The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.

— Albert Einstein

Chapter 9

Timing & Pace

"The panels in a comic book are used as a passage of time for the characters within the story…"

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"Sequential Art is deserving of serious consideration by both critic and practitioner…"

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Visual storytellers own a time machine. They can control time, or at least how the audience; reader, viewer or player, perceive it. It's different in each visual storytelling media, only because each has a different level of control over the immersive environment. In film, the Director owns the whole show. He dictates when and where and for how long the viewer gets to see any segment, character or scene. In games, at least in the cut scenes, they're the same; very linear and in control of how its perceived. Part of what creates action, drama, suspense or even the punch line in a comedy is all about timing and pace.

In comics, there are many ways to speed up or slowdown the reader. Here the number of frames larger in size withg little dialogue, all contribute the pace and experience of the scene.

© 2001 All rights reserved. Used with permission.

In film, there's a fluid motion to most of the storytelling; a path created by the writer/director with specific movement from one scene to another and one character to another. The director assumes that the linearism of his vehicle of visual storytelling and the audience's sophistication is at a level where they're able to follow the story. There are certain directors and editors that have a certain style that is unusual in the sense that there are unique elements added or subtracted to either strike a cord or for the benefit of action, suspense and drama. John Woo, most notably recognized for his action sequences, which are well choreographed and balletic, has a specific style of filmmaking and a mastery of timing and pace.

He can make the audience feel what he intends them to feel and abruptly, interject elements to make sure the audience is paying attention. Tom Cruise, star of Mission Impossible II (of which Woo directed), called it "we got the Woo." Woo will use slow motion to represent speed, the reason why the Wachowski Brothers came up with the idea of "Bullet Time" because the wanted to shoot an event at incredibly high speed, which in order to keep the audience in on the action, meant slow motion. However, Woo also uses slow motion to emphasize an entrance of a character, such as John Travolta's character joining his team of evil-doers from beyond a hilltop in the film Broken Arrow. This gives the audience more time to absorb the event and take notice. The dramatic slow motion spin out in Mission Impossible II gives the viewer enough time to see the fear emerging from Nyah Hall's face (played by Thandie Newton), or the electricity charging when Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton) first meet and the world around them disappears for a few moments.

In film, a primarily linear media, there's only one path; from the beginning to the end. In comic books, it's not so easy. Yes, there is a beginning and end to a story, but there is no way to guarantee the same identical path for everyone. When reading the Batman comic book, one person may hear Adam West as Batman's voice, another Michael Keaton, while another George Clooney or even his or her own voice, drawing themselves further into the story. As an interpersonal media, each person will experience the story differently; that includes the pace. Some people will be distracted by the female figure in black latex, others will not; some people will slowly turn the page and others may fumble with it. All these little factors contribute to the experience, time and pace. There are a multitude of ways to slow or speed up the reader and as with Lara Croft suddenly deciding to look up at the side of the cliff (instead at where she's walking)— it will make an impact and grab the attention of the audience.

Filling up a page or panel with a multitude of detail and dialogue is a common way of slowing the pace of the story, whether to build up more characterization, back story or to prepare the reader for an impact.

The same image as the previous image, but this one was split into multiple panels, incorporating gutters between the scenes and dialogue. This slows the action down, based on how much the reader prefers.

Rodriguez edits sequences in what would be considered "jump cuts," where an abrupt cut between two shots draws attention to it. However, his are not really dramatically different in angle, and normally wouldn't cut them back to back. When he's working on a film, he also works at a manic pace because he believes that the "visceral, hyperkinetic energy transfers to the screen."

Similarly, the design of a page of sequential art, by controlling the position and content of a page and its panels, applying quick cuts creates a certain experience and message when done properly (see Figure 8.6).

In Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, there's a jump cut to a corpse with its eye's gouged out. Jump cuts include (1) editing out of the continuous action so the character seems to jump between two places; (2) switching between two actions; (3) cutting between two different times or places, but using the same angle and light; (4) suddenly changing the angle of the character twice; (5) cutting from a long shot to a close up, without a zoom and (6) jumping from different views, but once returning to an original view, there's another figure or element in the scene (ala the Psycho shower scene).

In film, anticipation is built by letting the audience know what's coming through a series of cuts. In comics, that may be a single panel.

Copyright: Bite Me, Fan Boy!, is TM & © 2001 Epoch Entertainment. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

As Jeff Smith believes in order to achieve a "punch line" or "climax" to an event, you need to set it up with an anticipation frame. The top row of th image above represents film, the middle animation and the last graphic storytelling.

Obviously, a jump cut inserted within the fluid motion of film forces the viewer to take notice, but in the sequential art of comic books, there is no "in-between" motion, as the in-between is contributed by the reader. Every panel jumps from the empty gutter (or some type of space) between them to the next "scene" in the next panel, so the content, size and shape of the panel, within the design of the page determines the speed and pace of the story. The wildcard is the reader; there is no way to determine how they will experience the story.

In comics, there's no way to compel the reader to look at something for as long as the comics creator wants them to as on a panel to panel basis, timing has a lot to do with what's involved in the scene, so there is no cookie-cutter formula, for comics or any other visual storytelling media. There are different effects by jumping to various extremes, such as using six panels to get the character across a room or only three panels to get the character to the other side of the universe. It all depends on what's best in telling the story. For example, in the fight scene, the vast majority of the time, a punch doesn't need to take up three panels or three shots for that matter, unless used in some effect necessary to further the story. The final blow in Rocky II, for example, should have some extra emphasis as it's a climax of not only the fight, but the movie as well. In comics, unless there's some extremely significant reason, that punch should fall into an action/reaction panel.

Fast Movement: the panels on the top of the page are thin vertical quick cuts, designed for fast movement. The panels on the bottom of the page are horizontal, but with little content. Just by the very shape, the change from the vertical to horizontal will slow the reader down just enough to take notice of what happened. An interpersonal page designed more cinematic for more controlled reader direction.

Copyright: Jack Frost is TM & © 2001 Kevin Van Hook. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

A vertical panel tends to move the pace faster, while a horizontal frame usually has more space for more content and time.

When defining a pace, also taken in consideration, besides size and placement of the frame, is the amount of content and "data" within the frame. A scene with very little data, will naturally flow faster than a panel with lots going on.

Copyright: Vesper's artwork is © 2001 Anthony C. Caputo. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

In interactive games, specifically several instances within the Tomb Raider series where player (and Lara Croft) are moving along, seemingly in control of the progress of forming the story and experience, when abruptly the view shifts, and the player finds themselves looking through Lara Croft's eyes at some clue up high in the cliff that she believes somebody should take notice. At which point, it would be a good idea to stop as she's not watching where she's going. Then, just as abruptly, the view returns to the traditional medium shot. Effective ways of slowing the player down to take a closer look around.

In a more linear filmmaker environment, unlike interactive games and comics, the filmmaker has more control of the timing and pace, through not only the filming process, but more importantly, during the editing process.

Terry Kaney mentioned in Chapter 4 that he receives for the average 30 second TV commercial anywhere from six to ten thousand feet of film. This film was shot at various angles and with a treatment, script or storyboard as a guide. They will also do up to 30 takes of any one specific scene to make sure everyone is happy with it. Kaney explained that many times they don't do a storyboard; they'll just do a script or even just a concept, because they don't want to influence the Director at all. The Director will take the concept and establish various scenes to tell the story, or if he has an initial storyboard, will be inspired during the creative process and add new shots he feels will move the story along, which is the case with any director, comic book artist or animator.

After receiving the mounds of film, Kaney will review it all and take some of what he feels are the more dynamic and expressive shots and piece them together on his Avid system as an electronic storyboard. "Well I'd like to just sit here and say, that after reviewing all the materials; I just do it one time and it's perfect," said Kaney. "There have been a few times where that's actually happened, but I have to give the Director credit on delivering strong storytelling material." One of the core benefits of a nonlinear editing system is that while editing, the filmmaker can easily manipulate length, placement, timing and pace of all the shot, with the click of a mouse. This makes it easier to be creative and experiment with visualizing the story. "Most of the time, you've got to cut it too fast or too slow and then and find where it works," said Kaney. "I've been doing this for quite a while so it's become very intuitive for me." some people do see "the perfect timing," easier than others, but, every frame of film can make a difference when you're taking about 30 seconds. "Everything has to count as in every movement, everything has to be right or else you lose the immersive nature of the story. All you have is 90 seconds, max--- timing is everything."

Kaney has edited films as well, recalling his first experience being a transition, being that he was accustomed to telling stories in shorter time frames. It was the path of the story that determined whether to have a scene nine seconds or nine minutes. "I had to kind of rethink how I would edit; thinking closer to real-time, because you could actually have a two minute conversation in a film."

Kaney recalls witnessing how his mind was changing through the process of editing the entire film. "I went back and reedited the timing and pace of the first half the film. In the entire scope of the film, you could see that it moved too fast. It's quite a different – although the techniques were the same, the approach was different. In that you could be almost totally real with emotional levels and building suspense or building dialogue in real time."

Filmmaker Kevin Van Hook likes to cut the scenes in his movies much like in comics; focusing on the extreme. "If I'm having somebody spin around in a fight, I'll try to find that precise moment when the most extreme turn, with their hair flying, and then find a close-up with that same energy and that same angle, and that same frame where their hair is at that same kind of extreme point of motion. That's where I make my cut. When you do that it creates a very specific kind of energy to a fight scene, but the timing is crucial."

The similarity rests with comics, in the sense that's the extreme, most dynamic shot. In comics, when throwing a punch, it's best to extend the body as far out as possible, without losing that sense of reality, for the most of dynamic energy. "It's at that point that I change the scene with another angle where that punch is in the exact same position that the character being hit, is really on focusing on him, he's going flying. That would make a really nice cut. "

Film is usually paced by sequential cut scenes that take advantage of dynamic media to keep the audience in tune with what's going on. Comics can't usually do that, as there is no fluid motion, only the perceived fluid motion created by the reader as they move from panel to panel.

Copyright: Bite Me, Fan Boy!, is TM & © 2001 Epoch Entertainment. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Upon moving into film, Van Hook recognized that in comics there's a pace; dictated by the reader. The design of the page and panels may provide a path or guide for how, as the visual storyteller, the reader experiences the story, but it's still dictated completely by the reader. There are many ways of experiencing the visual storytelling in a comic book, which is one of the interpersonal elements that make it unique. One reader may skim the story first, getting a sneak preview or movie trailer effect, while another sits and starts from the beginning with taking a peek, while yet another takes a quick look at the ending first. Readers can flip the pages faster, turn the pages slower – building extra suspense and they can skip a page completely. So, the reader that may skip a page or decide not to read the any narrative boxes will experience what may be a completely different emotional response or overall story. This is one of the reasons why, in order to truly communicate and share this story with the reader, the visuals need to tell the story as much, if not more, than the dialogue. The components that outlines a path and pace for the story is really in the hands of the artist; to make sure it's not too fast or not too slow. The "cinematography" or art may attract the initial audience, but it's the story, and how they experience, that will keep them coming back.

A "silent" panel within comics is used much the same way as with other visual storytelling media. The purpose is based on how the artist decides to use it. It can be a dramatic pause, a beat between scenes, or dialogue or even a metaphorically "fade-in" or "fade out."

Copyright: Artesia is TM & © 2001 Mark Smylie

The filmmaker has complete control over the timing and pacing, so it's the responsibility of the filmmaker and his vision that will determine how the audience will experience that story. He will create that clock to outline a specific path and flow that's all about immersion. When experiencing the passive experience of film, there's not much that anyone can do but fall into the story. The filmmaker judges what's important for the audience to take notice of—like the amount of time it takes the protagonist to jump off a building; the filmmaker may show it in slow motion, but the audience has no control of that. As a reader of a comic, this is less passive, and requires active involvement to move the characters and the story along. The reader instills life into those characters, and that's how the artist and the reader communicate. The use of compositional skills within a panel, in between two panels and/or two pages will determine the pacing. An example of how to slow the reader down is by using a larger panel with lots of content detail. On the other hand, a single image in a panel with no or little dialogue and background would speed up the experience. For the most part, things should happen quickly to occupy as little time and space as possible, events that happen slowly, to occupy as much space as possible. That's really the only way to control that vital element of how long the reader looks at something. In order to have the reader pay special attention to scene, comics don't have the advantage of movies, so slow motion is out of the question, although, depending on what the specific scene is, multiple images may create a similar effect (see Chapter 10). There is no sure way to nail the camera down and leave it there (without risking boring the reader) until the reader looked at it. The opportunity is to present important objects or events in multiple panels, but not necessarily as the primary object or event.

Here's a simple way of showing the passage of time.

Copyright: Jimmy Dydo, from Patrick The Wolf Boy is TM & © 2001 Art Baltazar.

There is uniqueness to the visual storytelling in comics that creates the illusion of time within a single static frame. Pacing can be controlled and changed time within a panel by the strategic placement of elements. As people read right to left, in the upper right-hand corner of the panel, something could happen; an explosion, expressive emotion or a forthcoming dragon. Then, in the lower right-hand part of the panel, have a reaction to what happened in the upper right-hand corner. The two things exist in the same scene, same drawing, two dimensional space; they're together. However, film couldn't necessarily accomplish the same effect. In film, what dynamically happens in one frame may be too much for the viewer to absorb or may take the whole frame for dramatic effect (explosion, extreme close-up of a woman screaming at an off-camera menace or a forthcoming dragon), so the reaction is rarely in that same frame of film. The reaction moves to the subsequent frames of film.



© 2001 BOXTOPTV.COM. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Action - Reaction

© 2001 Nifty Comics. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Part of the art of visual storytelling in comics, or in any other visual media, is the mastery of time and pace. Manipulating the frame, whether it's a panel in comics or the screen of the television, the filmmaker must master the timing and the pace to provide for a perfect progression of the story.

All design elements, for timing and pace or otherwise, again, should be done in the service of the storytelling - not at the expense of it. Often, it is good to emphasize one panel on each page more than the others by size, dynamics, and rendering style or whatever. This panel should contain the most important bit of story on the page (or 'climax' of the page).

These examples from Terry Moore's Strangers In Paradise shows Francine and Katchoo (the two protagonists) having a loud argument in the other room, while David sits in the living room listening. Moore said that he usually writes a script, but doesn't always follow it. In this particular sequence here, he worked more from the hip. "This sequence came to me while I was designing it; laying it out. I just closed my eyes and pictured the characters arguing, as I was drawing a movie," said Moore. Note that he followed the 180 degree rule (see Chapter 9: Visual Storytelling Rules, for more on the 180 degree rule), where each character stays within their frame space for clarity.

© 2001 Abstract Studios, All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

The turning of the page in a comic book is an important timing element, used in many different ways; time lapse, dramatic pause or that all important beat before something jumps out from the shadows. Here, it provides a transition vehicle into the next scene.

© 2001 Abstract Studios, All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Moore wanted to show as contrast as the reader revisited the room where there was just arguing. He wanted to reader to feel and hear the stark silence, by panning the empty room with the camera; until we see a lone figure in the crack of the door. "The conversation she has on the phone, which also came to me later. For me, it's better if I don't script it on a keyboard, but rather as I began to draw her on the page," said Moore. "It's a little more natural. The perks you get for working in this particular media, you can do both at the same time if you want and I like doing that. I like writing visually."

© 2001 Abstract Studios, All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

It's best to arrange all elements and objects in each panel so that the reader's eye will exit in the direction of the next panel. Structuring the path a least resistance will offer the reader at least a clear subliminal path to follow. To slow the reader down, add more objects in the path, but avoid clocking it completely, without a good reason (such as a character jumping into the scene with some news). This subliminal path through the objects of each panel is very difficult to do consistently. Especially, when trying to maintain a character's established action flow direction and add dynamism. Even a montage shot should have a clear eye path through the various visual elements. Generally, it's better to worry about the design of each panel individually over the overall page design. However, should strive to do whenever possible.

As a general rule, asymmetrical balance is usually more visually interesting and dynamic than a symmetrical design. Panel after panel of symmetrical design could work, based on how the content within the panel is laid out.

As a broad general rule (with lots of exceptions that there is no space for), a series of thin vertical panels indicate a fast staccato pace while big blocky panels or panels that are horizontally long present a slower pace. However, the content within the panels dramatically affects the pacing effect. For example, a larger blocky panel with a single lone figure and a word balloon with only one word don't slow down the reader. Type of panel borders can tell a viewer what sort of reality he/she is looking at, such as thick borders, cloudy borders, color borders, and can also affect the pace of the story, again by forcing the reader to take notice. The reader's eye, that's the real magic of visual storytelling in comics. It's unique to comics.

The origin of what is now referred to as "bullet time" came from the minds of the Wachowski Brothers, but the technical execution was by John Gaeta and a digital effects company called Mannex.

Franco Aureliani & Art Baltazar

Creators, Patrick the Wolf Boy

"The panels in a comic book are used as a passage of time for the characters within the story. How the characters think and react is what most of our planning is about; producing the most effective way of visually telling the story. Even the smallest of nuances can give the characters personality."

Will Eisner

1917 — 2005

Sequential Art is deserving of serious consideration by both critic and practitioner. The modern acceleration of graphic technology and the emergence of an era greatly dependent on visual communication make this inevitable.

—From Will Eisner's Foreword in Comics & Sequential Art

Extraordinary sequential artist John Byrne was once on a comic art panel discussion with Will Eisner. During the course of questioning, a member of the audience asked Byrne how you'd know the right balance between words and pictures. Byrne explained that you'd use words to communicate something essential to the path of the story, which would be impossible to do with imagery. As an example, he referenced adding the caption "4:30PM." It's impossible to accurately illustrate "4:30PM," exactly. After a moment, he glanced at his fellow panelist Eisner, then returned his gaze to the audience and said, "Well, I'm sure Will Eisner could figure out how to draw 4:30PM." Eisner has been influencing the development of sequential art for over sixty years, from his work in early newspaper comic strips to having introduced the graphic novel to American audiences that he continues to produce today. He brought a cinematic approach to the visual storytelling in comics, also creating many innovative elements unique to the art form.

The Spirit, which was a comic strip he created in 1940, was syndicated worldwide for a dozen years, having influenced generations of artists to this very day. Eisner moved into educational comics until the mid-1970s, when he returned to sequential art and visual storytelling.

In 1978, he wrote and drew the pioneering graphic novel A Contract With God, and continues to create internationally awarded graphic novels. Aside from the mechanical innovations to the art form, his creations are wondrous stories that are notable for their humanistic tendencies that are generally moralistic character studies. Eisner also taught cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and is the author of two definitive works examining the creative process; Comics & Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling.

Eisner continued to influence every visual storytelling art form until his death in 2005.

Two must have books by Will Eisner

  • Graphic Storytelling
  • Comics & Sequential Art