What do I mean by “cinematic” and “theatrical” storytelling?

Before the advent of moving film, people mostly saw plays on a stage. The theatre! You were in a fixed seat with a fixed stage. The only things that moved were the actors, the sets, the costumes, and maybe the lighting.

Then, in 1892, Thomas Edison invented a camera that recorded a series of stills that could be viewed in a box called the kinetoscope. Thus was cinema born!

Cinematic storytelling involves not just actors, sets, costumes, and lighting, it involves a CAMERA, and the camera moves, zooms, pans, frames, and rotates. It makes stories that are VISUALLY DYNAMIC, and allows for a type of storytelling that was previously impossible in theatre, from long pulled-out establishing shots, to downward, close-in shots.

The Lord of the Rings. This would be an impossible shot to recreate on a stage. The scale is far too large.

As would this. You’d have to be standing over the actor for this view.

Suddenly, the audience became an ACTIVE participant in the story instead of PASSIVE. The camera made it possible to be in the room, a part of the action, as opposed to sitting quietly on the sidelines, watching the action on a stage. Stories became visually intimate. Actions clearer and precise. Subtle emotions blown-up to gigantic proportions. With the invention of the camera and moving film, suddenly, the line between the audience and the performers blurred and evaporated.

So how does this relate to graphic novels?

The majority of comics are told through CINEMATIC STORYTELLING, ie: visual storytelling that mimics a movie screen. Superhero comics are especially adept at it.

Batman – Year 100 by Paul Pope draws you INTO the action through creative use of extreme close-ups, bouncing between subject matter, and an extreme upward shot to establish a sense of danger and urgency.

Push, pull. Zoom, pan. High angle and low. There’s a LOT of action in these panels, and by playing with the “camera” (ie, the viewpoint the artist chooses to draw a scene from in each panel), it enables the reader to follow that action more clearly, more intensely, and more precisely.

But, not all comics utilize this cinematic way of storytelling. Memoir comics like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” or Will Eisner’s “Life in Pictures” are good examples of this.

Notice how the camera angles are almost always from the side, as though viewed by an audience, looking at a stage? Occasionally, you may get a close-up of an item or an object, especially if it clarifies something essential, but there are almost no zoom-in’s on faces or gestures. Acting is told through exaggerated body language and dialog with far less reliance on facial expressions or action. This is THEATRICAL STORYTELLING, ie: visual storytelling that mimics the theatre stage.

So how do these two very different visual narrative types influence the reader’s experience?

Cinematic storytelling gives the “cameraman” (ie, the artist) the ability to control the emotion of a story. It tells the viewer where to look and how to view it. It makes the reader an ACTIVE observer who feels like they are a part of the story, not just watching it.

Theatrical storytelling, however, keeps the reader at a distance, always at the same point-of-view. It makes the reader a PASSIVE observer.

SO WHY? Why would a writer/illustrator choose to pick one storytelling method over the other?

Well, let’s use a comparison. A comparison in PICTURE BOOKS. You might be familiar with this one:

If you aren’t (but should be), Beekle is a story about imagination and waiting to be born. It’s a solitary adventure about feeling lost in a big, big world, in search of a friend. It’s a quiet story with room for a reader to project their own emotions, experiences, and feelings.

The majority of BEEKLE is told theatrically. Scenes change, lighting, color, and mood, but the camera angle is largely stationary throughout most of the book, positioned like an audience member viewing an imaginary stage.

Now, let’s look at ANOTHER book. By the same author (Dan Santat!) but told in a TOTALLY DIFFERENT STYLE.

This would be…

Rodzilla has the same artist, same number of pages, the exact same demographic/target audience and utilizes the same kinds of digital brushes and tools as Beekle. So why does this book feel so incredibly different?


RODZILLA has LOTS of extreme angles. Lots of close-ups. Tons of creative panning, zooming, and angle tilting of the “camera” (ie, the page).

If you didn’t know this already (or can’t tell), Dan Santat is a big fan of comics, and in Rodzilla, it shows, because he even uses PANELS to indicate the passage of TIME.

Rodzilla is a fast-paced, energetic visual rollercoaster. Beekle is calm, slow-paced, and sticks to familiar angles. And the tone between the two is NIGHT and DAY.

Why, why, why would Dan choose one method of storytelling over the other? Why is Beekle, which is an emotionally-charged book told theatrically, while Rodzilla, which is fun and rompy and exciting, yet less intensely emotional, told in a cinematic style? Shouldn’t the more emotionally-charged book be told cinematically, in a way that gives you emotional control over your readers?

Maybe. Maybe not.

One of the beauties of theatrical storytelling, is that by letting go control of your reader’s emotional response via camera angles, zoom, panning, etc, you give the reader space to feel their OWN emotions.

Take this scene in BEEKLE for instance:

Dan could have chosen to have a close-in of Beekle’s face, showing his loneliness. You would have felt close and intimate to his sadness. But by pulling out, by keeping the next scene unchanged in its point-of-view, we become the watcher looking on, and suddenly, Beekle’s loneliness transforms into how we RELATE to his loneliness. We flood all that space with our own emotions and experiences with emptiness, loneliness, and sadness.

When we try to over-control the reader’s experience through an over-manipulative visual narrative (as well as written), we take them on a rollercoast that WE have built, not the reader. But when we back off and give the reader the space within panels to draw their own conclusions, to feel their own feelings, we allow the reader to feel their OWN rollercoaster of feelings.

But this is just the emotional aspect of these two techniques. MOST comics blend these two techniques, but all to varying degrees one way or the other. Comics with a lot of action, tend to favor extreme cinematography in order to show off action and make it easier to follow. Nonfiction books often use theatrical storytelling because their focus is relating facts instead of feelings (manipulating the emotional state of the reader becomes less urgent or useful). Memoir comics or strips that “explain” something, especially a personal story, tend to lean towards theatrical storytelling because it gives the feeling of sitting on the couch with that person, looking at them eye-to-eye, and having an honest conversation. Like these:

How to be ACE by Rebecca Burgess. The narrator is addressing the audience directly. It feels like you are sitting next to her, and this creates an atmosphere of familiarity and friendliness. Not only do your read the narrator’s emotions, but it gives you room to feel your own emotions and reactions to this situation as well.

Lucy Knisley. These strips are more about the dialog and narration than the art. The theatrical storytelling emphasizes this, and by the end, it invites us to weigh in on our own, similar (or dissimilar) experiences.


Fantasy Sports #2 by Sam Bosma. Cinematic storytelling at its best!!

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. Emotionally charged romance-breakups stories seem particularly perfect for cinematic storytelling techniques! We make this journey with Freddy and nobody else.

Bianca by Moto Hagio. Shoujo manga are ALL about cinematic storytelling, and DYNAMIC storytelling. Look at the panels! They aren’t even squares, and the shape of the “screen” changes with the style of storytelling which adds an extra level of tension

Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau. It’s a YA romance dramedy. How could it NOT use cinematic storytelling for all those almost-encounters? 🙂

Science Comics – Cats by Andy Hirsh. This one’s non-fiction but it uses theatrical storytelling to wonderful effect. Cats are active, playful, and sometimes even frightening. It fits the subject matter!


Science Comics – Coral Reefs by Maris Wicks. Non-fiction is often told in this narrative, theatrical style, almost like a teacher standing in front of a blackboard!

Maker Comics – Draw a Comic! by J.P. Coovert. It make sense that step-by-step comics would be told in a way that puts most of its emphasis on steps and instructions instead of over-the-top art. Cinematic storytelling here would probably be more confusing than helpful.

InvestiGators by John Patrick Green. Why is humor almost always told theatrically? Because unless it’s a visual gag, the joke is usually in the text!

DogMan by Dav Pilkey. Also, for beginning readers, keeping the visual story simple helps prevent confusion. Theatrical storytelling doesn’t confuse with ever-changing camera angles.

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner. Fiction doesn’t always have to be cinematic! Steinkellner tells her story just fine in this theatrical style.


The following are examples of books that utilize a bit of both theatrical and cinematic storytelling, depending on what is needed to communicate the story most effectively!

Guts by Raina Telgemeyer. Raina switches from a theatrical conversational style to a creative zoom-out effect in order to emphasize a specific emotional point: the feeling of being frightened and overwhelmed.

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. This looks like theatrical storytelling initially, but the gradual zoom-in on the characters gives a sense of moving into their personal space until the emotion overflows.

Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley. Though most of her stories are told theatrically (almost always from a fixed side view), Lucy uses creative FRAMING to emphasize emotions. By cutting off the adults eyes in the second panel on the right, she creates the feeling of being ignored and unseen.

Whether you choose to use cinematic or theatrical storytelling–or something in-between!–in your graphic novel, there is no “wrong” or “right” way! There is only how you choose to show it!

Next up on Let’s Make Magic!: CAMERA CONVENTIONS

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