Camera Angles and Subject-Camera Relationships
How to set the moods you envision
Written by: Chris Douvalas
Illustrations by: Mario
03/24/03


Quick links
Common Terminology
Z-axis
Establishing shot
180-degree rule


Framing Subjects/Creating Moods
Rule of thirds
Noseroom
Headroom
Horizontal plain
Low-angle shots
High-angle shots

When creating comic strips or animating your masterpieces, you can't just throw crap on a page and hope it works. Well ... you can, but chances are it won't. It helps to know how to position your subjects within the frame, and to know how to manipulate "camera" angles to create specific moods. The terminology I'll be using comes straight from the TV and film industry, but the ideas themselves are similar.


Common Terminology

Z-axis

We see the world in three dimensions, but images on paper are flat and have only two dimensions: width (x-axis) and height (y-axis). So obviously, to create a sense of depth on a page, images should ideally be constructed with a foreground, middleground and background. The dimension toward and away from the camera is known as the z-axis. People walking toward or away from the camera is an example of this, or in TV and film, the camera moving toward or away from an object is said to be on the z-axis.

Here's a good example of using the z-axis to your advantage. You want to draw a picture of a horse running in a wide open field, but you only have a 4x3 inch frame to do this in (same shape as traditional TV's). If you draw the horse running on the x-axis (horizontally) you'll have to draw the horse extremely small to be able to also draw the vast horizon. If you draw a close-up of the horse, you lose that sense of freedom in the wide-open field.  It's suddenly confined. So, instead of drawing on the x-axis, you can draw on the z-axis. The horse can be running toward us, the audience. You're able to get a really nice close-up of the horse, but behind him, you can also draw an infinite amount of field to show the great distance the horse has run. Voila! Your drawing now has a sweet perspective and doesn't look completely flat.

Just try to remember this: People standing side-by-side tends to be boring. Position one of the people a little more into the foreground or background and suddenly, you have assymetrical balance going on. That's a good thing.

Establishing shot

The establishing shot is needed to set the scene. It allows the audience to know where the subjects/objects are in relation to each other and the audience can then have a better feel for the environment you are trying to create. Notice that on sitcoms, the first shot you usually see is set outside, perhaps the house in which the family lives. Now, you know the characters are in their house and you know what time of day it is. Perfect! The very next shot might be of the family all sitting around the kitchen table shoving their fat faces with food. Here's your second establishing shot for this particular room.

If you have two characters sitting in an office talking to each other, the first frame should probably be a wide angle where you see the entire room. This allows your audience to see exactly where everything is positioned.

Of course, if part of the punch line in your comic strip is "revealing" the scene in which the characters are set, you'd want to hold off on showing it until the final frame.

The 180-degree rule (principal action axis)


The camera must remain on one side of a half circle to keep continuity with the action in the scene. The 180 rule can best be described with a sports example. Notice that in a basketball game, the main camera is positioned on one side of the court. The court is the imaginary line and the side that the camera is on is the half circle. Now, the camera can move anywhere within that half circle, but it should never (and does not) cross the line to the other side of the court. This would create confusion with the viewers because it would skew their perception of the scene. If the Chicago Bulls are shooting on the net to the right of the screen, but all of a sudden the camera crossed the line and showed Michael Jordan running with the ball to the left of the screen, the viewer is left wondering why the hell Jordan is racing toward the other team's basket.

Another example is of a TV interview. Barbara Walters is sitting on the left side of the screen, and her interview subject is on the right. This is apparent due to the establishing shot when the interview first begins. Now, when Walters is talking, she should always be looking to the left of the screen toward her interview subject. When the interview subject is talking, he or she should always be looking to the right where Walters is sitting. This keeps everything in proper relation to each other. If the camera were to "cross the line" and shoot from the other side, the viewer would get confused. Suddenly, Walters is looking toward the right of the screen. Is she talking to a different person?!


Framing Subjects (Creating moods with shots and angles)

It's important to frame your subjects properly within a shot. And as such, there are several factors to consider, chief among them, the rule of thirds, noseroom and headroom.

When you want to create specific moods, the camera angles you choose to draw from will do more work than any dialogue on your page ever will.

The rule of thirds

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There is something in the TV and film industry known as the rule of thirds. Taking thirds into account when shooting traditionally provides for shots more aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Despite what may come naturally to you, subjects should rarely be placed in the dead-center of your frame. It's boring. Pay close attention. Even news anchors oftentimes tend to be docked to the right or left of the screen with little graphics floating over one of their shoulders.

For the rule of thirds, imagine a giant ticktacktoe on your frame. It divides it into three sections horizontally and three sections vertically. The four spots where the lines intersect—called the golden mean—are considered the best place to position subjects and objects of importance. This composition offers a symmetrical shot with a focus on who or what is important.

A shot considered aesthetically beautiful would be when the eyes of an individual align with the top horizontal line in the frame. This is true even in a tight shot, even if the top of your subject's head is cut off (audiences don't find this distracting). That's not to say the eyes have to be lined up all the time. It's impossible, especially when trying to set other moods, like the low and high angles described below.

The rule of thirds also applies to objects. You'll commonly see three distinct sections in a frame. It may be (horizontally) a horizon, a sea and beach, or it could be (vertically) a building on the left, a gangway in the middle and a person walking on the right. Filmmakers commonly like to set up their shots in thirds, either horizontally or vertically, where there is something distinct in each section. Compositionally, it simply looks more pleasing to the eye.

Of course, there are few, if any, "rules of composition" that withstand an ultimate test of time since story context and the audience's expectations are always changing.

Noseroom

Noseroom is the distance from a subject's nose (or eyes) to the edge of the frame on either the left or right side (depending which way the subject is facing). If your subject is looking to the right of a frame, it's a good idea to allow for more noseroom on the right. This means your subject will be docked more toward the left of the screen. The subject won't appear boxed in.

Noseroom allows you to get tricky as well. If your subject is being pursued (think young, foolish teenager in a Friday the 13th movie), framing him or her without much noseroom tells your audience that something is happening behind this subject.

If you draw a man hacking away at a confidential file in a computer at night, and in the following frames, you want to have someone catch him red-handed, here's a good way to do it: By framing your subject toward the right of the screen without much noseroom, there is a lot of space behind him. You're foreshadowing to the audience what is about to happen—that someone is sneaking up behind the computer geek.

Headroom

Headroom is the distance from the top of the subject's head to the top of the frame. With too much headroom, all you see is this little head toward the bottom of the frame—it's awkward and your subject will appear to be short, if not sinking. With not enough headroom, the subject appears too confined. It's not very pleasing to the eye when the subject's forehead is chopped out (unless you're doing a tight shot with the eyes on the top horizontal line in the rule of thirds ... remember?).

There isn't a defined right or wrong amount of headroom to leave in a frame. Just keep in mind that more headroom is better for wide shots, and less headroom works well with tighter shots.

Horizontal plain

When your scene is set horizontally, everything seems peaceful and tranquil. Imagine a wide-open sea. But if you want to create a more frightening mood, you'd tilt the horizon in, say, a 35-degree angle. Suddenly, the once-peaceful waters become dangerous. Is someone about to get eaten by a shark? Try it out and you'll see it works wonders in setting the mood.

Low-angle shots

If you pay close attention to movies and TV shows, you might know primarily why low-angle shots are used. Of course, not many realize why because the shots work your subconscious.

Subjects or objects shot from a low-angle create intimidation. Are you featuring an evil dictator in your comic? Draw him from a low angle and he becomes a powerful figure.

Do you want to make a skyscraper seem gargantuan? Draw it from a low angle, and it suddenly dwarfs the viewer. Imagine the same picture of the building, shot from the sky. Doesn't create the same feeling, does it?

High-angle shots

High-angle shots are basically the opposite of low-angles, both figuratively and literally. If you want to create a feeling of weakness with a school nerd being threatened by the bully, draw a subjective shot (camera is part of the action). Draw the nerd from a high angle, with him looking up toward the "camera" (which are the eyes of the bully.) The figure seems intimidated, or inferior to your audience.

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That should help set you on your way to drawing dynamic angles in your comic books that make sense to the audience. By understanding the basics, you're better able to apply your skill to the page. You won't use senseless angles, but you'll begin to use angles that properly set a mood. These are tried-and-true methods. Now, that's not to say you should always be conventional. Uniqueness is encouraged—but nearly impossible without knowledge of some fundamentals.


any questions? email me
All rights reserved © 2003 Chris Douvalas