Establishing Shots

edited June 2013 in Do The Work
Do you use them frequently? When you first introduce a new location, or EVERY time you visit that location? Are you a fan of tailless dialogue balloons over the establishing shot scene? Do you frequently caption the establishing shot to aid in identifying the location?

I do use them pretty often, but I've been known to discard them if I want the first panel of the page to open with a close shot of surprise action. In the second panel, I can then pull out to reveal more of the scene. It's not exactly an establishing shot, and it does disorient the reader, but it rewards them if they pay close attention.

It helps that Michael is an awesome background artist, so showing these steampunk and cyberpunk cities is not a drawback. That being said, the weaker your artist is at lavish, detailed backgrounds, the more writers tend to shy away from establishing those backgrounds.


  • Unless I'm trying to go for suprise or a specific transition, I use them whenever we see a new place. I don't think they're at all necessary when the place is some place the readers have seen before. I recently had this discussion when I cut back to a location that the readers had seen every issue for the last three issues. Frankly, if they're not able to recognize the interior by now, an establish shot of the outside or whatever will be just as useless.

    And when I do use establishing shots, they aren't always of the exterior. In Luther Strode, for instance, we don't see the exterior of Luther's apartment, nor do we ever see the exterior of where The Bound are kept. In either case, there is an establishing shot, but it's an interior shot. For Luther's apartments we didn't need an establishing shot, and for the Bound, it's meant to be obscure.

    Which is my philosophy on them in general. If they're conveying information the reader needs to know, I am all for the, In a lot of cases, the stuff establishing shots establish can be inferred. There is a school of thought (Jim Shooter subscribed to it) that you use an establishing shot to draw readers into the scene, whether you need them or not. Obviously, I don't agree.
  • Establishing shots do not need to be the first shot. They can even be the final shot, or eliminated entirely. The key is that the important geographical information is conveyed in some way in the scene. If you can do it little by little over the course of a scene's panels then fine. The use of establishing shots is really a sort of cheat in both film and comics (or prose) to MAKE DAMN SURE that the important geographical information is conveyed.

    Even more than a smart writer, it takes a smart artist to pull off a scene sans establishing shots.
  • I don't mind tailless balloons, but I'm not a big fan of tails running off panel. Can't say why, I just don't care for it so much.
  • Agreed! If the speaker's off camera, no tail. Always.
  • I like establishing shots.
    I use them a lot.

    I just like pulling the camera back because I like to play with backgrounds.
    But I will say... they SUCK to draw.
  • Agreed! If the speaker's off camera, no tail. Always.
    I disagree very hard. If the speaker is in the room and you can tell where they are, I never want to see a tail-less balloon.
  • I use interior establishing shots frequently — to set up the space that we're in, and often as part of a "master shot" where we see where all the characters in the scene are in relation to each other. After that, I just try to cut back to a master shot once every page or so, unless nobody's moved from their initial positions.

    Exterior establishing shots I use less frequently. Often when I do use them, the establishing shot consists of the cast walking into the building/location where the scene is taking place — or people leaving the location. It really depends.

    I also usually do exterior establishing shots with dialogue, where the balloon tail is "squished" against the building in the location that the characters are in — to show that, say, the interior scenes are going to take place on the ground floor or on the eight floor or whatever. Like I said, I include "clipped" balloon tails every time a character is talking but their mouth is in frame, whether we can see that person at all or not — that way, the tail is pointing towards the speaking character, continuing to give the reader an idea of where the characters are in relation to each other.

    On all of this, I play it by ear. Sometimes I do an exterior establishing shot; sometimes I don't. Often I start scenes with a close up, and then pull out — sometimes pulling out into a master shot of the cast first, and then finally into an establishing shot of the space they're in. Depends.
  • I almost always use an establishing shot, but sometimes it's an interior shot. Old Wounds starts off in the protagonists bedroom as he is awoken by knocking st his front door, because thst is a jarring experience. We see the outside of the house when we first see the cops at the door on the next page.

    As for tailless balloons, I am with Brandon: if the speaker is in the room, there is a tail. Otherwise, who the hell is speaking? God?
  • edited June 2013
    I fell in love with establishing shots while reading GOTHAM CENTRAL. Artist michael Lark used the same shot, a closeup of the light fixture outside the gcpd, every time. I stole that for my first batman book.
  • Hi! I'm Jim McClain, and I just joined the group. I like the establishing shot, especially when beginning a brand new story. But I agree with Steve, that a surprise action panel dropping you right into a scene can be effective too. 
  • Welcome Jim and Todd. Glad to see you jump into the conversation. Take a moment to tell us about yourselves in the introduction thread if you haven't already done so. You are right about the importance of the establishing shot, or at least, of finding a way to convey the information contained in the shot. That was my real point; it can be done by other devices, but its not easier, rather its harder, but not impossible.
  • And I don't concern myself with the tailless/off panel tail enough to argue with the writer about it much (uhmm, I may have yanked Russell's chain about it once) but when I write, I don't generally like to have characters speaking from off panel. I can see where it might be useful as a sort of "surprise" for the on-panel character to be interrupted from off-panel; but for an ongoing scene it strikes me as poor planning to have an already established character speak from off-panel. Insert another head shot or twofer in as needed.

    I would disagree with Russell and Brandon though about tailless balloons being to hard to identify. If you are writing identifiable, distinct dialogue that has a logical flow to the conversation, then the reader should be able to track the speakers for a short spell; just as when writing prose dialogue, it is not necessary to always use "he said" "she said" for clarity. However, since I don't care much for off-panel speakers anyway, its sort of a moot point for me.

    I do like tailless balloons in crowd scenes to suggest the hub-bub of conversation... and that sort of gets us back to establishing shots dunnit?

    While this has been a bit of thread drift, both the shot issue and balloon issue address clarity as the underlying concern.
  • @marvinmann, you never yanked my chain. You voiced your objection and I decided it wasn't worth a debate. I will almost always give in to you when it comes to artistic vision.
  • I have no strong opinions on tailed or tailess balloons. But I mostly used tailed for off panel speakers.
  • I do think establishing shots are important, although I don't always live up to my own convictions (like Jimmie said, they can be a pain to draw). Like here, I really should have pulled the "camera" back to show more of the room, the other patrons, etc. to make it obvious they were in a bar. I think it's reasonably clear anyway, but it could've been better (and it would've added some visual interest to an otherwise pretty static "talking heads" scene).

    I do the balloon-tail-running-off-panel thing quite a bit (I just noticed there's one on that page I linked above!). I see Marv's point that a tailless balloon can do the same job. But to me there's still a small chance it will be misinterpreted, so why not eliminate the ambiguity? It's all a judgement call, of course.

    (Whenever I think of bad balloon placement, "Mark Trail" always comes to mind...)
  • edited June 2013
    And I don't concern myself with the tailless/off panel tail enough to argue with the writer about it much (uhmm, I may have yanked Russell's chain about it once) but when I write, I don't generally like to have characters speaking from off panel. I can see where it might be useful as a sort of "surprise" for the on-panel character to be interrupted from off-panel; but for an ongoing scene it strikes me as poor planning to have an already established character speak from off-panel. Insert another head shot or twofer in as needed.
    I use off-panel speakers constantly — there are many, many effects you can get with an "off-screen" speaker that you can't get by showing them: 
     - When the person speaking is someone the other characters in the scene weren't aware was present
     - When the person speaking is contained within a building or vehicle in the scene, or is otherwise present but not visible
     - When the point of the panel is to highlight an action, rather than to focus on a speaker
     - When the dialogue is to draw attention to an object
     - When the spatial relationships between characters is important, but I want to give each character their own introduction
     - When I want to stretch out a character's introduction to tease the audience's interest
     - When two characters are talking, but only one of them is important to the scene
     - When the importance of the dialogue is seeing a different character's reaction as it's spoken — and only their reaction
     - When one character is "blocking" another character (in the live theatre sense)

    Warning: WITCH DOCTOR SPOILERS at the end of each of those links.

    And those are just off the top of my head.

    If you were my editor Marv, and you told me that I had to show each person who's talking, every time they're talking? And that if I wanted to show something else, I had to have a silent panel? I would be so fucked.

    And when I say tailless balloons are hard to identity, I mean it's impossible to identify where in a physical space they're coming from. Is the speaker to the left of the thing we're seeing? To the right? Behind it, in front of it? If you include a tail, you can make that clear. If you don't include a tail — who knows? Including balloon tails is, to me, just another way to establish the spatial relationships between the characters in a scene. Take a look at practically any of the examples I posted above. Would they have been equally served with a tailless balloon? I would argue no — and I'd argue it strongly.
  • Your points are well made. But rest assured that in the highly unlikely event that I were your editor, my concern would only be to make sure things were clear and coherent and not to impose my preferences on how you accomplish it. There are many ways to skin a cat. My preferences are preferences, not dictates.
  • Oh man... I play with word balloons and balloon tails ALL the time.  I love it.  It's just another form of art.  I have curled tails around / behind & under art.  Ran them through panels.  Made them into fun shapes on and off panel.  And in Bomb Queen I had a character who had the power to break the fourth wall by manipulating word balloons.

    Nope. I got no sacred cows when it comes to word balloons.

    In fact, I did a graphic novel for Image Comics that had zero word balloons.  It was all free-floating text next to the character's head (a tiny line indicating the direction).
  • Although, I usually only write off panel dialogue when it's a page turn thinger. They happen a lot more often than because of artists. I don't mind usually,

  • ... all of the above. 

    I think the artwork is a factor also when deciding on whether or not you need to show tails, and also balloon placement. If it's clear that that one character is on the left and another on the right then sometimes all you need is for the balloons to be located accordingly.

    There are situations --usually POV related--where you don't want the reader to be able to locate the source of a voice. 

    I like to think of balloons as dialogue, while captions (usually) narration. The convention is for dialogue from a scene that is heard after a cut to a different location to be presented in captions, rather than tail-less balloons. This would probably bother me if I wasn't used to it. In this situation I will usually put the text in quotes, while narration goes unquoted. Does anybody else do this?
  • That's how I do it too, @JasonFranks — "voice-over" dialogue in quotations in caption boxes, narration without quotations but in a caption box. (I'm more flexible with whether I'm putting "voice-over" text in captions or in balloons over an exterior establishing shot, depending on whether or not I think it's important to establish what part of the exterior the scene corresponds with where the scene is going to be set.
  • I'm not 100% consistent with it, but I'll usually use a balloon with a tail over an establishing shot, especially if it's at the start of a scene. If the establishing shot is at the end I usually don't put a tail. 
  • When Character A is in a panel but Character B is speaking from off-panel -- something I do often because I like the reaction shot -- then I generally think a tail is necessary, to eliminate confusion over who is speaking.

    With regard to establishing shots, I recommend giving Global Frequency a re-read. That series ignored a couple of comics storytelling conventions -- namely establishing shots and beginning/ending a scene only at the page break -- and I love it.
  • edited June 2013
    I routinely use establishing shots. But I use them to set the scene. If the story didn't call for it, I wouldn't use them. I think that there is a time and a place for them. They are extremely useful as transition short-hand tools, when you need to jump from one scene to another and you don't want to confuse the reader.

    As for the grand tail debate? I really dislike tailless balloons the only time I've seen them effectively used, is in a crowd situation when you aren't sure who is saying what. I'm still not a fan.
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