You may think this is solely up to the illustrator of the book but in fact it's actually a shared responsibility between writers and pencillers.
Camera Angles and Storytelling through Panels
As a writer it's your job to define the pacing and flow of the page and how your story will reach the readers. The artist's job is to take those directions, execute them as best as he can and apply his vision on top of the writer's. It is a collaborative effort and that's why writers and artists have to keep a constant communication.
Drawing a pin-up is one thing, telling a story through pictures is something else entirely. All your choices have weight and they should mean something, you should be very conscious of every single decision you take as an artist/writer when working on a comic book.
A close up has a very different desired effect than a wide shot for instance, and they each communicate something specific to your readers. So always keep in mind, "What do I want to communicate with this panel? Why did I choose this angle, this camera position?"
Your choices matter. A good comic book artist needs to tell a good story, needs to communicate effectively, that's why some times you see a comic book and you think "I can draw better than this", well, maybe you can, but can you tell a story as good as that artist? Have you drawn lots of sequentials?
The number one advice I hear from seasoned pros is "Practice. Every single day, practice makes perfection", well, sorry to say but if all you practice are pin-ups then you won't get very far in comics. You must practice storytelling, even if it's just three little panels telling a joke, you must practice that skill.
Well, getting on to the main point of this article, what are the choices of panels, angles and camera positions and how to pick them to tell a story as good as as you can.
First things first, the camera angle determines both readers viewpoint and area covered in the panel.
Two factors determine the choice of panels and camera angles:
- Subject Size
- Subject Angle
The size of the subject in relationship to the over-all panel, determines the type of panel drawn and how writers and artists communicate between them, for instance, a close-up or establishing shot, wide shot, etc.
In other words, a close-up shows the subject as big as possible and taking as much space as possible from the panel (subject size in relationship to the over-all panel).
Extreme Wide Panel or Establishing Shot
These usually take most of a comic page and can be referred as "Splash pages". Because you position the camera as further away from the subject as possible, the panels need to be big enough to provide enough detail. This should be used whenever the readers should be impressed with the huge scope of the setting or event.
I.e.: Wide shot of a high-tech military base on an island off the coast, double page spread.
This means the panel above will take two pages and the camera is positioned far away to show the reader the size of the base and where it is located, the setting around it.
I.e.: Double-page spread of the X-Men engaging the Brotherhood of Mutants.
Yep, a jaw-dropping panel showing the heroes battling an array of villains. Camera is positioned far away so the reader can fully immerse on the scope of this event.
As you can see from the examples above, the subject size is small in comparison to the over-all size of the panel (double-page spread!!) and allows the reader to spend more time on the page absorbing everything that's happening on that page.
Such massive panels set the mood and instantly capture the readers' attention, providing them with the over-all picture before going into the actual details of the story.
A wide panel takes in the entire area of action. Those are usually not spreads and should be employed to establish all elements in play, so that readers know who's involved, where they are located and when seen in closer panels as the story goes on.
I.e.: Wide, Wolverine comes down the Blackbird jet on the X-Mansion hangar pissed off and flipping Cyclops his middle claw, right behind him comes Iceman and Storm, both pretty battered and bruised
With the shot above you establish who's on the sequence to follow (Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm and Iceman), where they are at (the hangar at the X-Mansion) and what's the main point of the scene (something happened that got Storm and Iceman hurt and Wolverine is blaming Cyclops).
Since the panel above is not meant to wow the reader, but rather establish your story, a splash page here would not be your best option. You should save those big spreads for really big moments, whether they are to establish a vista or a major event. Which is neither in this case.
The medium panel may be better defined as an intermediate panel as it falls between a long panel and a close-up. They are the bulk of storytelling as they position the reader at a middle distance and can feature several characters at the same time with enough detail to carry dialogue, expressions and dramatization.
They also happen to be the type of panel that offers the more creative freedom and variables. For instance, you can have a character's face in profile filling a portion of the frame on the right side as a second character is drawn from the waist up on the left side as they talk to each other. Something borrowed from the westerns is the "American Shot", which presents characters from the knees up and shows the guns by their side.
Medium panels are also an excellent choice for presenting events after a wide panel has established the sequence. You can have characters tilted in a medium panel and played in depth, so that the nearest character is turned slightly away from the camera and the farther character positioned that he is drawn in a three-quarter angle.
The choices are multiple with a medium panel and if you pick up a comic book you'll easily spot them pretty much in every page.
Pretty straightforward, a close-up of a character is the biggest a character will be in a panel and offers the best option for expressions and dramatization.
A comic script usually indicates how big is the close-up. A medium close-up usually shows a character approximately from the shoulders up, an extreme close-up is just the face, or even a specific part of the face, say the lips of a character who's grinning with delight.
The use of a close-up is to eliminate all the non-essentials and isolate whatever significant subject/event requires the reader's attention. A properly chosen close-up can add dramatic impact and visual clarity to your story.
Full-panel close-ups of letters, photographs, TVs, signs, coins, etc. Whenever the focus of your readers should be placed on an object, you use inserts. Whether it's being handled or not by a character, inserts can help you tell your story and the artists will find themselves drawing an array of objects they never thought they would draw.
Remember that you can mix and match them to better communicate your vision to the artist and make sure everyone's on the same page. You can have a wide-medium shot and indicate what is the point of focus, perhaps a shot that not's really a medium panel or a full blown close-up, indicate you're looking for a medium close-up.
Writers must know how to communicate his panel choices and artists need to know how to interpret them.
All subject matter has three dimensions, that's real life. Even flat objects, such as paper, have thickness. People, furniture, rooms, buildings, streets, all have height, width and depth. The artist must then draw a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface, the page of a comic.
Angles are the most important factor in producing illusion of scenic depth
Unless you're looking for flatness for narrative reasons, it's important for artists to always position the camera at an angle. Not only it brings dynamism to your panel but also help sell your world.
The height in which you position your camera is also a conscious choice and plays a huge role in telling a story.
A high angle panel is any panel in which the camera is tilted downward to view a subject. This choice might be for esthetic or psychological reasons, for instance, placing the camera higher on a character and looking down on them dwarf them, as in, the reader feels superior and looking down at the subject. This is great to show a beaten character or perhaps a comic effect.
A high camera is also great to let your readers get acquainted with the geography of a location, it sort of provides a map-like layout, allowing the reader to orient themselves.
The low angle panel though has the very opposite effects. This panel is in which you place the camera lower than the subject and tilt it upward, so the reader is actually dwarfed by whatever you're looking at.
This choice of camera angle is great when showing villains or figures of authority, or perhaps objects and structures that loom above us, it puts the readers in an admiring position. Just open any comic books wit great villains and I'll bet good money their first appearance will always be under a low angle panel looking up at them.
Always try angling your camera and panels to force perspective. This is mainly an artist's responsibility and since I'm no illustrator myself, I trust better professionals out there to provide tutorials in creating the actual panels.
I only think it's important to bring up how key subject angle is because it does have narrative implications and if the writer has a specific angle to show a subject, the artist should find ways to respect it.
IMPORTANT: Don't try to tell an entire story or sequence in one panel. It is the writer's responsibility first to break the story into smaller sequences, than into panels so the artist can jump in and contribute his vision.
How many panels in one page starts with the writer's decision and then the artist should try to accommodate it but obviously a dialogue must be kept between the two since it's a joint effort. Both writer and artist though should keep in mind that each page has a finite space, they have only as much room and thus, how the team breaks that page into panels is a skill as important as finding the right dialogue for your characters or the best art ever.
A comic book page has an average of five panels, keep that information in mind if and when you choose to have more or less panels
Usually an action-dynamic page has fewer panels so the reader can better take in the action while a dialogue filled page can have more panels since the main point of focus is the balloons.
Recommended Reading: Look for "The Five C's of Cinematography" . As much as this is a book geared towards camera work in film and TV, I found this to be extremely useful in comic book writing since both mediums have somewhat been blending as of late.
Another book you might look into it is "Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels with Peter David" which covers pretty much every aspect you should know about writing.
Thanks so much for reading and as always, let me know if you've got any questions!