Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Writing vs Art: This Time It's Personal

Today I sat down to start typing out the full script, having finally nailed down the detailed outline. On the very first line of page 1, I'm struck by something. How much do I describe in the script? I'm going to be the artist on this book, so I don't really need to dictate every last nuance of each scene in flowery prose, but I do need enough information to tell the story.

So how much is enough? How much is too much?

This leads me to the age-old debate in comics: Are the words or the pictures more important in telling the story? Neither. The script and the art should be married seamlessly, so that the reader isn't thinking about the script or the art as diparate elements. They're thinking about the story; the sum of the parts. Ergo; the writer and the artist should be partners, in it together 50/50. But in my own experience, this tends maybe not to be the case at times.

Comics are a visual medium. Some may say that the art is what you see when you open the book, and in a very real sense, yes, on the most basic level the art does carry the story throughout. It's a visual delivery system for the writer's ideas. That said, the art would be a series of non-associated images if the writer hadn't described the basic story in his scipt. Both are essential elements. 50/50. But there's a problem. In any given work-for-hire comicbook, the 'power' is rarely evenly distributed between the writer and the artist. The writer is developing the premise and ideas, and going on to outline his/her story in the script. But not only does he/she describe what is happening, who is speaking, where the characters are in relation to one another etc, they also proceed to dictate the way they want this content to look on the page. The writer more often than not describes in fine detail how many panels there are (thus dictating the visual pacing), where they want the 'camera' to be, where the characters are to be placed, and the background/setting/lighting etc. All visual elements. Surely this should be the artist's job? If you handed a script to the director of a film complete with minutely described camera angles and scene directions, he'd laugh at you and tell you that he's got it covered. The director's job is to direct. Decide how to establish and progress a sequence visually. Where his cameras will be placed, how he will direct his actors to deliver the dialogue, as written by the writer. Along with his cinematographer and lighting director he will decide what the mood and atmosphere of the picture will be, referencing the script for the emotional thrust of the scene. The film script is a guide for the director, not a mandate.

I work a fair bit in storyboarding for ads, animation etc as well as comics. Never have I gotten a storyboard script that described exactly what was happening in each shot. The script will outline the sequence, giving you ample information on how it progresses, and telling you what elements need to be in each shot. But they want the artist to come up with how the sequence will be shot; it's why they hired you. The artist on a storyboard is there to come up with the coolest way to visually describe the sequence, in fact that's the only reason they're there.

And then you have comics. Probably the only medium that can be described as being as visual as film. The story, like film, is told in sequences of pictures. And yet the way many comics are executed is very different. In most comics the artist is generally hired to draw the pictures that the writer precisely describes in his script. The writer not only developes his/her idea and describes how it plays out on the page, he/she goes on to instruct the artist, the 'director', as how to tell the story visually. The artist has gone from being a collaborator to basically a hired hand, an illustrator of a series of individual pictures that take place one after another and depend entirely on the visual storytelling skills of a prose writer that generally has less knowledge of how to visually progress a story than the artist. The artist should be the director, the actors, the cameraman and the cinematographer. Anything visual should be a part of the artist's remit, not the writer's.

Now, that isn't to say that some of the writers out there don't have a decent eye for visual storytelling. Many of them are more in tune than others. Some of then have a downright fantastic mind's eye when it comes to mapping out the visuals.
The bottom line though, is that without actually sitting down and figuring out the nuts and bolts of a comicbook sequence through various thumbnail drawings, you simply can't know the best way to convey the story. The best shots, angles, panel count etc. This is something artists have spent years learning to do. Why not use this resource?

What often happens nowadays(again, this is only in my experience), is that the artist will sit down and thumbnail out the sequence as described by the writer, figuring out how to make their version of events workable. Sometimes a writer will nail a great way to visually progress the sequence of events. But not in the majority of cases. Usually the artist figures out how to make the writer's version work, instead of expending the same energies on coming up with his own version, unhindered by the thought that you might be offending the writer if you don't stick religiously to their description.
Basically, a lot of the artist's work on executing a given writer's script can come down to problemsolving.
There have been so many instances of spending a large amount of time on trying to figure out how to make the writer's shot-choice work. On figuring out how the hell to make character A stand in a particular place next to characters B and C, incorporating the dictated camera angle, and still have them talk from left to right so as to keep the visual flow of the scene nice and smooth. On occassion a writer will have a particular visual idea they're in love with, something in their mind's eye that indeed can look very cool and moody for that particular shot. But they oftentimes don't understand that you need to organically arrive at that shot and progress from it in the preceeding and following panels, that the book isn't simply a series of pretty looking static images. What that leads to is basically illustrated prose. Surely it should be the artist that dictates the visual storytelling? The pacing, the ebb and flow?

If the artist is lucky, they'll know the writer well enough that they can give them a quick shout and say 'listen man, can I change x, y and z in this sequence? It isn't really workable in its current incarnation in the script'. And any writer worth his/her salt will be absolutely fine with that, they know that it's the artist doing his/her job, and bringing their skill set to the table. But with many of the books I've worked on, I've never talked to the writer in my life, maybe a short email here and there when I have questions. I'm loathe to change anything in these scripts without asking first, and so I spend hours thumbnailing various iterations of the page, trying to shoehorn in the exact shots that the writer has specifically described. Even when I do request to change something, its only after spending ages exhausting every possibilty of trying to make the writer's initial shots work.

So how would I prefer it was done? I'd prefer if the writer wrote his script with more room for the artist. Let it be a truly 50/50 collaboration. Describe any scene setting, breaks and story points. The general timing and mood. All dialogue, obviously. Tell me how many pages I have for a sequence, how it begins, how it ends, and what happens in the interim. By all means suggest elements like panel count, shot choice, and character placement. Lighting, panel-specific mood, atmosphere. These descriptions can be of great help to the artist, and will let him/her know what kind of look the writer envisions. But leave it up to the artist to make the final call on all of these visual elements.
This would give the artist exponentially more freedom to express himself/herself, and tell the story in their own distinct visual style.

Now, it's highly possible, and perhaps likely, that I simply haven't risen to a point in the industry yet where I'm given that bit more leeway and latitude with scripts. Maybe I need to pay a few more dues before I get to the point where I'm truly a 50/50 player on a book. And that's A-ok with me, I believe these things need to be earned. But I also believe that a slight shift in the creative process could and would lead to better comics being produced.
It also has to be said, that a lot of the writers that I've worked with would probably have been more than happy to have me contribute more to the process of planning each page, but I simply didn't ask them. I was always too worried that I might step on somebody's toes, or that I might be out of line. Which is obviously a failing on my part!

All told, I guess all that's needed is a slight mindset shift on everybody's part, where it's a given that if the artist feels that it's necessary to improve the storytelling, he/she is free to make changes here and there. At the end of the day, if the writer or editor feels that the artist's choices hindered the book rather than improved it, they'll look elsewhere next time.

Anyhoo, my long-winded point being that on a book which I'm writing myself, I should worry less about including every facet of description from the outset, and merely give myself a detailed outline of the story. How each sequence begins, progresses  and what the outcome is, and how this leads into the next scene. And so on. Hell, I could even leave it 'til the whole thing was drawn to add dialogue, but I think I'll include it at the script stage, as it usually helps me define a character's body language and facial expressions.

DISCLAIMER: if you are a writer whom I've had the good fortune of working with, it isn't you I'm mentioning as writing awkward shot descriptions. It's that other guy. Please keep hiring me.


Anonymous said...

Great piece you made about the differences between art and word. I enjoyed seeing how you distinguish between the two.

I am wondering if after the story is completed and out, will you be posting your script and outline on here? I think it’s interesting to see how comic book writers create their scripts.

Stephen Mooney said...

I don't know... You're right, it would be interesting to see the comparison between the script and the finished art, but at the same time, my full script is written in a kind of shorthand to an extent, since I'm drawing it myself, and I don't know if that would read clearly to people. Also, I'm not confident enough at the minute that it's worth showing to anybody! I'll think about it a bit more down the line, but right now I doubt it.

Scribbler said...

Jaysus my brain is frying man. You need a workmate up there, or a dog. Enjoyable enough read but if you keep typing this stuff you'll talk yourself out of it. Mind your p's and q's there too man, scriptwriters rule the comic world, don't go teeing them off! ha ha!

Stephen Mooney said...

ha, talk myself out of it? Little too late for that now! I hear what you're saying man, and to be honest I did think twice about posting this one, since as you say I'd need to be careful about not stepping on anybody's toes. But that said this blog is supposed to be warts'n'all about the process, and these were the thoughts running through my noggin, for better or for worse. I think I was pretty even-handed in the end, no?