The Gutter in The Secret of Kells

In previous blog posts, other members of our community  have written about ways that film and comics have become intertwined, either through adaptations of comics, or comic adaptations of movies. There has been a few mentions of how the comic environment has been recreated in movies, and one such part of the comic that I would like to focus on is the gutter. The gutter is used in comics for several reasons, including separating action moments, differentiating time and space, and also to skip “scenes” (if you will pardon my use of movie vocabulary). Scott McCloud spends a lot of time defining what the gutter is used for, and develops reasons on why the gutter is an important element of comics.   To summarize  the gutter is used within comics to help format the page and allow the reader to make sense of a the order of events and imply the passing of time. Sometimes, panels can be implied in comics, and no physical space is needed to needed to juxtapose images. Closure and creation of a narrative from the image can take place without the physical gutter, but the gutter is still implied and needed to create a sense of closure within the comic.

The gutter is not often used in the film industry. To show the passage of time and place, the movie industry uses scenes and cuts rather than the gutter. However, sometimes the film industry barrows the use of the gutter from comics, using the gutter to create order to the images portrayed on the screen.

For example, I was recently watching one of my favorite movies, The Secret of Kells. This movie is stunningly animated, and very aware of its medium as being an artistic medium through which to repeat motifs from the historic Book of Kells. Many of the scenes are outlined as if they were put inside a frame, sometimes taking the usage of a gutter to separate moments by time and space.

The Secret of Kells uses the gutter in the following scenes to show the growth of the main character, a young monk named Brendan, as he travels around Ireland to finish the illustrations within the Book of Kells and gain followers of Christianity.


This series of images is played as one continuous shot where Aidan and Brandon move between panels, showing a change in age and location. This scene, and others throughout the movie, use these same techniques that are often found in comics.







Much like its use in comics, the gutter is used in this scene to show the change in time and place without changing the entire scene on the screen. While most movies use a change in scene to have the same effect of the gutter, The Secret of Kells stays away from this technique, highlighting its visual self-awareness.

So, why can this movie get away with this technique with so much success, while other animated films haven’t even tried to use it? Maybe because The Secret of Kells is based off of the creation of the Book of Kells, a book that contains illustrated tales of four books of the New Testament .  The Book of Kells contains both words and images, sometimes using such powerful calligraphy that letters become masterpieces of art rather than characters.

book image
A page from the historical Book of Kells. This image is later used in the credits of the Secret of Kells movie, and the figure presented in the middle of this image was the model used for the movie’s main character, Brandon.

In this way, the Book of Kells itself employs many similar themes of the graphic novel, however, the Book of Kells is not a graphic novel because its primary mode of storytelling is through text, not through images. The images are merely supplementary, similar to how images are used in children’s books. However, the movie closes these gaps by using many of the graphic novels own tools to help illustrate the story of the Book of Kells.

Book of Kells image:


  1 comment for “The Gutter in The Secret of Kells

  1. nbemis
    March 24, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    I found this very interesting, and the idea of using the gutter to show a series of events in sequence during a film is pretty cool. It’s also interesting that you mentioned that The Secret of Kells was able to pull it off because of its source material. That really reminds me of how the film adaptation of Sin City was able to divide some of its scenes into adjacent comic panels with gutters. Again, that was a move which made sense because the movie was based off of a comic. I wish that that artistic device were used more often in film, because it does create some fun moments, but it’d be tough to implement consistently.

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