Around the turn of the 20th Century, two new media were invented. Okay, some scholar is going to correct me and say the first movie was actually made in the 1860’s, and Scott McCloud thinks hieroglyphics were comics, but work with me, here. As mainstream, commercial ventures, film and comics got started in the mid 1890’s. Before that, live performances were pretty much the only visual presentations, unless you count stereoscopes. Some books had illustrations, yes, but they were superfluous. Didn’t need them to understand the story. Live performances, of course, were on stage and seen from a theater seat—and that’s exactly how early film and comics were presented, from a point of view as if from a theater seat.
Then, one day, some actor walked up to D.W. Griffith’s camera and stuck his tongue out, and when the film was developed, they discovered close ups! Kidding. But, anyway, filmmakers and comics artists soon discovered that there were different kinds of shots. I will now show you the three kinds of shots.
I always get in arguments with Barry Windsor-Smith over this. He says there are nine kinds of shots. I say there are three kinds of shots. You can say whatever you want, as long as you understand the principles, but let’s use my definition for the moment because it’s me here.
(AT THIS POINT, ON MY BIG PAD I DREW A CRUDE SKETCH OF A HOUSE ALONG THE SHORE WITH PLAINS AND MOUNTAINS IN THE BACKGROUND. TOOK ME 13 SECONDS, HOW GOOD COULD IT BE…? THERE WAS A LITTLE TINY GUY BESIDE THE HOUSE.)
This is a long shot. You can see a house here. There are the mountains, here are the prairies, here’s the ocean white with foam. We must be in America. That’s one kind of shot, a LONG SHOT. I hereby arbitrarily define a long shot as any shot that shows great scope, where the scenery is the star, where, if there are people, you cannot make out any meaningful information about the figure or figures, other than they are present. You can’t, the guy’s a dot. This is also known as an ESTABLISHING SHOT, and, by TV types, those weirdos, shooting in a studio, as a BARN SHOT.
(I DREW TWO SKETCHES, ONE OF A COUPLE OF GUYS IN THE NEAR DISTANCE AND ONE OF A GUY WHO WAS CLOSE, BUT FULL FIGURE. TOOK SIX SECONDS. IT WAS A REALLY AWFUL SCRIBBLE.)
These are medium shots. I hereby arbitrarily define a medium shot as any place where you can begin to make out meaningful information about the figure, like the fact that this guy’s taller than that guy, up to the place where the figure fills the whole panel, but is not cropped. That’s a medium shot.
(I DREW A PANEL WITH A SLIGHTLY CROPPED FIGURE AND ONE OF JUST AN EYE.)
And these are close ups. I hereby arbitrarily define a close up as anything from where any part of the figure is cropped right up to the big eyeball.
Barry would say, “Well, no Jim. There’s a long, long shot. Then there’s a medium long shot, and then there’s a close long shot; there’s a long medium shot, a medium medium shot and a close medium shot, a long close shot….” You get the drift. Whatever, Barry. You guys can chop the shots up any way you want, but for the moment let’s accept my way just to make life easy.
When cartoonists and filmmakers discovered that there were different kinds of shots, they discovered that different shots were good for conveying different kinds of information. They discovered that the long shot was good for setting the locale, showing where the characters are, showing what kind of area it is. Here you see you’re in America–mountains, prairies, ocean white with foam. They also discovered, by the way, this shot was also good for what I would call big action. In other words if this mountain blows up, you know if Mount St. Helen’s there, you need that shot.
Here’s a medium shot. They discovered that this was good for establishing figures, making it clear how tall the person is, how they carry themselves, what they’re wearing…. Again it could be a car you’re establishing, not a figure, but you get the drift. For the purpose of this discussion we’ll call it figures.
Medium depth is also good for human-scale action. Does anybody watch sports on television? That’s the depth they use 90% of the time. This depth is so important to understanding human action that they use that almost exclusively. Yes, they give you the dramatic close up of the pile up on the goal line, but you don’t know if the guy scored so they show you the medium shot. Ninety percent of televised sports—watch a baseball game. What do they show you? They show you the pitcher, the batter, the catcher, and the umpire, full figures. They show you only four guys, out of the what, 15 on the field…? Because, if they showed the whole field, the players, umps and base coaches, you’d be TOO FAR AWAY to see the pitcher, batter, catcher and home plate ump—the principle actors—well. To show the principle human-scale action, they’d rather leave out the others and show you the main action at medium-shot depth. Otherwise, they’d just be little dots to you. If the guy hits the ball, they pull back to show the play. Watch a tennis match. 90% of the time they show you the whole court, both players, full figure. Medium depth. What Barry would call a long medium. Boxing? Occasionally a close up of the fighters clinching, but 90% of the time it’s medium depth, the whole ring, both combatants full figure. Human action. Establish the figures. So I know this guy is not wearing roller skates.
(HERE I DREW A SCRIBBLE OF A GUY CROPPED AT THE ANKLES.)
This guy might be. He might be wearing roller skates. I don’t know. I know basically what this guy looks like. But, hey, he might be three inches shorter than I suspect, and he might have wheels on his feet. Prove that he doesn’t!
The great Walt Simonson once drew an entire issue of Thor that never once showed Thor’s feet. I honked at him about it. Walt, who doesn’t take honking well, honked back and we snarled at each other for a while. We later made up. If you ever see Walt, mention that I complained about no feet and he’ll honk at me retrospectively for you!
So what do you get in a close up? A close up is good for establishing details, faces, whatever you want to call it, let’s say faces here. It’s also good for interaction, reaction, emotion, expression. Let’s “face” it, this is how we recognize each other. Faces. We recognize each other by our faces. So this close up shot, our pioneers found, was good for establishing what a person looks like facially, and if he’s crying, or happy, or sad, or whatever, that’s a good shot.
So, they discovered that there are three basic kinds of shots. There are no other kinds of shots. If it’s a bird’s eye shot, of a worm’s eye shot, it’s still either long, medium, or close. These are the three kinds of shots. They also discovered that using these different kinds of shots convey different information, that they could let the picture carry part of the burden of telling the story.
Yes, of course you can combine them, have a face up close and someone jumping rope in the background. These are tools not rules.
Yes of course, one can intelligently VIOLATE the non-rules. In the movie Rocky, there’s a great scene, shot from across the street, of Rocky making up with and hiring the Burgess Meridith character as his manager. Ordinarily, you’d do a conversation, an emotional scene close up—but Stallone had just done such a scene inside Rocky’s apartment. So he chose to do the hiring/reconciliation scene at what Barry would call long medium depth, getting across the exchange and emotions with big gestures and body language. Brilliant.
Once you know, once you have command, you can play.
Grasp the principles. Be bulletproof clear. Then go for the gusto.
Before film, before comics, when you were watching a stage play they couldn’t do different shots. You, in the audience, had only one POV. You always had a medium shot. So in Shakespeare plays the Roman generals are always talking about the battle over there, offstage, because he couldn’t show it! No long shots! Forget the fact that they didn’t have the budget to hire the actors. Even if he had 10,000 actors, he couldn’t have shown it. Once they discovered with a camera they could do that, worlds opened up. And they don’t have to explain it. No need to have generals giving kind of dorky soliloquies about the battle that you can’t see. Once they discovered VISUAL STORYTELLING it opened up all these new worlds. It let the art, the picture carry a lot more of the story so that the writers didn’t have to have kind of dumb discussions of things you couldn’t see.
JayJay here. This is a Types of Shots guide we came up with at Broadway Comics to help communication between the writers and the artists. The Watchmen and Love and Rockets have always been some of my favorite comics, so I scanned the art from them when I put this together.
CLOSE SHOTS – Good for conveying details, emotion, reactions, expressions.
EXTREME CLOSE-UP – A shot in which a small object or part of an object fills the entire frame, usually cropped.
CLOSE-UP – A shot in which the subject fills most of the frame with little space around it.
BUST SHOT – A shot in which the main subject is fills much of the frame, but more of the surroundings are shown. As in a head and shoulders or portrait type shot of a person.
MEDIUM SHOTS – Good for establishing figures and body language, human size action.
CLOSE MEDIUM SHOT – A shot with the subject near to the camera and clearly visible, but most likely partially cropped.
MEDIUM SHOT – A shot which shows the subject and its surroundings equally well. Usually full figures.
LONG MEDIUM SHOT – A shot where meaningful information and details are still clearly visible, but the subject of the frame occupies less of the space than the surroundings.
LONG SHOTS – Good for setting locale, showing location of objects, showing an area, showing big action.
LONG SHOT – A shot at such a distance that few details and little meaningful information about the object of the frame can be readily seen.
DISTANT LONG SHOT – A shot where the object can still be clearly seen, but no meaningful information about the object is discernible at all.
EXTREME LONG SHOT – A shot that is so distant that the main object is a dot or is not visible at all.
OTHER DESCRIPTIVE TERMS
- ESTABLISHING SHOT – A shot that shows enough of the surroundings to establish the locale adequate to the telling of the story.
- HIGH ANGLE or BIRD’S EYE VIEW or DOWN SHOT – A view from an angle higher than normal eye level.
- LOW ANGLE or WORM’S EYE VIEW or UP SHOT – A view from an angle lower than normal eye level, frequently the ground level.
- DIAGRAMMATIC SHOT – A view from normal eye level at 90 degrees to the action or interaction of the subjects.
- STRAIGHT ON or DEAD ON SHOT – A view from directly in front of the subject.
- OVERHEAD SHOT – A shot from directly above or almost directly above the subject.
- PANORAMIC SHOT – A wide angle shot which is similar to the viewpoint of a panoramic camera.
- FULL FIGURE SHOT – A view in which the subject is not cropped.
JayJay here. Jim has had something come up so we had to skip Monday’s (4/25) blog.
Since Barry Windsor-Smith was mentioned in this part, I'm curious if Jim has any desire to incorporate another "World's Largest Comic Panel" into his Dark Horse titles one day. I believe that would be considered a distant long shot. It was an ambitious experiment that turned out so remarkable. I really wish a skilled penciller would draw a locale panel of that size again.
Jim, I just want to say how fascinating I find this blog, and how glad I am that you decided to start it. I love the anecdotes, and enjoy the craft discussions too (although the bonus story about Walt, in this one, was a hoot).
I may not leave many comments but believe me, I'll be reading appreciatively.
Thanks for the answers. We could not figure out Ben Day. On the other hand my 12 year old with no formal training figured out BG. As soon as he did, I realized it was a little more obvious than I had thought.
We are currently employing more of these methods into our own story telling, so I really mean it:
BG means "background."
Ben-Day and Zip-a-Tone were halftones, shading, that you could apply to a drawing. Here's a "zip" illo:
See the grey? The shading came on a sheet you could stick down or rub down. Ancient art technology.
Great lecture Jim!
Most people think that fine art and comic art are similar or interchangeable but that is just not the case. Fine art uses abstract concepts as tools like composition, color and gesture, but comic art must be in service to the story. No matter how much an artist hates drawing landscapes and buildings, It's hard to avoid things like establishing shots to convey a setting. A comic artist must draw things to further the story. Sometimes he can go wild and do the fun splash pages but only after he has satisfied the requirements of the story.
It's really nice to see people like Bill Sienkiewicz do abstract expressionism in comics but it is only as effective as his ability to convey the basic needs of the story. It's his lack of expressing the basic establishing shot (and such) that ultimately doomed Electra assassin and Stray Toasters. If you are not going to show these basic story needs in the art then you put more burden on the writer, and it becomes more illustrated fiction than comics.
Lol! Now we are showing our age… Ben Day were these shading textures you could add to black and white artwork (like half tones in Photoshop) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben-Day_dots) and BG is short for background. Also BWS is short for Barry Windsor-Smith, but also an abbreviation for a direction to inkers… "black, with stars."
What do "Ben Day" and "BG" mean?
…And thanks for sharing!
As a professional linguist (PhD and former professor) specializing in writing systems, I'm relieved that you don't regard hieroglyphics as comics. Hieroglyphics are pictures used to write words, not pictures that directly convey ideas. Many hieroglyphics function as symbols for consonants:
For instance, a hieroglyph for "D" was a drawing of a hand. Our own alphabet consists of simplifications of such drawings: e.g., "D" was once a drawing of a door.
Hieroglyphs look like objects, but they can't be taken literally. They're not examples of visual storytelling. Something like
is just a picture surrounded by words, not a comic strip. It's structurally similar to a modern magazine cover with a central image surrounded by copy.
Have you seen
by the current owner of the "22 Panels"? On that page, Larry Hama explains how the "22" came to be.
George E Warner
Wally Wood's "22 Panels That Always Work!!" is worth having around as well. Even tho I only do lettering these days, I still find it to be an invaluable reference tool.
You can link to it here: http://i53.tinypic.com/rrkrpz.jpg
George E Warner
Although prose fiction doesn't employ camera angles, I think your advice is still relevant to authors. Every choice made by a creator must fulfill the one commandment: communicate. I've read prose stories in which I have no idea where the people are. No narration or dialogue establishing the character's location, apart from something vague like "on a spaceship." Where on a spaceship? The bridge? The cafeteria? A crowded room? An empty room? Often creators end up creating whatever they want (or what they can do) without regard for communication. Hence some superhero artists draw poses without backgrounds – the latter either don't interest them or are beyond their ability. But there can be no story without backgrounds. Everything occurs somewhere, and creators have to tell us where.
The exceptions that you and Pastrami mentioned work because they ultimately follow the one rule: communicate. The Stallone and Meredith characters used body language to communicate from a distance. So did the woman in PAY IT FORWARD. But if a character is the sort who'd stand still, then maybe a long shot would be a bad idea. Maybe. If the point is to show the character not reacting at all in the face of some horrible revelation, then a long shot might make sense. A non-reaction can also be interesting. Why doesn't this one guy crumple when everyone is? Because he's stronger? Callous? An alien who can't understand human emotions? Unusual storytelling choices can intrigue the audience – only as long as they communicate. Otherwise, they're just irritating. Fun for the creator, perhaps, but not fun for the audience. Communication takes two.
Thanks for all the concrete examples of shots. I'll assign myself homework. I'll look at a comic, identify the shot types, and more importantly, try to figure out why those shots were chosen.
Ah ha! Barry was right! There are more than three! Just kidding. Thanks for these. I really am trying to put these into practice and find them so helpful.
I like what you said about breaking the non-rules as well. The scene you described from Rocky reminded me of another fabulous scene that carried intense emotion that broke the non-rules as well. In the movie Pay It Forward they….
Spoilers (just in case)
they used a long shot when she finds out that her son died. Terrible choice, right? You've got to have the doctor come in a talk to her and then do an extreme close up of her face. Instead they went with that long shot, and the way she crumples is just devastating. I'm getting emotional relating it here.
What a great scene, and it did just what you said. It allowed the pictures to tell the entire story.