Film is a visual medium, unlike other forms of story everything is told mainly in what isn’t said. The classic rule of thumb is “Show don’t tell.” It’s something you have to get used to when you become a filmmaker.
One unconventional way of studying this is by reading comic books. Yep that’s right, comic books.
Comics are an extremely visual medium, they also happen to base themselves off of cinematic angles. As in film, most of the story is told through what you see and not what is said.
I always like to go back to Matt Fraction’s run on Hawkeye.
Honestly, I believe this could be translated almost shot for shot into possibly the best movie ever made (and yes that is part of my pitch to direct, Marvel if you’re listening my contact info is at the bottom).
Take this panel for example from that particular run.
Now let’s pretend this is a scene from a film and each panel is a shot and the characters aren’t drawn, they’re framed. What do you notice about the Femme Fatale?
Let’s dissect it visually shot for shot:
Shot 1) You never see her face you only hear her voice.
Shot 2) We only see her feet walking towards Clint.
Shot 3) We see most of her body but she’s turned away from us.
Shot 4) We finally see her face, but part of it is framed out.
Together, we are given a scene that visually supports the narrative of Clint’s question: “Are you lying?” We never see the woman fully for who she is, she’s revealed to us slowly as we gradually see more and more, but still not a full picture. We can assume that whatever she says is only a partial truth; we won’t get the full story.
Reading further, we see that the dialogue supports this idea with the woman’s line: “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.” She isn’t exactly going to lie to him, but we’re not going to get the truth either.
We can do the same thing with Hawkeye’s character. From what we see of his apartment in the two above photos, Clint lives in a dirty, cheap place.
In the first photo he’s drinking coffee straight out of the pot and is covered in small bandages. We are instantly given something entertaining about his personality and know that he doesn’t really care about how he looks.
The bandages are a key point of Hawkeye’s character in this story; remember this is a superhero story. To have a hero with bandages tells us he’s not invincible. He’s a normal guy. This isn’t a superman we’re seeing, but an everyday guy.
It also adds a lot of personality to Hawkeye. There’s something that sets him apart visually from other characters and that peaks our interests as readers.
Basically, comic books are one big storyboard and can be a great tool to study and draw inspiration from.
Find a comic (probably a story that’s more grounded in reality than this…)
…and try to mimic the feel of the book. Use it as a storyboard and see what you can make out of it.
Take notes on the visual exposition of the characters, and on the lighting in the scenes. How can you apply it to the films that you make?
Something else that works great for using comics to help you with your short film is knowing comics are self contained, while being a serialized story at the same time.
It’s a perfect format for short films because instantly you get thrown right into the action without being bogged down by exposition. I’ll use Hawkeye again for this. Here’s the first page of the first issue of My Life As a Weapon.
Instantly we’re put into an exciting and interesting situation and we are compelled to turn the page and see what happens next.
Now, not every character is going to be falling out of a window in every short film, but it’s a great way to learn about getting right to the point. Viewers get bored easily and you need to find a way to get them hooked. Especially if you don’t have thousands of dollars invested into your project.
Now, if comic books aren’t really your thing and you hate them with a passion… well then, sorry I wasted your time.
If you love both film and comics, here’s a way to use your love of comics for film.