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The use of split screen in Lioness

08 March 2023
A tale of two frames.
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Warning: contains movie and TV spoilers.

Lioness has action, drama, romance, and suspense. There’s even a bit of humour (Yes, Charlotte, swipe right!). All these are achieved in different ways: the writing, the acting, the stunts, the lighting, the music. But one of the finer, and very effective, details you cannot have missed is the use of split screens, which Lioness has been using since its first season.

This technique has been employed in cinema pretty much since its inception. By showing us multiple angles or story beats at the same time it can connect actions or characters that might not have been as clearly tied together otherwise. But there are many reasons (and ways) this technique is used, which you’ll see when you take a stroll down your movie memory lane or take a closer look at Lioness.

One of the most popular purposes of the split screen is to create juxtaposition, like in this Annie Hall scene, which sees Annie and Alvy visiting their psychiatrists, wittily comparing what are clearly quite different views of their sex life.

The couple’s families are also juxtaposed in this dinner scene.

The above also illustrates that a split frame does not need to be split 50/50. Alvy’s family taking up most of the frame emphasises that they’re a livelier bunch than Annie’s staid lot. The scene becomes even funnier when the split screen is used to make it appear as if the two families are speaking to one another.

The ratio of the split is not the only way of playing with this technique. Some directors choose to split the screen horizontally instead of vertically, like in the opening scene of Lioness season 1 where we see Anton bugging Sam’s home.

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Screens may even be split into multiple frames. This was a choice the series 24 used a lot to follow its multiple storylines, which were not only all connected but taking place at the same time.

Time is another factor. If your characters have some kind of time limit imposed upon them, showing where they are versus where they need to be or what they need to accomplish can heighten tension. This is done very effectively in the German movie Run Lola Run.

We also see this in Lioness season 2 as Sam tries to stop Anton from confessing his involvement with the Hugos. By splitting the screen and showing us where both characters are at the same time, we’re a lot more aware of how high the stakes are for Sam and how little time she has to reach Anton.

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It’s particularly effective in Lioness when used for Miranda and Brian’s storyline. As Brian continues to stalk and torment Miranda in season 2, the scenes (and Brian) are made even eerier by the fact that we are aware of where Brian is in relation to Miranda, while she has no idea how close he is.

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These examples illustrate another major reason directors use the split screen: tension! Suspense! Anticipation! The director most often associated with split screens, especially to create tension, is Brian de Palma with movies such as Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Carrie.  

Warning: contains bloody, violent scenes.

But the split screen is not just about tension and anticipation, as the movie (500) Days of Summer so vividly, and heartbreakingly, depicts. This scene punches you in the heart by showing us what could be versus what is. As the split frame eventually pans into a single frame again, Summer's rejection and Tom's loneliness are solidified. 

Split screens are also used to make a scene more dynamic, either by providing different angles of the same action or including people who are in the same scene, but in different locations. The clearest example is usually a phone call, which is especially useful for romance because we get to see how both people feel about the exchange without the distraction of cutting back and forth between the pair. We’re looking at you Megan and Thomas.

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A technique as old as cinema itself, these movies (and many more), along with Lioness, show us what a smart and creative technique this can be. It’s all the more versatile for its ability to be used in any genre, and we can’t wait to watch Lioness innovate its use even more.

There are only four episodes left in season 2. Make sure you’re watching Lioness every Thursday at 20:00 on M-Net channel 101. If you miss an episode, catch up with DStv here. Follow the conversation on social media using #LionessSA.