Ruben R. Puentedura (Hippasus)
Digital storytelling encompasses a broad range of practices, from image assemblies and webcomics to digital video and interactive media. One particular form of webcomics, the “infinite canvas”, has unique features that allow it to substitute for other, more complex storytelling media, while simultaneously redefining the boundaries of sequential art. We look at samples of the infinite canvas, a theoretical framework for its understanding, and how it might be applied as a powerful replacement for traditional PowerPoint presentations.
Rather than a single mode of media production, digital storytelling can be viewed as a family of practices that integrate different forms of digital media with storytelling goals. This family encompasses a broad spectrum of output formats, from collections of images, through digital video, to interactive fiction. A particularly rich form of digital storytelling is embodied in the webcomic, the form of sequential art contained within the framework of the Web. Marrying the known power of traditional comics to the flexibility and potential for programming of the Web allows for new practices that both expand the boundaries of the medium, and give rise to new, previously unseen narrative forms. One particularly powerful new form is to be found in the “infinite canvas,” the form of sequential art that results from erasing the boundaries of the physical page, as well as in the design of the comic.
The term “infinite canvas” was first coined by Scott McCloud, within the context of developing an interactive CD-ROM version of his work Understanding Comics for Voyager. Within this context, the term referred to navigational artifacts that would have allowed the reader to expand their explorations of a particular chapter or topic. While this project did not develop further, McCloud continued to explore the concept, and developed it further in his book Reinventing Comics.
Before delving further into McCloud’s analysis, it will be worthwhile to look at an actual example of an infinite canvas webcomic. In a panel (Figure 1) drawn from McCloud’s Zot! Online Hearts and Minds, we can see the potential of the infinite canvas at work. The initial setup of the strip is fairly traditional, although connecting lines, known as “traces”, are used to guide the reader’s eye from panel to panel. However, after the explosion of Zot’s ship, the comic also literally “explodes” (1a) into an extremely long vertical panel depicting the fall of our heroes (1b) in a fashion that would not be possible on the printed page. When our hero regains consciousness and the power of flight, the panel “implodes” (1c) once more into a more traditional layout and narrative progression.
McCloud’s Analysis of the Infinite Canvas
McCloud identifies several central elements of sequential art that change going from the printed page to the infinite canvas. Of these, three stand out – if we discuss them using a musical metaphor (which works better than a cinematic metaphor here), they are:
1. Pacing: in music, the only constraint on how many beats a given musical passage might take is determined by its own internal expressive needs. On the printed page, however, the number of panels that can occupy a given space is limited by physical constraints, thus limiting the number of “beats” storytellers can use in ways that may not best suit their story. Comics authors as diverse as Bill Griffith and Berkeley Breathed have complained about the tyranny of the space constraints allocated to daily newspaper comics and the resulting limitations imposed on their narratives. In the infinite canvas, three panels can become six panels without penalty, so storytellers can add as many beats as needed to their story. An excellent example of this is given by Demian.5′s When I Am King (Figure 2), which starts out with an evenly divided horizontal space, within which the infinite canvas allows for gradual development as the king slowly wakes and formulates the desire to pick a sunflower (2a). Later, the comic develops both parallel storylines depicted in parallel horizontal strands, as well as vertical components, thus expanding its use of the medium as its picaresque tale evolves and deepens.
2. Dynamic range: musical passages can range from a pianissimo to a fortissimo; by contrast, the printed page allows a much more limited range, since when panels become too small they become illegible, and when they expand too far they overflow the bounds of the page. Infinite canvas webcomics allow for panels to become as large/loud or as small/soft as needed. An excellent illustration of this principle is provided by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey’s 24:Three (Figure 3). Readers can start anywhere in the comic, and navigate by following the connecting lines (designated, as we have already seen, by McCloud as “trails”) (3a), where interactive clicking directs people through the paths within the comic, and dynamic zooming allows for selective piano/forte relevance for comic elements (3b), while the dynamic, multiple point of entry layout allows for allegorical connections among branches.
It is worthwhile to look at a second example of this in an infinite canvas webcomic with a more traditional storytelling approach, such as Drew Weing’s “Pup” (Figure 4) In “Pup” Ponders the Heat Death of the Universe, Weing gradually transitions from “piano” sequential panels (4a) to a progressively expanding vertical scale, which breaks out in a fortissimo out of boundaries as Pup’s mind expands to cover the entire universe (4b), which finally recompresses down to a traditional “piano” comics space, essential and complementary to the comic’s punch line (4c).
3. Time: the varying duration of silences and other interludes between musical passages are essential to the development of musical narratives. By contrast, comics (where distance between panels equals time) have been largely constrained by the physical page, so that only a narrow range of spacing between panels has been used in actual practice, thus in turn constraining the medium’s capacity to represent slowing down/speeding up of time. No such limitation exists in the infinite canvas, as can be seen in Michael May’s Eros, Inc. (Figure 5) The webcomic opens with two traditional panels (5a), which then switch to vertically scrolling text-only panels with spacing given by the rhythms and pauses of the transcribed conversation (5b), but unconstrained by the boundaries of the traditional printed page. This process has also allowed the text to become more fully decoupled from the rest of the panel, and assume more fully image-like aspects onto itself.
A second approach to spacing and time is presented by John Barber’s Vicious Souvenirs (Figure 6), which creates a third dimension for an infinite canvas that is revealed via successive overlays (6a). Some argument exists as to whether this last example is an infinite canvas, since not all panels exist at the same time; however, this objection can be deflected by pointing out that the process of revealing the successive overlays is analogous to turning the page in traditional comic books, albeit with a perceptual continuity not available in the latter.
Potential Applications in Digital Storytelling:
If the infinite canvas were just a rather exotic side branch of webcomics, it would not merit much attention beyond that accorded a curiosity. However, there are at least two reasons why the approach merits further attention in the academic sphere:
- First, digital storytelling should not be viewed in just its best-known form (i.e., moving image projects assembled from digital stills plus a narrator’s voice), but rather as a range of practices, each incorporating multiple options and possibilities (Figure 7). As we progress through the multiple forms of digital storytelling, we invoke a progressively broadening spectrum of narrative options and possibilities – at the cost of increasing complexity in learning both the language and tools of that particular digital storytelling mode. In that context, the infinite canvas promises a way to “cheat” this tradeoff, with an excellent difficulty/benefits ratio, since it affords many of the narrative possibilities to be found in the moving image domain, as well as some of those provided by traditional interactive media, while remaining within the easier to teach, learn, and share domain of sequential art.
- Second, as pointed out by Edward Tufte, we face some non-trivial problems in communication created by the overuse and misuse of PowerPoint-type tools. In typical use, PowerPoint oversimplifies content, imposes boundaries on the presentation space that in turn constrains in detrimental fashion the presentation of data and its analysis, and overall imposes a certain framework via its defaults that limits and stultifies thinking. Infinite-canvas tools like Prezi (see below) effectively work around PowerPoint’s limitations (e.g., zooming gets around issues determined by the fixed screen resolution of PowerPoint by allowing for focus while preserving detail; changes in size and distance can emphasize more clearly the relative relevance of key points than PowerPoint’s “one size fits all” approach), while not requiring users to completely abandon practices that have served them to a certain degree in PowerPoint.
The Infinite Canvas Toolkit
While multiple tools have been developed to create infinite canvas comics, at this point in time only two tools are powerful enough and stable enough to be recommended:
- The Tarquin Engine (Figure 8): developed by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, the Tarquin Engine allows for the full range of effects seen in his webcomic 24:Three. It is based upon easily-modifiable and augmentable Flash templates; however, users need to have some basic knowledge of Flash, and access to the Flash authoring environment.
- Prezi (Figure 9): this is the recommended infinite canvas tool for users who lack Flash authoring experience. Prezi is currently being marketed as a presentation tool, but it is at its core a tool for authoring infinite canvas narratives. Prezi starts from a set of templates, which govern font styles, backgrounds, and colors, allowing for experimentation, but at the same time putting some boundaries on projects to keep them from becoming formless. Tools like frames and paths act like panel boundaries and traces in infinite canvas comics, grouping elements together, and guiding the reader from one element to the next. Zooming occurs automatically as the reader progresses from element to element, and can be controlled by suitable use of frames, both visible and invisible. Audio, video, and high-resolution PDFs can all be embedded within Prezi, and form part of the narrative. The combination of all of these elements effectively addresses Tufte’s concerns, while the tool itself remains easy to learn and accessible to a broad audience.
Rounding Out the Theory – Avenues for Further Exploration
It is clear that the infinite canvas holds great promise as a venue for digital storytelling. However, pushing beyond what has already been accomplished, and, indeed, avoiding some of the “PowerPoint traps” outlined by Tufte, will require a deeper theoretical background. In constructing this background for the practice of the infinite canvas by authors who are not already experienced as sequential artists, several elements will prove particularly useful:
1. A classification scheme for panel-to-panel transitions (Scott McCloud): panel-to-panel transitions (Figure 10) become particularly important in infinite canvas webcomics, since they can take on new dimensions in the new medium. Thus, zooming in the infinite canvas can evoke transitions of either the moment-to-moment type (appealing to the reader’s direct familiarity with the traditional medium) or the aspect-to-aspect type (appealing to concepts derived from cinema of zooming bringing attention focus to different aspects of a scene). Looking at the webcomic examples we have already considered, we can see new options for each of the possibilities: witness the same long panel that contains both moment-to-moment (the development of the fall) and action-to-action (explosion to fall to flying) transitions in Zot! Online, or the multiple transition types evoked by the combination of zooming along trails with panel content in 24:Three.
2. A narrative/composition classification matrix (Benoît Peeters): infinite canvas webcomics invoke visual composition and layout in new ways, and make possible narrative that was not possible before. However, this in turn means that relationships between narrative and composition become particularly crucial in this new domain. Hence, this matrix (Figure 11), derived from the work of Peeters, becomes particularly important in the context of the infinite canvas. It is important to realize here that narrative does not refer just to the text on the page, but rather to all elements – visual and textual – that contribute to tell a story, while composition refers primarily to the layout and construction of the page and panels. The four possible combinations given by the relative dominance and interactions of these two components can best be understood by reference to four examples drawn from traditional comics works (Figure 12). The infinite canvas webcomics we’ve looked at can clearly be further – and better – understood in terms of these categories. Thus, When I Am King is closest to conventional use, while Zot! Online exemplifies rhetorical use, and Vicious Souvenirs’ use of overlays points out new directions for productive use.
3. Concepts derived from cartography (Alan MacEachren): when sequential art extends its boundaries beyond a page-based concept to what is now effectively a terrain, it enters the domain of cartography. In determining best practices for the domain – particularly where replacing Powerpoint is concerned – it is important to bring cartographic knowledge into play. As one example, the analysis of the effectiveness of different visual elements in communicating cartographic concepts, derived from the work of Jacques Bertin and Alan MacEachren (Figure 13) is directly relevant to the use that can be made today of the medium. Different visual variables that can be invoked on the page (e.g., color hue, texture) are assessed in terms of their effectiveness at communicating distinctions within certain categories of concepts (e.g., the relative size of two quantities being depicted). This and other concepts drawn from the cartographic domain can add focus, clarity, and power to analytical narratives constructed atop an infinite canvas.
The infinite canvas is ready for use today, both as a replacement for Powerpoint-type narrative, as well as in its role as a fully autonomous medium for digital storytelling. For those authors who wish to push the boundaries of the medium beyond current practice, a direction for exploration is suggested by thoughts on the boundaries of the form. In a remark on his online presentation of the infinite canvas, McCloud notes that critics have attacked the infinite canvas precisely because of the limitations it removes: sequential art, they claimed, has developed and evolved precisely because of these constraints. While it is true that the infinite canvas removes many constraints, it would be absurd to claim that it removes all constraints, or, indeed, that it does not create new constraints of its own. Understanding these constraints, however, will require both the creation of multiple new infinite canvas projects, as well as the systematic exploration of the domain.
One avenue for such exploration that looks likely to prove fruitful is based upon the work of the OuBaPo (Ouvroir de Bande Dessinée Potentielle – “Workshop for Potential Comics”), which models its projects upon the work of the OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle – “Workshop for Potential Literature”), which sought to better understand what could be done in writing by creating novels, poems, and stories written under deliberate artificial constraints. Some of these constraints are mechanical (e.g., Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes is a “machine” for generating billions of sonnets, based upon rules for recombining the lines from a set of 10 original sonnets), while others combine thematic rules with other constraints (e.g., Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi, where each component “novelette” within the overall novel includes certain objects and references, and follows an order given by a complex set of rules), and others retell the same scenario using multiple stylistic approaches (e.g. Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de Style, which recounts a simple story of a chance encounter on a bus and at the train station in 99 different literary styles).
OuBaPo has constructed equivalent explorations for comics: in addition to experiments that parallel those of the OuLiPo exactly – for instance, Matt Madden’s 99 Ways To Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, which parallels Queneau’s Exercises de Style (Figure 14) – the group has also created explorations that deal with specific features of the space of comics (e.g., Bill Griffith’s The Plot Thickens, in which each horizontal row of the comic contains exactly one more panel than the one that preceded it). Thus far, OuBaPo projects have not dealt with the arena of infinite comics, but promise rich potential, understanding, and discoveries if they were thus directed.
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Dr. Ruben Puentedura is the Founder and President of Hippasus, a consulting firm focusing on transformative applications of information technologies to education. He has implemented these approaches for over twenty years at a range of institutions, including Bennington College, Harvard University, and the Maine State Department of Education, as well as other schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and arts organizations. His research includes the design of models for selecting, using, and evaluating technology in education, as well as new directions in Educational Gaming and Digital Storytelling, focusing on applications in areas where they have not been traditionally employed. He can be reached at email@example.com.