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Are You Using Establishing Shots Effectively?

| January 31, 2011 | 14 Comments

Let’s play a game, shall we?

Name the television show from the establishing shots below:





(Want the answers? Scroll to the bottom.)

Why the little game?  Because in today’s Comix Counsel, I want to talk about establishing shots.

What’s an establishing shot and why should I care?

In comics, an establishing shot is the first panel of a new scene, included to clue the reader in on where this new scene is taking place.

In recent years, as comics have moved toward more wide-screen, cinematic storytelling, establishing shots are often big wide panels at the top of the page.  However, some artists choose to use long verticle panels to set the scene.

Young writers, anxious to get right in there and tell their stories, have a tendency to overlook establishing shots.  Don’t do this. 

Establishing shots ground the reader in the context of the scene. They answer two key questions for the reader:

  • Where:  Gotham City, down by the docks, on a moonbase, etc.
  • When: Day, Night, the distant future, pre-historic times, etc.

Additionally, some establishing shots can set the mood of the new scene (a glorious day, a dark and stormy night, etc.) and the relative placement of your characters (in a high-rise building, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, etc.)

Storytelling Rule: If it’s a new scene, on a new page, you NEED an establishing shot.

I know some of you hate rules.  After all, they’re meant to be broken.

And in fact, pro writers break this one all the time.

But until you have dozens of books under your belt and have built solid a readership, there’s one thing your story can’t be, and that’s CONFUSING to the reader.  

Clarity is your friend.

Before we can enjoy a story, we need to be able to follow it.

Sure, Grant Morrison can get away with being confusing.  He’s built enough of a following that readers will give him the benefit of the doubt (even if some of his comics require Cliffs Notes to understand.)

But you haven’t.

Establishing shots are crucial to making sure you don’t lose your reader as you transition from one scene to another.

Establishing shots can be exterior or interior shots.  The decision usually depends on the specific location.

For example, if the scene takes place in a busy subway station, a wide interior shot of a crowded subway station might do the trick.  In serial story telling, establishing shots also can clue the reader in to the type of scene they are about to read.  Robert Kirkman uses establishing shots very effectively in Invincible.  When we see this…

…we know that the coming scene is going to take place in the Grayson household.  There are a set of characters associated with this establishing shot, whose lives we’re  primed and ready to step back into when we see it.  These scenes often focus on the mundane aspects of Invincible’s life, and are usually an opportunity for some humor. Just like TV producers consistently reuse stock footage of exterior establishing shots, Kirkman also reuses the same establishing shots for key locations (The Pentagon, Mark’s school, the Guardians of the Globe base, etc.)

That above establishing shot of Invincible’s house shows up a whopping seven times in the first 13 issues of Invincible. 

(And believe me, his artists don’t mind that at all!)

Mark Millar uses establishing shots extremely effectively in his scripting as well. Below is the very first panel in his creator-owned book Nemesis:

Millar calls for a fine establishing shot which takes up 1/3 of the first page.  He loves the big establishing shot, and here gives artist Steve McNiven the chance to show his chops to set the killer opening scene of the book.

Still, you might wonder why give up this much space to a building in the middle of Tokyo?  Why not open with something more exciting?

Because Millar knows that by establishing the building properly on page one, it’ll have much more impact when he blows it up three pages later.  (Again, great reuse of art here.  McNiven must have been happy about that!)

Now, this is certainly a great storytelling trick used all the time.

Protip: If you’re going to blow something up in your story and it’s a big deal, make sure you establish it well before the mayhem.

That’s all I’ve got this week.  If you’re already using establishing shots to great effect, good for you.

However, if your scene to scene transitions are weak, or you’re finding your readers are getting lost following your narrative, get in the habit of properly establishing your scenes.

ANSWERS: 1. Seinfeld 2. The Simpsons 3. CSI: Miami


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Category: Comix Counsel

About the Author ()

Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, educator, and publisher residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of THE RED TEN, a superhero murder mystery, EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and TEARS of the DRAGON, a swords and sorcery fantasy. Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, which is both a new imprint of quality creator owned titles, and an online community where creators help creators make better comics. Follow him on Twitter @tylerjamescomics, or send him an email at

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  1. Seinfeld, The Simpsons and I’m not familiar with the third but is it CSI Miami? I can sort of hear the ‘YEAH’ scream when I see it.

    And I try to use establishign shots when I can, but sometimes it feels like it interrupts the flow of the story. At some points, a close up is so much more effective. Doesn’t mean there it can’t happen in the next panel though.

    • Tyler James says:

      You got ’em all, David! Nice work.

      And yes, sometimes there’s a good reason to break the above rule on establishing shots. If you’re trying to pull off a cool transition, or keeping a mystery as to where exactly the scene is taking place, then sure, it makes sense. I think the important thing is that you recognize the absence of an establishing shot, and make sure you account for that in panels that follow.

    • I thought I’d say a few words about establishing shots.

      They’re absolutely crucial. Absolutley.

      But no, they don’t need to be the very first panel of a scene, nor the third. As long as you’re constructing your panels correctly, they don’t have to be there at all–well, not until the last reveal. But you have to remember to give your artists something to work from so they know what’s going on.

      PLEASE remember that your creative team (to include the editor–natch!) is NOT your audience. They’re the first string of readers of your epic, but they are NOT whom you’re writing for. The creative team is there to bring your vision to life. If you treat us like your audience, you run the greater risk of not getting exactly what you wanted when you wrote the piece.

      Clarity in storytelling will always trump any supposed cleverness.

      Do yourself and everyone else in the creative team a favor, and do a proper establishing shot as soon as you can. Your story flow is not the script. Your story flow is how it appears as a finished product.

      Good column, Tyler. Very nice!

      • You bring up a very interesting point by insisting on the difference between audience and creative team. Indeed, for my part, I often catch myself stuck on trying to make elegant prose in panel descriptions or striving to stretch out the suspense. It takes a moment for me to sober up and realize I’m writing this for the rest of the team, not the reader.

        In fact scripts are a lot like sheet music: it’s not supposed to be pretty on paper. Well okay, it’s supposed to be pretty on paper, but not right away!

        • Exactly! (And pretty funny, Yannick!)

          With very few exceptions, NO ONE IS GOING TO SEE THE SCRIPT! Trying to be clever and flowery isn’t helping. Actually, it’s going to slow you down. If you’re working for a company and get paid by the script, you can actually cost yourself money because of this slowdown.

          Be straightforward. Be funny. Be entertaining. But above all, BE CLEAR. Because no one’s going to see the behind-the-scenes stuff. Most aren’t going to care.

        • John Lees says:

          This is a good point, Yannick. I know I for one am very guilty of writing loads in the panel descriptions, and getting into superfluous storytelling as if the artist was my reader.

          Though having said that, I do think there is some merit to conveying a tone through your panel descriptions – wry or silly descriptions for a comedy, or building up dread in a horror – as any tone picked up in the panel description could help towards that being reflected in the art.

          • “I know I for one am very guilty of writing loads in the panel descriptions, and getting into superfluous storytelling as if the artist was my reader. ”

            Ain’t THAT the truth!


            No, I’m just joking. Have to poke at my good friend John. He can take it. He’s tough.

          • Indeed, but it’s still a fine line to walk: precision vs. mood. At this point in my career, I don’t feel comfortable enough with the craft to let myself go that way. I think I’ll stick to strict description for now!

            But you’re right: in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, conveying tone can go a long way in helping the rest of the artistic team set the mood.

            Come to think of it, it might also make things clearer for your editor… or he might also just declare it all superficial fluff! Talk about a double-edged sword!

          • Yep.

            And I HATES superficial fluff…

  2. Tyler James says:

    Thanks Steven.

    I think young writers and young artists have a tendency to want to run before they can walk. There are plenty of artist who focus more on crosshatching and intense detail work, when they still haven’t mastered understructure and basic anatomy.

    Likewise, writers try to employ advanced story techniques, like jumping from scene to scene, flashbacks and flashwards, etc. before they’ve mastered the basics. Establishing shots are a part of the basics, the fundamentals of storytelling. I brought up Kirkman as an example because the guy is a master of the fundamentals.

  3. Scott Dubin says:

    Great topic, Tyler. I think the establishing shot is just a part of the more complex craft involved in scene transitions. This post inspired me to take a look at scene transitions in some favorite comics.

    Here’s an alternative way to do a transition: This is a small excerpt (I abridged some of the text from this portion of the script as well) from the Runaways 1 script by Brian K. Vaughan:

    “Page Six, Panel Four

    Change angles on the two, and please leave room for this exchange:

    9) Mrs. Wilder: Alex, you’re being obnoxious. The six of you have been having nothing but marvelous times together since you were all in diapers.

    10) Mrs. Wilder: And unlike your “Internet friends,” those kids think of you as family. They can’t wait to see you!

    Page Seven

    Page Seven, Panel One

    Cut to this close-up of a screaming Gertie Yorkes (aka “Arsenic”).

    1) Gert: I don’t wanna go!

    Page Seven, Panel Two

    Pull out to the largest panel of the page to reveal that we’re now inside the living room of the Yorkes family, which is filled with expensive antiques (masks, statues, swords, etc.). A nice full-figure shot of Gert should be the focus of this panel. She’s arguing with her middle-aged Caucasian parents here. Adrian, Mom and Dad are time-travelers posing as antique dealers, so their formal attire can be a little retro (but nothing too wacky, please). Mrs. Yorkes is trying to be patient, but her husband is smirking sarcastically.

    2) Overlay in Upper Left-hand Corner (not in a caption box!):
    The Yorkes Residence
    6:01 p.m.

    The final line of the scene on page 6 sets up/ anticipates what is going to happen starting on page 7. The new scene starts with a closeup, then pulls out, with any potential confusion presumably addressed by the scene caption, but not until the second panel.

    It seems Alan Moore utilizes similar scene transitions, with the end of a scene leading into the next scene, except there is no caption telling us where the new scene is located. Virtually every scene change in Watchmen displays this technique.

    • Tyler James says:

      Hey Scott! Thanks for stopping by!

      Both Alan Moore and BKV are masters of scene transitions. We’d all do well to study how they do what they do. When you think about the complexity of the story’s BKV weaves, with Y and Ex Machina jumping back and forth time and space an awful lot, the fact that readers aren’t lost is a testament to great scene transitions.

      Scott McCloud will tell us there are actually 6 types of transitions found in comics…and you know what, this is worthy of further exploration in a future column.

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