21 November 2012

There Will Be Perception

Filed under: Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:03 am

Following up on my last post about JJ Gibson‘s ideas on how people perceive pictures, here’s a video produced by psychologist Tim Smith that tracks the eye movements of 11 people watching a segment of the film There Will Be Blood.

Contemporary film editing relies largely on cuts and close-ups, alternating perspectives and montage, to direct the viewer’s attention. In contrast, the film excerpt in the video consists of one extended continuous take and a second shorter one. Despite the freedom afforded the viewer to look around these extended shots at leisure and at will, the cinematographer remains in control. The first scene illustrates how visual attention is drawn by the objects in the environment, their interrelationships, and their movements. Human faces and hands are particularly compelling. The second scene shows how the observer’s movement through the environment also directs visual attention. The eye is drawn to what’s present in the scene, but the observer also anticipates change in the scene. The viewer follows the character’s gaze toward the object of his attention; a pause in the conversation leads the eye toward the character who is likely to speak next; a camera tracking to the right directs the viewer’s attention to the right of the screen in anticipation of what will slide into view next.

Discussing his eye movement video on David Bordwell’s blog, Smith writes:

The most striking feature of the gaze behaviour when it is animated in this way is the very fast pace at which we shift our eyes around the screen. On average, each fixation is about 300 milliseconds in duration. (A millisecond is a thousandth of a second.) Amazingly, that means that each fixation of the fovea lasts only about 1/3 of a second. These fixations are separated by even briefer saccadic eye movements, taking between 15 and 30 milliseconds!

Looking at these patterns, our gaze may appear unusually busy and erratic, but we’re moving our eyes like this every moment of our waking lives. We are not aware of the frenetic pace of our attention because we are effectively blind every time we saccade between locations. This process is known as saccadic suppression. Our visual system automatically stitches together the information encoded during each fixation to effortlessly create the perception of a constant, stable scene…

The second most striking observation you may have about the video is how coordinated the gaze of multiple viewers is. Most of the time, all viewers are looking in a similar place… Viewers’ gazes are attracted by the sudden appearance of objects, moving hands, heads, and bodies. The greater the motion contrast between the point of motion and the static background, the more likely viewers will look at it. If there is only one point of motion at a particular moment, then all viewers will look at the motion, creating attentional synchrony.

This is a powerful technique for guiding attention through a film. But it’s of course not unique to film. Noticing points of motion is a natural bias which we have evolved by living in the real world. If we were not sensitive to peripheral motion, then the tiger in the bushes might have killed our ancestors before they had chance to pass their genes down to us.



  1. SHAIKS Bordwell is an expert in clysmalysis, it seems. Already for ten years I’ve been hearing about how the viewer ”anticipates” and then the film either ”confirms” or ”rejects” his anticipation. And all these things are true, I’m sure, but goddamit you can’t measure the viewer’s UNCONSCIOUS response just by recording his saccadic movements??? ANyhow there’s an interesting way to extend this discussion to the HOLY MOTORS, which meditates a lot on the changes brought on by the digital signal.


    Comment by cpc — 24 November 2012 @ 11:31 am

  2. It’s not the only measure, but spontaneous eye movement does demonstrate the viewer’s unconscious anticipation of the near future without relying on the viewer’s conscious introspection and verbal self-report. The eliminativists contend that if anticipation of the future occurs unconsciously, then it’s just a mechanical cause-effect reflex, locked in by the past. It would be as if, by inserting a pause before beginning his next line of dialogue, Daniel Day-Lewis is causing the viewer to shift visual attention from the prior speaker to himself. But the viewer’s anticipatory response to the pause is learned, surely, through years of experience participating in and observing conversations. It’s an expertise that’s so well learned that it becomes second nature, performed with high accuracy and speed without the need for conscious attention and reasoning. A dog watching this movie most likely wouldn’t shift his eyes to Daniel until he actually started speaking.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 November 2012 @ 11:59 am

  3. Don’t pretend you didn’t hear me. Bordwell, assisted by the equally clysmalising Thompson, implicitly suggests that our senses ORIENT themselves towards stimulae in a fasion that best ensures our SURVIVAL IN THE ENVIRONMENT. Sure, there may still be things ike imagination, feeling, color, sex, involved in the eyeball’s decision to follow such and such trace, but they are best left to those weird Freudians and Lacanians to explore. In the perfectly white world of clytsmalysis there’s no place for such brown stains. For one, they’re difficult to measure. So full of hypothetic constructs, instead of those clean and crisp intervening variables. FOr two, they’re MESSY.

    THat last remark about the dog was anthropocentric from the object-otiented perspective, and I’ll make sure I let dr. Sinthome know about this.


    Comment by cpc — 24 November 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  4. And then the whole thing reeks creepily and ominously of the CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Since the clysmalysists are ”not interested” in the ideological apparatus fielling their type of research, they probably wouldn’t notice if it was used by enterpreneurs to devise an eyeball-controlling device that would force us to watch advertisements 24hours per day.


    Comment by cpc — 24 November 2012 @ 6:42 pm

  5. It’s not the only measure, …

    This is also funny. I imagine Bordwell and Thompson interviewed by CLYSMALYSIS WEEKLY

    CW: So Mr Bordwell, how do you feel about the news that the CIA have devised an apparatus that coerces our saccadic movements into watching commercials all day long?
    BORDWELL: Well this news is certainly unpleasant, BUT THE POSSIBLE ABUSES OF RESEARCH ARE NOT THE ONLY MEASURE BY WHICH WE MAY CONDUCT RESEARCH, no more than you can say that Newton or Einstein were guilty for the advent of the atomic bomb!


    Comment by cpc — 24 November 2012 @ 6:47 pm

  6. But of course directors try to control where the audience’s eyeballs land; they just don’t typically do it so empirically. The quick takes and rapid cuts are particularly aggressive in taking the viewer’s perceptual apparatus captive, overwhelming conscious attempts to evaluate what’s on the screen by triggering the unconscious lure of movement and changing scenes and faces. I wouldn’t doubt that ad firms use eye motion studies to maximize the extent to which their commercials captivate the viewer’s attention.

    Gibson, the perceptual psychologist on which much of this work is based, developed his ideas and techniques studying fighter pilots in WW2 and their quick reactions to rapidly changing visual stimuli while navigating at speed through the environment. Rapid camera movement and scene changes probably enhance the viewer’s sense of being inside the cinematic reality rather than watching from a distance. Here’s where the EKG and fMRI data dovetail with the saccades to build a truly paranoiac cinematic empiricism.

    Speaking of Clockwork Orange, in our discussion of The Shining I recall someone claiming that in many scenes Kubrick put something important outside of the usual central focus of attention, maybe it was in the upper right quadrant, the idea being that he could affect the viewer unconsciously thereby. That sort of influence too could be evaluated: did the eye saccade to the upper-right target area long enough to register the image but not so long as to trigger conscious mediation of what was seen? Even if the viewer didn’t consciously remember what was displayed in the upper right, would the viewer be able to recognize the unconsciously viewed scene/object when subsequently displayed with other things that weren’t actually shown in the movie?


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 November 2012 @ 10:18 pm

  7. Having seen the engaging GIRL, about Hitchcock’s abuse of Tippi Hedren, I was wondering – are all directors ultimately sadists? I think it’s more complex than that… the director is a bit like the analyst – he has to channel as well as organize the collective desires of others so that they cohere… not so much force them to follow his vision. Because that vision is also dependent on the events that take place during the shooting, I think. It changes in contact with the material.

    HOLY MOTORS asks a lot of questions about directing and acting. The idea is that nowadays cameras are ubiquitious and invisible, so we’re performing all the time. But not to any single ”director”. Rather, we’re just performing for the whole world. There is no direction directly; there is only the command and the impetus to keep acting, all the time. To stay in the movie. Which is probably even more coercive than direct direction.

    Nevertheless I feel that when Bordwell does an enema, the enema comes out so crisp-clean that it’s as though he didn’t produce any faces whatsoever.


    Comment by cpc — 25 November 2012 @ 5:02 am

  8. I agree that the skillful director isn’t forcing the viewer’s attention so much as leveraging it. Visual attention tends to focus on certain features of the environment: faces and hands, edges and surfaces, movement and light. The director/cinematographer manipulates these perception-attracting features of the scene, mapping what you call the collective desires of the audience onto what Gibson called the “affordances” of the environment. And so the viewer is subtly led into attending, spontaneously and unconsciously, to what the filmmaker wants him to look at. Maybe selective attention to environmental affordances did evolve as a survival aid in a precarious environment, but filmmakers can manipulate this natural mechanism for other purposes, directing not just the actors and camera operators but the viewers as well.

    Surely you know this better than I, CPC, but who are the “Mad Men” these days? In the TV series they’re mostly English majors and photographers — arts and humanities types. Now they’re joined by computer programmers and data analysts and empirical psychologists tracking eye movements and the activation of mirror neurons. The art and craft of audience manipulation for commercial gain is ceding some of its turf to the science and technology of manipulation — no wonder the artists are resentful of science.

    I saw Holy Motors last night — very good. I’ll probably post some screengrabs soon.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 November 2012 @ 9:37 am

  9. Like

    Comment by cpc — 25 November 2012 @ 10:29 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: