How Does the Split-Screen Bare the Device of Conventional Videography Techniques?
Split-screen filmmaking is one of the oldest techniques used by film editors and VFX artists alike. Whether it’s editing clips together or building a single shot from multiple takes, here are some of the many different uses of split screen. The use of split-screen filmmaking dates back to the 1890s. Early uses, like Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film Life of an American Fireman, showed thoughts of the main character. In fact, the opening scene of the film is the fireman thinking of a woman and child.
Cécile Fontaine's films do not tell stories in the traditional sense. Rather, they form spiraling involutions around an idea or a theme. Hers is a cinema of layers, encrustations, and material and plastic experimentation. It is a colorful and aquatic cinema that investigates—through stripping down and subsequent reconstruction—the material from which the images are made: the film strip itself. This essay investigates the poetics and the practice of Fontaine's found footage cinema, a cinema rigorously made without a movie camera, beginning with her first experiments with dry and wet techniques in the 1980s up to her more complex operations at the end of the 1990s. It is a cinema that, by fishing in the stream of abandoned images, reflects on the nature of the image, of memory and history, all rolled onto the vertical axis of the film. With this sentence, Cécile Fontaine summarizes her decadelong cinematographic practice, her poetics, and her editing technique. Her films are born of discarded material—reels recovered by chance in flea markets and rubbish bins, ephemeral films, educational documentaries, travel reports, commercials, home movies, and more—to sum it up, found footage. From these films, which she physically manipulates with aggressive techniques, Fontaine constructs an imaginary world, a phantasmagoria of colors and shapes that transports the spectator to a parallel visual universe.
Specific terms are foundational in film, television, and video studies. This lexicon strengthens the autonomy of these fields and cultivates a common ground for their scholarship. “Split-screen”, for example, is usually used as a synonym of multiple-image or multi-frame compositions. As David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson state, “In this process, two or more different images, each with its own frame dimensions and shape, appear within the larger frame” (2007, 187).1 This is an intentionally wide-ranging description. According to it, a split screen seems to be any multiple-image layout that sets images alongside each other within the same frame. The broadness is understandable. The authors are cautious enough not to limit what can be understood by the term, exactly because there are no other terms against which to define it. This case in point leaves the impression that the vocabulary of a field is also limited, since it may not cover or accurately describe some cases. It is this limitation that makes it continually open to improvements and additions – a way for scholarly work to keep responding to the renewed creativity of films, videos, and television series. This essay arises from these introductory ideas and aims to explore and define a new term that can be contrasted with split-screen: that is, mosaic-screen. In this stylistic device, used in regular moments of the television series 24 (Sopocy, Martin. 1978), images that commonly vary in characteristics are arranged on screen.
Altogether, the split-screen is a multi-frame technique used in film, television and video. Recent advances in digital technology make it easier to incorporate the fragmented frame into visual narrative strategies. I argue that properties inherent to the split-screen technique (including simultaneity, symmetry, visual irony, omniscient view and visual style) also emerge as attributes of a split-screen aesthetic.
Bordwell, D. and K. Thompson. 2007. Film Art: An Introduction, 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Carroll, N. 2003. Engaging the Moving Image. New Haven: Yale University Press. –––. 2008. The Philosophy of Motion Pictures. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sopocy, Martin. 1978. A Narrated Cinema: The Pioneer Story Films of James A. Williamson. Cinema Journal 18 (1): 1-28.