Hey Lee! I've really been enjoying your columns thus far. I apologise for not keeping up with the homework - I do intend to go back and attempt those earlier exercises, but I felt for now I'd try and get back onboard by jumping to this week's task and answering your questions. I'm a writer, not an artist, so my answers come from the perspective of a writer - and not an overly experienced one at that!
Question 1: How much information do you feel is necessary for including in panel description?
It varies. For a comic script I'm currently writing, in one panel the setting description is just "a street corner". But a couple of pages later, I have a very detailed description of a classroom, right down to the layout of the tables, how many kids are sitting at each table, and the placement of certain children in certain seats. This seemed pretty tyrannical when I looked back on it, but was important for the framing of a potentially tricky panel in the following page. There are of course a couple of things that should always be in your panel descriptions, at least the ones that start a new scene: the when and the where. Say whether the scene takes place indoors or outdoors, and mention whether it's night or day. Now, how much you want to describe the room your characters are in, or whether you want the weather outside to be sunny or cloudy and overcast, that depends on the context of the panel.
I'd say a generally good rule of thumb is: if you want to see it in the panel, put it in the panel description. Get everything you want - whether it be a character or a background detail - in there, and leave it to the artist to fill in the blanks. The balance may change - in some panels there may be a lot of specific things you want included, meriting a long, detailed panel description, while in other panels there may really be only one detail that's essential while the rest is open to interpretation, leading to a brief, concise panel description. But I tend to think that if you stick by the general philosophy of "If you want to see it drawn, write it down", that works as a fairly strong barometer.
Sub-question: Does knowing the artist affect that decision, and if so, how?
I'll get back to you when I know more artists!
Question 2: How do you feel panel-writing should be approached, stylistically, for yourself as a writer or artist, and why does that work for you (if not necessarily for others)?
This might be a good place to quote some of the points I made in one of your earlier columns, Lee. At the time I think I was going off on a premature tangent, but it might be more relevant to the topic of this week:
"Each panel tells its own story.
And that's the key, something I know I haven't mastered yet. Your panels aren't just window-dressing for you to plaster your lovely dialogue on top of. Every panel is a work of art in itself, something that tells the full story of that one frozen moment in time. So when you're writing up a panel description in your script, what you are doing is selling the story of the image to the artist, if that makes any sense. You're not telling a story in motion. You're looking at the still picture fully formed in your own mind, and you're describing it to the best of your ability. You're trying to do that image in your head justice in your description of it, so that you're giving the artist all the tools they need to capture the spirit of that image in your head with their reinterpretation of it. That one image tells a story. The rest of the images on the page surrounding it join with that one image to tell a bigger story. Then the 22 pages of panels - each with a story of their own - that make up a whole comic book tell a bigger story than that. And so on and so forth.
Comics are a visual medium, and as writers it can be hard to get our heads around that, to think that's it not about our writing abilities, it's about pitching the ball for the artist to hit out of the park - they're drawing it, they're telling the story."
To expand on what I said back then, I also think that if each panel tells a story, as a writer I don't want to shy away from being a storyteller with it. Yes, a comic book script is essentially a tool for the artist, that's who you're writing it to. And as such, some are of the school that a panel description should be as sparse and clinical as possible. But still, I want to try my best to make my panel descriptions engaging reads in their own right, trying to write in a way that captures the mood of the story or just the moment. Even if it's just the artist who reads the script, ideally the content of a panel description can engage them in the story, give them a clearer idea of the panel's intended affect. For example, in one of my scripts I describe a character's expression as such:
"His eyes are closed, and he is making this odd face that looks like an unsettling combination of sexual elation and constipation."
This might not be a concise, clear depiction of exactly how I want the artist to draw the expression. Instead, it (hopefully) highlights the absurd, farcical nature of the moment, and the odious nature of the character in question, and maybe inspires the artist to get into the spirit of the moment and let that dictate their own interpretation of what such an odd expression would look like.