The webcomics blog about webcomics

Legibility III: Framing

One of the more interesting critiques of the new version of The Producers is that it’s shot like it’s on a proscenium stage. The camera is way back, we see the full-height figures, and the actors are projecting to reach the audience in the cheap seats at the back of the balcony. Frame your comic panel like a play, you’ll end up with little bitty characters that you can’t identify unless you make the panels huge. Leaving the Infinite Canvas argument for another day, try this: don’t stage a static play in every panel.

When you bring the camera in closer, all of a sudden you achieve two things: recognition of the characters (which opens up other options; come back tomorrow for more along those lines), and a sense of immediacy. Your readers aren’t looking at an action happening WAY OVER THERE; they’re in the room with the characters. They’re participants.

Check out User Friendly for December 21, 2005. The strip is 720 pixels wide, making each panel 240 pixels wide; multiply by the 274 pixels of height, and you get a hair under 66,000 pixels worth of image. The talking head is about 32 x 40 pixels, or 1280 in all. Within the panel, the face of Our Hero, Greg, which is our entire focus for story and emotion, represents about 1.95% of the total space in the panel. The technical term for being squeezed down so small is itty-bitty.

Now take a look at PvP for December 31, 2005; the strip measures 850 x 285 pixels, including the spillover of characters and speech balloons past the drawn panel boundaries. Going from left side of the strip to the edge of the knuckles is about 334 pixels wide. The face of Our Hero, Francis, is about 97 x 135 pixels (not counting the swoop of hair). That works out to the face representing about 13.81% of the space in the panel. Quick math quiz: what’s bigger? 1.95 or 13.81?

Moving close in on the action gives Scott Kurtz a lot more to work with. He can add fine lines to show something like drunkenness on the the face, or a liquid slosh in the glass that would be entirely lost if the character were full-body-height (compare Francis’s drink in panels 1 and 2). The extreme closeup on Francis also serves to give a sense of depth to the scene; if you compare the relative heights of characters panel 1 versus the other panels, your brain comes to one conclusion: Cole was on the other side of the room and walked over to Francis between panels. You have just been roped in to become an active participant in the strip, and that certainly lends a clarity to what you’re reading. Dang, that’s a neat trick.

That’s something I’d like to see more of in PvP- it makes that particular strip a lot more fun to look at than his usual “everybody is in the same plane” method of framing. Kurtz is very good at keeping each strip “moving” by shifting focus from panel to panel, though, which is a great trick when you’re working in a constricted, newspaper-style format. This comic is a good example of what I’m talking about- there are no Big Dramatic Zooms or Crazy-Ass Camera Angles, but he slides the panel frame around enough that your focus is on something different in each panel, which makes it more fun to look at (and easier to read).

In the case of that User Friendly strip, I don’t think the issue there is “poor framing” so much as “copied and pasted panels”. If he had started with the wide-angle shot in panel one and progressively zoomed in, we’d get to see a look of smug satisfation on Greg’s face that is, as you put it, utterly lost when the “camera” is so far away.

But that would have entailed drawing more than one picture for that comic, which I guess (not being a regular reader of User Friendly) is not something that author is particularly keen on.

Slightly off-topic, but relating to Jacques’ above comment about “working in a constricted, newspaper-style format”. Why do so many webcomics seem to force themselves into three or four little white squares? I mean, you’ve got newspaper comic creators complaining about space and size restrictions crippling their work and limiting their creativity (Bill Watterson, for example), and then online you’ve got many webcomic creators restricting themselves to the same parameters when they’ve got all the room in the world to stretch out in.

I know part of it is the hope of someday being picked up by newspapers and run in print (like PvP), in which case deviating from the norm could potentially hurt their chances, and part of it is probably simple convenience, but I wonder if anything else to it. Perhaps something to investigate in future fleening?

I suspect that for many artists it provides a comfortable, familiar framework to work with. Personally, I really like the four-panel strip format because it offers you lots of flexibility while setting a reasonable limit on the amount of time-consuming work necessary to finish each strip.

It’s also good to have a set amount of space for fitting in action and dialogue. Many of my comics start off as five or six-panel scripts which then get whittled down into the four-panel format I use, and I think they benefit greatly from the trimming.

I think now, we’re just limited by our productive speed rather than our allotted space. Most webcartoonists seem to take it as a given that they need to update on a regular schedule to hold an audience. When you force regular timely deadlines on yourself, it encourages you to adopt a consistent format so that you can slip into a comfortable routine.

Edging out of that routine can be very stressful. I know it! I always insist that I won’t force myself to run a short strip when a longer one is better, which is why my comics sometimes run two or three times the usual size. But whenever I have to make those longer comics, it’s a major workload addition and often leads to severe mental anguish. I can see why a lot of webcartoonists would want to avoid doing that.

That’s a good point. I use six square panels for all my comics because it’s much easier to plan them and determine how much room I’ll need for dialogue. (Also, I have zero design and layout skills.) And it definitely does save a lot of time, like you said, important for comics that do more than one or two strips a week.

And while you use a four-panel layout for QC, it’s not the prototypical four-panel newspaper-style layout like a lot of webcomics stick to. I guess I just find it interesting that newspaper comic creators want more room and webcomics artists, with all the room in the world, often don’t take advantage of it.

Then again, published (and therefore paid) artists would probably have a lot more time to take advantage of the freedom that comes with publishing on the web, while webcomic artists are usually working regular jobs and don’t have the time to explore all that freedom themselves. So, maybe it’s not that hard to understand.

There’s definitely that aspect. But also, it does your creativity some good to have that forced structure. Many webcartoonists could do longer or more involved comics if they updated less frequently. But without the drive of a regular deadline, its easier to get lazy and not do anything at all. :)

[…] Uncategorized Note: Whatever else this series may or may not have accomplished, it certainly got some feedback. Read through the comments for parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. If you haven’t done so previously, check out the work of Lucas TDS, Paul Southworth, Sylvan Migdal, Shaenon Garrity, Jeph Jacques, Christopher Livingston, Sam Logan, and Christopher B. Wright. That’s a lot of webcomics experience talking, and well worth listening to, especially when they agree with me. Okay, onto Part The Last! […]

[…] So, something PJ wrote got me to thinking about what makes for a good webcomic — archives that you can easily (and freely) navigate are the key advantage of webcomics over their print brethren, despite certain business models to the contrary. Jeff once remarked on the importance of infrastructure, including navigation, forum, and blurb space. And I’ve written about the importance of legibility in artwork. But what else is necessary for a really good webcomic? […]

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