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The science of Hollywood blockbusters

Feb. 23, 2010
Courtesy of the Association 
for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

There’s some­thing about the rhythm and tex­ture of early cin­e­ma, a num­ber of film buffs have ob­served, that has a very dif­fer­ent “feel” than mod­ern films. But it’s hard to put one’s fin­ger on just what that some­thing is.

New re­search may help ex­plain this elu­sive qual­ity. Cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist and film afi­cio­na­do James Cut­ting of Cor­nell Uni­vers­ity in New York, along with stu­dents, de­cid­ed to use the tools of mod­ern per­cep­tion re­search to de­con­struct 70 years of film, shot by shot. 

They meas­ured the dura­t­ion of every shot in every scene of 150 of the most pop­u­lar films re­leased from 1935 to 2005. The films rep­re­sented five ma­jor gen­res—ac­tion, ad­ven­ture, an­i­ma­t­ion, com­e­dy and dra­ma. Us­ing a com­plex math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­la, they trans­lated these se­quences of shot lengths in­to “waves” for each film.

What the re­search­ers looked for were pat­terns of at­ten­tion. Spe­cif­ic­ally, they looked for a pat­tern called the 1/f fluctua­t­ion, a con­cept from cha­os the­o­ry—a branch of sci­ence and math that at­tempts to de­scribe the way cha­ot­ic or un­pre­dict­a­ble events un­fold. 

The 1/f fluctua­t­ion refers to a pat­tern of at­ten­tion that oc­curs nat­u­rally in the hu­man mind. In­deed, it’s a rhythm that ap­pears through­out na­ture, in mu­sic, in en­gi­neer­ing, eco­nom­ics, and else­where, ac­cord­ing to Cut­ting: it’s a con­stant in the uni­verse, though of­ten un­de­tect­a­ble in the ap­par­ent cha­os.

Cut­ting and his stu­dents found that mod­ern film­s—those made af­ter 1980—were much more likely than ear­li­er films to ap­proach this uni­ver­sal con­stant. That is, the se­quences of shots se­lected by di­rec­tor, cin­e­matographer and film ed­i­tor have grad­u­ally merged over the years with the nat­u­ral pat­tern of hu­man at­ten­tion. This may ex­plain the more nat­u­ral feel of newer film­s—and the “old” feel of ear­li­er ones, the re­search­ers pro­pose. Mod­ern movies may be more en­gross­ing—we get “lost” in them more read­i­ly—be­cause the uni­verse’s nat­u­ral rhythm is driv­ing the mind.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors don’t be­lieve film­mak­ers have de­lib­er­ately crafted their movies to match this pat­tern. In­stead, they be­lieve the rel­a­tively young art form has gone through a kind of “nat­u­ral se­lec­tion,” as the edited rhythms of shot se­quences were ei­ther suc­cess­ful or un­suc­cess­ful in pro­duc­ing more co­her­ent and grip­ping films. The most en­gag­ing and suc­cess­ful films were sub­se­quently im­i­tat­ed by oth­er film­mak­ers, so that over time and through cul­tur­al trans­mis­sion the in­dus­try as a whole evolved to­ward an imita­t­ion of this nat­u­ral cog­ni­tive pat­tern.

Over­all, ac­tion movies are the gen­re that most closely ap­prox­i­mates the 1/f pat­tern, fol­lowed by ad­ven­ture, an­i­ma­t­ion, com­e­dy and dra­ma, Cut­ting and his stu­dents said. But some films from every gen­re have al­most per­fect 1/f rhythms, they re­port in the stu­dy, pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence. The Per­fect Storm, re­leased in 2000, is on that list, as is Reb­el With­out a Cause, though it was made in 1955. So too is The 39 Steps, Hitch­cock’s mas­ter­piece from way back in 1935.


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There’s something about the rhythm and texture of early cinema, a number of film buffs have observed, that has a very different “feel” than modern films. But it’s hard to put one’s finger on just what that something is. New research may help explain this elusive quality. Cognitive psychologist and film aficionado James Cutting of Cornell University in New York, along with students, decided to use the tools of modern perception research to deconstruct 70 years of film, shot by shot. They measured the duration of every shot in every scene of 150 of the most popular films released from 1935 to 2005. The films represented five major genres—action, adventure, animation, comedy and drama. Using a complex mathematical formula, they translated these sequences of shot lengths into “waves” for each film. What the researchers looked for were patterns of attention. Specifically, they looked for a pattern called the 1/f fluctuation, a concept from chaos theory—a branch of science and math that attempts to describe the way chaotic or unpredictable events unfold. The 1/f fluctuation refers to a pattern of attention that occurs naturally in the human mind. Indeed, it’s a rhythm that appears throughout nature, in music, in engineering, economics, and elsewhere, according to Cutting: it’s a constant in the universe, though often undetectable in the apparent chaos. Cutting and his students found that modern films—those made after 1980—were much more likely than earlier films to approach this universal constant. That is, the sequences of shots selected by director, cinematographer and film editor have gradually merged over the years with the natural pattern of human attention. This may explain the more natural feel of newer films—and the “old” feel of earlier ones, the researchers propose. Modern movies may be more engrossing—we get “lost” in them more readily—because the universe’s natural rhythm is driving the mind. The investigators don’t believe filmmakers have deliberately crafted their movies to match this pattern. Instead, they believe the relatively young art form has gone through a kind of “natural selection,” as the edited rhythms of shot sequences were either successful or unsuccessful in producing more coherent and gripping films. The most engaging and successful films were subsequently imitated by other filmmakers, so that over time and through cultural transmission the industry as a whole evolved toward an imitation of this natural cognitive pattern. Overall, action movies are the genre that most closely approximates the 1/f pattern, followed by adventure, animation, comedy and drama, Cutting and his students said. But some films from every genre have almost perfect 1/f rhythms, they report in the study, published in the research journal Psychological Science. The Perfect Storm, released in 2000, is on that list, as is Rebel Without a Cause, though it was made in 1955. So too is The 39 Steps, Hitchcock’s masterpiece from way back in 1935.