The 15 Best Uses of Split Screen in Cinema History

8. Grand Prix

Grand Prix came out in 1966 and opened with a spectacular credits sequence designed by Saul Bass. The scene is set at a race track and shows many details from the moments before a race, in the track as well as in the boxes and between the spectators.

While the sounds spread and get louder, there are many split screens, showing multiplied details from the cars, the drivers and the track.

Saul Bass said that the technique “is terrific at expressing muchness”, even tough in the same interview he expressed skepticism towards the many forced uses of split screen that have often been made.

Apart from the opening sequence, the split screen is used in Gran Prix for other racing scenes as a way to convey the frenetic feeling of a car race and in order to put the spectator in the shoes of the drivers as well of those attending the event.


7. Conversations with Other Women

This 2005 feature is completely shot in split screen. It is a romantic drama, set during a wedding, and tells the story of a bridesmaid (Helena Bonham Carter) and a wedding guest (Aaron Eckhart). Heavy with dialogue, the film unfolds their past and their relationship, while the two of them flirt, bicker and discuss their new and their old romances.

The screen is constantly divided in two halves, and sometimes shows the same conversation or the same situation from two different points of view (often with a camera for each actor), while other times one part of the screen shows flashbacks or fast forwards to other moments.

By often giving a side of the screen to a situation, and the other to a completely different one, usually from a different time of the characters’ relationship, director Hans Canosa tried to show the emotional distance between what people feel and what they remember.

The film was mostly shot with at least two cameras on at the same time; in post-production, the director edited the film himself, with use of VFX for some effects.


6. Woodstock

Director Michael Wadleigh was the one who decided to use split screen for the documentary film Woodstock (1969), and initially had to fought the contrasting opinion of Warner Bros executive Fred Weintraub. At the time, split screen had already been used in several movies, but the opinion about it was divided, due to its unconventional visual effect.

Weintraub changed his mind after Wadleigh projected for him the same performance by The Who from two different cameras, roughly showing what the final effect would have been. According to Weintraub, the development of the technique through the use of the optical printer ended up costing an additional million dollars.

The result had a great visual impact, and showed the many sides and the caothic atmosphere of those three days. The film had Telma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese among its many editors; it had enormous success and its visual style, including the use of split screen, set the tone for many subsequent concert films and documentaries.


5. 500 Days of Summer

500 Days of Summer was Marc Webb’s debut as a feature film director. Having directed countless music videos in the first part of his career, which began in 1997, he certainly knew his way around experimenting various ways to tell a story; in his 2009 debut he showed his capabilities and adopted some storytelling choices which made the film a different kind of romantic comedy (even tough the film’s non-linear structure and its mixture of comedy and drama make it seem partly derivative, especially of Annie Hall’s approach to romantic storytelling).

Of all the sequences that stood out, the split-screen one has perhaps become the most iconic. The sequence resounds with the viewer’s sensibility by visually representing a common feeling in everyday life: the difference between what we expect form social situations, and what actually happens.

The screen is divided in two halves, one of which shows what the protagonists expects to be happening when he attends her ex’s house party, while the other shows the actual events (which are, of course, much less satisfying than the expectations). It is a truly inventive moment, and develops the protagonist’s feeling much better than a simple dialogue would have.


4. Indiscreet

The use of split screen in Indiscreet (1958) has become notorious and holds more fame than the film itself, which is a romantic comedy directed by Stanley Donen and starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

The reason for the scene’s success is the fact that it cleverly worked around the Production Code which at the time stated what was morally depictable in films; showing a man and a woman lying in bed together (even if they were married) was among the things prohibited by the Code.

Stanley Donen shot the two main characters (which in the scene are hundred of miles apart) talking to each other by the phone while in bed, but then showed them simultaneously, making each half of the frame one half a bed.

While it is clear that the protagonists are in two different places, the visual effect is basically the same that one would have if the two of them were shown in the same bed, especially when they lean towards the other (in reality, towards the empty side of their bed), and get their hands closer. The following year the same trick appeared on the Michael Gordon romantic comedy Pillow Talk.


3. The Thomas Crown Affair

This 1968 film (later remade in 1999) was directed by Norman Jewison and made an extensive use of split-screen to the point that, if seen today, it risks to be closer to the controversial comic book-like use of the technique in Hulk (2003) than to other, more balanced examples.

This should not overshadow the impressive achievement that was employing the split screen so widely when it was still made with the optical printer technique: shooting the split screen scenes needed an extremely precise placing of the elements in the frame.

It is also important to differentiate between the scenes in which the split screen is essentially a an aesthetic effect, like in the polo game scene (even if in fact it was edited that way in order to cut down the original run-time of the sequence) and the ones where it serves as a storytelling device by showing different actions that are happening simultaneously.

This latter use is best represent by the heist scenes. In retrospective, The Thomas Crown Affair is a fascinating view, and it is clear how its pace and editing paved the way for many modern films’ style.


2. The Rules of Attraction

Bret Easton Ellis is the author of many acclaimed novels, including Less Than Zero, American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction, which have been apdapted to film by  Marek Kanievska, Mary Harron and Roger Avary respectively.

The Rules of Attraction came out in 2002 and Ellis stated that it is the adaptation he finds closer to the source material;  many sequences of the film reproduce the chaotic and scattered world of its protagonists, in particular the memorable sequence of minor character Victor Ward’s travel through Europe.

Another scene that garnered attention and is often talked about is the split screen one, in which the two parts of the screen each follows the everyday actions of two characters until they meet in a hallway; they talk to each other for the first time while the two shots stay on their close up.

Then the cameras suddenly move and frame them on the side, reconstructing the shot which becomes a singe shot of the two of them together. It is a clever cinematic trick, and as many of the example of split screens on this list it is also a way to depict a peculiar relation between two people.


1. Sisters

Brian DePalma constantly plays with the viewer’s attention through his mastery of visual storytelling. Most recently, he has been the subject of a documentary, De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.

A famous example of his use of split screen is a scene from Sisters. During a gruesome murder scene, after a man is violent stabbed, the screen is divided between the scene where he tries to reach a window and another with the view from a palace in front of the building in which the murder is taking place.

For one moment, we see the bloody hand of the man from two opposite sides, before the story continues on the two sides of the screen. Inventive, striking and memorable, scenes like this one show why De Palma is one of the directors that deserve an entire documentary dedicated to him.

Author Bio: Riccardo Basso is an Italian cinephile specializing in Humanities and Philosophy. He has only recently started writing about his favorite interest, cinema, but wishes to continue doing it (just don’t tell his cinephile friends he has seen every 007 movie at least three times).