Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Experiencing Movies: Why We Watch Them and Why We Like Them

This entry marks the official opening of the blog, which is devoted to the psychological (and biological) underpinnings of our movie experience or what I call psychocinematics. What follows is an intro to the blog partially excerpted from my chapter in Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies:

 In the opening scene of The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) exits a plane and enters the terminal at the LA International Airport. When he steps onto a moving walkway, the camera begins to track alongside at the same pace, which keeps Benjamin's position fixed and isolated to the far right of an otherwise empty screen. The opening credits begin to fill the space as we listen to The Sounds of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel's anthem to social alienation. This beginning anticipates the entire movie which tells a story of a newly minted college graduate entering adulthood without any sense of purpose or direction. Benjamin is moving though he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. 

 Through acting, staging, sound, camera movements, and editing, movies develop a narrative plot that fully engages us. How do filmmakers maintain our attention so that the drama keeps us riveted to the screen? How do editing techniques link events in an often seamless manner? How do movies drive our emotions, instilling suspense, laughter, horror, sadness and surprise along the way? I believe that filmmakers are like magicians who through sleight of mind can manipulate our attention and emotions and create the illusion of being enveloped in a scene. Over the decades, filmmakers have developed techniques that enhance this movie magic, though we have very little understanding of how these techniques actually work. 

 When it comes to the aesthetics of movies, my first response is: "It's the story, stupid!" For me, if I don't find the plot interesting or identify with the characters portrayed, my interest soon diminishes. Of course, how a filmmaker engages us into the plot is determined by a variety of factors: the acting may be superb, the visuals stunning, the editing seamless or interestingly quirky, the drama riveting, or the suspense overwhelming. As a scientist, I try to analyze these rather subjective features by developing a framework for a research program. Toward this end, I've come up with a simple scheme that captures the psychological features of our movie experience, which I call the I-SKE model. The name is an acronym for what I believe are four essential components of our aesthetic response to movies: the intention (I) of the filmmaker and three psychological components of the viewer, sensation, knowledge, and emotion (SKE). 

 I initially developed the I-SKE model to describe our aesthetic response to visual art (e.g., paintings, photography). In my upcoming book, Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the BeholderI cover the I-SKE model in detail. With respect to movies, filmmakers can play on our audiovisual experience (sensations), make us think about the world in new ways (knowledge), and of course instill a variety of feelings and empathetic responses (emotion). According to the I-SKE model, when these three components are at their heights we experience that "wow" feeling or say as the movie credits roll, "that was fantastic!" These components may also interact and enhance each other. 

 My goal for this blog is to consider the ways in which movies impinge on our sensations, knowledge, and emotions, and as a result drive our interest and enjoyment. I will discuss scientific findings that help us understand how movies work. Although we readily consider sensations and emotions as part of our aesthetic response to an artwork, we don't always think that knowledge plays an important role. Yet our personal and cultural background is always in play, and I hope to pay special attention to the influence of prior knowledge on our movie experience. For example, if you have seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in HFR (high frame rate), you may have, like me, been reminded of watching a cheesy soap opera or old BBC TV program. Why does the sensory experience of HFR give this impression of the past? 

See the next blog entry...