The Law of Enclosure

Comparing context in graphic narrative and visual storytelling

The background has a strong effect on the sense of unity, it provides context and guides our understanding of what goes with what. An element in a small piece of different background (a frame in a frame) is detached from the whole and makes it stand out.

In his book Jardim (2014) artist Pedro Franze uses little in-lays to draw (no pun intended) the eye and give his work an extra narrative layer.

Pedro Franz, Jardim (2014)

Jardim (Pedro Franz)
Jardim (Pedro Franz)
Jardim (Pedro Franz)
Citizen Kane (Orson Wells)

Orson Wells, Citizen Kane (1941) – Captured by wealth and fame

In Orsons Wells masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) ( US Link) a view from a window is used to visualize how the adult world has the live of a child boxed in.

The playful child and childhood are being framed like picture on the wall, a nice memory. While Charles Foster Kanes play in the snow; innocent, joyful, worryless and pure. Inside Kane’s mother signs the papers that will ensure her son is ‘properly educated’. He is send away and his fate is sealed. He is trapped. His dad tries to argue, but mom already packed his trunck: ‘I’ve had it packed for a week now’.

This frame within a frame carries the clue of the movie. His money and education, his fate bring him to a lonely top. (The iconic image of him standing for his own poster, framed and boxed in, like his face on the poster). On his death bed the innocent moment of his childhood, is what he thinks of and longs for. That little framed moment, just before he got rich and bigger thing were expected of him. That memory of plain and simple fun (which no amount of money or power could have bought or demanded).

Citizen Kane (Orson Wells)

Mom signs her son away.

Citizen Kane (Orson Wells)

Dad knows they are caging him.

Citizen Kane (Orson Wells)

Orson Wells, Citizen Kane (1941)

The law of equal background or enclosure can be akin to the insert shot or the cutaway, disused in the post on the Laws of Closure, the Filled Gap and Continuity.

On this page from Akira Volume 1 (1982) (US Link or read online) by Katsuhiro Otomo, we see in the first two frames Kaneda descending some stairs. The first frame, an establishing shot, together with the second frames are perceived as a undisputable whole. All movement Kaneda needed to get to frame two is being filled in by the reader. The mind doesn’t even have trouble with the changing point of view.

A pill is popped, an interruption in the flow, like an insert shot would do. The swallowing happens in a frame without background. Does it belong to the scene with the stairs or is it a transition. A mental transition of Kaneda (aided by some chemicals) entering a different context…

In film an insert or cut away is a cut that takes us out of the flow and on a moments sidetrack. The changing background reveals we’re looking at something else for that moment. Like comics, film can use multiple frames at the same time showing two or more locations or angles simultaneously.

First used by Lois Weber & Phillips Smalley in 1913 in her movie Suspens is often used technique to show both sides of a telephone call. This use of splitscreen shows what happens at two places at the same time. The clearly different backgrounds tells us we are looking at two different locations.

Suspision (Lois Weber)

Lois Weber & Phillips Smalley, Suspense (1913)

Akira Vol. 1 (Katsuhiro Otomo)

Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira (Volume 1) (1982)

This archetypical way of visualizing phone calls was probably most outrageously done in Indiscreet (1985) by Stanley Donen Indiscreet (1958) by Stanley Donen. Then, according to  even married couples could not be shown together in the same bed. His splitscreen solution with both Cary Grand and Ingrid Bergman laying in bed with similar, but not quite the same bedsheets, performing a perfectly synchronized choreography give this scene a cunning twist. Only the different headboards shows how far apart they really are.

Counting on the Gestalt law of enclosure and our ability to spot the not quite matching line in the middle where a cut was made (see also the post on The Laws of Closure, the Filled Gap and Continuity) and even the slightest difference in the backgrounds is used to tell a story.

The Gestalt law of equal backgrounds can have a great narrative impact reaching far beyond revealing location.

Stanley Donen, Indiscreet (1985)

Hans Canosa, Conversation(s) with Other Women (2005)

In Conversation(s) With Other Women (2005) (US Link) by Hans Canosa the slight difference in backgrounds tells us we are looking at the same situation from a different perspective. Two worlds coming together in one moment. The slightly different background illustrates that there are more sides to every story, there is no one way of seeing things.

The background reveals context which can be used in a quite abstract manner. It can show different locations, different moments (as flashbacks or expectations), different angles, different point of views (literally and figuratively) and different moods.

In The Pillbox (1988) (US Link) by David Hughes the colour of the background illustrates the tone or way of interpreting a message in a powerful way. Cool blue showing the anticipation and the cold act, red the impact of his words. Blank when she realises she means nothing to Bill…

The Pillbox (Dave Hughes)

David Hughes, The Pillowbox (1988)

The Pillbox (Dave Hughes)

Thanks for visiting 🙂
Please let me know if you have some other great examples where this technique is used!

This is the sixth in a series posts or articles on Gestalt and Visual search tips and tricks for visual storytelling and graphic communication in my get-into-details research.

If you think you’ve got these you might want to check out the upcoming series on priming, details in composition and their effects on the main story ingredients; character setting and plot.

Curious on why I got into this topic check out my earlier post or articles:

Darlings I couldn’t cope killing:

Michael Gordon, Pillow Talk (1985)

Woody Allen, Annie Hall (1977)

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