‘The Poetics Of The Splitscreen’ – Triptych, Splitscreen, and other examples of creative, modern storytelling

While ‘Creative Media’ typically pertains to cutting-edge, modern technologies, it seems fitting to first identify its roots in a typical ‘snake eating its own tale’ fashion. Media has constantly inspired itself from the previous form of entertainment, and that’s no more apparent than with the ‘Triptych’ form of filmic storytelling.

An earlier form of ‘screen narrative’, Lev Manovich described ‘Triptych’ as ‘spacial, or windows narrative’. Concerning it’s framing or display, Triptych is very much a demonstration of film’s special awareness and it’s use of narrative within that parameter. By uses several shots, usually of different subjects, or camera angles, the screen becomes filled (or not so) with several varying sizes of footage. By doing so, the enigma of the ‘frame’ is distorted, but almost always to the same degree. There exists a ‘frame within a frame’ as a result of this, and so a greater narrative can be told with complex moving image narratives and visual constructions.

There is a lot of symmetry to Triptych that demonstrates its inspiration from Medieval and Renaissance paintings. Particularly ‘The Disputation of the Sacrament (1508/9 (s) )’ shows an extremely symmetrical depiction, but one that we could split in to three parts to show different narratives.

Other works such as ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510) – Hieronymus Bosch’ split the painting itself into three parts: earth, heaven, and hell – all of which have their own narrative, but are linked by an overarching theme. This is true of the ‘splitscreen’ storytelling, and while it’s exact nature isn’t neccesarily always correct, particularly due to the experimental nature of triptych, and splitscreen narrative, Koestler’s triptych identifies common themes and creates a general structure to storytelling of this sort.

‘The three panels of the rounded triptych … indicate three domains of creativity which shade into each other without sharp boudaries: Humour, Discovery, and Art… Each horizontal line across the triptych stands for a pattern of creative activity which is represented on all three panels; … The first is intended to make us laugh; the second to make us understand; the third to make us marvel.’ (Koestler, The Act of Creation, p. 27).

This practice isn’t just attached to film, and examples within the Video Game medium are apparent and common. While at times, the display may not be triptych, there still exists a triptych narrative. This is best explained by Jeff Howard in ‘Interpretative Quests in Theory and Pedagogy‘ who theorises that the ‘triptych is within the narrative just as much as the display’ when it comes to video game storylines. ‘The sequence of three paintings … suggests the structure of a journey in three stages (approaching the dreamlike world, imprisonment, and escape), which provides the potential outline for a quest.’

Considering video game setup in general, and typically anything that requires a good set up of visuals (eg. Editing, music production etc.) the common practise is to have a triptych of computer screens. As ‘Michael Baggot’ puts so ‘eloquently’ in his article ‘The Digital Triptych’ he synthesises a scenario of a millennial in a basement office: ‘he enjoys a tri-screen computer setup and can simultaneously manage his business, view porn, and compete in online gaming tournaments from a single cushioned reclining chair. Money to the left of me, sex to the right, and the victor’s glory ahead, he might wax lyrically‘. He also relates this to ‘attention’ and the notion that millennials are so glued to electronic devices. This inherently shows the issues of splitscreen and triptych narrative, in that the attention cannot be on multiple screens or narratives at once. The attention has to go somewhere, and it might not necessarily be on the important or integral scene to the narrative. This can be solved in a number of ways, and has been experimented with in narratives of this type.

One that seems to solve this in an interesting way is ‘Timecode’; a 2000 American Experimental film by Mike Figgis. The narrative is splits between four continuously rolling films. These four frames explore characters of the overall film, and their interactions with each other, and others, while preparing for the shooting of a movie (an extremely meta movie experience). The trick to presenting one scene at a time as the most important is done through sound design, and the nonchalant nature of the other frames. The sound mix is designed so that the most important sequence on screen dominates the soundtrack at any given moment.

Being such an experimental trope of storytelling, its use is far from regular, and as such, it feels as though its theory is very much underdeveloped. Each example varies in terms of how the narrative is told across multiple sequences, and at times, the inclusion of a second screen compliment has allowed more interesting, but equally underdeveloped storytelling to be told.

As an exercise into triptych storytelling,  I assisted on the production of a short promotional video for local bar ‘Blind Tiger’ and their cocktail menu. The art of mixology can be impressive, and interesting to watch. There was an attempt to make this more interesting, and the initial idea would be to include two bartenders working together. This would have given more sequences too to enhance the storytelling. Had this been the case, multiple cameras would have been used at once and I feel this would have really enhance the narrative. The finished product works well with what it has however, and I feel the editing and switching from one sequence to another is quite fluid and inventive.








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