Thursday, April 14, 2005

SCMS and C&T

Between 31st March and 8th April I was travelling around the UK attending conferences related to my Ph.D. research. The first was the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in London and the second was the Cinema and Technology conference in Lancaster. Both were highly enjoyable and very informative but differed quite considerably in terms of their scale and focus.

SCMS is one of (if not “the”) foremost international conferences in the area of cinema and media studies. As such it is HUGE! There were, on average, 17 parallel sessions in every time slot, covering such disparate topics as queer cinema studies, digital cinema, television, film and philosophy, as well as cognition and cinema (to name a few). My only experience of a conference like this was presenting at the Cognitive Studies of Moving Images conference last summer in Grand Rapids, Michigan By comparison that conference was a very intimate affair attended by academics who all shared a common interest in Cognitive Film Theory. Attending SCMS was a completely different experience as it represented a cross-section of all the different research that falls under the umbrella of “Cinema and Media Studies”. Not having a background in this academic discipline I found it a very useful experience to get an insight into the many different approaches/methodologies/theories/styles of intellectual enquiry that exist. It was also useful to see how Cognitive Film Theory sits within all the other theoretical traditions. Being a cognitive scientist I always approach things from a cognitive perspective and so it strikes me as very odd when other people are resistant to such an approach. I can now see how much work is ahead of us to make this path of intellectual enquiry universally accepted as an integral part of film (and media) studies as well as developing new theories that marry the strengths of cognitive science with the established traditions of film theory.

SCMS proved very beneficial to me as it gave me an opportunity to present by Watched pot/Stopped Clock experiment to a new audience (I won’t go into details here; they can be found on my main website). As always, I got some great feedback about my presentation which will be fed into my thesis and it was a great experience presenting with Lisa Fehsenfeld and Chris Robinson, my fellow panel members. Lisa discussed the potential for camera and actor motion in non-action films as a tool for manipulating the viewer’s experience (i.e. creating excitement, arousal, attracting attention). Chris then supplemented this by discussing the technical and physiological differences between viewing films projected at different frame rates. I then developed the level of scientific detail further and finished off the session by presenting an experiment investigating the perception of time across match-action cuts. (All our abstracts can be found in the proceedings here and my Powerpoint presentation is available on-line here). This progression from theory to experimentation worked really well and, I believe, allowed us to escort a non-scientific audience through the session culminating in a level of enquiry they may not usually be familiar with. The greatest thanks have to go out to Lisa and Chris for their work in making the session such a success.

Given the vast number of competing sessions I managed to follow a rather “cognitive” path through the rest of the conference. There was a session on the mis-use of visualisation in science (organised by Lisa Cartwright), a topic under a lot of debate in the scientific community. Cognition, evolution and cinema presented by Daniel Barratt, Mette Kramer, and Torben Grodal. Daniel has just finished a PhD at the University of Kent and has some great ideas on the psychology of “affect” as it relates to film viewing. The most relevant session for me was on “The Cinematic Mind: Cognition and Cinema”. This session appears to have been setup as an accompaniment for an undergraduate course Todd Berliner and Dale Cohen have been teaching at the University of North Carolina. I was aware of this course before attending the session and already knew that I wholly approved of and agreed with what they had been teaching but to see them present was hugely enjoyable. Their presentation attempted to invalidate the tradition of Sausaurean Semiology in film theory and replace it with theory based in Cognitive Science. They made reference to the same empirical evidence as I do and their line of argument follows a very similar line to my own so it was great to know that I’m on the right track. I don’t totally agree with their dismissal of semiology, I agree with some of the points Murray Smith raised in his response to the panel (generally revolving around the “specificity” of the cinematic image compared to the linguistic sign). I believe a lot can be learnt from semiotics (by this I mean the Peircean tradition, not the Sausurrean; see my introductory essay on semiotics) but Berliner and Cohen’s willingness to apply current cognitive science to film theory is very commendable. I wish them all the best with their own experiments in this area (and the rumoured book on the subject).

By comparison to SCMS’ international feel, the Cinema and Technology conference felt more British. This was in no way due to the attendees, C&T was attended by just as international and distinguished people as SCMS (in fact a large number attended both due their temporal and geographical proximity). I think the feel was largely due to the rain, the cold, the intimacy of Lancaster University’s campus, and the screening of the Mitchell and Kenyon collection which, for me, cast an air of Bygone-Britishness over the whole conference. This feeling was rather odd given that the focus of the conference was on the cutting-edge and multifaceted merger of cinema and technology. I have to confess that my aspirations for the future of cinema does feature the development of “true” interactive cinema (by “true” I mean an experience that resembles current cinematic experience as closely as possible whilst also enabling audience participation/interaction in the plot). As such this conference was right up my alley!

In general I’d have to say that the conference was a great success although I did yearn for a bit more technology and a little less theory (hey, shoot me, I’m a scientist!). It was nice to see so many people interested in the implications of DVD, videogame, digital effects, CG, and interactive media. These technologies are subtly changing what it is that we current see as “cinema” and this conference showed us that we need to work hard to develop new ways of analysing the resulting media and new theoretical frameworks to understand the future of cinema. It is an exciting time for academics and the public alike and I hope that this conference just marks the beginning of the academic interest in these developing technologies.

Just quickly I’d like to mention a few people from C&T:

Lanfranco Aceti from Central St Martin’s College, London is looking at the use of neuroimaging as an interface for avant-garde film generation. He’s a really nice guy who is tackling a very interesting but difficult area. All the best to him.

Jim Bizzocchi is a researcher/lecturer in new media and film studies from Simon Frasier University, Vancouver. I met him last year at CCSMI and he was instantly supportive of my research which I was hugely grateful for. His ideas on the future of interactive media and the theoretical analysis of videogames are right on the button and I always have a great time chatting to him about these topics. If you ever have the opportunity to read some of his work or see him present I would highly recommend it.

Jonathan Frome is a Ph.D. student/lecturer from University of Wisconsin-Madison. His thesis is on ‘Imagination, Immersion, and Emotion: Video Games and Visual Media.’ and he is supervised by David Bordwell (lucky guy). He wasn’t actually at C&T (he was at SCMS) but given that his research is C&T related I thought I’d mention him here. He’s developing some great frameworks for the theoretical analysis of videogames with specific emphasis on the experience of the player/user. Keep an eye on this one, he’s going to do some great things in the near future :)

Well I guess I’ve rambled enough about my conference visits. I returned to Edinburgh motivated and driven to actually start writing my thesis (Thank god!) and also develop this blog/website as a resource for other people interested in this research. So far the blog is going well (even though I need to work on writing smaller posts!) but the thesis writing is starting slow. I’m writing an overview/survey of continuity editing rules which will form the foundation of my thesis. Its fun to work on but collating all the existing definitions and experiences takes a long time. I’m sure this won’t be the last time you’ll hear reference to it.

Wish me luck.

1 comment:

bdhutch said...


Hey, great to see you're a fellow blogger, as well as cognitive film theorist. Enjoyed meeting you and your presentation in Berlin. Check out my blog at You'll notice I mentioned in you in my quick report on the conference. I hope you continue to blog--I'll post a link to you blog on mine.