Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Directing Eye Gaze: The Filmmaker's Sleight of Minds

Walter Murch, the preeminent editor of such movies as Apocalypse Now (1979), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), The English Patient (1996), and Cold Mountain (2003), wrote an incisive book on film editing called In the Blink of an Eye. In it, he said that editors must be preoccupied with "misdirection" and keep in mind the following questions: "What is the audience going to be thinking at any particular moment? Where are they going to be looking? What do you want them to think about? And, of course, what do you want them to feel?" (Murch, 2001, page 21). In the fast-paced rhythm of current Hollywood blockbusters where cuts are interspersed every 3-5 seconds, film editors must ask themselves these questions about 1200 times per movie.

The essential skill of a film editor is to create shot transitions that are so smooth that we are blind to them. In this way, outstanding editors keep us from being aware of their own craft. We are familiar with great actors, directors, and even producers, but how many award-winning editors do you know? (At least you now know one—Walter Murch.) In my mind, film editing defines in large part what makes movies distinct from other art forms. Murch's description of the editor's role is much like that of a psychologist who must be attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others. His notion of "misdirection" resembles the ploy of magicians who also must be aware of the viewer's attention and thoughts.

The psychologist Tim Smith has conducted some of the best research in psychocinematics. By studying eye movement behavior, he has shown that movies are extraordinarily potent stimuli in driving and directing our attention. As we view the world (including movies), our eyes fixate on a spot for about a third of a second and then jump to another spot, fixate, then jump again, and so on. These jumps are called saccadic eye movements, which are rapid, taking only 3/1000 of second to complete. Occasionally our eyes will track a moving object, but about 95% of the time they are motionless and fixated at a point in space. During any fixation, you can only clearly see a relatively small focused area, which amounts to a span of three or four words as you read this text. Thus, the position and sequence of eye movements offer a record of what your attention is focused on at any given moment.

Smith and colleagues recorded eye fixations of groups of subjects while they watched clips of feature films, such Blade Runner and There Will Be Blood. When they analyzed the data what became evident was that the subjects all tended to fixate on the same spot and move in synch from moment to moment. The figure below shows a frame from the movie There Will Be Blood with the circles representing where subjects were fixated at the moment of viewing that frame. The cluster of circles shows that there was a strong overlap or coherence of eye fixations among subjects as they watched the movie. Smith refers to this gaze attraction as attentional synchrony. In fact, as the subjects watched a film these clusters seemed to move together as if all were being guided by the moving images (for a video demo see Tim Smith's blog). 

As with Uri Hasson's fMRI analysis of coherent brain activity while watching movies (see March 15 blog), Smith has shown that filmmakers have found ways to control our attentional focus as we follow the plot. Thus, as the Murch quote above suggests, a good filmmaker understands the cognitive demands of viewing movies and knows how to guide the viewer so as to drive the storytelling in a forceful manner both perceptually and emotionally. In some respect we allow the filmmaker to guide and move us, as if we are on a fantastic vehicle that transports us through the movie. When the plot is riveting, we all seem to move together and enjoy the same magical ride.