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Reading from Within the Panel

By David Steiling

This is a brief report on a series of experiments conducted from 2009 through 2011 in the making of comics for immersive media. The experiments were the work of students in the class I teach in Writing for Comics at the Ringling College of Art and Design, and were produced by students from a number of studio majors. The students included photographers, illustrators, computer animators, graphic designers, game artists, digital filmmakers, and fine artists. All the students were engaged in an effort to push to the extreme the formal boundaries of comics by designing comics that might exist beyond print into the realm of immersive media.

The concept of completely immersive media has been inspiring artists and inventors for some time. Many applications that have resulted from this inspiration have been devoted to enlarging the percentage of the visual field consumed by the projected image. Immersion has become a design paradigm of media future, with most speculation centering around eventual personal immersive projection fields that fill a heads-up display so that any direction the viewer looks there is an illusion of a continuous visual field filled by the projected image. These potential applications are especially interesting to designers of game environments using computing hardware and software called reality engines which aspire to produce virtual realities. Among current immersive media designers these applications are sometimes called MyMax technologies.

Figure 1: Morton Hellig’s Sensorama, 1957, one of the earliest approaches to MyMax technology. Source:

Our experiments were concerned with exploring the question of how comics might eventually transfer to MyMax media environments. To simulate the design requirements of such an environment we were able to use the facilities of the Bishop Planetarium, part of the South Florida Museum complex in Bradenton, Florida.

Figure 2: Source: South Florida Museum

Students made images on a circular template that was reproduced at 4k image resolution (4,096 x 4,096 pixels). The images were produced digitally and distributed as a targa file of 20-40 megabytes per image. The files were mounted for viewing on the Bishop Planetariums 7 digital projectors which each contribute a slice to a complete 4k high definition image that is approximately 50 feet across and viewed from the 120 stadium seats of the theater.

Figure 3: View of rear control booth of Bishop Planetarium with stadium seats at bottom and partial projected image on the dome above. Source: South Florida Museum.

The dome tilts at an angle over the reclining seats, towards the front of the theater, so that the effect of the image is to fill more of the front of the visual space. The focus is on the forward area of the image, called the “almond,” which is often a focal point for image composition as it lies in the most natural point of forward focus for the seated audience. The image is not constrained to its forward limits, but wraps all around and over the audience, mapping on the hemispheric canvas of the perforated aluminum dome. This is called “full-dome” projection, one of the prominent forms of contemporary immersive media for group viewing. The image is usually accompanied by high-definition surround sound.

Figure 4: The “almond” of the full-dome theater. Source: IMERSA.

In creating images for full-dome projection it is important to consider several ways in which the composition of the images differs from composition for print or ordinary projection. One difference is how an ordinary image has edges, a frame. With the exception of the horizon line which borders the bottom edge of the hemisphere of the dome, there is no natural framing out or editing of the image space. The entire visual space is available for image placement or the image space can be used as an infinitely receding illusionist environment through the use of multi-point perspective. The audience is surrounded by the image, out to the limits of the room.

Figure 5: Edge of dome tilted forward over the stadium seats. One of the 7 projectors that create the complete image on the dome is visible in the wooden stand next to the exit door.

In the case of comics, the possibility exists within full-dome projection to read from within the panel as well as a number of positions outside it. This is a unique point of view I and my colleagues have started to call “first person immersive.”

“First person immersive” is characterized by:

  • Occupying a position within the flow of events, as opposed to a position outside of them, looking on.
  • An emphasis on world creation receding from the viewer’s actual position through multiple focal points, emphasizing landscape, interior and environment
  • A p.o.v. that is uninterrupted by a frame (or at least much less of a frame).

Among my student’s experiments this p.o.v. was explored in sequences of four single images that were projected one at a time in a dull-dome slide show, each image a full-dome panel of the four- panel narrative. An example of this is a four panel slideshow sequence by Xue Thao below. It must be remembered that these images were projected in 4k high definition at an image size of 50 feet in diameter.

Another example is by photographer and DJ, Jash , who collaborated with two students from the Broach School in Bradenton, Florida, in making this full-dome comic.

In both these examples the audience reads from within each panel of the narrative, the elements of each panel surrounding the audience and immersing the reader so that reading requires a scanning of almost the entire visual field to pick up the necessary information to provide the sequence. In the first example the information is simplified and ordered so that the sequential narrative is relatively easy to discern. In the second example the information is layered and more complex demanding the reader look around the dome to gather sufficient elements of the narrative. In the first example our p.o.v. remains relatively fixed and defined in relation to the subject. In the second example just where we are in the created space is highly speculative, amorphous and ambiguous.

In contrast to exploring the possibilities in sequencing the images across several slides, some students chose to render their comics with the page of a single slide, sequencing within the space created by the single projected image. In this example by Myriam Fail,

Figure 13

the characters appear and reappear in various vignettes of the whole composition which is mapped across the canvas of the dome. This is similar to the way images are superimposed on architecture in various examples of proto comics such as in the Ajanta caves in India, where the scale is somewhat similar. In these cases the viewer is often left to navigate and order the sequence on their own, sorting the pictorial elements and juxtaposing them without necessarily a fixed set of rules or reading conventions.

The story in Fail’s image occupies the entire space and its elements do not necessarily follow a linear narrative order. In fact the primacy of sequence has given way to simultaneity; multiple vanishing points underlie asystemic superpositions; the narrative accumulates, it doesn’t travel from a beginning to an end. The image is an immersive narrative space delinked to typical panel transitions or conventional sequencing.

Figure 14
Figure 15: Detail of cave painting. Ajanta Caves source

In the single page cartoon by Lari Alejandro there is no clear sequence but the space is subdivided into somewhat virtual panels in which various actions are portrayed but without necessary sequential order. The P.O.V. character occupies the center of the “almond.”

Figure 16: Detail of cave painting. Ajanta Caves source

In a number of other student works, shaping the narrative to conventional comics sequencing became the central organizing principle for anchoring the experience of reading within the unique properties of the immersive space. Some students envisioned the dome as a page that could be sub- divided into panels. They tended to distribute the narrative breakdown around the circumference of the dome, as in this example by Lindsay St. Pierre.

Figure 17

To assist the audience in reading these works the students had the option of having the image rotated either clockwise or counterclockwise by the full-dome projectionist. How this worked is demonstrated in the slide show below, which takes Julia Bacak’s “Bunnies” and shows a series of views of the image as it was rotated. The drawn action moves from the edge to the center while the reading sequence moves around the circumference clockwise. The narrative passes through the focal point of the “almond.”

Figure 18

Here is an example in full rotation by Mariah Almeida.

Because the projection surface is the inside of a hemisphere, a dome, there is a natural distortion of the image along the lines of an Escher print in curvilinear perspective. If one takes a work in curvilinear perspective, like an Escher, and projects it on the dome, then the image “straightens up” to the extent that the perspective is accurately rendered for that particular dome. The technique we teach to draw in curvilinear perspective is to draw the reflection of a scene in a Christmas ornament ball, much as Escher shows us in one of his most popular, and often parodied, prints.

Figure 24: Image credit: M.C. Escher; Hand with Reflecting Sphere, January, 1935. National Gallery of Canada. Ottawa.

A few students became interested in the surface of the dome as an illusionist space for drawing as well as the organization of comics. An example of this work is this comic by Jennifer Hong, which is only fully realized when projected on a dome (or you can try reflecting the flat image into a polished hemisphere like a stainless steel bowl).

Figure 25

A different approach is embodied in the dome comic by Mike Munger. This sequence concentrates on the creation and sequencing of environment, in this case an evolving abstraction with psychedelic properties. The p.o.v. is completely first person immersive in that there are no characters, the viewer is simply immersed within the image and subject to the panel-to-panel alteration of the viewer’s environment. The narrative is in the changing environment and the resulting changing relation between the environment and the viewer.

It was also possible to limit the environment of the representational space and populate it almost completely with character as in these examples:

Figure 29: Dome Image by Vik Fortune
Figure 30: Dome Image by Nick Curtiss
Figure 31: Dome Image by Andrew Alderfer

If our definition of what constitutes “comics” is a formal one, then obviously there are limits to the types of platforms that can support what we might continue to call comics. An example of the formal morphing from comics into adjacent formalities can be seen in the way comics made its way along the continuum toward animation in the history of silent cinema. Early animated cartoons retained many devices central to print comics, devices such as speech balloons or conventionalized symbols that visually represented sounds, states of mind, etc. Many of these devices were abandoned in animation as they became unnecessary or cumbersome. Formal edges interpenetrated and overlapped.

A similar situation is developing with web and tablet comics. Elements of motion graphics, sound, limited animation and other programmable design elements are permanent aspects of the formal qualities of web and tablet comics. “Comics” as a definition must change to fit evolving platforms while retaining some cluster of formal elements, associations and cultural positioning that still means comics.

Such “movies” as Scott Pilgrim or Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts, go far beyond narratives that are “comics influenced” into the works that express the zeitgeist of comics. Spiritually they seem very close to what comics has manifested and is expected to manifest as culture work. As technologically we move closer to the paradigm of virtual realities, some of these virtualities will be fanciful, representationally iconic, evoking caricature at all levels, and developing from the aesthetics and practices we associate with drawing. The nature of the immersive platform is likely to shape these works away from sequenciality and towards simultaneity. There is a likelihood that we will have narrative experiences in immersive media that will be very close to the zeitgeist of comics although these naratives may be expressed from the p.o.v. of first person immersive or emphasize the narrative potential of environment as much as the story potential in characters. The formal qualities of what comics might be in immersive media may depart substantially from what we now think of as comics, but it is quite possible that fully immersive comics may retain a strong connection to the comics as a cluster of aesthetic practices and as an historical tradition.

Posted in Volume 6, Issue 2: ImageNext Proceedings