The Cinema Multi’s: Image, Frame, Layers and Screen

My practice and research originally claimed to be a study of “multi-layered images”. To me this phrase seemed very clear and concise. Then I tried to write up what it meant and defining it became far more challenging than my “innate” sense of the idea would have predicted. Mainly because of one filmic technique: split-screen. An image such as this multi-layered?


The answer to me is no. So could I then remove split-screen from my studies altogether? Well, if I were being fair I would then have to discount a great number of interesting examples, even in my own work. For example:


This is no more layered than the first. It’s just more complex split-screen. Instead of throwing away these techniques, I instead needed more terminology. This is where the four M’s or multis began. I now believe all films with more than one image can be fitted into these categories.


The Multi-Image is a single large image comprised of smaller images.

This is the umbrella term that covers all the following.


The Multi-Frame image consists of a number of smaller images with distinct frames that create a larger flat image.

This can be best described as a jigsaw. All the images have clear borders that don’t overlap and they all exist on the same geographic plain. Split-screen fits in here, so would a general (although not every) comic book page. This can further be categorised as simple and complex multi-frame images. A simple is one of two or three images sorted into common geometric shapes. For example:


A complex multi-frame image contains many such images, or those in unusual shapes.


The Multi-Layered image consists of a number of smaller images that create the illusion of a virtual three-dimensional landscape.

So the Multi-Layered image still exists in my categories, but its definition has changed. The multi-layered image is now only that, an image with multiple layers. Sounds obvious, but it is the virtual depth that is important. If an image is overlaid upon another, that creates an illusion of depth, one cannot be on top of the other as it is still only two-dimensional. It looks like it is though, and that creates the multi-layered image.


This doesn’t need to be overlaid or superimposed images however, by my definition I would include images such as the one below. Nothing here overlaps, but by the smaller frames being shrunk it creates a landscape where some features are closer than others.


Strangely while this definition was created to cover my own work and that of classic and arthouse directors (e.g. Vertov, Godard, Greenaway), it also applies to a large amount of special effects. These use layering images to create a virtual geography, for example in King Kong.


The humans are clearly in a different layer, despite the film’s intention to disguise this fact. When this becomes more successful in modern special effects or CGI, does it stop being a multi-layered image by the virtue of it trying not to be and not looking like one, even though in technical essence it still is one? I’m not sure, and it’s something I plan to return to later.


The Multi-Screen Image consists of a number of images that add up to a single whole, but which are displayed on more than one device.

Last and least used, is the Multi-Screen image. This is very rare. Of the top of my head I can only think of one feature film example. That is Abel Gance’s Napoleon which ends with a tryptic of three projectors showing three images than sometimes combine into one and sometimes diverge to thematically counterpoint each other.


Generally however the Multi-Screen image is most popular in art shows. I’ve seen … in the Tate Modern where many screens showed different people leaving factories throughout film history. In fact I did one of these myself. The videos Day, Night and Earth (which I’m going to post on Monday) were originally shown as an installation piece on three different monitors.


This hopefully clears up to any readers what the terms I will be using incessantly actually mean. When writing about my films and those of others it’s handy to be able to use my technical terms.


One thought on “The Cinema Multi’s: Image, Frame, Layers and Screen

  1. Pingback: Short Film: Earth; Night and Day | Chris Gerrard: FILM AND ART

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