James E. Cutting, Cornell University

James E. Cutting, Cornell University


Reaction times exhibit a spectral patterning known as I/f,and these patterns can be thought of as reflecting time-varying changes in attention.  We investigated the shot structure of Hollywood films to determine if these same patterns are found.  We parsed 150 films with release dates from 1935 to 2005 into their sequences of shots and then analyzed the pattern of shot lengths in each film.  Autoregressive and power analyses showed that, across that span of 70 years, shots become increasingly more correlated in length with their neighbors and created power spectra approaching I/f.  We suggest, as have others, that I/f patterns reflect world structure and mental process.  Moreover, a I/f temporal shot structure may help harness observers' attention to the narrative of a film.

Bordwell (2006) documented four changes in popular film that are designed to capture the viewer's attention and control eye movements. The first change concerns a progression towards shorter average shot lengths (ASLs). Diminishing ASLs, however, are not the only change in popular film that concerns shots. Using time-series and power analyses, we analyzed patterns of shot lengths in 150 Hollywood films from 1935 to 2005. Our results revealed multiscale shot fluctuations. Importantly, these patterns have begun to match the waves of attention that can be measured in people under laboratory conditions.

 Bordwell (2006) noted three other changes in more recent films, all of which create more motion and movement.We analyzed this amount of visual activity in the same films, correlating successive frames with one another. We found increasing amounts of activity in films from 1935 to 2005. As with ASL, however, visual activity is not constant within a film, but oscillates over time. I explore a relation between visual activity and its duration and propose a limit to how much activity can be sustained in films while keeping most of the audience entertained. Moreover, I suggest that ASL and visual activity are two dimensions of increased intensity in continuity editing.

Attention and the Evolution of Hollywood Film

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