax, the shift of the action that sends it down rather than across, is placed on the page turn.  This is also the best method for deciding where one page ends and the next begins within a continuous scene, NOT the oft used oh-crud-I-ran-out-of-space-I-guess-it’s-time-to-start-drawing-on-the-next-piece-of-bristol method.

Now let’s have a closer look at those tiers.  The action here begins with Fone Bone looking relatively safe in the middle distance of a snowy field.  Trees are placed in the background to establish the location without the figureless helicopter exterior shot (that again, is only necessary if you’re shooting interiors thousands of miles away from that real exterior on a soundstage).  Fone’s location from those trees also shows us he has just left them and, presumably, the threat contained therein.  That perfect distance implies that he seems to be relatively “out of the woods” so to speak, and is breathing a sigh of relief given that this distant shot would reveal if the enemy were literally right on his heals.  Contrast this sort of “safety” framing with the horror movie “too tight” shots in which we are right at the shoulders of the pursued, and therefore are well aware the monster is probably RIGHT BEHIND US since we are denied the distance that could prove us wrong.  The fear is always of the unknown, even when that unknown is something as basic as “what’s beyond the crop?”  Here Smith uses the power of comics to “cheat” that distance for the sake of shock.  In the next panel, which we can assume from the identical panel size and the position on the same tier is roughly contiguous in terms of space, a rat creature impossibly drops from out of nowhere into the center of the frame, demanding primacy in the shot due to his size.  The background disappears as it would dull the impact, and our brain has no problem inferring consistency.  We are certainly in about the same space, perhaps just slightly further to the right.

Now look back at the whole two page scene.  Notice how Smith uses the physical space of the page to often replicate the physical space of his chase.  We have to read from left to right, but that does not mean three shots on one tier should be assumed to be panning further right in their imaginary spaces.  There is absolutely no reason why the reverse could not be true.  My eye could move from left to right across multiple panels, while the action within, the “camera” if you will, could be panning further and further left across the invented scene.  Our it could be tilting up, or zooming in, or there could be no discernible relationship between the two spaces shown.

However, in a chase scene, the action is made more immediately apparent, and thus more rapid, if the character seems to be running across the physical space of the page as well.  And Smith uses this here to great effect.  Notice how Fone is always running right, with the direction of our read, across the space of the page.  This speeds everything up.  Our eyes (or our heads if we are small) are moving with him.  Only when he is forced to pause on the branch is he made to turn against the read.  And lo and behold, his aboutface slows us down just as the action dies.  The panels and our eyes then drops down with him, then across as he is swept with the current. only to have him emerge and start running with our read again.  The chase follows the page!  (And is all the more effective for it.)

Notice also, as we are viewing the whole rather than the details of the parts, how fluidly Fone’s size varies on the page.  Again, Smith is not an animator aiming for register between his shots.  Fone gets bigger and smaller across the space of the page dynamically, and more variety, and therefore energy, to the chase.  He’s large, he’s tiny, we’re close, we’re far–all of this keeping us as on our toes as readers as Fone is as a runner.  But from first to last, just as he is running right he is also running toward us.  It is as if the closer he gets to camera, the closer he is to the safety of our arms.  If he can get to “us”, which he is closer to in the ultimate panel than any before, he can relax in our protection.  I wouldn’t let any stupid rat creature harm cute lil’ Fone Bone.  We’re coaxing him to us.

Returning to our earlier detailed read, we see a second rat creature plummet into our shot on his chin.  There clumsy, bestial stupidity beautifully contrasted with Fone’s comparable grace.  Notice how Smith even pushes the chase harder towards the read by cropping Fone slightly off-frame to the right.  He keeps hitting the wall so as to never get frozen in empty space and framed like a portrait.

As this three punch has run its course, Smith switches to a new tier and location.  Fone has gained the slightest bit of ground and Smith wisely pulls waaaay back to show us his predicament: a waterfall blocks his way.  A closeup here would have been asinine and useless.  There is no need to even transition from the former middle-distant shot to this crane shot via some sort of incremental pullback.  Comics are not movies.  What makes sense to see?  The whole darn waterfall and Fone looking tiny and helpless beside it.  Great.  Shoot it.  Smith cleverly realizes a little leftover on the right could be used for a tall vertical shot of Fone jumping down and seizes it.  Note how now Fone is frozen within the frame for this jump due to Smith drawing him poised exactly between the two cliffs in the negative space of the waterfall.  He emphasizes the potential energy of this fall by keeping Fone high in the shot with his target well below.  It’s a beautiful pause which would never work if he had framed the adversaries within it as well.  Compare it to the Sin City window break at the very end of this page.

The adversaries do return in the next tier, as we know they must in a chase, Smith timing their absence perfectly for us to feel Fone suddenly had a chance.  But there they are, looming in the upper left with Fone a safe diagonal away below.  And then–

Frame by frame by frame of a John Woo slow motion jump?

Nope.  Not a jump at all.

Smith understands comics and he understands humor.  Comics allow for awesome lapses in time–we’ll fill in the details between the gutters.  And humor is all timing.

There is no jump.  A panel later the rat creatures are just suddenly there, down there in Fone’s safe diagonal, sharing his tiny branch and his giant words carry the humor.  And while this sort of movement does require the sort of animation framing I have decried throughout, I would like to point out that the framing is ever so subtly different.  Smith removed the space at the top of the leftmost cliff given that it no longer needed to hold the rat creatures, and pushed the shot slightly lower so their tushes could really sag for humor.  Every detail of framing is considered.

The next page begins with a similar location for recognition and continuity, but again, the shot is not identical.  We are now closer in for humorous expressions, more profiled for a clearer SNAP, and the background has again been removed so there are no distractions from this vital happening.  And the next panel, IDENTICALLY SHAPED ON THE PAGE, is entirely different in terms of shot.  We move from a close profile of our characters to an extreme pullback profile of the whole environment.  Why?  Because we need to see them fall down the whole waterfall!  How could that be frightening if we couldn’t take in the immensity of this drop.  And the vertical shot gives them space to fall down.  Always frame falls in vertical panels.

The horizontal of the next panel suggests the conflict of the waters between it and the last.  This contrast in shapes on the page is vital to that feeling of destruction.  Also, since tiers tend to act as similar units of time, this crashing water seems to take as long as the action of the first two shots.  For as long as it took the branch to break and them to fall all that way, we are lingering on crashing spray and wondering about the likely demise of our protagonist.

But then, against another SAME-SHAPED SHOT, Fone pops up in front of a different backdrop.  Another artist, certainly Chris Ware, would have had Fone’s head emerge animation style in the middle of exactly the same shot as the horizontal above.  This would compress the time between the shots, making him seem to pop up immediately from the churning surf.  Smith knows it is enough that his panel shapes and sizes were identical between the two, effectively connecting the spaces.  He has Fone pop up slightly down river, spurring the chase on, giving variety to his renderings, and stretching out the poor guy’s airless misery.  I’ll even hazard a guess that Smith put a little empty water on the right of the above shot to help lead us immediately to the dialogue at the top of the next frame (knowing that we always read words before really seeing the shot anyhow) so we “hear” the GASP! a split second before we trace it back to the left and see him surface.  The danger of the tumultuous falls remains to the extreme left in the assumed-already-read (really never-read) periphery.

We then finally get Fone in the foreground so we can see his exhaustion through beads of sweat and delirious bubbles.  The rat creatures are nicely framed by the environment so they seem to drift noiselessly, implacably towards him.    A big boulder on the right even seems to block his entrance to the next panel.  Nevertheless, the feeling I get here is hopeful.  He’s just so darn close to us in the frame, I can’t help but think the little bugger’s gonna make it.

But damn, the only break Smith’s gonna give this guy is an ankle!

And he was almost out of the shot!

The lesson here, as I believe Smith so eloquently demonstrates, is follow your gut when it comes to framing shots. Imagine you are in the situations you have cooked up for your characters, and think about what you’d be looking at.  If you’ve just reached the top of that mountain, you’re not going to be checking your shoes for dirt.  Take in that scene.  Would you even notice the wallpaper when you’re dining with a woman that beautiful?  Show your reader what you would see, and only what you would see, through your eyes.  And don’t think twice about moving that camera.

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8 thoughts on “The Style May Be Derived from Animation, but Jeff Smith Knows Comics

  1. Pingback: Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Jan. 29, 2009: We’ll all be milking goats in the end

  2. Oh my Jesus I’ve read this twice, it’s super AMAZING!! I feel like I learned a whole book worth’s of stuff, but it’ll take weeks for it to percolate through my brain into a useful form (brain’s fault, not yours). I’m going to print out some copies of this and use them in my comics class on Saturday for sure. Hats off to a really great article!

  3. Pingback: CHECK IT :: Josiah Leighton on Jeff Smith and BONE — THE DHARBLOG

  4. Pingback: Stabbing Plato » Archive » Sequential Art Class: How to Do Panel Layouts

  5. Pingback: ZEITGEIST / Random Comics News Story Round-Up

  6. consequentialart says:

    Dustin,

    Thank you so much for your flattering comments, both here and on your own blog. Inspiring fellow comic creators to consider new facets of this extremely varied medium is why this blog exists. I encourage all my students and readers to click the link at the right to your site. I love your use of color and your own boundary-pushing experiments. Everyone should check out your “Everything’s Better as Comics” works. As you can see from my own assignments, I think it’s extremely informative to translate works from other media to sequential art. It throws the requirements of each in stark contrast. Gosh, those Godfather drawings are beautiful! And now when I post the Expression Category’s homework (soon to come), it will look like I’m totally ripping you off.

    Well done sir,
    Josiah

  7. You flatterer! All that Godfather strip is is a few judiciously chosen stills from the movie redrawn as cartoons. Usually to bad effect, where faces are concerned! Only the middle two “scene” panels are any good. But I will accept your praise nonetheless! I printed up some copies of your post today and went over them with my class, to I think good effect–one student had even found this on his own, and had printed it and brought it to class himself!

    The whole community college is atwitter with Josiah!

  8. Hello Sir,

    I thank you for explaining the medium in such elaborate way. Every post of yours is packed with immense knowledge. I hope your mac gets fixed quickly so that you continue sharing such great knowledge

    thank you,

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