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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Freshwater

This post was contributed by Roisin Lynch, an intern at Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

Virginia Woolf wrote her little-known and only play Freshwater in 1923, and revised it in 1935 for a single performance by her family and friends in her sister Vanessa Bell’s art studio in Bloomsbury.

Freshwater is a comedy, poking good-natured fun at Woolf’s great aunt, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and the artistic and moral sensibilities of her Victorian set. In the Cameron’s home at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (played by Woolf’s brother, Adrian Stephen, in 1935) lurks about the house reciting Maud at every opportunity, while Julia Cameron (played by Vanessa Bell) searches in vain to find a policeman with manly enough calves to play Galahad in one of her Arthurian photographs. The plot centres on Ellen Terry (Woolf’s niece, Angelica Bell), the sixteen year old wife of George Frederic Watts (Duncan Grant). Bored by life as a model for her elderly husband’s paintings, at the end of the play she escapes – wearing trousers, no less – to the dissolute freedom of a life in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.

As part of a series of events during Arts Week, academics from Birkbeck’s Department of English gave a lively and enjoyable rehearsed reading of the play in the beautiful Keynes library in the School of Art’s buildings in Gordon Square, once home to Woolf herself. The performance was enthusiastically received by the audience, in particular the various props – a copy of Maud, a helpfully annotated picture of a leg, a small model omnibus – held up by Professor Hilary Fraser to embellish the reading, and the very special guest appearance at the end of the play by Queen Victoria herself.

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