BTP: Manipulating Comfort Zones with Distance

| January 13, 2014


That’s right. I’m looking at you. I’m watching you watching me.  

How does it make you feel?

  Welcome, everyone, to a new BREAKING THE PAGE, where, in this edition, we’re going to delve deep into one of the most basic tools in the repertoire of the comic creator: The use of camera distance.

Now, there are two very distinct purposes in utilizing distance in our images, whether in a single picture or in a sequence:

1) To convey information by limiting or expanding upon what can be seen and

2) To create an emotional response by playing with the information’s proximity as it applies to our personal boundaries.

The first point is something that we tend to be very conscious of as we plan out the panels of our page, whether as writer or artist, but not many of us know how to deliberately manipulate the reader’s psychological state with camera distance. Here’s where we can learn from the studies of anthropologist Edward T. Hall. Hall’s lifelong work was on cultural perceptions of space, explaining that, even though there are factors that will affect our situational desires for closeness or distance such as weather, temperature, noise, lack of light, or danger, different cultures have varying degrees of comfort level when it comes to the amount of space between themselves and others. On a more individual level, we all have our own comfort zones and need for personal space and will react accordingly when that becomes compromised, positively or negatively. Hall divided what he called proxemic theory into four definitions:

Intimate distance (touch to 18 away) is usually reserved for those closest to us, such as lovers, significant others, family, and close friends. Those not included in that open invitation for intimate contact may receive an aggressive, shocked, or fearful response, whether the intention to incite this was deliberate or not. An obvious sense of discomfort or disgust may appear to you or the other person involved. If we were to compare this to cinematic distance terms, this would fall into the range of an extreme close-up to a close-up.

Personal distance (18 to 4′) is literally a handshake or arm’s distance away. This provides the opportunity for the intimacy shield to be put up, but still allows acquaintances and those less familiar to us access. A close-up to a medium shot would provide us with that degree of information while maintaining our comfort level.

Social distance (4′ to 12′) is friendly, but formal, where impersonal business or social gatherings with unfamiliar people will create that barrier where no touch is warranted or desired. Entry past this closest distance may result in a step backwards, obvious discomfort through body language, and/or a defensive (“Get back!”), aggressive (“I’ll knock your block off if you don’t step back!”), passive (“Um…getting a little close…”), or passive-aggressive (“You wanna step back?”) response. Here’s where anything from a medium to long shot would suit the needs of the desired comfort effect.

Public distance (12′ and further) assures complete detachment outside of the 12′ mark. Louder voices and more obvious or exaggerated gestures may be necessary, like watching a stage production, but the comfort zone is fully protected. The long shot to extreme long shot serve that purpose perfectly.

Our personal spaces aren’t controlled solely by other human beings. Animals (dogs or snakes, for example), objects (like a knife blade), and stationary structures (such as a wall) can have exactly the same effect. Sometimes this results in fears and phobias, while other times it is entirely situational and will dissipate once that need for distance has been attained. With the above information in mind, take a look at the following example taken from Gary Frank’s work on SUPERGIRL from 1997:


This two-panel sequence shows us that the woman is feeling her space being invaded. Her intimate distance is violated, but what makes it even more intrusive is the tightness of the panels, like a racehorse with blinders on. She can’t see anything but what’s right in front of her, and her facial expression is reflecting that. The important thing here is that we are feeling it, too, as we empathize with her. Now look at the same sequence with a third panel added:

Just by adding that last panel with a long shot, we, as the readers, are no longer trapped in the situation like the woman is, so our own personal boundaries are relieved of the discomfort. I also like the fact that Frank has made it seem, in the first two images, like the distance between the characters is at the intimate level, whereas, in Panel 3, we can clearly see that they are further apart. As a side note, I showed this sequence to series writer Peter David at a convention a few years ago and explained to him my analysis, to which he responded, verbatim, I never thought of that! Here’s another image to consider from Mike Deodato Jr.’s run on THE INCREDIBLE HULK:

Though a simple image of a beautiful woman smiling, we are comforted looking at her in this intimate distance. However, as you’ll see in the full page that follows, that comfort is ill placed.

Though I really like this page as a whole, what draws me in the most is the intimate distance of Panels 4 and 6, especially with the sultry eyes turned dead.

I conducted an experiment that I’d broken into three separate parts based on Hall’s study, giving me a clearer vision of what camera distance can look like on a more personal level. I encourage you to try it yourselves with your own cameras.

In the first part, I measured out and laid duct tape on the ground at the following distances apart: 18″, 4′, and 12′. I had my 20-year old son and his girlfriend stand at the furthest points from each other, facing one another. I stood more than 12′ back to get their entire bodies in the shot as I took their picture. I then had them move to the 4′ apart point and shot again, maintaining my same distance. The third shot was taken at the 18″ mark. Finally, I had them move close together so as to touch. This reflected the studies conducted by Edward T. Hall from the viewpoint of a bystander at public distance.

In the second part, I had my son stand still and I stood at the 12′ mark, taking a picture. I then moved to the 4′ spot, then the 18″, then right up to him, all the while taking pictures as I approached. I was no longer a bystander, but rather another character in the story. I could feel my comfort level (and his, for that matter) change as I got closer and, finally, in his face.

The third part brought it all together, where I again had them stand 12′ apart and I took a shot that created a long shot of both of their bodies. Then, as I had them move closer, I moved in as well. They then moved to 18″, and so did I. By the time they were touching, I was so close to them that I was touching as well. I was involved in the situation, not directly, but rather through emotional investment. I could “feel” their emotions towards one another. This is something that I couldn’t feel at the long shot, public distance level. It’s by understanding both the informational and emotional aspects of distance that you will become a stronger graphic narrator.

Play with the emotions of your audience while getting the information across. Distance is only the beginning.

Thanks for joining me and I look forward to breaking the page with you again soon.

Related Posts:

Category: Breaking The Comics Page, Columns

About the Author ()

Steve is an editor and instructor for ComixTribe and for his freelance business, CREATIVE SYNERGY Consulting & Services. He has taught at conventions and conferences and at educational institutions about everything from writing to visual storytelling to lettering and editing techniques. He is a regular contributor/assessor at Digital Webbing and DeviantART under the screen name Creativesynergy . You can contact Steve at for information on what he can offer you.

Comments are closed.