Composition

UPDATED: Now with script! Also I’ve reworked some of the text to take this into account – (text in green is new) It’s been pointed out that this post deals more firmly with STORYTELLING rather than composition – which is true, though I think, when it comes to comics the storytelling elements – time and how the comic is read, IS part of the composition of the whole piece. 

I’ve never really understood composition. I’ve seen lots and lots of books on the topic, and various images broken down into constituent parts (with lots of references to golden means, triangles and other things) but I’ve never really -if you’ll forgive the phrase- grokked it. 

Which, as you can probably imagine, is a major problem when you make your living from drawing.

Being of a fairly analytical mind, though, I have replaced the whole concept of ‘composition’ with the idea of panels as puzzles. Each panel has certain key bits of information that you, as the artist, have to convey. The writer will let you know what they are and you have to do your damn best to work that out and figure out how to tell the reader the same information – but with pictures.

So, to that end, I’m gonna give you my thoughts on a page of the recent Dredd “Dragon’s Den” – written by Gordon Rennie.

Ok, first thing to note, is that Gordon tends to write in two page chunks. There is ALWAYS at least one very clear scene change within that two pages (and you want, as best as possible, to turn a page onto a scene change – or, rather, you want to avoid changing a scene mid page). In this case, I saw the the last panel – as being a logical place to put a splash page, it would give plenty of room for what was required, but, more importantly, a splash page would give a large dramatic impact on the reader (part of the problem: how do I make this BIG shot look impressive? answer: use the entire page). As it happened, I ended up with a second splash page in this Dredd – which, ordinarily, would be two splash pages more than usual for Dredd – but both really served the story well (the second splash was Dredd dressed in a Knight’s armour assembled from various 21st Century detritus).

The approach:

Read script. Reread script. Get a feel for what’s going on and what’s important. I took this script as a mythic piece, not a real story so much as a story of a legend, so that impacted the story telling – the other big impact was that I was filling in for Cliff Robinson – who did such an amazing job on the first two parts that I think he had thrill power overload. I took over and, as best as I could, tried to make the changeover in artists as graceful as possible (I think it worked best on the first page and went downhill from there…)

Third reading of the script, I note the number of panels at the top of each scripted page – page 1 would have 8 (yikes! still, 2000AD pages are big) and page 2 would have 1.

Thumbnails. I start looking at the script while doodling the thumbnails – the panel count guides me, as well as the amount of dialogue/captions – they shape the size of the panels. Then I have to figure out what else is in the panel.

The image below ISN’T the thumbnails – rather it’s the page reduced and simplified to only show panels – which is one element of the thumb nailing stage. What’s immediately apparant in this is that panel 1 has more dialogue than panels 2-4, and the panels shrink in size as they zoom in closer on the detail. 

Layout

Let’s look at Panels 1-4 in some ridiculous levels of details.

Script

 

1.  INT. SOME SHELTERED PLACE IN THE RUBBLE – NIGHT.  DREDD, injured and bandaged-up is lying back against a wall, in the shadows, while FELIX dumps a bunch of burned-up Lawmaster junk onto a larger pile of the same.

FELIX

THAT’S THE LAST OF IT.  EVERYTHING I COULD SCAVENGE FROM THE REMAINS OF THOSE TWO JUDGE BIKES, THAT AIN’T ALREADY ALL BURNED UP.

linked)

SO WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO BE LOOKING FOR?

 

2.  Dredd, in the shadows, working on something he’s holding.

DREDD

WEAPONS.  AMMO.  MED SUPPLIES.  RADIO PARTS.   ANYTHING I CAN USE TO GET BACK INTO THE FIGHT.

FELIX

THE FIGHT?  YOU AIN’T  THINKING ABOUT TAKING THAT THING ON AGAIN, ARE YOU?

 

3.  On Dredd.  He’s holding his helmet, and working on it with some small tools.  Now we know why he’s sitting back in the shadows where we can’t see his face.

DREDD

HELMET RADIO’S BUSTED, BUT IT’S PICKING UP AN ACTIVE VOICE SIGNAL FROM SOMEWHERE NEARBY.

(linked)

THAT MEANS MACKMAN’S ALIVE.  I NEED TO ARM UP AND GO FIND HIM.

4. In close on the helmet. LETTERING – big speech balloon, lots of empty white space, with tiny indistinct lettering in it.  Someone’s on the radio and talking, but the signal’s so weak, we can’t hear it.

FROM HELMET

(ragged balloon)

——- — — —— —– – —– — —- —–

 

 

As described in the script, it would be perfectly legitimate to draw each panel at very different angles – panel 1 birds eye view, panel 2 eye level, panel 3 worms eye view, panel 4 extreme closeup. BUT that means every panel is fighting against the next/previous panel – all of them vying for your immediate attention. When it’s far more sensible (not to say obvious) that if they’re treated as a series of closeups, each getting nearer and nearer to the helmet then the storytelling is on the readers side rather than trying to make a fuss of itself.

Tier1

1.  INT. SOME SHELTERED PLACE IN THE RUBBLE – NIGHT.  DREDD, injured and bandaged-up is lying back against a wall, in the shadows, while FELIX dumps a bunch of burned-up Lawmaster junk onto a larger pile of the same.

FELIX

THAT’S THE LAST OF IT.  EVERYTHING I COULD SCAVENGE FROM THE REMAINS OF THOSE TWO JUDGE BIKES, THAT AIN’T ALREADY ALL BURNED UP.

(linked)

SO WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO BE LOOKING FOR?

 

Panel 1 is, in reality an establishing shot, but doesn’t really show much detail – there’s plenty of rubble so we get the sense that the Mutant (foreground dude with goggles on his head) is somewhere inside some rubble (this scene is set deep within the bowls of an old Mall in the Cursed Earth). Dredd’s bike is there (destroyed in the previous episode and in the foregroun)- if you know what you’re looking for, otherwise it’s just more rubble. Dredd is sitting deeply in shadow (all shots of Dredd without his helmet require Dredd to be sitting in shadow!). The rubble that frames Dredd and the subsequent deep shadow, makes sure that he doesn’t get too lost in the details.

2.  Dredd, in the shadows, working on something he’s holding.

DREDD

WEAPONS.  AMMO.  MED SUPPLIES.  RADIO PARTS.   ANYTHING I CAN USE TO GET BACK INTO THE FIGHT.

FELIX

THE FIGHT?  YOU AIN’T  THINKING ABOUT TAKING THAT THING ON AGAIN, ARE YOU?

Panel 2 we pull in tighter, the mutants face is looking round at Dredd – we only get a glimpse of the mutant here, for two reasons: 1) it’s NOT strictly essential, though it DOES tie into the previous panel – and I’m very big on continuity between panels (I try to imagine some way to always link one panel to the next and I’ll describe each as I go). Dredd’s shifted position here, lifting some tool with his hand and cradling his helmet (snigger). You can see that very little of these details are scripted, FELIX (the mutant) could well be speaking off panel) Dredd is clearly the focus, and having felix turn to look at him keeps Dredd at the centre of focus while allowing us to have FELIX’s dialogue to come from FELIX rather than OP (OFF PANEL)

3.  On Dredd.  He’s holding his helmet, and working on it with some small tools.  Now we know why he’s sitting back in the shadows where we can’t see his face.

DREDD

HELMET RADIO’S BUSTED, BUT IT’S PICKING UP AN ACTIVE VOICE SIGNAL FROM SOMEWHERE NEARBY.

(linked)

THAT MEANS MACKMAN’S ALIVE.  I NEED TO ARM UP AND GO FIND HIM.

Panel 3 we’ve moved tighter on Dredd – the continuity here is Dredd’s own face – heavily shadowed previously, the shadow is carried through and ties panels 2&3 together. He’s working now on the helmet mic – which is why, in the previous panel, I had Dredd pick up a tool kit.

 

4. In close on the helmet. LETTERING – big speech balloon, lots of empty white space, with tiny indistinct lettering in it.  Someone’s on the radio and talking, but the signal’s so weak, we can’t hear it.

FROM HELMET

(ragged balloon)

——- — — —— —– – —– — —- —–

Panel 4 tight shot on the helmet – I really should have included a little bit of the ‘screwdriver’ (or whatever it is Dredd is holding) to make sure you know that this is still the same helmet. But I think it still holds together.

And here’s that tier showing how each panel has an element of the previous (yes, I got carried away… sorry!)

 

Tier1_continuity

And, here’s how I anticipate a reader will actually read the page:

Tier1_reading

I think, the important thing is we read let to right, but only when there’s something to “read” – failing that we go searching for something of interest. In the case of panel one, my eyes scan down until we get to the mutant, whereupon I read and move towards Dredd. Panel two, I think, naturally, I follow the eyeline of the mutant to Dredd (and I read his body and end at the knee – oddly). Panel 3 focus goes from Dredd’s chin to the bit of the Helmet he’s working on. And Panel 4 doesn’t really force the reader to any particular point – save around the mask – below the “S” shape (whereupon they’ll be met by the dialogue).

You’ll have to excuse another example, really I’m searching for ways to think about/talk about this. The following image are the elements that I imagine are focal on the page – ie, what’s important/less important. If this was a static image – such as a painting this is, I think, how you’d think about the composition. In short: for a static image, composition only needs to consider the two dimensions of the drawing (height and width) for a comic you have to take that into account PLUS time (or, more specifically, how a reader will ‘read’ the material)
(Red is the most important element within a panel, pink is secondary to that)

Tier1_2s

The next tier is a scene change and a single panel:

5.  Cut to extreme close-up of MACKMAN, talking into his helmet radio.  We’re hearing now the words that we couldn’t hear in the last panel.

MACKMAN

DREDD – MACKMAN.  YOU READING THIS, DREDD?  IF YOU’RE THERE, COME BACK AND COPY.

 

Tier2

Panel 5 is Judge MACKMAN talking to Dredd, at this point the dialogue is holding the story telling elements together – The helmet from the previous panel visually links to this panel (as Gordon has in the script). The dialogue confirms this is a different judge in a different location (though, I hope, that is also clear from the art). I quite like that the widescreen panel is a change of tempo from the previous panels and it helps to establish a change of scene. 

 

Panels 6-8

6.  Pulling back to see Mackman’s situation.  He’s lying in some dug-up crater, similar to a very large reptile’s nest.  He’s clearly badly injured from the injuries he received last episode, but has managed to scramble halfway up the slope of the crater.

MACKMAN
OKAY, SITREP HERE’S NOT GOOD.  I’M INJURED AND UNABLE TO MOVE MUCH, AND IN WHAT APPEARS TO BE THE CREATURE’S NEST.
 

(linked)

THE GOOD NEWS IS, THERE ONLY APPEARS TO BE ONE OF THESE THINGS AROUND.

7.  Pulling back further, to see the CLUTCH OF LARGE DRAGON EGGS at the bottom of the nest.  Several of them are cracked, and look just about ready to hatch out

MACKMAN

THE BAD NEWS IS, I DON’T THINK THAT SITUATION’S GOING TO LAST MUCH LONGER.

8.  Mackman, painfully crawling up the slope, trying to get out of the nest.

Mackman

GOT A BAD FEELING ABOUT WHY THAT THING’S KEPT ME ALIVE THIS LONG.  IF YOU’RE PICKING THIS UP, GET HERE AS SOON AS YOU CAN.

(linked)

OH YEAH, AND ONE MORE THING–

 

 

Tier3

 


 

As scripted Panels 7 and 8 should be a slow pull out – but I thought a more interesting way to show this was to have them as a single wide panel that would be split with a gutter – an effect that’s only really possible in comics – we get the wide screen shot, the sense of place and connection between the two panels, plus the gutter serves as a way of putting emphasis on one moment and then the next. 

Panel 8 is the same thing from a different angle as the Judge attempts an escape – making sure to get the badge in can be an important story telling in Dredd’s world (if done subtly!) as it’s often the only way to tell one judge from another (unless you start resorting to facial hair or tattoos!) The background detritus is flowing in a different direction here which is a subtle cue that we’re looking at the same thing from a different angle.

And here’s that last tier as I imagine a reader will actually read it:

Tier3-reading

And, finally, the visual continuity tying those three panels together – looking back, I wish I’d been able to get even a glimpse of those eggs on panel 8 – to help the flow of story telling. Still, the background – to paraphrase the dude – really ties the room together.

Tier3-continuity

This is where I choose to split the pages – page two was actually panel 9 of this two page chunk. The dialogue “OH YEAH, AND ONE MORE THING–” is, really, a great bit to end a page on, it simply screams “TURN THE PAGE!” and when you do… you get this:
 
9.  Big shot, showing the whole of the underground cavern where the dragon has made its lair.  It’s some kind of Pre-Atomic Wars place – the semi-collapses ruins of an old subway station or underground shopping mall? – and the walls glitter with precious old Pre-Atomic wars junk.  There’s also piles of the stuff – all of it priceless – lying around the place.  It’s very much the Cursed Earth version of a dragon’s treasure cave.
 
MACKMAN
THOSE STORIES ABOUT A DRAGON’S TREASURE HOARD MUST BE TRUE, AFTER ALL.
(linked)
THERE’S MAYBE ENOUGH VALUABLE PRE-ATOMIC WARS JUNK HERE TO PAY HALF THE CITY’S WELFARE BUDGET FOR THE NEXT YEAR!

And here’s the two pages as they were meant to be seen:

A note on rubble

The rubble is a sort of abstract representation of rubble, making little actual sense – these aren’t real things that I’ve drawn, rather odd little abstract shapes in sizes and shapes that help suggest detail/distance and direction. It’s also (as can be seen in panel 7) a great way to pull the readers eyes in certain directions.

Of course, if I’m completely honest, I don’t really spend this much time thinking about composition/storytelling. I sit down, read the panel description and try and figure out :

A) How can I get all this dialogue in.
B) What’s the bare minimum I need to draw to convey the information that’s required of me.
C) Now that I’ve figured that out, how can i make this panel/post look more dramatic/interesting and tie into every panel on the page.

When considered like that, the process is about solving a puzzle. How do I make it look like the character is in serious peril? How do I highlight these eggs? How do I make the character look resolved into stoic action? And how do I tie those things all together and make it look cool…?

Though I do that for each panel, I do it while considering the page as a whole (which is why small thumbnails are of use).

So, that’s one page. Let me know if you have any comments/questions!

-pj

Tools of the Trade: Image Formats

Hey man, it’s the digital age! So here’s some info all comic artists should know about bitmap image formats (and, if you’re a masochist, you can drill into the wikipedia entires I’ve sprinkled throughout):

Ok, let me define BITMAP – imagine a grid, within that grid each element (or pixel) contains a filled in colour. If your grid is big enough then the grid will look like a picture. And that’s a bitmap.

(Alternatively, there are VECTOR formats – VECTOR formats are like someone describing what a picture looks like – “in the centre is a red circle with a diameter of 300, then, 30mms to the left is a blue square that’s 15cm x 15cm” – the advantage of a vector format is that you can scale it – ie make it bigger – without decreasing the quality, the disadvantage is that, for MOST comic art, it’s pretty useless at describing artwork)

Now, BITMAP image formats are Designed to hold as much information in as little space as possible This is accomplished by using compression. There are two very basic types of compression: LOSSLESS and LOSSY.

LOSSLESS compression is designed to compress the data while keeping every single bit of information intact. This works brilliantly for some things (notably, b&w, cartoony type images, and comic book lettering – that is lettering that has been converted to artwork).

LOSSY compression is designed to compress data while throwing away information that the human eye doesn’t really process, so works brilliantly for natural colours, photos or paintings. The eye can see around 200 shades of green and only a handful of shades of red – and this style of compression makes use of that fact. An artifact of this, though, is that it looks terrible with images that it doesn’t compress well (b&w, cartoony, and comic book lettering) – these are the dreaded “Jaggies
So, now we’ve covered the basics, let’s get some image formats:

GIF – the GIF format is a LOSSLESS compression that works brilliantly for b&w. Some key factors:
1) It can hold up to 256 colours – that means, for fully painted work it’s absolutely rubbish – it looks poor and doesn’t compress well at all.
2) Because it’s lossless it really is brilliantly sharp for lettering and cartoony colours.
3) You can actually specify how many colours you want the gif format to hold, making a small file size EVEN smaller. Typical pure b&w comic art can often be reduced to four colours without any loss of fidelity and it can make a big difference on your file sizes.
4) It’s a common format on the internet and designed to handle relatively small images photoshop, for example, will not allow you to export a gif if the image is too physically large.

GIF is my favoured method of emailing people decent sized web preview images – large (ie around 1024pixels wide) can be surprisingly small if you reduce the number of colours to four or so.

JPG – JPG is a LOSSY format, that uses some clever maths to throw certain colours and details away from the image.
1) Ideal for photos – the JPG format can hold a massive amount of colours/information in a relatively small size by throwing away lots of stuff that you wouldn’t notice. You can also specify how much information it should discard.2) Editing a JPG and then resaving as a JPG will reduce the quality. In fact, if you keep opening and saving the same JPG eventually you’ll have nothing but a handful of weirdly coloured pixels3) JPGs have a problem going from one extreme colour to another – rapid transitions from black to white (as you’d find, for example, in lettering) the transition areas end up clogged full of ‘artifacts‘ – weird little quilted bits of colour in the picture.

JPG is a great way to deal with full painted art, and, with a low level of compression the artifacts on lettering aren’t too noticable. BUT it DOES NOT remain 100% true to the image as created – by virtue of being a lossy compression format.

PNG – designed to overcome many of the limitations of GIF – the PNG format is a LOSSLESS format that allows millions of colours and adds lots of cool features for people building websites, but for our discussion only a couple of things are relevant:
1) Can compress comics relatively well – allowing for lots of colours while keeping the true to the original artwork.
2) File sizes are usually bigger than GIF for smaller images
3) Only the past few years has it been widely supported – many windows based PCs running old version of software can’t really see PNGs properly.

PNGs a good format, but, as it’s so (relatively) new, unless you need it’s advantages it’s probably easier to stick to GIF or JPG for emailing or putting on a website.

TIFF – Lossless format designed for print.
1) Tiff files can be physically massive while being tiny in memory. Even an A3 pure B&W image can compress down to as little as 300kb.2) Pretty much the lingua franca of comic pros sending art for publishing.
3) Can also hold colour and layers – though, once you start doing that, files get big pretty damn quick.

TIFF – if you’re publishing your work, you’ll find yourself using TIFF – photoshop (for example) offers multiple ways to compress TIFF files, but, afaik, most people go for the standard LZW compression.

PSD Uncompressed file format, used by Photoshop.
1) Files are MASSIVE
2) It’s photoshop’s default format

Well, that’s it. If you use PHOTOSHOP you’ll use PSD. If you don’t – well, PSD files are so universal most publishers will have something that can read them, but you’re better off sticking to TIFF for this.

So, to sum up:

If you’re putting a b&w or cartoony comic on the web: use GIF (or PNG if you don’t mind internet explorer 5 users missing out) if you’re putting a fully painted/full colour comic on the web use JPG.

If you’re sending files to a publisher use TIFF.

Hope that helps, if you find anything in error, please feel free to let me know in the comments and I’ll update.

Dredd Head

This is for my own amusement, a mock-2000AD annual cover. (Which, if you see me at a con I may have in print form…)

Dredd, Rogue, Johnny Alpha and Rojaws – what’s not to love?

(Symmetry is a little too dead on, but still…)

Eagle Awards

Here’s my list of nominations:

• Favourite Newcomer Writer: Al Ewing
• Favourite Newcomer Artist: David Lafuente
• Favourite Writer: Garth Ennis
• Favourite Writer/Artist: Paul Grist
• Favourite Artist: Pencils: Duncan Fegredo
• Favourite Artist: Inks: Kevin Nowlan
• Favourite Artist: Fully-Painted Artwork: Frazer Irving
• Favourite Colourist: Chris Blythe
• Favourite Letterer: Simon Bowland
• Favourite Editor: Matt smith
• Favourite Publisher: 2000ad
• Favourite American Colour Comicbook: Battlefields
• Favourite British Colour Comicbook: 2000AD
• Favourite American Black and White Comicbook: Walking Dead
• Favourite British Black and White Comicbook: Futurequake
• Favourite New Comicbook: Batman and Robin
• Favourite European Comicbook: Diamond
• Favourite Single Story Published During 2009: Happy Valley
• Favourite Continued Story Published During 2009: Judge Dredd: Tour of Duty (2000 AD)
• Favourite Cover Published During 2009: 2000AD #1643 (Leigh Gallagher/Defoe)
• Favourite Original Graphic Novel Published During 2009: Phonogram – The Singles Club
• Favourite Reprint Compilation: Judge Dredd Case Files #14
• Favourite Comics-Related Movie or TV Show: The Big Bang Theory
• Favourite Comics Related Website: http://2000adcovers.blogspot.com/
• Roll of Honour: John Hicklenton

A little self serving, in that I’ve voted Battlefields my fav American Colour Comicbook, but even so – it’s a damn fine comic…

You can vote here: http://www.eagleawards.co.uk

-pj