What makes these scenes exciting is that you are watching objects moving at high speed, and this speed looks even faster through clever editing, camera moves, sound effects, and music. If you don't believe me think about the scene in the first Iron Man movie where Iron Man is zooming through the air being chased by military jets trying to shoot him down. If you've seen this movie, and know this scene, you'll remember it as being fast paced and thrilling. Take a look at the frame below which is taken from that sequence. You can click on any image to make it bigger.
Not so exciting, or fast paced is it? That is because it is a frozen image; a single photo taken from a scene with lots of movement, really short quick shots of action edited together and combined with dynamic sound effects which make the action seem to be moving faster as well as making it more exciting, and a musical score that makes it still more exciting. But looking at a frozen image from this scene, without the sound, music, motion, or editing, it's pretty bland. For one thing you don't really get a sense that Iron Man, or the jets behind him are moving fast at all.
This is what comic book writers, and more especially, comic book artists have to deal with whenever they have to depict a scene that has a lot of fast action, or shows a vehicle, or character moving at high speed. How do you draw something so it looks like it's moving really fast, especially when you can't control how long someone looks at an image, or when you can't play sound effects or music over the scene to speed up the tempo. When you are dealing with images that are frozen how do you make things look like they are going really fast?
Before we get to the comic book part of this let's take a look at some scenes showing speed from movies. All of the scenes I chose used some sort of special effects, whether it was using models and miniature sets, or CGI, or traditional animation, all of these scenes are manipulated to make them then seem like they are depicting incredibly fast action, and each of them use tricks that have been used in comic books for decades, or tricks that can be replicated in comic books.
Back to Iron Man and that same exact scene with the fighter jets. We've agreed that the single image above is pretty boring to look at. Compare it to the frame below which happens within a split second of the one above.
It's still a still frame and still hard to get a sense of how fast both Iron Man and the jet are moving through the sky, but it's a little more exciting that the frame we looked at before. For one reason, the jet and Iron Man are moving across the frame in a diagonal path from one corner towards the other. A diagonal line always adds a level of tension or excitement to a composition. A diagonal line also suggests motion or speed. It does look like things are moving faster than in the first frame.
Now look at the one below.
This frame is even better at suggesting high speed. Why? Again, there is the diagonal angle of Iron Man's pose, as well as that of the jet on the right, which is shooting at Iron Man, creating diagonal lines across the frame. Even the cloud adds a diagonal. The second jet is tipped on its side giving it a more dynamic pose as well. The image is composed so that the left side has more elements, making it seem unbalanced, like the imaginary weight in the frame is all being pulled to the left. Think about what happens when you go around a corner on your bike, or in a car. Your body leans into the direction that you are turning in. By pulling everything to the left the image above creates an impression just like that. Finally, Iron Man is slightly out of focus as if blurred because he is moving by us really fast, or moving so fast that the person operating the camera is having trouble keeping him in focus.
Finally, from the same movie, take a look at this panel. It's a pretty straight forward side view composition of Iron Man flying from right to left. What gives it a sense of speed are his pose, the boot jets pushing him forward, and the sky in the background is a blur speeding past him from left to right.
On to our next movie. The following frames all come from the speeder bike chase from Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi.
This is pretty much just like the frame from Iron Man above, only moving from left to right. Notice that the characters and the bikes they ride are in focus, but the background is whizzing past them in a blur of speed.
Again, the characters and their bikes are in focus, while the landscape they move through zips by in a rapid blur. Notice the diagonal composition, which is repeated below.
In this frame, the background is still, while the bike flying closest past us is blurred and stretched out, making it seem like it's traveling at a great speed.
Here, the characters speed towards us, while their surroundings zip backwards past them at a high rate of speed. Notice that the trees to the side of them are more heavily blurred than the trees right behind them. This is what you experience in a car.
The next frames all come from the scene in The Incredibles where Dash is being chased by bad guys through the jungle.
Like the last frame above, the plants closest to Dash, on the right side of the frame, blur past him, while those behind him remain in focus. Notice the diagonal composition made more interesting by the angles that the flying saucers chasing him are positioned in. Also, notice how Dash's hair is being blown back by the wind caused by his speed, and take a look at his arms and legs which are moving so fast they appear as blurs themselves.
Again we have diagonal action across the screen. Dash's pose, where he's leaning forward also indicates he's running fast. This idea is also reinforced by his being blurred, and the long dust trail that he leaves behind him.
Because the images for this movie were created on a computer that means that the frame above was designed to be out of focus on purpose, and not because the cameraman didn't know what he was doing. On the screen, moving, this edit is really quick and you probably won't notice it's out of focus. Blurring the movement from left to right and making both Dash and the saucer out of focus also makes it seem like they are moving at an incredible rate of speed, as if the camera, or the naked eye, can't keep up with them.
Look at how the ground streaks by underneath Dash. Also notice his legs. They're moving so fast we really can't see them. They don't even appear solid.
Here, Dash is hitting one of the bad guys, over a dozen times in less than a second. Sound effects help get this across in the movie, but here it looks like Dash has about as many hands as an octopus, which indicates great speed, since the illusion is that our eye is registering his hands being in several positions at the same time. The transparency of his arms and hands lets us know that it's because his arms are in motion and not because he suddenly mutated and grew extras.
Like the trails of dust behind him in some of the earlier frames, this one shows Dash's high speed running impacting on his environment. Not only is he creating a wake on the surface of the water, and a plume of spray behind him, but each of those splashes behind him is from one of his foot steps. He's moving so fast that the impact from a dozen steps earlier hasn't had time to settle. He's also moving so fast that each of his steps only touches the surface of the water for a split second, not even long enough for him to sink. What direction is he traveling in across the frame? That's right, diagonally.
Compare the frame below, which comes from an episode of Speed Racer, with third frame from Iron Man up above. Do you notice any similarities?
That's right, this one is heavy on the left side of the frame. Not only does the white car (the Mach V) seem to be pushing its way right out of the frame, but both cars, and the track they drive on, are canted at a diagonal to the right, adding more tension and giving a feeling of motion towards that direction as well. The other diagonal lines on the track, which move front to back and are blurred lend the frame forward speed, as does the blur on the Mach V's tire.
Here we have another diagonal composition, where the surface of the roadway is painted with blur streaks to make it seem like the cars are moving even faster.
Like the frames of Dash running from The Incredibles, the above frame from a Speedy Gonzales cartoon, gets across Speedy's speed mostly by his impact on his environment. We can follow his dust trail all the way back to the distant mountain from which he came. He's moving so fast that the dust from his footsteps hasn't settled for miles. Note the multiple diagonal movements and the streak of yellow behind Speedy suggesting the blur of his hat at high speed. His leaning forward pose also accentuates the idea of his velocity.
If there was ever a series of animated cartoons that depicted high speed action, it's those starring the Road Runner.
Here's the Road Runner moving so fast that you can't even see him. He's simply a blur of clor and motion with a dust trail.
Here, his nemesis, Wile E. Coyote, is moving so fast that his feet, like Dash's arms earlier, appear to have multiplied within a turning wheel blur. Notice that the rest of him doesn't appear to be moving at all.
Here, like the Coyote, you can see the Road Runner's upper body, but his legs are nothing more than a wheel shaped blur. Which character appears to be running faster? Why?
Here the Road Runner has run into the far distance so fast that his dust hasn't even settled in the foreground. Look at all those diagonals too, and and how the road is broken up into seperate lengths over their own different colored bits of terrain. This helps accentuate the sense of distance between the foreground and the background, making the Road Runner seem to be running even faster.
To finish this post, I want to share with you a series of individual frames taken from a split second section of action from the Road Runner cartoon, "Ready, Set, Zoom!" Take a look at each frame in the sequence and see if you can tell what it is in the drawings that makes the action seem to be happening really fast.
In the top frame, we are waiting for the moment of acceleration. We know it's going to happen because the Coyote is sitting on a rocket, and we all know rockets travel fast. Also the rocket is positioned diagonally, which we've already decided adds a sense of speed or motion and excitement to an image, and it is pointed down, which our minds tell us means that it will go faster since it's working with gravity instead of against it. Compare this with the other diagonal compositions in the rest of this post. How many diagonal lines are aimed down? How many are aimed up?
In the second frame, the Coyote also positions himself in a downward angle while he waits for the fuse to burn down. Notice how his change in position already makes the image appear faster than the first image where the Coyote is sitting upright and facing in the opposite direction to where the rocket is pointed.
The third frame is full of downward diagonal lines. The rocket has taken off so fast that it's already out of frame, leaving only it's trail of fire behind. It's also zoomed forward so fast that the Coyote's hands and feet, which hold the rocket, have launched forward with it, while the rest of the Coyote still hasn't moved, or had a chance to catch up. Notice the exagerated stretched arms and legs.
The fourth frame is very similar, only the rocket is now much further ahead since we can no longer see its exhaust trail, and the Coyote's body seems poised to suddenly spring back as his arms and legs contract back towards his hands and feet.
In the fifth frame, the Coyote's body has snapped forward so fast that it's just a blur of brown. Not only that, but his body has not accelerated ahead so fast, that his tail has been left behind, the acceleration pushing most of his fur up into a bunch at the very tip.
In the sixth frame, the Coyote's body is now almost completely gone, with his tail remaining stretched out behind him.
In the seventh frame, his tail finally snaps forward to join the rest of him.
In the final frame that is really fast motion we are looking at. The Coyote's body is stretched, and his face is compressed by the gravitational forces being exerted on it from the high rate of speed the rocket is traveling at.
Take a good look again at all of the images above, and come back for part two where we look at how high speed is depicted in comic books.