The Problem of Talking Head Syndrome

There is a phenomenon whispered about in the corners of conventions; with furtive glances toward the unsuspecting subjects of the con-goer’s ire. It marks out the newcomer from the more experienced artist, and brands the comic as lazy, slapdash or having simply been created by someone who does not know better. What is this problem? It is the dreaded Talking Head Syndrome.

What is Talking Head Syndrome?

Emily and Tesrin from 'All over the house' discuss the perfect gift for Tesrin's Dad's birthday

In the first frame of this comic, what is there to draw the eye to the characters?

Some of you may now be asking yourselves what on Earth I’m on about. Don’t all heads talk? Is there any other part of the body that can talk? I know we sometimes think certain people have developed rectal communication techniques but let’s face it, we’re deluding ourselves in that regard. Bear with me on this though, as my reasoning will become clear in a moment.

If you’ve ever watched the special features on a DVD, you’ll likely have come across that special kind of ‘behind the scenes’ documentary that consists mostly of a person sitting in front of a wall or other flat surface, talking to an off-camera interviewer. There’s very little action on screen, it’s just this guy chatting about how he found something in the film a problem, and managed to either overcome it or brush it under the carpet and hope nobody noticed.

This is Talking Head Syndrome – his jaw flapping is pretty much the only thing moving on the screen. Would you pay good money to go and see a film where all that happens is some guy sits in front of a flat screen and chats to someone you can’t see? Now imagine you replace that guy chatting with a photograph of the guy just sitting there. Doing nothing. For 90 minutes. That’s one date you won’t be getting a call from in the morning.

Why Talking Heads Suck in Webcomics

Directors can get away with talking heads in film and television because they don’t take up most of the film. Actors move about, they express themselves through mannerisms and intonation. They get up and move about, fling themselves around the set in exasperation, shoot each other in the face with rockets the size of the moon, and so forth. Rarely will you find a camera focused for any great length of time on a person who does not move. It’s bad film. Directors like to see things moving about, because the audience does too.

In webcomics, you have a flat image and you have to make the most of it. Rarely, if ever, will you have animation of any kind in your comic and if you do, you’ve avoided the problem we’re talking about anyway (well done!). Your image is flat, it’s still, and if you’re not careful, it will be lifeless, too.

Talking Head Syndrome kills comics because it takes the art out of the equation. If all you’ve got is one person saying something, another person responding and then a punchline, you might as well save yourself some time and just post a blog entry with a joke in it. There needs to be life in the comic, or there’s no point in having the comic.

Next time you’re drawing, ask yourself this: is there any way I could get some movement into these characters during this joke? A bit of expression not only helps drive the joke home but it provides personality for the characters involved. Done well, it can add so many layers to the comic simply by implying aspects of the characters’ backgrounds that are not expressed in the speech.

So don’t just have your people act like corpses when they’re delivering lines. Don’t even do it if they are corpses.

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