Compression strips – One band

In a previous article on contrasted zones, we saw how the screen could be split in contrasted areas for characters to dwell in, limiting their freedom of movement. Now light is not the only means to confine characters to screen regions, which is fortunate since you don’t necessarily need contrasty shots all the time. In this article, we will see how the same claustrophobic effect can be achieved with or without a stark contrast in brightness.


Light weight

So this is where we were. In The Usual Suspects (B. Singer, 1995), a cabin door opens on the mysterious passenger of the cargo as he listens to the crew running around on the deck. At first, the character is waiting in the dark. A light shutter is then removed to simulate the opening of a door, dividing the screen in two halves. The character remains in the bright half, pressured by the dark ‘band’, highlighting his stupefaction. Here, a stark contrast brings out a ‘crisis’ situation. Read more in Enclosing a character within a contrasting zone.


To keep a ‘dark on dark’ approach, we want to get rid of the contrasting effect, as in Point Blank (J. Boorman, 1967) when Reese and Walker approach a helicopter platform in a derelict prison by night. Both characters stay in the shade, squeezed by the lighter side of the wall which looks like a large ‘strip’ of gray. Although contrast is low, the strip eats up screen space, depriving the characters from their freedom of movement, putting them under pressure.

“We just hit them on the head, that’s it.”


Blocking agent

In Valmont (M. Forman, 1989), Madame de Tourvel replies to Valmont who has just asked her whether she “loved her husband”. The large tree trunk in the foreground confines the character within the right screen-half, putting pressure on her as she politely reacts to Valmont’s boorishness. Having the trunk uniformly lighted prevents it from being shaded, making it look like a band of gray texture pushing on the character sideways, as though she was facing the frame border although centered on the screen.

“Yes, I love him very much.”

The ‘band’ or ‘strip’ needn’t be in the foreground for the compression effect to work. In Sleepy Hollow (T. Burton, 1999), Katrina — who has interfered with Crane’s inquiries to protect her father — watches Crane walking to her side as he reproaches her for her attitude. The first snapshot shows her figure supported by a dark wall in the background as she begins to lose control of the dialog, then cuts to a pair of shots on Crane — who carries on with his speech (the part between square brackets) as he walks, not shown here — then cuts to the second snapshot. This time, Katrina is being pushed on by the mass of the wall towards the frame border, which brings out her feeling of being betrayed by Crane. Although the wall stands in the background, it does subtract screen space from the character, pushing on her sideways towards the screen border.


“But if there is [guilt, I cannot alter it, no matter how much it grieves me. And no spells of yours
can alter it, either.]”


“Your father has the motive. It is he who stands to profit from these murders.”

“If you knew him, you would not have such harsh thoughts about him.”

What’s up?

In part 1 of this article, we saw how a part of the set — uniformly lit so as to look like one big ‘mass’ or ‘strip’ of texture — could eat up screen space to confine characters to a limited area of the frame without necessarily adding stark contrast to the shot, limiting their freedom of movement to put pressure on them. In next part, we will see the impact of multiple bands on the image.


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