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Old 11-14-2011, 02:21 PM   #1
Steve Colle
Freelance Editor
Join Date: Mar 2003
Location: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
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VISUAL STORYTELLING: Distance and Proxemic Range Theory

The instruction I'm posting here pertains to the use and effects of camera distance when designing your panels based on two factors: conveying information and emotional affect. However, let's begin with the emotional aspect of the technique: Proxemic range theory.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall's lifelong study was of cultural perceptions of space, explaining that, even though there are factors that will effect our situational desires for closeness or distance, such as weather, temperature, noise, lack of light, and/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 this proxemic range theory into four definitions:

Intimate distance (touch to 18" away)
- This is usually reserved for those closest to us, such as friends, family, significant others, and lovers. Those not included in that open invitation for intimate contact may receive an aggressive, shocked, or fearful response, whether their intention to incite this was deliberate or not.

Personal distance (18" to 4')
- 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.

Social distance (4' to 12')
- Friendly but formal, impersonal business or social gatherings with unfamiliar people will create that barrier where no touch is warranted or desired. Entry past the closest distance (4') may result in a step backwards, arms being raised in defence, 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.

Public distance (12' and further)
- Complete detachment is assured outside of the 12' mark. Louder voices and more obvious or exaggerated gestures may be necessary, like watching a play or stage production, but the comfort zone is protected.

Our comfort zones aren't only affected 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 affect. 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.

So, with the emotional aspect of distance being dealt with, let's look at the cinematic techniques that also convey information (as well as get into our heads). Six distance ranges exist in film, one of which doesn't get mentioned very often. These distances aren't measured with a measuring tape, but rather by what is seen and what isn't:

1) Extreme Close-up

What's seen?
- An eye or, even closer, a pupil; a finger or, even closer, the finger tip; a pistol trigger or the tip of the barrel...

What isn't seen?
-Anything to denote person, setting, or situation.

Proxemic comfort level?

2) Close-up

What's seen?
- A full face or head; a hand or forearm to finger tip; a foot or knee to toes; a pistol or knife...
- A recognizable person (based on experience with the specific definable attributes such as tattoos, scars, style of dress or costume, etc.) can be identified and we can put a name to them.

What isn't seen?
- Anything to identify an unknown or unrecognizable person; setting and situation still aren't known.

Proxemic comfort level?
Intimate to personal.

3) Medium Shot

What's seen?
- From the top of the head to anywhere between the upper abdomen and upper thighs; a car door; the top or bottom half of a doorway...
- The person's head, face, and some of their outfit help to identify the character; actions of appendages may be seen; limited aspects of the setting can be identified, as well as a very basic idea of situation.

What isn't seen?
- Enough information to identify setting more than the space of a cubicle; basic situation is presented (ex. reading a book), but outlying influences on the subject (focus of the image) can't be seen or even guessed at.

Proxemic comfort level?

4) Full Shot

What's seen?
- Head to toe of a person; the entire car; top and bottom of a doorway...
- Entire body with facial expressions and body language/actions; the setting and situation as it pertains to the immediate vicinity of the person; the character's reaction to the setting and situation.

What isn't seen?
- Enough to understand the environment and situation outside of the character's immediate "bubble".

Proxemic comfort level?

5) Long Shot

What's seen?
- Full body with more added space around the person, revealing more of the setting and situation than the full shot.
NOTE: The full shot is often overlooked and rarely mentioned in most material on comic book storytelling or even film reference as it is so close to the distance used in a long shot.

What isn't seen?
- Though setting and situation are now evident, the person's body is leaving less obvious details out, such as the finger ready to pull the trigger on the pistol or even tiny nuances in facial expression, even though stance and body language can give us a general idea of the character's emotional state and basic intent.

Proxemic comfort level?

6) Extreme long shot

What's seen?
- The entire location/setting; may show the extent of the situation if on a grander scale (less immediate to the character).

What isn't seen?
- The character is no more than an ant at best and completely invisible at worst, so any form of details referencing identity are nil; the situation, if immediate to the character and not on a grander scale, isn't suggested.

Proxemic comfort level?
Public +

Now, by understanding the informational and emotional aspects of distance, I conducted an experiment that I will be including as visual references in my book. I broke it into three separate stages:

In the first stage, I measured out and laid duct tape on the ground at the following distances apart: 18", 4', and 12'. I had my 18 year old son and his girlfriend stand at the furthest points from each other, 12', 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 stage, 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.

The third stage 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, showing setting on both sides of the frame. Then, as I had them move closer, I moved in as well, trying to maintain the same level of background visible as the previous longer shot. 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.

And THAT is what you want your readers to feel: The intimacy and ability to relate to the characters.

Remember, not only are you conveying or limiting the information you provide your reader to understand and relate to the setting and situation, but more importantly, you are manipulating how you want the reader to react emotionally to what they see. In other words, "You're such a manipulator!"

CONGRATULATIONS!! Join the club we, as creators, all want to be part of!!

Every good story must accomplish two goals: Convey information effectively and incite an emotional response. If one or both of these are lacking, the story won't keep the attention of your audience.
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