What Writers can learn from Animators and Comic Artists

Recently I did a post looking at the ideas of a writing guru called Eric Edson where   among other things he made the statement that characters in movies only have four emotional states- Mad, Sad, Glad, and Scared. Edson’s view was that these are the most common emotions used in film because they’re the most visual ones and easiest for the audience to understand.

In the discussion that followed in the comments, my friend Don pointed out that there are many other visual emotions that appear on film, and that there is even a whole profession which spends a great deal of time studying human facial expression and body language- animators!

So, this sent me on a little research jaunt to see what I could find, since I have over the years regularly seen animators and comic artists do up sheets of standard expressions and emotional states for characters. What I found was the 25 Essential Expressions Challenge sheet by Nancy Lorenz.

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This sheet has been used since its release by multitudes of artists to explore how their characters express emotional states, and prepare their casts before going into production. So clearly, Edson was a little off, there are more emotional states that can appear on camera than just four, although in fairness to Edson a lot of them are variants of the core four he mentions with different levels of intensity involved. It’s also missing some emotional states like “curious”, so the list is hardly complete.

The point here is that writers could also use this approach to not only think about how each of their unique characters express these emotions, but also to think about which emotional state their characters will enter scenes with and which they will leave with, which are usually not the same ones. Each scene should have consequences, and those consequences are usually reflected in the change of emotional states of the characters involved. Controlling the shifting emotional states of the main characters is one of the things which gives stories a sense of flow, and creates an emotional journey for the audience to go on with the characters.

Also, while I was hunting for the emotions expressions sheets, I came across a few others that writers might find useful as well. Animators and Comic Artists spend a lot of time thinking about body language, which is an area where many Writers are often a bit weak since they’re not visual thinkers. You will constantly see writers having their characters only do just the most basic of body language gestures because they really don’t know any more or how to present it to the audience. Many writers get away with this or find ways around it, but like most things in writing the more elements you have control over the better you can express your story’s key ideas.

One of these is the Body Language Meme, which was meant to be an expanded full body version of the Facial Expressions challenge by Deviantart User ReincarnatedParano, which you can see in action below:

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Then there is the 25 Smiles Challenge by Zerinity, which gets much more specific about the types of smiles characters use.

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So, as you can see, there’s a lot more body language out there than smiles and nods, and having a good repertoire of ways to express your characters emotions besides through dialog can only make you a better writer. They say somewhere between 50% and 80% of human communication is non-verbal, so the better you get at using non-verbal cues in your writing, the better you’ll be able to express your ideas and enthrall your audience.

By the way, if you’re not sure how to employ the above, you might find these Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language by Amanda Patterson (no relation) to be useful. 🙂

Rob

P.S. Click on the sheet creator’s names to go to the blank original sheets, and the sample images to go to the pages of the sample artists.

 

DNA PODCAST 040 – MISTER KITTY’S STUPID COMICS

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In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by Shain and Dave from Misterkitty.org to talk about their ongoing Stupid Comics project where they showcase some of the most awful and unique pieces of comic book art visited upon mankind. Along the way, the four talk about the pair’s Mister Kitty’s Lo-Fi Landfill audio project, really really oldschool anime, whether Archie is really comics or not, and the demise of local culture. All this, and how to make friends in high school using Omaha the Cat Dancer, are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA Podcast 036 – Interview with Will Meugniot

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In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by comic artist and animation director and producer Will Meugniot to talk about Will’s long history in the comics and animation industry. In this deep exploration of the animation industry of the 80’s and 90’s, they discuss the DNAgents, Will’s role as showrunner for X-Men the Animated Series and Exo-Squad, and so much more! All this, and how Urusei Yatsura shaped JEM and the Holograms is here for you in the 36th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA Podcast 031 – Comics Creator Ben Dunn and Antarctic Press

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In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by comic book creator and founder of Antarctic Press, Ben Dunn. The three of them sit and chat about Ben’s long career in comics, how Antarctic Press came to be, and the ups and downs of running a comic book company. Along the way, Ben gives great advice about succeeding as an artist both in and outside the comics field and discusses the secrets to AP’s longevity and success. All this and a heaping helping of Ninja High School can be found in this, the 31st episode of The Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA Podcast 021 – Interview with Tim Eldred

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In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with comic artist and director of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble animated series Tim Eldred to discuss his career in the comic book industry and how it led him into the world of animation. Along the way, they discuss Tim’s advice for aspiring comic book artists, why getting your work done on time is crucial for a career in the comic book industry, and why the secret to successful media production is to have a really big raft! All this, and a look at Tim’s new project Pitsberg, are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA Podcast 018 – Edd Vick and MU Press

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In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with Edd Vick, founder and publisher of MU Press and Comics F/X magazine, to discuss Edd’s history in comics and the independent comics scene of the 80s and 90s. Former guest Jeff Wood, one of Edd’s friends and contributors also stops by, and the four of them discuss comics culture, convention culture, and what they see as the future of comic books. All of this, and the real story of why the comics industry collapsed in the 90s are coming to you in this, the 18th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA PODCAST 014: TALKING 80’S INDEPENDENT COMICS WITH JEFF WOOD

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In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with former Comics F/X magazine founder and editor Jeff Wood to talk about the West Coast independent comics scene of the 1980’s. The three discuss the origins of Comics F/X magazine, MU Press, the small press black and white comics explosion, and how “three adjectives and a noun” comics and anthropomorphic smut crashed the industry. All this and the story behind Jeff’s own legendary comic Snowbuni are waiting for you in this, the 14th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

New Manga

A new chapter of Shotarou Ishinomori’s Robot Keiji (Robot Detective) came out yesterday over on Mangafox. I have to say I like this manga quite a bit, although I’m not sure why. There is a dark, serious tone to the story, but it’s so well balanced with the slightly cartoony art style that it keeps it from getting too overwhelming. I’ve seen a lot of Robot+Detective cop shows over the years (there’s at least one per decade since the 70’s) but this story seems to have a different angle and works much better than they do.

Also yesterday, I discovered someone has been translating (slowly) Ishinomori’s Kamen Rider Black manga, which is very different than the awesome TV show it’s named for, but still pretty neat. It’s pretty dark, like Robot Keiji, and I love the cinematic art style it uses.

Rob

Ken Akamatsu releases a new Manga!

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Ken Akamatsu, creator of Love Hina and Negima! has just released a new manga called UQ Holder! which is basically Negima!: The Next Generation. It takes place in the Negima! setting about 10 years after the world became aware of the existence of magic and centers around Negi’s grandson who has been living a sheltered country life and must now go out into the real (future) world.

Having read the first 80-page “chapter” of the story, I have to say that I don’t actually like it that much. It’s really typical, and while I thought I’d like the tie-ins with Negima! (which I liked overall) I found they weighed the story down more than boosted it. Negima! had a very whimsical and organic feel to it, but this story feels very forced and like Akamatsu is trying too hard to harness both the Negima! setting and fan base and start something new at the same time. It’s hard to explain without spoiling it, so you’ll just have to check it out and make your own decisions.

I will say that it was very clear during Negima! that Akamatsu was a guy doing a romantic comedy/harem book that desperately wanted to be doing a fantasy-action book instead. At least this time he’s doing what he wants, but ironically, not having the character-driven romantic-comedy story as a base might turn out to be this story’s downfall. He just doesn’t seem to be very good at doing “real” shonen-type battle stories without them devolving into clichés.

As a side-note, Negima! ends without us knowing who Negi finally marries (likely the editors wouldn’t let him pick since it might hurt future collection sales), but to those paying attention this story now more or less tells us the answer with a 50% chance of being correct. (Which might not seem certain, but when you consider the odds were formally about 1 in 30, that’s a pretty big jump!)

Rob

Marvel’s (White) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

So, ABC finally made the obvious official- there is a new TV series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. For which you can watch the first trailer below…

Looks amazing, doesn’t it? Gonna be a heck of a show, and I’m seriously looking forward to it. But, there is something that bothered me about it, and I think I can demonstrate with the official cast picture…

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Look, I’m not someone who thinks every cast needs to be equally male and female, nor am I someone who believes that every cast should look like it was designed to appeal to every cultural/ethnic group. I always believe what’s more important is the characters, and they should be whatever the creators want them to be, political correctness be damned.

That said, that cast couldn’t be a bunch of whiter people if we sent them to Harvard and dipped them in yogurt! Even the token Asian chick (who is supposed to be the team’s “tough guy”, good luck with that) is one of the whitest and most caucasian looking Asians they could possibly find. (And if you’ve seen other pictures of Ming Na Wen, they’re working hard on the make-up end to made her as un-ethnic as possible.) This cast looks like it was for the SHIELD TV series of 1963, not 2013! Did the execs at ABC not get the memo? Or, did they borrow the casting director from the CW?

Also, is there a factory churning out clones of Nicolas Brendon (Xander from Buffy:TVS)? Because the lead male there could show up at his house for dinner and Brendon’s family wouldn’t even notice! (They’d probably just assume it’s his identical twin brother dropping by to say hello.)

Now, I’m not sure who’s responsible for this, whether it’s the Whedons (the show is done by Josh, his brother and his sister-in-law (who’s Asian)), or whether it’s the execs at ABC. I lean towards the execs at ABC- it is the middle-America Disney channel now, so they are targeting that demographic. But really, a whole show about white people running around and the only major black character in the pilot is a street thug with superpowers? Well, I guess that does fit in with the ABC mindset nicely.

I really would have liked to see a person of color as Coulson’s second in command (or anywhere else on the team!), especially since the Marvel movies are about a group of superpowered white people saving the world again and again. This show could really have been a chance to balance that off a little, and show that the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t just inhabited by white people saving the day.

But apparently, it is.

Rob