When It Comes Right Down to It, There's Nothing Like Adam Davidson's "The Lunch Date"
This past year I was inspired by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin's March, Book 1 to consider what the best work of visual narrative or visual media would be to support teaching students about race and race-related issues in the K-12 classroom. For instance, if I were teaching Kathryn Stockett's The Help, or Shakespeare's Othello, or the speeches and writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., what would be the best supporting piece of visual narrative or media I could use? Would it be Prom Night in Mississippi? What about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or Do the Right Thing?
The answer isn't easy. Lewis and Aydin's book is amazing, as is Mark Long and Jim Demonakos' The Silence of Our Friends. Both of these are exceptionally compelling graphic novels and among the best books of their respective years.
However, if I had to choose, I'd go with a piece I've done so many times with my students: Adam Davidson's 1989 short film, The Lunch Date, winner of the 1990 Short Film Palm D'or and the 1991 Academy Award for Best Short Subject.
I could spend quite a bit of time here explaining to you the brilliance of Davidson's film and what its implications might be for your classroom. Just watch it, however, and be prepared to be absolutely blown away.
Filmic language can be useful in terms of understanding and expressing the relative distance between the reader/viewer and a given subject in a graphic story (see Filmic Language, Part 1). However, it can also help us understand our angle of view with regards to the subject, which in itself can have an impact on how we perceive what we are seeing.
A bird's-eye view in a comic allows us to view the contents of a panel from overhead, helping us to do one of a number of different things, including seeing the context of a scene with greater clarity or giving us a clear sense of a character's predicament. When a graphic storyteller shows us a character from a bird's-eye view, they can seem smaller, weaker, or more insignificant than when shown from a different angle. They can look physically smaller and less imposing, and therefore more vulnerable.
In this type of shot in a graphic story, the camera looks up at the subject from below. This can make the subject itself seem much larger, more imposing, or even more physically intimidating, especially as the bug's-eye shot moves closer to the actual subject and the angle gets closer to 90 degrees.
In this shot, a character is typically shown in the immediate foreground of the panel with another character further away. The action of the panel is sometimes literally framed bythe head and shoulders of the character in the foreground, thus giving the shot its name. It is a commonly used shot in the exchange of dialogue since it gives the reader an opportunity to perceive the character (or object, scene, etc.) in the distance from the general point of view of the character in the foreground.
For the POV shot, the viewer takes a small step forward from the over-the-shoulder shot to become, in effect, the character in the foreground. Comics and films from the horror genre use this shot frequently since it can develop great anxiety and anticipation in the reader/viewer. It can allow him or her to walk in the shoes of a killer or potential victim, seeing only what this character sees. Its use, however, is not limited to the horror genre, and a POV shot has wide applications in visual narrative.
Shot / Reverse Shot
This is a common technique in graphic storytelling that has been inherited from classic Hollywood films that sought to de-emphasize transitions from one scene to the next . Often, a shot / reverse shot in a panel sequence involves a medium over-the-shouldershot of two characters in conversation followed by a panel in which the characters' positions are reversed. This allows for a fairly seamless conversation.
Understanding the language of storyboarding and film enables a reader to talk about comics and graphic stories with a greater degree of accuracy and sophistication. It is especially useful to a writer who must try to give direction to the artist illustrating his or her story. Of special importance are terms referring to the way in which particular filmic shots in a graphic story are framed.
This is a shot that "establishes" a sense of the place where a given action in a story is happening. We know of these kinds of shots from film when, at the beginning of a romantic comedy, for instance, the camera swoops across the city where the action of the story will take place, accompanied by music that attempts to establish the appropriate mood. We find much the same in a graphic story, with a long or overhead shot of a given place giving the reader a clear understanding of the time, place, and sometimes even the circumstances of a particular scene.
In graphic storytelling, a long shot is typically one in which a character's entire body is at a far enough distance away from the perceived camera that it can fit entirely within the panel. A long shot can be used for a variety of purposes, such as reinforcing the vastness of a given location, a particular character's isolation or aloneness (because of his or her lack of close proximity to the viewer), the physical distance a character has traveled or will travel, as well as a variety of other uses.
A medium shot is an oft-recurring shot in a graphic story, and generally occurs when characters are shown from somewhere between the knees to the waist up. It is a very natural type of shot to depict a conversation between two characters since it allows the reader a kind of intimacy with the dialogue exchange that the long shot does not afford.
Once characters get within the distance of the medium shot described above, they are generally acknowledged to be in close up. This shot brings the reader/viewer and subject being looked at in close proximity to one another and can therefore have an increased intensity. Such a shot gives the reader a clearer depiction of a character's emotions or even intentions while also preventing us from seeing contextual clues that would be visible in a medium or long shot. Just as a long shot can have an impact by virtue of the significant physical distance it puts between viewer and subject, so too can a close up have an impact by putting them in close quarters.
Extreme Close Up
When a close up begins to close the distance from a head and shoulders type of shot to something closer still, we find ourselves looking at an extreme close-up. These can be among the most intense types of shots because the object of our gaze typically fills the panel. We cannot look somewhere else in the panel t o avoid the subject because, for all intents and purposes, the panel is the subject.
Film, literature, Graphica, and How They Can Teach Us that Sometimes, the Less Said, the Better
I was reminded this past week that comics, indeed any sort of wordless visual narrative, can teach us how important it is when something is not being said. Now don't get me wrong. I love a good long story. The nearly one thousand pages of Dickens' Bleak House was enthralling for me as a graduate student. The twelve hours or so of the Lord of the Rings trilogy's extended edition was great fun. And I've watched a great number of musicals and plays with a pretty substantial running time and found myself amused, engaged, bewitched, and otherwise entertained from start to finish.
But I'm also reminded of one of my favourite examples of flash fiction--attributed to Ernest Hemmingway though the connection is tenuous at best--that consists of but six words:
Now I don't know if this story has the same impact on you as it had on me the first time I read it, but there is an economy about it that is startling, and so much of the story has been left unsaid that this economy has a profound effect on the reader.
A couple of years ago I had a similar experience when a colleague showed me the short film below. It had won the Phillips Cinema "Tell It Your Way" Competition's Grand Prize. The rules of the competition dictated that the films being submitted could consist of no more than six lines of dialogue, and this submission, The Gift, took home the prize.
If you've never seen this short film before and have now composed yourself after breaking down in tears at the end, we probably have quite a bit in common. This film only needs six lines of dialogue because the visual component of the narrative is so powerful. It is such a clever, well executed, and--as a result--profound piece of film-making.
So what actually got me thinking about narrative economy? Well, not surprisingly, it was a wordless comic book panel drawn by none other than writer and artist, Francesco Francavilla. He was sending it around yesterday and it brought back to mind how powerful an image can be--how much it can actually say--in the absence of words telling me how to interpret it. Here's what he tweeted.
I don't know about you, but this image just sort of sends chills through me. That's usually my reaction to things Francesco draws, but this one is especially so. It reminded me when I saw it of what an economy of words can do, and it should remind educators that those who would suggest that comics and graphic novels are a way of "dumbing down" the reading experiences we give to our students should, if anything, be pitied.
After all, think about what they're missing....
Great Projects Deserve a Kickstart
I'm reminded this week of how so many great projects get off the ground because of the crowdsource funding that goes on at Kickstarter. Recently, two projects especially caught my attention--one of which deservedly met and exceeded its fund-raising goals, and one that seems to be well on its way!
She Makes Comics -- a documentary about women in comics
Because it's the Sequart Organization, we knew this campaign was going to be lights out. This is the group that helped bring us Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods and Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, not to mention a host of titles on comics scholarship. If you love the world of comics and haven't seen either of the above documentaries, then you should stop reading immediately and go watch them. When the final tally was counted, it wasn't just the total amount pledged that was impressive, it was how many people thought that the project should be supported. The screen capture says it all.
More than 1400 people supporting Julian Darius, Mike Phillips, Respect! Films and everyone that will be involved in the production. That's absolutely fantastic, and it's what Kickstarter is all about.
Share with Me -- an illustrator and her daughter make a book
I just happened to spot a tweet about this project and took a moment to have a look. I couldn't quite believe it. I think every parent at some point has had a dream about building, or making, or creating something with their child, and what Mica and Myla Hendricks are creating is a rare thing of beauty.
Mica is an illustrator. And yes, that's right: Myla, her daughter, is four. Together, she and her mom have put together a book that is whimsical, and enchanting, and collaborative, and just about everything you'd want a book to be.
If you'd like to learn more about either of these campaigns you can click on the images and it will take you to their Kickstarter pages. Sequart's ended in funding success, so if you just want to visit them at their homepage click here. Please continue your wonderful support of Mica and Myla's project and find Myla @busymockingbird on Twitter.
And thank you, Kickstarter. I mean, how long would we have had to wait for these projects if it weren't for crowdsource funding organizations like you?
Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children's author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He works as a children's writer for Rubicon Publishing, a reviewer for PW Comics World, an editor for the Sequart Organization, and serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto.
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