What daily practice or books would you recommend for a comic book artist/animator who wants to become better at creating dynamic compostions?
Great question! Composition is one of the most important visual storytelling tools, and wielding it correctly is the difference between compelling stories and forgettable ones.
Recently my office mate at work commented on how much better I’d gotten at composition. I say this not to brag, but because I want to share with you the one book and the one exercise that are directly responsible for my improvement.
1) Framed Ink Book
The best book I can recommend is Framed Ink by my Dreamworks coworker Marcos Mateu. It breaks down visual storytelling for comics and animation, and details the core practice of extracting as much narrative power as possible from each image using lighting, composition, and camera. It’s the best book I’ve read on the subject. Marcos also teaches regularly in the LA area – if you’re local I’d recommend taking the class from the man himself.
My one criticism is that it’s heavily weighted towards extremely dynamic composition – Mateu’s great strength is epic moments, and if I had his skills I would push my work in that direction too. That’s why the next exercise is crucial.
2) 1000 Compositions Exercise
This exercise was suggested to me by another DW cohort, Sam Michlap, production designer extraordinaire. It’s quite simple, though not easy. You’ll need a movie (or comic book), a sketchbook, a timer of some sort, and a sharpie. Here are the rules:
1) As you’re watching a film (or reading a comic) and you find a composition that you like, pause it.
2) Give yourself a two minute limit. I use an online timer - it’s easy and it works.
3) Whip out your sketchbook and draw it. Draw it small (2″ x 3″).
The goal here is to train your eye! This will force you to visually simplify what you are seeing, make bold choices, and see bigger patterns. (Sometimes I’ll watch the movie on a smaller window on my desktop to cheat.) Oftentimes young artists are so concerned with characters and with detail that they miss the bigger picture. This exercise is fantastic for exercising your big picture muscle, and is a fantastic complement to studying character design.
Waiting for great compositions in the average movie can take a long time, so a great hack to maximize your time is use movies known to be full of great compositions. I’m working my way through the cinematography documentary Visions of Light right now, and every shot is worth studying. (As a bonus, you also get to learn about the history of film!) Other great movies are anything by Welles (Citizen Kane, The Third Man, Touch of Evil) or Hitchcock ( The Birds, Psycho). All the movies I’ve mentioned are also Black and White, which makes your job easier by removing color from the equation.
Here’s the big picture goal (are you ready?): Do 1000. If you can get to 1000, you will be amazed at how refined your sense of composition will become. I’ve noticed a huge leap since I began this exercise, even my office mate noticed it. Sometimes after studying for a couple hours, I walk outside and feel like I see the world in a different way! And here’s the thing: I’m only at 268! Can you imagine what kind of composition superhero you’ll be when you reach 1000?
Take a crack and post a link to your work in the comments if you’d like feedback – I’ll post some of mine in the new year. Thanks for the question, Chase!