If digital is a whole new frontier for comic creators, then a new idea called Scrollon just kicked the exploration into warp drive.
And oddly enough, it's based on the ancient idea of scrolls.
Scrollon, a new comic book app for the iPad, allows digital readers to not only read stories, but travel through them. Unlike comics that are simply repurposed from print, the visual language of Scrollon was specifically designed for reading digitally, and provides a new, intuitive method of visual storytelling.
With the touch (or swipe) of a finger, the story advances through scrolling — not panels. As previewed on the Apple App Store and on scrollon.com, the Scrollon process takes only a few seconds for a reader to figure out, and there's no need to jump the story around from panel to panel or page to page.
For creators, the scroll approach means artwork doesn't need to be cropped to make text readable, layouts aren't reformatted, and the creator's vision isn't as likely to be compromised for the sake of dimensions.
Plus, creators can control the speed of scrolling, much like the pan of a camera. That means scrolling can be utilized to portray motion, or silence, or changes in perspective, or other as-yet unexplored possibilities. And the dashboard for the app was built so that artists can use their existing Photoshop or other image editing software to create.
The Scrollon process is being patented by its creator, Doug Lefler, a veteran of the film industry. A Disney animation veteran, Lefler also directed second unit on films like Army of Darkness and Spider-Man, and went on to direct other TV shows and feature movies.
An artist at heart (who often drew his own storyboards), Lefler has been toying with the idea of using "scrolling" for comic books for decades. But he never saw a way to make a scroll practical for publishing comics in print.
But with digital, the scrolling language opens up a lot of new approaches in storytelling.
The app launches today with a library of comics that were created by Lefler — in a variety of genres — but he already has other creators developing stories, and he hopes to attract more to Scrollon.
We talked to Lefler about the new artistic approach he's introducing today and found out his passion for this storytelling method is contagious.
Newsarama: Doug, as I'm looking at the way this works, it's amazing that nobody thought of this before. It's such a simple approach, yet it opens the door for completely new ways to tell a story.
Doug Lefler: Yeah, it's a very simple, very intuitive thing. And the more I've gotten into it, the more I've realized it's something I want to spend a lot of time exploring and expanding.
As I've been developing this, part of [the work has involved] hiring the programmers and doing the technical stuff, but a lot of it has been just developing the visual language you need to tell a story this way.
Nrama: Some of the basics of comic books are still there, like the word balloons and the feeling of one scene following another. But the real difference is the transitions between scenes, as story moves from scene to scene.
Lefler: Yes. It really is its own visual language. Originally, I was thinking this is a really interesting thing to use to make a comic book. But as I spent more time with it, I realized this isn't really a comic book. It's kind of its own thing.
I think it was Scott McCloud who said — and I'll get this quote wrong, I'm sure — but it was something like, the timing in comic books is hidden in the gutters and in between the panels.
I believe that's true.
And yet, that doesn't exist in this. It's a different thing. And the timing is difficult to describe. But the closest thing I can compare it to is music, because it flows and it transitions from one movement to the next. And so it's been an interesting progression.
And one of the things that has motived this whole thing is when I was looking at comics that were repurposed for digital reading, it just seemed to me that... it was a little bit frustrating, because I know the artist had gone through a great amount of trouble to lay out the page in a certain way, and now it was being deconstructed and being presented to me in a different way.
And even though I'm very thankful for companies like comiXology — who have put this vast library of wonderful content at our immediate disposal — it just seemed like there was an opportunity to do something that was specifically designed for reading digitally.
The comparison I most like to use is the difference between film and live theater. You can go see a play, and you can sit in the theater, watch when an actor's in front of you, and have a moving, transformative experience. But if you were to put a camera in the same seat that you were sitting in, and film that, and then project it onto a screen in that very same theater and tried to watch it that way, it would be dull and insufferable to sit through. And that's because film and theater are inherently different.
I believe that the experience of reading a book, bound on a spine, and the experience of reading something digitally are just inherently different. And I wanted to try to develop something that was specific to that experience.
Nrama: Let's talk about when you first came up with the idea. It was originally something you were considering for print, right?
Lefler: Yeah, when I was at Cal Arts [California Institute for the Arts], I had been part of the original character animation program that they had. I was there the first two years that the program was in existence. The end of the second year, there were four of us that were hired to be the first four people to go to work at Disney, and that was John Musker, Jerry Rees, Brad Bird and myself.
Nrama: Impressive list of colleagues.
Lefler: Yeah, so that gives you a little bit of my background.
But I had gone on a field trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and our instructor got out a Chinese scroll painting. And this particular scroll was one long, continuous landscape. So it was really like a journey.
It was so absorbing and was so immersive to go, just, foot by foot, rolling out each section. It took about 20 minutes to get through the whole thing.
And when it was done, I had to look around the room and remind myself where I was. I had gotten so caught up in this. You just want to see where it's going to go next.
I kept thinking... there's a way to tell a story through this, but I'd never seen anybody do this before.
I started to draw it and try it out. But after awhile, I could not figure out any way of mass-producing it. And I didn't want to just do each of these as a one-off. It was too intimidating an effort at the time.
So when I started to explore the concept of digital comics, it came back to me. And it was one of those classic light bulb moments. I thought, well, obviously, this is the way to do it.
Nrama: The preview story you've got up on Scrollon.com is horizontal in nature, the way that it's read.
Nrama: Is that something you're going to stick with?
Lefler: I'm so glad you brought that up. The short answer is no. One of the things that I've discovered as I've gone through this is that you can do this by transitioning from landscape to portrait format.
One of the stories available [as we launch the app] does that. Many of the stories that are in the works now are going to go a lot further in that direction.
You can go up, you can go down...
And when you're reading it in a tablet — and it's designed for a tablet or smartphone experience — you can just easily turn the device in the direction that the story goes.
It's very interesting for me to watch people read a story where I've changed the orientation, because you see them at first, as they're sliding horizontally, the word balloons will begin to reposition, going in the other direction. And you'll see them kind of tilting their heads sideways, trying to read it, and then eventually they just rotate the table naturally. And then you hear them go, "Oh!"
You can't do that in any other medium that I know of.
Yeah, so the reason the previewed story is set only horizontally is because I wanted something that could work on a PC or computer as well as on the tablet. Future stories, I think, will be going in a lot of different directions.
Nrama: It's probably going to be a learning process for readers to get used to it, like when we all learned, as a child, how to turn a page on a book.
Lefler: There is a learning process, and I've discovered that learning process takes about 30 seconds to go through.
When I've shown it to different publishing companies, it's been really interesting to see them do it. They touch it, they slide it and they go, "Oh, of course!" And they'll say, "Has anybody seen anything like this before?" to the other people in the room. And everyone will say, "no."
And then the second question is, "how come nobody thought of this before?" And it's a very good question. I don't know. But I've done legal searching to find out, because I filed a patent on this. And there was nothing, at least filed, that was comparable to it.
Nrama: When I saw it, I thought about how there are ancient columns where the story wraps around in a long scroll — like on Trajan's column in Rome — and I thought, they knew to do it. Why in the world did it take us so long?
Lefler: Yeah! That's what's really interesting. When I was looking for a way to tell a story in this new, modern medium, I went back to a technology that predates the printing press.
Nrama: Used on stone. And scrolls.
But can I talk about something really geeky for a moment?
Nrama: I think that's required on Newsarama.
Lefler: It's "artist geeky."
Nrama: Even better.
Lefler: One of the things that I didn't realize until I got into this, was that I was able to do — well, first of all... when you're in art school and you learn perspective, you learn perspective wrong. Well, it's not actually wrong. It works within a confined picture frame. But we are taught that perspective is straight lines that vanish to a vanishing point on the horizon somewhere. But perspective doesn't actually work that way.
The proof of this is, if you go and stand on a long street or boulevard and you look one way, you will see all the lines of the street diminishing to the horizon or the vanishing point, but if you turn and look in the opposite direction, if the road is running straight, you'll see those same lines diminishing in the other direction too, whereas if they were truly straight, they would just project out into space. But they're not. They're curved. Well, they're perceived as curves because our eyes are curved.
True perspective is not a straight line. True perspective is curvilinear.
Under normal circumstances, you can't draw that. But when you're drawing something for a scroll that's designed to actually move through, you can draw true perspective, or curvilinear perspective.
When I realized this, I locked myself in my studio, then I worked out curvilinear perspective grids. I came out and I announced to my wife I had figured out how to create a curvilinear perspective, and she just smiled at me, as she often does, and nodded and said, "oh, that's nice dear."
Nrama: Where can we see that on the app?
Lefler: You'll see it in a few of the stories, but there's a story that should be available on the app when it launches called Nephilim, and it has some good examples of curvilinear perspective, where as you move through it, not only can you see the perspective bend, but you can also cheat and change the eyeline so that it is as if the camera is craning up or down — booming up or down — as you move through the shot.
And I've never seen — well, where I've seen that before was when I used to work at Disney. I was in the animation for four years. And I used to see that in some of the old backgrounds, like particularly the backgrounds for Pinocchio. I would marvel at the beauty of these pencil drawings that the layout department had done, like Gepetto's village. And you could see the eyeline shift as you moved through the frame and bend and angle. I was always fascinated by that.
Now I get a chance to employ it. Like in one story, I have something thrown in the direction of the reader, then we actually get to turn and see it go in the other direction.
This is the type of stuff that makes me excited about the opportunity to put some classic characters into this technology. Like, I would love to see Batman, Spider-Man or Superman in this, stories told in this format. Where you could actually see Superman flying toward you and away from you in the same image.
Nrama: Or Spider-Man swinging past you. Or a Batarang.
Lefler: Absolutely. Yeah.
Nrama: For the launch, though, there are just a handful of stories. You mentioned Nephilim. What are some of the initial stories that people will be able to read on the app?
Lefler: I'm trying to do a cross-section, but everything that's going to be on the app when it launches are all my stories. I have so many other people interested, but holding back to see if this is actually going to become something real.
I have a number of people that have been pitching projects to me. And I have things that I'm anxious to hire an artist to do, that I've already laid out.
Right now, there's a science fiction story (Ashfire Moon), a pseudo superhero story, which is Nephilim. There is a fantasy-adventure, which is called The Curious Saga of No-One. And there is a steampunk Western (Autumn & Gearlock), which is the most recent one I've done, and I'm having a wonderful time on that.
Nrama: Are they told in chapters?
Lefler: Yes. There's four chapters of Autumn & Gearlock initially. There's two of the Nephilim story. And there's five of the Curious Saga of No-One, which was the first story that I did.
Something that people can look out for in that story [The Curious Saga of No-One] is that there are some visual elements that I actually altered each time you read the story. There are poses of characters, and there are creatures in the forest that will change from one reading to the next.
The technology that I put together actually allows you to load up different versions of a scene or of a character. The original thought was that that would make it fresh for reading multiple times. And I plan to experiment more with that as time goes on.
When I first started this, I think I was much more focused on gimmicks that would be potentially available, but I stopped doing that after awhile, because I realized, just the art of telling a story this way — the visual language of moving from one moment to another uninterrupted by page break, or in most cases, panel restrictions — was so consuming and so fascinating to me that I really wanted to focus on that.
Something else that's been very important to me from the beginning is — what you don't see when you look at the app or look at the website — is that I've created the tools for pretty much any artist that has access to Photoshop or some other photo imaging software to create a Scrollon.
And I'm eventually going to be creating tutorials explaining exactly how that's done.
In the meantime, now, because it's in the early stages, I'm just talking to artists individually and explaining to them and showing them the dashboard.
The dashboard will actually allow you to upload the images you've created and join them together and preview them. It'll also allow you to set the anchor points so that you can determine — when a reader taps this thing and it moves to the next part of the story, you can precisely set where they land, and also how long it takes to get there.
So you can build the timing of the story, of the action, so that if you want it to move faster in between those beats, you can have it go quicker. If it's a long, scenic pan, and you want people to take their time, you can make that go slower.
There's also a section in the dashboard that allows you to make notes. So if you're working with another artist or writer in another state or another part of the world, you can do that and actually pin the note to a certain section of the scroll.
And then throughout the process, you can preview it and see how it's all flowing together.
Nrama: I assume your goal, then, is to open this up to anyone who makes comics. Since we have a lot of readers who are involved in the comic book industry — artists, writers, publishers — what would be your message to them? Are you saying it's simple because you can upload Photoshop images?
Lefler: Well, it's not as simple as that, because it is its own language, so you have to learn how to do the transitions. You have to make sure that you vary angles and that you vary sizes enough. The purpose of any grammar is to make your statement's clear, and so the visual grammar in Scrollon is to make sure that when you move from one story beat to another, even though you are smoothly transitioning through them, you're still clear when one beat ends and the next beat begins. Some of that, people will get from just looking at what I've done.
But you hit upon something that's very important to me. I cannot express how excited I am to see other artists start to use this. Every new story I do, I learn something I didn't realize before about this potential medium. And I can't wait until other artists start contributing, because other people are going to discover things that I haven't thought of, I haven't dreamed of yet.
So I'm encouraging people to contact me and let me guide them through it, and let me explain it.
I do have other artists that have started working on stories. And there is at least one children's book illustrator that I've been in contact with who actually created a story that is already would fit into Scrollon, and we're discussing that as well.
I'm very excited about the possibility of getting into children's literature with this, because I think it's ideally suited to that.
Nrama: Yeah, it really is. My niece has a 1-year-old who can't even talk yet, and he walks up to television screens and tries to scroll them. And on his iPad, he already knows how to open the App Store and look around.
Lefler: Wow. Yeah, yeah.
And that story illustrates a very important point. I do believe that all of our devices are going to be touch screen. All of our computers are going to be touch screen very soon.
So this is really meant to be touched and interactive. You don't want to just hit a play button and let it scroll through. You want to interact with it. Everybody's reading speeds differ. So you want to give control of the movement of it and progression of it to the reader.
[Laughs.] You can tell, obviously, this is my favorite topic of conversation.
Nrama: I think your history with animation and movies and your love of drawing have combined to not only drive your passion, but allow you to understand it and explain it — you can hear it when you say that a shot is "booming" through the comic.
Lefler: Yeah, I do tend to think in terms of the film language when discussing this. It is more cinematic than standard comics.
And I do love comics. In no way do I say this is better than comics. It's different. And again, I go back to the theater and film. I love live theater. I love film. And I'm not going to say I love one of them more. They're different. Like sculpture is to painting. I love them both.
So I love comics books. But this is something different. And I'm really excited to see what artists and publishers are able to create with it.