What Are Some Benefits and Limitations of the Split Screen as a Filmic Device?
The invention of the split focus diopter, combining two images to make a single shot in which both the foreground and background are equally emphasized, possesses an otherworldly effect that gives the brain a real workout, and the black borders sometimes used to emphasize the fact that we're looking at a split screen can be both performance-serving (two characters talking on the phone) and a means to finding a loophole in the face of censorship .
In one, “the West” returns (again and again) as an empty space-time of possibility for a rugged breed of national heroes, even when that breed, and that promise, are in doubt; in the other, pronounced forms of suffering and guilt that might accompany depictions of violence and oppression throughout the nation are continually localized onto images of “the South,” figured as a remote place undone by category crisis that looks backward (morally and temporally), and within which are contained any manner of abject subjects. Repeatedly, this “splitting” can be seen to negotiate, whether by sheer avoidance or through more complex forms of displacement and projection, the difficulty of reconciling, or even processing, the most paradoxical of national narratives — e.g., “land of the free”/land of slavery, conquest, and segregation — and the conflicted national feelings these can generate in turn. While confronting such contradictions head-on has the potential to capsize cohesive conceptions of the nation, by now familiar screen forms of the West and the South offer convenient, discrete, and consequential imaginary places upon which to collectively project avowed aspirations and dump troubling forms of national waste (forms like guilt, shame, and indifference).2 Pinpointing some of the most severe, influential, yet understudied postwar trends fueling this dynamic, and mining their potential for more complex ways of thinking and feeling about the nation, Split Screen Nation considers how their audiovisual forms have encouraged and impeded collective processes of remembering and forgetting. How, it asks, have such forms helped to shape how we imagine not only the nation’s past, but also the limits and possibilities of its present and future?
Gance used the split-screen spectacularly in the closing sequence to his masterpiece, Napoleon. The use of this technique has never disappeared, but despite a brief flowering in the late sixties and early seventies, it has generally remained a minor trope in the poetics of the moving image. However, it is more in evidence in a range of contemporary films, sometimes as a tour-de-force (Spielman, L, 1999), but more commonly integrated and subordinated within the overall single-screen aesthetic. This resurgence of the split-screen is supported by ongoing cultural changes in the production, distribution and reception of the moving image. The computer desktop, electronic games, television news, print comics and graphic novels have accustomed us to reading the many-windowed visual screen (Rhodes, G.A., 2005).
In this tutorial from Ben Gill, you’ll see how Fincher uses split-comping to combine three different frames in The Social Network or two frames in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Spielman, L., "Aesthetic Features in Digital Imaging: Collage and Morph", Wide Angle, Vol. 21, No. 1, (1999)]
Rhodes, G.A., Metonymy in the Moving Image, MFA Dissertation, State University of New York, Buffalo, 2005. Available online at