Tag Archive: Layout


Got these bound copies of The Happy Samurais #1 dummy comic last week. It’s the full 80+ page comic with rough lettering—some pages just layouts, some penciled—but the whole thing as a readable comic.

A number of months ago, I wrote about my new layout theory—“Make it a comic as fast as you can”, which helps you follow up on Andrew Stanton’s advice to “Be wrong as fast as you can.” That dummy is the result of trying to apply those principles.

Make it a comic.

Then read it and see if it’s any good.

If you’re going to “make it a comic”, then you need to recreate the experience someone will have reading the comic. And that means a couple things:

One, you’ve got to be able to actually READ it. You need to letter your pages—even if it’s just rough lettering to get the basic dialogue across. Dialogue changes the pacing, rhythm and beats of a scene. There’s no way to know if your story “works” without it in there. Don’t just give them pantomime pages and figure that’s “close enough” to how someone will read/experience it. Your story is words and pictures TOGETHER. Stop thinking like a writer or an artist and start thinking like a storyteller.

Two, you’ve got to setup your dummy comic as spreads (two facing pages) to simulate the reading experience. When someone reads a comic, they’re not seeing one page at a time (well, unless it’s digital, and that’s another topic…). Readers see both facing pages of a spread at the same time. And sometimes they can’t help but kinda skim ahead to what’s on a right-hand page a bit before they start reading the left-hand page. For good or ill, that’s part of the printed comic book experience and you need to consider. Whether something is a left or right hand page is something I take into account at every stage—from script, to layouts, to finished page. When and how you setup and reveal information on pages and page turns is absolutely crucial to telling a compelling, page-turner of a story. Plus, seeing your comic in spreads can also help you avoid any awkward tangents that make you read two separate pages as one continuous spread, or vice versa, a page that is supposed to be a spread with panels, but reads as separate pages, both leading to a confused reader.

This process couldn’t have worked any better for me. I sent my dummy off to my inner circle of creative confidants. They read it and told me what they liked and what could use some work. That feedback helped me shore up the story and figure out why the ending didn’t have the emotional impact I was trying to convey. I made a second dummy book with a reworked ending that is easily five times better than the original version.

No matter how smart you think you are, or how well you think you know your story, you’re ALWAYS going to be too close to see it objectively and that’s why getting objective, honest feedback is so crucial. When do you want to find out your comic doesn’t work? When you did 80 pages of layouts, or 80 pages of pencils and inks?

Now, truth be told, I didn’t EXACTLY follow this process. I didn’t layout the entire comic before I started drawing pages. As I mentioned in that previous post, I didn’t think I needed to. I actually penciled the first 20+ pages of the story based on my script (which I had worked to death), doing layouts scene by scene. Those first 20 pages were all setup, hooks and teases and I just knew how they should be laid out. As I worked on the second act of the comic, I found myself asking questions like: Should this be a splash, a double-page spread or a paneled page? Can you really do this scene in two pages, or should it expand to four? If the establishing shot is done this way will it slow the pacing down too much at the wrong moment?

That’s when I realized I needed to layout the rest of the comic. That there’s no way to know the answer to those questions except by reading it in comic form. To quote Andrew Stanton again (yes, I’m trying to set a record doing that), “I don’t believe in a scene until I see it on the reels.” Not “in my head”, or “in the script”, or “on the set.” But when the scene is in the form it’s gong to be consumed by the audience in.

So, who knows? I’m still making this shit up as I go along. Maybe you don’t need to layout the entire comic from the beginning. But I think at a certain point it’s necessary to help you bring your story home in a more satisfying and complete way. I know my comic benefitted from it.

Oh, and since a few of you have asked, the cover is just something I mocked up for the dummy book, not necessarily the actual cover for the first volume.

 

More layout work for The Happy Samurais. Needed to rework a couple scenes to make sure they had the emotional resonance needed for that part of the story. Basically had to re-beat the scene–beats are the moments we choose to show in the panels: actions, reactions, dialogue, exposition, gag etc. There are a million things you COULD show in this scene but what are the KEY elements/moments?

I was having a hard time re-beating this in script form, so I drew out each possible beat in photoshop. Didn’t worry about picking the best angle or anything at this point. Just drew a simple sketch that got across idea of beat, printed them out and cut them up. Now I could rearrange each beat, add or delete new ones etc. Really felt like a film editor picking the different shots and making a sequence out of them. Won’t need to use this technique too often as I usually have the beats nailed down when I start the layouts, but will definitely employ it again if I’m having trouble working something out.

Comic Layout Process

One of my former Kubert School students, Angie Fernot, asked a question in the comments of a previous post and I thought others might be interested in the answer.

Angie asked, “Are all those sketches on your drawing table different possible layouts for panels?”


Yep. That’s exactly what they are. Usually my process for laying out a page goes something like:

1. BEAT
– what moment that panel in the story functions as (action/reaction/dialogue/exposition etc.)
– when I’m writing, really I’m primarily nailing down what beats the story needs, so this is figured out in the script.

2. ACTING
– how the characters will act out the scene
– what their body language and expression is
– what the staging is (where characters are in relation to each other — are they facing each other, standing shoulder to shoulder etc.)

3. ANGLE
– once I know the beat, and acting, I’ll start moving the camera around to see what shot shows that beat as A) clearly as possible and B) as dramatically as possible.

4. COMPOSITION
– this is just fine tuning the shot. Making things bigger/smaller, scooting over etc. Half of this is done in the layout stage, the other in Photoshop during the penciling stage when I adjust the size/position/scale again.
– also leaving enough room for word balloons and sound effects in composition stage.

 

The image in this post shows me trying to work out the acting/staging of the characters as they celebrate good news. The list of numbers in the top right is the six panels on the page and what the beats for each panel are.

 

The chaos that is my drawing table when I lay out a scene.

Layout work for a scene in The Happy Samurais #1.

Gabe Bridwell's Desk Shot 12.22.11

Happy Samurais issue #1 Layouts

Happy Samurais issue #1 Layouts

When working on a comic, I usually layout and draw one scene at a time. My fear has always been that if I laid out something like sixty pages, that my drawing, storytelling and layout abilities would improve so much during those first twenty or forty pages that I’d have to re-layout a ton of pages to incorporate all that I’d learned. I’m not sure if there’s any truth to that at all, but it made sense to me for a number of years.

Two things have recently helped change my thought process on that. One, during my time at the Atlantic Center for the Arts residency last year, I talked with Craig Thompson about his experiences working on Habibi. (Though Habibi just came out this September, Craig had finished it as of October, 2010, so I’d seen the completed book while I was there). Craig had laid out the entirety of the 600+ page Habibi at least three times (I wanna say it was actually more like five). Each layout wasn’t just a change of camera angle or adding another panel, it was completely changing the way he was telling the story or more often, changing the story itself. He felt laying out the entire book was the only way to really see how the story worked. You sat down and read it from beginning to end.

Craig’s group at the residency was working on longer form comics — stories with page counts at least 100 pages in length. Members of his group each had to have a huge chunk of layouts done for their story, which they’d then share with the rest of Craig’s group in a workshop type of session. Craig said he was more convinced than ever after his experiences workshopping with his ACA students, that laying everything out ahead of time was the way to do it.

The second thing that made me change my thoughts on layout was hearing details of how Pixar develops their movies. Directors at Pixar screen their films internally every 16-20 weeks for their “Brain Trust”. The “Brain Trust” is considered to be John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars), Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo), Pete Docter (Up, Monster’s Inc.) and Brad Bird (Incredibles, Ratatouille) — though I believe other key people like Bob Peterson, Ronnie Del Carmen, Michael Arndt etc. are involved in some form as well. They “screen” the film in whatever form it’s currently in to get feedback on how it’s progressing. So during the first screening, the film is probably still an animatic (animated storyboards), the next version is maybe an animatic with temp voices/music, then onto a version with blocked in 3D models etc.

This screening process isn’t necessarily a straight line through to a finished film. Often times they get three or four steps into the process only to decide things aren’t working and go back to square one — both Monster’s Inc. and Up went through multiple false starts. Andrew Stanton has said, “I don’t believe in a scene until I see it on the reels.” As Stanton describes Pixar’s process, it’s essentially making the film three or four times to get it right. (Incidentally, Stanton feels that Pixar isn’t the best at making movies, but that they excel at re-working them). What Pixar doesn’t want to do is waste time making a story that doesn’t work. They want to, as Stanton says, “Be wrong as fast as we can.” So Pixar turns it into a movie (even if it’s animated storyboards) as soon as possible to see how it’s working out. Thus it only makes sense to turn your comic into a comic as soon as possible to see how it reads.

Before I can lay out a scene though, I need to know what the characters and environment for that scene look like. If you design a characters that’s super-wide, or maybe has some ornate costume detail that sticks out three feet off each shoulder, you’re going to compose a shot with that specific costume differently than you would a generic mannequin figure. Same thing with a location. The shape and design of the architecture is going to suggest unique angles, framing, composition and backdrops to set your characters against. The background should never be an afterthought to the characters.

I currently have about half of the triple-sized Happy Samurais #1 penciled (not all consecutive scenes, I jumped around a little). To apply my new strategy of laying out the rest of the issue, I had to finish off all remaining character and location designs. I like to make a reference packet for each character/location (see stack in the photo below). The packet will have printouts of whatever designs I’ve drawn and any other reference I might need. As of yesterday, I FINALLY finished off all the design work for issue #1 and this morning I start laying out the remaining scenes. The design phase always bogs me down (when I think back on many of the projects I worked on that fell apart, the design phase was almost always where it occurred.). It just happens to be the most time-consuming task for me. Super-happy with the designs I came up with, but honestly more psyched to be done with it and back to drawing and telling stories.

If you’re interested, I highly recommend checking out the following links to Pixar related podcasts:

Andrew Stanton – talks about upcoming John Carter movie & Pixar’s film-making process.
Pete Docter & Bob Peterson – talk with Jeff Goldsmith of Creative Screenwriting about Up.
Brad Bird – brilliant interview about Brad’s career and work in animation.

Design Work for The Happy Samurais Issue #1

 


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