How Films Have Evolved
As technology has advanced, films have also changed and started improving day by day in all possible ways. The 2005 version of King Kong looks different from the 1933 King Kong version. The new King Kong appears in vivid color, and with the help of CGI he’s a convincingly lifelike beast. The original soundtrack is tinny and shrill; in the newer one, the great ape’s snorts and growls are deep and realistic.
Films have changed in always all ways, says James Cutting, a psychologist at Cornell University who’s been studying the evolution of cinema. Cutting presented some of his findings at MOVIES IN YOUR BRAIN – THE SCIENCE OF CINEMATIC PERCEPTION sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Cutting says “All these things are working to hold our attention better.”
According to Cutting, here are a few of the most important ways in which films have changed in the past century.
As Cutting researched and found out that he average shot length of films has decreased from about 12 seconds in 1930 to about 2.5 seconds today. He showed statistics from the British film scholar Barry Salt, who’s calculated the average shot duration in more than 15,000 movies made between 1910 and 2010. That’s a lot of hard work and research. In his 2010 study Attention and the Evolution of Hollywood Film , Cutting found that 150 movies made between 1935 and 2010 have an average of 1,132 shots per film except the King Kong remake, which has the most 3,099 shots into 187 minutes film.`
Cutting is not sure what’s driving the change though he thinks one factor could be that older films tended to have more characters into a single shot. As a result, film makers had to allow more time for viewers to look around to see who was there. In one recent study The Framing of Characters in Popular Movies, Cutting found that each additional character added 1.5 seconds to the length of a shot on average.
Modern movies have more action than older films. Cutting has quantified this trend by calculating how many pixels change from one frame to the next across the entire movie.
Cutting says. “Our response to motion is physiological,” he said. When people watch action sequences their heart rate increases, and so does their galvanic skin response, an indicator of physiological arousal. Tying the motion to shot changes is an especially effective way to engage the attention of viewers, he says.
But now filmmakers risk irritating audiences if they push them with frenetic motion for too long. The graph below shows what Cutting calls the “triangle of tolerability,” a sweet spot (shown in grey) where the shot duration and amount of motion are well suited to keep viewers’ attention. The black dots in the lower right corner represent the average shot length and motion index for entire films. The white and gray dots to the left represent sequences, and fragments of sequences from within movies. The point is that when film makers use lots of motion, they usually only keep it up for short periods of time.
Director Darren Aronofsky was on stage with Cutting as he presented this work, and Cutting highlighted two sequences from Aronofsky’s films: an intense and hallucinatory night club scene from Black Swan, and the sequence from Noah that depicts the entire history of human violence in about 10 seconds. Both fall inside Cutting’s triangle of tolerability, but just barely.
“If you go into madness with the camera choices it just becomes chaos that doesn’t represent what the characters are feeling,” Aronofsky said. “For me it’s about trying to capture where the character is and to try to give that subjective experience to the audience.”
Modern films are also darker than their predecessors, Cutting has found. “What’s happening is that the brights are staying just as bright, but the darks are getting darker,” he said. “The quality of the film stock has gotten better. The move into digital has given us better control over the dynamic range.”
As an example, he showed a still from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 in which a menacing Lord Voldemort looks like he’s just about to unleash some wickedness. The frame is almost entirely black, except for a glow at the tip of his wand that lights up his face and hands. It’s one way film makers control where the audience looks and what they see, Cutting said. “When you make the darks dark, you remove the possibility that people will look at them.”
HERE you can read more about how scientists are studying cinema for clues about the nature of perception, and how the science might aid film makers as they pursue their art.
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