Watching Movies for the First Time: What Does It Take?

Exploring cognition at the movies.

Posted Dec 04, 2013

On December 28, 1895, 33 Parisians paid one franc to watch ten short moving pictures, each depicting simple activities, such as a couple feeding their baby or men playing cards. This seemingly magical feat was made possible by Auguste and Louis Lumière, inventors of one of the first movie projectors.

Despite the novelty of seeing these unedited, single-shot moving images, they were easily interpretable by these first-time moviegoers. Indeed, psychological studies have confirmed that individuals who have never before seen a movie can interpret actions presented in single-shot film clips and even clips with simple edits (e.g., transitions that maintain the spatial setting). These days, however, a Hollywood blockbuster may contain as many as two thousand individual shots joined together to produce what one might imagine would be a perceptually jarring experience. Yet when we watch a movie, these thousands of shot transitions are hardly noticeable. Is the seamless nature of film editing attributed to the fact that movies are easy proxies for the way we naturally view the world around us or does our movie viewing depend on a familiarity of the "language" of film?

In an interesting psychological study, Schwan & Indari (2010) went to a remote village in Turkey where electricity was not available and showed film clips to individuals who had never before seen moving images. Fifteen clips were shown (on a laptop), which contained common editing transitions, though ones that included perceptual discontinuities, such as: 1) establishing shots in which a long (wide angle) shot is used to set the spatial setting prior to a close-up shot, 2) point of views (POVs) such as a character shown walking toward his home with a cut to the character's viewpoint once inside (e.g., a view of the hallway), 3) cross-cutting in which disparate shots move between two different events to show that they are occurring at the same time, 4) ellipses, where time jumps ahead between two shots, such as a shot of a person in a kitchen and then in a diningroom, and 5) shot/reverse shots, which are very common during dialogue scenes when successive "over-the-shoulder" shots move with the conversation of two characters. All of the clips presented events and actions that would be familiar to the villagers had they been observed in real life. After viewing a clip, the villagers were asked to say what it depicted. The same task was given to individuals living in another Turkish village but these individuals had frequent exposure to movies.

The results were striking as individuals with no prior movie experience had extreme difficulty in interpreting almost all of the clips. When asked to describe the clips, these naïve viewers could not link the actions of one shot to the next. All of these transitions would be obvious to us and were well understood by the Turkish villagers who had prior familiarity with movies. Interestingly, cross-cuts were understood well even by the naïve viewers, though at first blush it would seem like a rather difficult transition to follow 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 in time had occurred across edits. Thus, one might predict that other time-based editing techniques, such as fades or dissolves, which are used to indicate that an extended time has passed, or harp music and blurry images to indicate a flashback, would be extremely difficult to interpret as these indicators of lasped time seem to be particularly arbitrary conventions.

Through countless viewings of movies and TV shows, we have become so accustomed to film editing techniques that we hardly notice them. Of course, at some time we all had to experience films for the first time. Perhaps, as with other learned experiences, such as reading, driving, and sports skills, our understanding of how stories are told through moving images is acquire through multiple exposures. That is, we have become fluent with the "grammar" of film editing. What is hard to appreciate now, and what the Schwan and Indira study shows, is that our movie experience is in part a learned phenomenon that is tied closely to our knowledge about how movies are edited, a knowlede which has been rather unconsciously learned through so many hours of watching moving images displayed on a screen.

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