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Focal length and field of view...for comics?

Updated: May 5

If you haven't heard about focal length and field of view, look it up! I believe it is very useful to understand and utilize in comics. I talked about this in my YouTube series on the Ike Comics channel, in Draw/Process episode 81; check it out if you want to hear more about my thoughts on this. I realized after talking about it in the video that it would make a great, short and sweet blog entry, my favorite kind.

Basically, the human eye is preset at a particular "focal length", and we're used to seeing the depth and apparent distance between things in a certain, default way, but in cinematography and photography, they play with and exchange lenses or adjust focal length, even during a scene, to affect the mood, or, you could say, the subjective viewer experience.

Now, something I didn't mention in the video, unfortunately, is that a longer, telephoto lens gives a more objective perspective, also called a more voyeuristic perspective, because it would be as if you were across the street, zoomed in, watching someone. Even to us, with our natural eye, things flatten out the further away they get, gradually, so this make it look like you are further away from the subject. This gives a very different feeling than a camera being very close to a figure, a subjective experience-. This idea of an objective or subjective perspective is a useful way of thinking about it, because the idea is not simply to move the "camera" really close to your figures when you want it to feel subjective, intimate, and, alternatively, far away, when you want it to look objective, as if observing from a distance; the idea is to also "push" the background (and other figures) away or very close to each other and to the figure.

A wide angle lens makes the background seem further away (it makes things recede away more rapidly, warping the apparent space/distance between things), and that is why you can see a wider view of the background with this lens. A narrow angle lens makes things recede away more slowly, warping it in the opposite direction: it compresses them closer together than they would otherwise appear to the human eye.

In this drawing I did from a shot in Black Swan, the ballerina is entering from upstage and all the other dancers, and the audience behind them, look at her. This looks close to how the natural eye would perceive the space, what is called a normal lens/focal length. This feels like someone is following her around, like we are standing right behind her, so this can affect teh subjective reader experience, too--that isn't reserved for the extremes. Now, I scribbled out what it might look like if this shot used a telephoto lens (a narrow angle, a long focal length). You would now see a narrower view of the crowd in front of her, more zoomed in, and likely out of focus.

This roughly represents the same physical space (very roughly, I know) but the audience, the dancers, the ballerino looking at her, they are all more similar in size to herself, they are out of focus, they are flattened out, they become a wall of people and faces wrapping around her, pressing in on her. This sets a different mood; it affects the readers subjective experience.

This drawing that I did is a study from a photo in an old book of architecture. Again, it is a very rough sketch but I think it will work for our purposes. The architecture in this book was shot with a telephoto lens/narrow field of view, as if it was taken from far away. This causes the building to really flatten out. The building is in 2-point perspective, each side of the building is visible, but the vanishing points are very, very far away from the subject/drawing, to the degree that both sides of the building appear rather close to being flat. You could call this an objective perspective. Indeed, this flattening of the building helps us see the details with as little distortion (perspective) as possible; and it gives us a very "objective" view of things: it helps us really see the subject (the building) and understand the setting if we, say, used this as an establishing shot for a new location in our comic. But, by flattening out the perspective, apart from being unremarkable and static, it is essentially flattening out space, and, the distance between things becomes hard to judge. This may not matter if the subject is simply the building, we do get to see the details well with this flattening out of it, but if the the lamp post right-of-center and the tree near the center of the drawing were important figures, say, characters locked in a battle, they may appear close together, equal distant from the "camera" when they are actually separated by a depth of 25 feet or more. This effect that warps the readers understanding of the physical space between parts occurs on the other end of the spectrum, too. For example, in this drawing from a shot in "Casino Royale" the figure on the left is only 10 feet away, in terms of depth, from the figure on the right, but the figure's head is massive in comparison...

Note that in this case the vanishing point's are closer, compared to with the building in the last example. Closer vanishing point = much more foreshortening, a more rapid decrease in size as things appear to recede away toward the horizon.

Again, this has it's purposes; although the distances are harder to judge (and, similarly, it is a less objective point of view) this is a much more subjective perspective that we present to the reader. I like comics that make it clear where things are in space, where the characters are interacting and moving about in a physical space. You could say I prefer a more objective POV, at least for establishing shots. So, for me, it is important to periodically, every page, at most two pages, establish the physical space, the distance between our figures, clearly. If that is lacking in a comic, it is disorienting to me. I do this by using a more natural focal length/POV and by having the camera up to at least eye level, or higher, so that we can see the ground and use it as a measuring stick of sorts, to see how far figures are from each other. For example:

But I also like a nice dramatic shot. The first panel in the page above seems to be from a wide angle lens/POV and it makes the characters movements seem more dynamic. I don't do it very often, but I'm learning to stretch that muscle. The shot below feels like it is the POV of a wide lens because the figures are warped, growing as they're forward moving limbs are pulled towards the "camera". This helps it feels dynamic and accentuates the movement they are making, when they would otherwise not seem to be moving very much, since they are moving pretty much directly towards the "camera".

That's all folks!




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