Frame splitting – Compartments (Part 1)

After having focused on showy frame ‘dividers’, let’s concentrate on the role of ‘compartments’ and the way they relate to each other, regardless of divider shapes. In part 1 of this article, we will focus on two main approaches to segmenting the frame: single action with multiple subjects and parallel actions.


Single action, multiple subjects

A flashback in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (N. Oshima, 1983) shows Jack Celliers voluntarily standing aside from his younger brother bullied by a herd of schoolmates, a shameful attitude that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Basically, the wall edging the staircase acts as a divider, splitting the screen in two compartments of different sizes. The smallest one puts pressure on the character remaining still up the stairs. Here, the divider is not meant to be looked at. The audience’s attention is merely shared between the two compartments: the gathering and Cellier’s figure.

In Enter the Dragon (R. Clouse, 1973), Lee — a martial artist — hunts down Mr. Han who has retreated into a room full of mirrors. The mirror edge acts as a nearly invisible frame divider, splitting the screen in two compartments, the leftmost one being a reflection of Han waiting for Lee to show up from behind the mirror. Here, there’s hardly any divider at all, only two compartments stitched together. The audience’s attention naturally alternates between the still reflection and the moving character.


Parallel actions

In Marnie (A. Hitchcock, 1964), Marnie steals the contents of the safe of the company she works for as a secretary, unaware of the cleaning lady slowly coming her way the other side of the wall. Again, the ‘divider’ is not meant to attract attention. Because both actions take place in parallel, the audience’s attention evenly alternates from side to side, awaiting the moment Marnie realizes that her retreat has been cut.

Two parallel actions in the same frame don’t necessarily have the same power of attraction as demonstrated in this shot from A Better Tomorrow (J. Woo, 1986), when Mark is being bashed by his former boss Shing and his henchmen on a building roof at night. The frame shot is divided in two compartments. In the leftmost one, we see some road traffic in the distance, unaware of the violence taking place in the rightmost area. Here, quiet traffic lanes are displayed in counterpoint to the action, they’re not meant to be stared at.


What’s up?

In part 1 of this article, we set aside frame ‘dividers’ to focus on the way couples of ‘compartments’ were relating to each other, either displaying multiple subjects — one of them at a standstill — or parallel actions. In next part, we will see how multiple (more than two) compartments relate to each other, still regardless of divider shapes.


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