On December 28, 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière, inventors of one of the first movie projectors, held their premiere public showing at which 33 Parisians paid one franc to watch ten short clips, each depicting simple activities, such as a couple feeding their baby or men playing cards (view the clips on YouTube). Despite the novelty of seeing moving images, these single-shot "recordings" were easily recognized. Indeed, psychological studies have confirmed that individuals who have never before seen movies can interpret the actions presented in single-shot film clips and even clips with simple edits (e.g., transitions that maintain the spatial frame). Yet the Hollywood blockbusters we watch today can contain as many as two thousand individual shots that are joined together to produce what one might imagine would be a perceptually jarring experience, particularly for one who has never seen a movie. When we watch a movie, however, the thousands of shot transitions are hardly noticeable. Is the seamless nature of film editing based on natural transitions of actions or does it depend on a familiarity of the "language" of film editing?
In an interesting psychological study, Schwan & Indari (2010) went to a remote village in Turkey where electricity was not available and studied individuals who had never before seen a movie. Fifteen clips were shown (on a laptop), which contained common editing transitions, though ones that included perceptual discontinuities: 1) establishing shots in which a long (wide angle) shot is used to set the spatial setting prior to a close-up shot, 2) external to internal point of views (POVs) in which a character is shown outside, such as walking toward his home, and the next shot presents the character's viewpoint once inside (e.g., a view of the hallway), 3) cross-cutting in which disparate shots move between two different events to show that they are occurring at the same time, 4) ellipses, where time jumps ahead between two disparate shots, such as a shot in a kitchen and then one in the dining room, 5) shot/reverse shots, common during dialogue scenes as when successive "over-the-shoulder" shots move with the conversation of two characters, and 6) pan moves, which involve camera pans (not actually edits) that move from one person to another. All of the clips presented events and actions that would be familiar to the villagers had they been seen in real life. After viewing a clip, they were asked to say what the film showed. The same task was given to individuals living in another Turkish village who had prior exposure to movies.
The results showed that individuals with no prior movie experience had extreme difficulty interpreting the clips, particularly external to internal POVs, establishing shots, shot/reverse shots and ellipses. When asked to describe the clips, these naïve viewers could not link the actions of one shot to the next. All of these transitions would be obvious to us and were well understood by the Turkish villagers who had prior familiarity with movies. Interestingly, cross-cuts were understood by naïve viewers, even though at first blush it would seem like a rather difficult transition to follow as two disparate events are presumed to be occurring at the same time. This edit, however, was the only one that didn't require an understanding that a lapse of time had occurred across edits. It appears that these naïve viewers had difficulty understanding that film edits often express jumps in time. One might expect other time-based editing techniques, such as fades or dissolves, which are used to indicate that an extended time has passed, or blurry images (and perhaps harp music) to indicate a flashback, would be even more difficult to interpret as these indicators seem to be particularly arbitrary conventions.
Through countless movies and TV dramas, we have become so accustomed to editing techniques that we hardly notice them. Some edits, particularly those that maintain the spatial setting, are likely based on natural perception and are easily interpreted. For others, through repeated exposures, we have become fluent with the "grammar" of film editing. Like other skill-based abilities that we have acquired (driving, reading, sports skills), we are now so familiar with editing techniques that they proceed in an unconscious manner. What is hard to appreciate now, and what the Schwan and Indira study shows, is that our ability to comprehend movies is in part a learned experience, which has been gained through many hours of watching them.