Sunday, January 22, 2012

Seated Lady Page 15 and Panel Composition Notes

Seated Lady page 15 is complete! yaaaay. Another 12.25 hours for this one.

While I was working on the sketch for this page, I made some notes about my thought process in setting up the panels. Maybe you'll learn something you didn't know!

Here we go:

Before I start any of the pages, I do a bunch of thumbnail sketches to work out the placement of the characters in the panels, and the panels on the page. It's a trial and error process. You can see something of a progression of ideas ... 

... to the rough sketch in Photoshop:

(I'd like to mention that those sketch pages above were not the only thumbnails I did for this page. When I was prepping to make Seated Lady into an animated film, I sketched out most of this scene's particulars. I mention it because there's probably twice as much sketch material as I've shown here. It's really a trial and error process - throwing down ideas, slightly changing them, giving rise to new ideas, and so on. And I continued to revise the composition as I work on it.)

How do I decide what to put in the panels? Or how to arrange them?

To make panels that flow, and with energy, the important question: What changes from panel to panel?

I'm going to focus on the changes in the two-dimensional panel. A panel usually consists of some characters standing in 3D space. But that panel is actually a closed rectangular space on a 2D surface. How the eye reads the 2D space makes a big difference to how the action of the panels feels.

Imagine all the panels divided into thirds, horizontally and vertically. In each panel, where is the focal point? Where is the eye drawn within the frame. If it's always in the center, then the eye doesn't have to move around as much, and the page feels static.  

On what axis is the action taking place?  Meaning: if there are two characters, or focal points, on stage, draw a line between them. That's the axis the action is on. For example, here's the king and the unicorn, and the line of action between them:

Now imagine placing cameras around the characters, for each of the different panels.

Notice that I put all the cameras on one side of the line of action. In film production, that's known as the "180 degree rule" By not crossing the line of action when you change camera angles, you keep the actors on the same side of the screen. For this comic page, this means that the unicorn always stays on the left side of the panel, and the king on the right. See:

Keeping the characters on their respective sides makes it easier for the eye to keep track of them. If you suddenly add a shot with them on switched sides (without any reorienting shot in-between), then it'll mess up the flow. It won't feel right.

Understanding the panel as having a grid, lines of action and focal points ... that's key. Next, I'll talk about some examples.

Here's the script of the action happening on this page:
  1. Figure emerges from under the gate as the unicorn hurdles toward him.
  2. The man looks regal, tough, brave, not to be messed with.
  3. But the unicorn is huge. Threatening.
  4. With pomp, the king figure raises his sword and demands the unicorn to retreat
  5. Before he can finish, the unicorn grabs the sword out of his hand.
  6. Before the king can react, the unicorn reaches for his crown
  7. And steals it off his head
  8. The unicorn mounts the treasure on his own head with glee.
In the first panel to second panel, the camera dollies in toward the characters. The king's position in the grid shifts to the left, and the unicorn's position shifts to the right. The line of action between them gets shorter. The unicorn is advancing on the king.

Also in these two panels, there's a big change in the position of the king. In the first panel, he is in a crouched, submissive position. And in the second panel, he's standing tall, proud, defiant. His eyes go from being in the lower third of the frame to the upper third. We know that in the first panel he isn't really submissive - he's just going under the gate - but the visual change in position makes the second panel all the stronger. It's all about contrast!

For the unicorn, I wanted to have him appear big, threatening (so the last panel of him being silly would be funnier). So in panel 1, the unicorn fills up about a 1/3 of the panel. Then in the second panel, he entirely fills up almost half of the panel. Then in the third panel, he's huge, filling up like 5/6ths of the panel.

For the third panel, I wanted the unicorn's eyes as high up as possible, to lengthen the distance between the unicorn's eyes and the man's. A bigger distance means the audience has to flick their eyes a longer ways between them, emphasizes how much bigger the unicorn is.

There is a temptation to try to fit as much of a character in a space as possible. Like in the above frame, there's a temptation to fit the unicorn's horn in the frame. But it's not important! What's important are his eyes. Those tiny, angry eyes, elevated way up in the panel. If I had tried to fit the horn in, it would have weakened the focus on the eyes.

For panels 4, 5, 6 and 7, there's a few movements in the focal points that strengthen the feel of the action. For example, in panel 4, the king has a sword in his hand. In the next frame, the sword is gone. His hand has also traveled to the left a bit, suggesting that it was tugged that way when the unicorn stole his sword.

In frame 6, the king has his hand in almost the same position, except it lowers a bit. I was tempted to have a wilder position for his hand in this frame. Like more of a clenched, cowering position. But I chose to keep his character's posture closer to the one in frame 5 because I wanted it to seem like they follow each other very closely in time. When you change the actor's position a lot, the mind fills in the intermediate steps. The more intermediate steps, the longer the time between the frame feels.

In frame six, the camera tilts up, following the stolen crown. This shifts the king's eyes down to the lower third of the frame. His eyes start in the upper third in panel 4. This helps reinforce that the unicorn got the better of him.

In these panels, the unicorn fills up most of the left side of the frame. We can't see his eyes. So in frame four, the clenched hand becomes a focal point. If you see the hand as representing the unicorn, and his snout as representing him in panel 7, then the unicorn changes from being in the lower third to the upper third, conversely to the king.

My main point is that contrast is important. 

Here's another example using the king's expressions, in order of appearance.

There isn't much difference between expression a and b. He looks tough, angry. Having a sequence of two similar expressions sets up expectations in the audience's mind. It says, this is how the character is. Once you set up that expectation, then you can surprise the audience by revealing a different side of the character. In c, the character is confused. Then timid in d. Then shocked in e.

(I will talk more about acting in another tutorial!)

Some note about arranging the panels.

I chose to do this comic in a horizontal format. I feel that the horizontal format is more cinematic. Closer to storyboarding and film-making, which I love.

One thing I often do is have 'strips' of panels, one stacked on the other (or side by side). In this case, I have two strips, one on top of the other. To separate them mentally, I shift the top strip to the left, and the bottom strip to the right.

Your eyes come in at the extreme top left of the page, and leave at the extreme bottom right. Feels right.

Within those two groups, there are sub-groups. A sub-group tells the audience : read this area first, in standard order, before moving on to the next panel. To set that up, I put thicker gutters between sub-groups. Like the gutter between panels (4,5) and (6,7) is much thicker than the gutter between 4 and 5, or 6 and 7.

It's a tricky business. This page is especially complex because there are eight panels. That's a lot for this format. There's a lot of temptations to arrange the panels according to other criteria - like what's fun to draw, or whether you want a panel to be taller or wider - but checking to see if the eye flows naturally in the right order is important. I don't want to take the audience to get out of the experience of the story because they weren't sure which panel to read next.

Some more random notes:

Size of the panel doesn't have a lot to do with the content
If you are excited to draw a particular thing, there is a temptation to give it a bigger panel. But I find that doesn't give you the nicest flow. For me, the size of the panel is most closely related to TIME. How long doe you want the audience to linger on this frame? Although there is more 'action' happening in the last five panels, the first three panels are the biggest. This is because I wanted the audience to linger on them longer, so they feel longer in time, so they feel more dramatic. The funny bits move fast, so I made them smaller.

Perspective and humor
3D perspective tends to feel more dramatic than a flatter, 2D perspective. So the first three panels, the camera angles reveal the perspective of the landscape. You can imagine where the vanishing points are.

Flatter perspectives are funnier. They make them feel more cartoony, less realistic. In panels 4-8, you're not sure where the vanishing point is. But it doesn't matter. The character's are doing funny things. :)

Reading List
The best book on this subject that I know of is "The Visual Story" by Bruce Block. It's fantastic. It  describes all the different dimensions that a 2D frame can change on. It changed my whole outlook on storyboarding and composition.


  1. Your tutorial is a very helpful lead in for what I want to do with my own art.
    Your information was specific and easily understandable in describing why you consciously chose what you did.
    Seeing the actual examples of your rough thumbnails gives me encouragement in coming up with my own designs.

    I'm currently taking a story boarding class, so I'll definitely be keeping this information in mind. Checking out "The Visual Story" is also a definite 'to-do' on my list as well.

    Thank you for making this! :)

    1. Thanks astrojade! I'm really happy to hear that you found it interesting! That really means a lot to me. What kind of art are you most interested in?

      Good luck with your storyboarding class!

  2. You have a terrific and informative website. Love your work!