Monday, September 29, 2008

Camera angles and meaning

Kraft, Robert N. 1987. The influence of camera angle on comprehension and retention of pictorial events. Memory and Cognition 15 (4):291-307.

Kraft explores the semantic associations made to different camera angles (high, eye-level, low) in a four frame photo story. Subjects were asked to rate the story along a 7-point scale, use a recall test for remembering the order, and then a recognition task. Each story used two characters, which were contrasted in each frame position with differing angles in different story sequence types.

Overall, results dramatically supported that angle does correlate with semantic meaning when comparing how characters were discerned. Low angles support senses of shortness, weakness, afraid, timid, and passive, while high angles were thought of as tall, strong, unafraid, bold, and agressive. A lesser correlation was found to value judgements like good/bad. Eye level angles did not contrast between characters. These results seemed to be sustained across several experimental tasks.

In recall tasks, analysis did show that camera angles influenced a connotative meaning for how characters were remembered.

Explanations for this correlation claim it comes from of our experience with the visual world, such as how looking upward at taller people gives them a sense of power (like children to adults). An alternative view says that the different angles allow the viewer to see different things in the images, from which they draw the semantic implications.

If these results extend to drawings, it would be interesting to do further study on the semantic correspondences. I find it dubious to fully believe both of the reasonings above, at least in a universal sense. There is no semantics attached to the aerial view in Australian sand narratives, nor do fixed high angles in Japanese children's representations or ancient Asian graphics have any semantic correlation that such a theory would require.

Rather, this may simply be a case of learned conventions. We've built up these meanings by continually viewing them, particularly in movies. Or... the "visual world" explanation could be valid, but only in systems that allow for flexibility in viewpoints, not those that have fixed perspective. To be honest, I had always had doubts about claims that camera angles had semantic meanings, so I'm glad there's actually work that backs it up.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Review: Drawing Words & Writing Pictures

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Matt Madden and Jessica Abel

Before I started reading DW&WP, Matt Madden warned me that it was a book for praxis, not theory. As amusing as I find it that such a disclaimer needs to be given to me, the book draws upon aspects of theory throughout in an informed and well-measured way, and I am lead to thinking further about the relationship between theory and praxis.

First off, this book is a great resource. It’s put together well, lays out all the essential issues from hand lettering to stretching to avoid tendonitis (I know from personal experience: important and overlooked!). It even has homework and lesson plans, along with digital resources as well. For praxis, this all is fantastic.

However, no review of mine should escape looking at theoretical issues and reading this book has made me once again consider how praxis can draw from theory.

For instance, an immediate question of mine was: Why is it important to include defining “comics” at all? The book — wonderfully titled — talks entirely about the process, what I would say “writing in visual language.” So, why spend additional space trying to shoehorn various social manifestations of “writing pictures” (i.e. manga, comics, graphic novels, etc.) into the umbrella of “comics”?

First off, why should people who are aiming to create visual stories necessarily care about the arguments for what are or are not "comics"? These issues may be important for scholars, but most who read this book can just go by the "I know it when I see it frame." Truly, if they needed to have their "horizons expanded" by a broader definition, they probably aren't the ones reading this book.

Furthermore, as I see it, inviting readers into the subcuture of “comics” is unimportant to the aims of the book. Especially since they do well to state the applications of the ideas beyond genres and styles, this book is not about “drawing comics” — it’s about learning to be a visual writer. To this end, mentioning “comics” as a cover term at all belies this broad goal. What better way can people expand their applications of “writing in pictures” than by not immediately being co-opted into a subculture that they might not desire being in? Let them learn the visual language, then let them decide what they want to do with it on their own terms.

With the course of instruction, I thought the emphasis on thumbnails and not on scripts was a great choice that isn’t focused on enough. This is the central place that “writing in pictures” happens, and the assembly line style with scripting skirts this step often. It nicely reinforces the theme that this book is teaching people to be authors, not cogs in a manufacturing wheel.

I do have some problems with the instruction of panel transitions as how authors are guided to think about their craftsmanship. Now, heavily influenced by McCloud as a teenager, I did go through a period where I thought in terms of panel transitions (or at least I thought I did), and I certainly benefited from it.

However, when I look back on my thought processes with a broader theory in mind, I realize that I wasn’t just looking just one panel ahead as transitions would have us think. Really, I planned for whole sequences, to the point where (in thumbnails) I might draw an expected panel later in the sequence before filling in the ones in between. Such a process would predict that we are thinking in terms of whole sequences not linear panel-to-panel relationships — as my theories of sequential images imply. I suspect that others have had similar experiences.

On the plus side, what transitions do allow is a directed focus on storytelling methods that convey aspects of the scene beyond just the actions. They provide a cover for people to think about whether to slow “time” down, show other characters or the environment, etc. However, if we were to develop a more robust vocabulary of types of panels to be used and the potential for what panels might contain, we might not need the bootstrap of “transitions” to couch it in.

In fact, while I think that learning theory can be beneficial to practice, perhaps what would be a more direct and simple learning tool would be to see that theory in action. For example, in section 3, they discuss rhythm and pacing — the decision making for what to show and when to show it and use several variations of stories where they demonstrate different pacings. This type of section could be expanded to account for the types of things covered by transitions.

I would also have enjoyed seeing a greater discussion of page layouts and the uses that one can make with them, especially regarding meaning and rhythm. While I disagree with McCloud that the size of panels has an effect on narrative time, I do believe it has an effect on pace — the rhythm and meter of reading. Elaborating on these concepts would be very useful for beginning authors.

Finally, while it has recently become a point of research for me, I found their comments on reading order a bit wanting. Despite their specific advocacy to not use “blockage” scenarios (where two panels are vertically stacked to the left of a long panel) they praise another page by Mike Mignola that uses this layout just three pages prior. The overall message of “using unambiguous layouts” rings true, but this inconsistency (along with personal knowledge that fluent readers don’t have ambiguity in such scenarios) was a little disappointing.

Despite these issues, this book is a fantastic resource and accomplishment given other books on the topic. I wish that I had it when I was a teenager, as I probably would have devoured it voraciously, doing all the exercises and then some. Indeed, while I probably would have gotten more mileage out of it then, I plan on using its resources here on out.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Visual Linguistics of "Comics" Course

I am ecstatic to say that I've just learned my course for teaching a "Visual Linguistics of 'Comics'" course next Spring semester '09 has been approved! This will be the first course of it's kind to cover my own visual language research and related studies in a complete package.

I'm beyond excited about it, so... if you're in the Boston area and might want to head over to Tufts for some spring classes, stay tuned.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Panels as Attention Units

I stumbled across this article recently about how current theories of perception are similar to what magicians have been exploiting for years. Essentially, the idea is that we can only "see" what our attention is focused on at a given time. They liken it to a "spotlight" which roams around and only let's you take in certain things under its view. Though in the case of vision all the things out of the "spotlight" are still within your visual field. You just don't "see" them.

As I discuss in this video, panels in the visual language used in comics serve to facilitate this same sort of focusing of attention. Most of the time though, panels serve to exclude all relevant information except for the elements that need to be focused on, or at least clearly distinguish what is relevant from irrelevant. This lets panels provide a graphic manifestation of this mental "spotlight," allowing the author to control that attention instead of the reader's wandering eyes (which is one of the reason's I formally call panels "Attention Units").

This ties into the argument for why you don't want to overload a panel with too much stuff, because it becomes too hard to disentangle the attentionally important from unimportant elements. (If you still want to pack info in, inset panels help facilitate this honing of attention).

Even more, when you have too much in several panels sequentially, it becomes too difficult to track all the changes and carry-overs from one panel to another. This is what gives way to things like "parallel cutting." By switching back and forth between two (or more) scenes, you can highlight the individual aspects of each in panels without risking it becoming overlooked for other information or overloading the system. Of course, doing so introduces other processing demands on the visual grammar, but at least your attention is focused exactly on what is intended to be conveyed.