Split-Screen Effects and Early Cinema

< Program < PANEL NO. 3: Cameras, Projectors, and Trick Photography

Split screen composites constitute one of early cinema’s most prevalent trick techniques. Among other things, the process was used for representing extreme size differences or severed limbs, for circumventing conspicuous black “trick backgrounds” or for coupling studio settings with location imagery. Of course, combining photographs from multiple sources by placing masks in front of the lens or inside the gate predates cinema by decades. Proceeding from practices in still photography, this paper investigates the techniques and aesthetics of early cinematic split screen composites. As I will show, the legacy of still photography is essential for explaining the heterogeneity in technical approaches to cinematic split screen composites. For instance, while Robert W. Paul created his through double printing, Georges Méliès employed double exposure. Aesthetically, two distinct applications of split screen composites can be distinguished. On the one hand, for instance in scenes featuring doppelgängers and miniaturizations, the technique simulated physical co-presence in one consistent diegetic space. On the other hand, the technique also frequently appeared in contexts that enunciated its patchwork nature. Jan Olsson has shown that between 1906 and 1916 split screen effects were standardly used for representing telephone conversations. However, uses of split screen effects went far beyond this specific application. Frequently serving to represent mental or verbal processes such as memories, accounts or visions, split screen effects harnessed techniques adapted from contemporary graphic illustration to expand the expressivity of the filmic image. They exemplify an approach to early cinematic narration that has received insufficient attention to date. Privileging simultaneity over continuity, split screen effects render possible the concurrent representation of the subjective and the objective, of action and reaction, of details and totality. By prompting viewers to derive meaning from juxtapositions within the individual shot, they rupture the illusion of the cinematic image as a view of reality, allowing it to transcend the expressive limitations of “straight” photography.

Katharina Loew (University of Massachusetts Boston)

Katharina Loew is Assistant Professor of German and Cinema Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her writing on silent cinema and film technology has been published in New German Critique, Film Criticism, and several edited collections. Her book manuscript on special effects in German silent film is forthcoming with Amsterdam University Press.