Psychocinematics and the Language of Film
By studying the allure of movies, we can learn about how the mind works.
Posted Jul 26, 2020
Movies have this incredible knack for thoroughly engaging our senses, thoughts, and emotions. With clever techniques, discovered largely through trial and error, filmmakers offer audiovisual stories that link events in a seamless manner. Indeed, we have become so fluent in this language of film that we are unaware of the many cuts—often over a thousand transitions—that occur in a typical Hollywood movie. Little is known about the psychological underpinnings of these techniques—a topic that I call psychocinematics. Yet explorations into our movie experience may tell us a lot about everyday cognitive and emotional processes. To date, such investigations have only been conducted by a handful of researchers.
Just as a storyteller spins a tale and takes us on an adventure, a filmmaker moves us across space and time as we follow the characters on the screen. Early on, Hollywood studios developed a set of "continuity editing" rules that enabled the moviegoer to follow a film’s plot with ease. One common rule is to begin a scene with an establishing shot—a wide-angle view of the spatial context that sets the stage for the events to follow.
The figure below depicts the classic Old West gunfight, shown here with the sheriff on the left and bad guy on the right (a Star Wars lightsaber duel would also work). The establishing shot sets up an axis of action, defined here as the line between the two gunfighters.
In psychological terms, the establishing shot fixes our viewpoint. In our Old West shot, we are viewing the gunfight from across the street of the Sheriff’s Office. Once defined, filmmakers follow the 180-degree rule which states that all subsequent camera shots must be positioned on the same side of the axis of action where the establishing shot was taken—that is, facing toward the Sheriff’s Office (green area in figure below). Thus, a valid close-up of our sheriff would show his right profile as if he’s facing the bad guy. Shots taken on the opposite side (red region) are mirror-reversed, and a close-up shot would appear as if the sheriff has turned around and is now facing away from the bad guy! Violations of the 180-degree rule confuse the moviegoer's viewpoint and spatial context as defined initially by the establishing shot.
Another continuity editing rule is the 30-degree rule, which states that successive close-up shots should always be angled more than 30 degrees apart. This seemingly odd rule is made apparent as soon as one sees a violation of it.
Consider the worst-case scenario in which there is no change in the camera angle: for example, after taking a shot of our sheriff, we turn off the camera, move directly toward him, and shoot from a closer position. If we were to edit these two shots together, the sheriff would suddenly appear to have expanded in size or to have suddenly jumped toward the camera. In psychological terms, we would perceive apparent motion because the only change in the image across the cut would be the scale of objects (i.e. everything just gets bigger). Our brain interprets this change, which is called optical expansion, as a sudden shift in the size of objects or a very quick movement towards us. Either of these two possibilities would be the case if this sequence occurred in real life.
These apparent jumps in movement tend to occur if successive camera shots are angled less than 30-degrees apart from each other. Why it’s “30 degrees” is unclear and worthy of psychocinematic investigation. Violations of this rule are called “jump cuts,” which are perceived as jerky movements or shifts of objects in a scene. These days, jump cuts are actually used as a stylistic effect to express erratic or energetic action (see YouTube video on 30-degree rule).
Other editing techniques guide us smoothly across space and time. Eyeline matches are shot sequences in which a character glances somewhere offscreen, say out a window, and the next shot shows the object of fixation, such as a person walking to the door. Ellipses are shots that indicate jumps in time, such as a shot of a guy cooking dinner in the kitchen and then cutting to him sitting in the dining room eating his meal. Shot/reverse shots are common when two people are engaged in conversation. It often involves successive "over-the-shoulder" shots during a dialogue. In cross-cut editing, successive shots move between two actions or events, say a chase scene that cuts between the chaser and the one being chased. Such alternating shots indicate that two events are occurring at the same time.
How well do films simulate the kind of visual experiences that we confront in daily life? One would expect simple camera movements, such as pans, zoom-ins, and tracking (dolly) shots as easily interpreted because they match our everyday sense of moving around our environment. Yet editing techniques such as eyeline matches, ellipses, shot/reverse shots and cross-cuts, require a bit of conceptual understanding and knowledge about how these transitions move us across time and space. Have we become so fluent with the language of movies that we comprehend these editing techniques in a virtually unconscious manner?
To test the degree to which cinematic techniques require a conceptual understanding, Schwan & Indari (2010) presented edited film clips to individuals who lived in a remote Turkish village without electricity and had never seen moving pictures. The clips included basic continuity editing transitions, such as establishing shots, eyeline matches, shot/reverse shots, and cross-cut editing. Also shown were clips of pan movements, such as a camera scanning from one person to another. All of the clips showed events and actions that would be familiar to the villagers.
After viewing a clip, participants were asked to describe what the film clip showed. Interestingly, these villagers had extreme difficulty interpreting many of the edited clips. In particular, they could not figure out the meaning of establishing shots, eyeline matches, and shot/reverse shots. These clips were easily interpreted by individuals from a nearby Turkish village who had prior exposure to movies. The naïve viewers were able to interpret pan movements and cross-cut edits. At first blush, cross-cutting would seem like a rather difficult transition to comprehend 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.
In a follow-up study, Indari & Schwan (2015) extended their initial findings by presenting edits that varied in the degree to which they were pictorial, causal, or conceptual in nature. Pictorial transitions included some of the same objects across a cut, such as the same scene taken from a different camera angle. Causal transitions linked a chain of events, such as a person preparing tea followed by a close-up of a tea jar on a shelf. Conceptual transitions included outside/inside edits, such as an outside view of a mosque followed by a man praying inside.
First-time viewers were able to comprehend basic pictorial and causal transitions, but they had difficulty interpreting more complex transitions. For example, in an establishing shot similar to our gunfight scene, two actors are shown facing each other followed by frontal views of each actor. First-time viewers recognized that the two individuals in the establishing shot were the same ones presented in subsequent close-ups, yet they couldn’t comprehend the spatial relationship. That is, for them the establishing shot didn’t set up an axis of action. One subject described the clip as follows: “Two men were standing across from each other and then both turned to this side and looked at us.” Conceptual transitions, such as outside/inside edits, were also not understood by these first-time viewers.
After countless hours of watching films and TV shows, we modern, 21st-century viewers easily follow a movie’s plot much like the ease with which we read a novel or this post. Of course, all rules are meant to be broken, particularly with respect to art and aesthetics, and during the 1960s, a style of filming emerged in which it was acceptable, indeed trendy, to make viewers aware of camera movements and editing. Some of these techniques, such as jump cuts and shaky cameras, were originated by avant-garde filmmakers, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, and then made their way into Hollywood movies. Others, such as a more varied use of camera movements, angles, and zooms, came from the styles of innovative feature directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese.
The renown cognitive film theorist, David Bordwell, described contemporary Hollywood movies as adopting intensified continuity editing, which includes (1) more rapid editing, (2) more extreme lens lengths (i.e., wider wide angles, more telescopic telephotos), (3) closer framing during dialogues, and (4) free-range or non-stabilized camera movements (e.g., weaving quickly through a crowd) (Bordwell, 2002).
Movies offer a window to an adventure as we follow the characters with anticipation and excitement. It’s fascinating to me how film editors can insert cuts in such a seamless manner that they are virtually transparent. Amazingly an action film, such as a James Bond movie, can include over 2000 cuts, which translates to an average shot length of 3-4 seconds! In fact, the mark of an outstanding film editor is someone whose technique is so fine that edits are not ever noticed (how many Academy Award winning editors do you know?).
Yet editing is essential for driving the story and moving us through time and space. A fun exercise is to re-watch a part of a movie or TV drama with the sound off so you can pay attention to the editing rather than being engaged in the plot. Soon you will notice establishing shots at the beginning of scenes and how continuity editing—through eyeline matches, ellipses, and shot/reverse shots—moves the plot.
Psychologists have only scratched the surface in our understanding of how such movie techniques work, though I contend that such an understanding can offer clues to how we interpret our everyday experiences.
Shimamura, A. P. (2013) (Editor). Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bordwell, D. (2002). Intensified continuity: Visual style in contemporary American film. Film Quarterly, 55, 16-28.
Ildirar, S. & Schwan, S. (2015). First‐time viewers' comprehension of films: Bridging shot transitions. British Journal of Psychology, 106, 133-151.
Schwan, S., & Ildirar, S. (2010). Watching film for the first time: How adult viewers interpret perceptual discontinuities in film. Psychological Science, 21, 970–976.