Problems with Transitions

Over at Derik’s blog he’s been examining McCloud’s panel transitions based on influence from film theory (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 …more to come).

While Derik only does it a little bit, the application of film theory to panel transitions isn’t altogether new. John Barber essentially grafted McCloud’s and my own (old model of) transitions onto Eisenstein’s thesis/antithesis/synthesis model in his masters thesis. This was then argued against by Ben Woo in his thesis, dismissing it more because modern film theory does than any explicit argument against Barber’s thesis. I’m not up on my modern film theory that much, but I believe Eisenstein is fairly passé at this point anyhow.

A few months ago I started noticing how similar Eisenstein’s montage was to the cognitive linguistics notion of “Blending.” Blending takes two concepts and extracts parts from them to create a new entailment. A classic example is “The surgeon was a butcher” — both surgeons and butchers are skilled at cutting flesh/meat, yet when combined together they illicit a meaning that the surgeon was sloppy. This is just like the 1+1=3 idea from montage.

And it certainly does appear across panels. I had a whole section on blending in my paper A Force of Change. Though, I think that the structures governing sequential understanding (i.e. syntax and semantics) are different from this.

Really, Eisenstein’s montage and McCloud’s closure are kind of like the film/comics equivalent of ether; a magical “mental” substance that doesn’t really exist that glosses over any real substance the mind might actualy be contributing. They’re like pop-science: a simple easy explanation for a very complex phenomenon. Just like Freud and Jung are still thought of by laypeople as being what psychology is about, their theories are far left behind to modern thinking. In fact, I’d venture to say they’re more used by humanities/social sciences these days than psychology or cognitive science.

Of course, I’ve been railing on the panel transition approach for quite a while now, over the course of several alternative models. And, it’s not just the idea of transitions that has problems: it’s any approach that only takes into account panels that are immediately adjacent to each other. Any linear approach to the idea of creating meaning in sequential images will ultimately fail.

As I mentioned on one of Derik’s posts, the major shift comes in what one is looking at. Instead of looking at panels’ immediate surroundings and basing the system around those juxtapositions, we can instead acknowledge that whole sequences mean things (events/actions/situations/ideas). From there, it becomes a matter of identifying what functions different panels play in creating that overall meaning. Just because we read and write panels linearly doesn’t mean that’s how we understand them.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to watch Derik go through steps in his thinking in relation to what I did. He named it “rethinking transitions” so it’ll be fun to see what his rethinking leads to.

Updated 12/1 with additional links to further entries


  • I haven’t read all these articles, so I could well be missing something, but I’m a film major at UC Santa Cruz, and I recently wrote a paper on Eisenstein and ended up talking about comics without really planning to, because I think his theory is actually more relevant to modern comics than it is to modern film.

    Eisenstein complains about people who treat shots as “building blocks” creating a final cohesive image, while he considers montage to come from the “collisions” between different images, which your mind attempts to reconcile.

    While this no doubt seemed like a cool idea, most modern film is nowhere near as jarring as Eisenstein’s, and with occasional exceptions to achieve a specific effect, the “building block” approach seems to have won out.

    But comics depend less on linear continuity than film does. Even when they imitate cinematic structure, the small number of “shots” used in describing any action requires the sort of collision that Eisenstein described.

    He said that “Cinema is, first and foremost, montage,” and I can see why you can’t make that same kind of blanket statement about “closure” and comics, but there’s a meaningful parallel to draw.

  • Write a Reply or Comment