Tag Archives: Dr Tim Smith

Attention Machines: The science of cinematic perception

This post was contributed by Sofia Ciccarone (master student of Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology, Birkbeck University of London)

It was exciting to be a part of this event, which took place in Birkbeck cinema in Gordon Square during Science Week.

Birkbeck CinemaThe people who participated not only had the opportunity to experience the amazing and capturing cinematography of The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky; they could also be both the participants and the researchers of a live experimental study.

The experiment was interested in how viewers’ attention changes throughout a movie. To this aim, audience’s attention was measured by locating their eye position on the screen. This was done by making the image disappear sometimes during the film and briefly substituting it with a flashing grid, which filled the whole cinema screen and contained a series of letters and number combinations.

The audience was asked to pay attention to this grid and to report (using their smartphones) the letter and numbers pairs (e.g. S76) they could identify among the other pairs contained in the grid. This procedure, which is known as crowdsourcing gaze data collection, is a method proposed in 2012 by Rudoy and others for collecting gaze direction from any number of participants simultaneously.

The eye movements of one volunteer from the audience were instead recorded using a portable eye tracker. The eye tracker was calibrated right before the start of the film and the participant sat in the front row of the cinema and enjoyed the film while her eye movements were being recorded.

After a shot practice trial, the audience’s eye movements were collected for the first part of the film. During the second half, while participants were allowed to watch the film without distractions, Dr Tim Smith and his team used the available time (48 minutes!) to analyse the answers submitted through the smartphones and the data recorded by the eye tracker.

After the film finished, Dr Tim Smith presented the results of the experiment. It was really surprising to find out that the two eye movement collection methods showed similar results: people mainly focused their attention on the centre of the screen. This is where the more frequently detected letter-number pairs were located. The gaze of the volunteer who wore the portable eye tracker also seemed to be mainly focussing on that area of the screen.

Why does this happen?

The composition of the shots, the camera movements, the staging and the editing of the scenes are some of the ways in which filmmakers direct viewers’ attention. As opposed to films shot in the past, modern TV and Hollywood cinema use a compositional style which involves rapid editing, bipolar extremes of lens length, wide-ranging camera movements and close shots.

For example, the scene in “The shop around the corner” (Esnst Lubitsch, 1940) where the two protagonists meet in the café, lasts 9 minutes and contains 20 shots lasting 27 seconds each. The same scene from a recent remake of this film, “You’ve got mail” (Nora Ephron, 1998), lasts 9 minutes and contains 134 shots of 4 seconds each.

This style causes the audience to have a unified experience of the film being watched, as it induces spectators to focus their attention on the centre of the screen, a type of behaviour defined as central tendency by Le Meur and others in 2007.

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