Crowding the frame is a great way to convey that your characters are threatened or have been backed into a corner. It’s a terrific framing technique for ramping up the tension in a scene. Sometimes referred to as a claustrophobic over-the-shoulder shot, crowding the frame involves putting your subject in the corner of the frame while someone else – usually the antagonist – takes up most of the shot.
Some screenwriters argue that every scene is a struggle between two or more characters. When you’re blocking out a dialogue scene, it’s common to progress from medium shot, to close up and then to tight close ups as the conversation becomes more intense. Crowding the frame is a great way to increase this intensity, particularly if your character is facing insurmountable odds.
Examples of crowding the frame
In Casino Royale (2006), director Martin Campbell uses this framing technique to great effect during the tense card game between James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). When the game reaches one of its most intense points, Campbell cuts between a shot of Bond and the reverse shot of Le Chiffre as they stare each other down.
Paul Greengrass is another director who uses this framing technique to create a sense of intensity during dialogue scenes, which are shot in his signature handheld, cinéma vérité style. In Captain Phillips (2013), he uses this technique when Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) is engaged in a tense discussion with pirates. In The Bourne Supremacy, Greengrass crowds the frame when Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and Ward Abbott (Bryan Cox) meet for the first time. Although the scene begins with a great deal of space in the shots of each character, as it becomes more adversarial, Greengrass pushes his characters to the edge, obscuring most of the frame with the other’s head and shoulders.