Friday, December 16, 2005

A human filter

I feel like my head has become a filter for all the information that might possibly be relevant to my thesis. All the ideas I have had about continuity editing, the papers I have read, the studies I have performed are all filtering through my head and on to the page. If I achieve nothing with my thesis at least I can be proud or collating such a large reference list! This is the problem with performing cross-disciplinary research you have to be knowledgeable in multiple areas simultaneously. This requires a lot of reading and even more thinking. After I hand in my thesis (less than a month from now) I'm going to need to do something mind-numbing for a while. Maybe I'll get a job in data entry. I did this job for three summers during my undergraduate degree and it is incredible how little of your brain you need to use to do it well (no disrespect to the envelope stuffers out there).

My thesis is finally shaping up. I've got most of the sections written and the main theory is nearing its final form. For anybody who has witnessed/read any of the previous accounts of my research its final form might come as some what of a shock. By reading so many theories written in different areas I started to see the natural crossovers. I think my theory as it now stands can account for a lot of the techniques used in continuity editing. All that I hope is that my examiners also think so.

I'll wait until my thesis is finished before debuting my new theory. However, if you want to get a good insight into why continuity editing is acceptable to the human perceptual system take a look at these books. These editors know what's what:

Dmytryk, Edward (1986) On Filmmaking
Block, Bruce (2001) The Visual Story: Seeing structure of film, TV, and New Media
Murch, Walter (2001) In The Blink Of An Eye: a perspective on film editing
Pepperman, Richard (2004) The Eye is Quicker: film editing; making a good film better

Do you see a theme?

Quick Thesis Update:
Deadline = 9th January (Merry Christmas for me then)
Percentage written = 80% (and then I have to edit; Oh, the irony: the one part of writing I hate)

Friday, November 11, 2005

Remembrance or Mardi Gras?

I was in Germany a year ago today and I had a very odd experience. I was walking through Stralsund with my girlfriend’s family at 11am on the 11th November feeling very odd due to the significance of the time and date. In the UK this is Remembrance Day, the day when we remember the people who died during the First World War and the day when the armistice was signed. It is a very solemn day that makes you dwell on the futility, brutality, and loss of war. So, being in Germany on this day made me feel a bit strange and a bit uncertain whether I should enquire of my girlfriend’s family whether they knew of the day’s significance. However, as 11am came round the streets were suddenly filled with kids wearing streamers and party hats and blowing on party blowers and horns. As we walked towards the town hall we saw that there was some kind of party going on inside. We walked into the Town Hall and found loud German Techno booming from one of the ornate meeting rooms, a table set full of Sekt (German sparkling wine), and people handing out Berliners (donuts). A party was in full swing in Germany whilst at home people would be mourning the death of thousands of soldiers.

The party, I was later informed by my girlfriend was to celebrate the start of Fasching, the Mardi Gras or Carnival. For some reason, traditional preparation for Fasching begins on the 11th November and it is celebrated by storming the Town Hall. Fasching is a big deal in the Catholic south of Germany but the whole of Germany likes a good party so the idea seems to have spread north. The precise match of the beginning of Fasching with the signing of the WWI armistice was too startling a coincidence to be accidental. It must have been chosen to emphasise the importance of the occasion (11am 11th day, 11th month is very easy to remember) yet in Germany nobody remembered the significance of the day. Other than the fact that you get to drink wine and eat donuts at 11am. Another interesting example of how a shared history isn’t always the same history.


No, I’m not talking about my current problems writing my thesis. These are all names given to continuity errors. Now I thought it was about time that I addressed one of the common confusions about my thesis: I am not researching continuity errors. What are generally referred to as continuity errors are mistakes made during production that in some way highlight the artificiality of the film. Classic examples are cigarettes/drinks/food suddenly changing level across shots, actors changing posture or position within the scene, and the all-too-frequent instantaneous changes of costume. A great source of continuity errors is Jon Sandys’ website and the books that accompany it He has a massive directory of errors some of which are hilarious and others are so bafflingly complex that it is incredible that anybody noticed them. However, hardly any of them actually have anything to do with editing. Which brings me to a strange contradiction: continuity errors are not usually caused by violating a continuity editing rule. I discuss this in some detail in my thesis (I have just finished writing a taxonomy and explanation of the psychology of continuity errors) but in general my thesis is about editing so continuity errors are not important.

After my thesis I might expand on my taxonomy of errors and work out a webpage devoted to the topic but for now I’d direct you to Jon Sandys', the expert on this subject, and you can amaze at how slack Hollywood can sometimes be.

Quick Thesis Update:
Deadline = 9th January (notice the change)
Percentage written = 50% (still yikes!)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Just finished presenting my Draft Dissertation Defence (DDD). This is curious part of the British Ph.D. process where by you defend the ideas in your thesis before you've finished making them up....Sorry, I mean "writing them up".

My presentation seemed to go well. As always, I was bizarrely calm whilst presenting. The audience seemed to appreciate and follow what I was presenting so I rewarded them with some entertaining visuals (well, I thought they were entertaining). Received some useful feedback from various people after the presentation which will, hopefully find its way into my thesis.

Quick Thesis Update:
Deadline = 16th December
Percentage written = 30% (yikes!)

For those who are interested I'll whet your appetite with the abstract for my DDD. If you have any questions about it or want to know more don't hesitate to contact me. My plan is to write some journal publications based on this data immediately after I submit my thesis so hold on in there for the official unveiling of this stuff.

Title: An Attention-based Theory of Continuity Editing: A Draft Dissertation Defence
Date: Wednesday 5th October 2005


All film and television productions are constructed according to a set of conventions developed during the first two decades of the 20th century. These conventions are collectively referred to as the “rules of continuity editing”, and enable a filmmaker to construct a film in a manner that makes the artificial visual disruption occurring during an edit invisible to the viewer whilst maintaining the impression of continuous action. Achieving this “continuity” is the goal of all mainstream editing yet the concept is poorly understood and has never received an in depth scientific examination. The intention of this thesis is to rectify this neglect and in doing so advance our understanding of how we perceive edited visual media.

A cut (an instantaneous change from one camera shot to another) creates a sudden disruption of the entire visual scene which, under normal viewing conditions would involuntarily capture a viewer’s attention (Lang, 2000). This would make the viewer aware of the editing and has been shown to have negative effects on comprehension (Frith & Robson, 1975) and arousal (Lang, Zhou, Schwartz, Bolls, & Potter, 2000). For a cut to occur without attentional capture, the continuity editing rules must create viewing conditions under which attention is suppressed or occupied, or the attracting quality of the disruption minimised. During this talk I will present examples of editing rules that I have empirically shown to utilise these processes.

Three main phenomena will be presented that explain how natural modulations of attention during normal scene viewing can be used to explain how continuity editing rules function: event segmentation (Zacks et al., 2001), visual occlusion (Michotte, 1991), and saccadic eye movements (Yarrow, Haggard, Heal, Brown, & Rothwell, 2001). The close compatibility between these natural cognitive phenomena and the editing rules indicates that “continuity” is actually a combination of spatiotemporal continuity and existence constancy. These properties do not have to be created as they are assumed to continue unless we are made aware of their absence. Therefore, the editing rules function by ensuring continuity of attention which in turn guarantees perceptual continuity.


Frith, U., & Robson, J. E. (1975). Perceiving the language of films. Perception, 4(1), 97-103.

Lang, A., Zhou, S., Schwartz, N., Bolls, P. D., & Potter, R. F. (2000). The Effects of Edits on Arousal, Attention, and Memory for television Messages: When an Edit is an Edit Can An Edit Be Too Much? Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 44, 94-109.

Lang, A. (2000). The Limited Capacity model of Mediated Message Processing. Journal of Communication, 50, 46-70.

Michotte, A. (1991). On phenomenal permanence: facts and theories. G. Thines, A. Costall, & A. Butterworth (Editor), Michotte's experimental phenomenology of perception (pp. 122-139). Hillsdale, NJ, US: Erlbaum. Notes: (Original work published 1950)

Yarrow, K., Haggard, P., Heal, R., Brown, P., & Rothwell, J. C. (2001). Illusory perceptions of space and time preserve cross-saccadic perceptual continuity. Nature, 414.

Zacks, J., Braver, T. S., Sheridan, M. A., Donaldson, D. I., Snyder, A. Z., Ollinger, J. M., Buckner, R. L., & Raichle, M. E. (2001). Human brain activity time-locked to perceptual event boundaries. Nature Neuroscience, 4(6), 651-655.

Monday, September 05, 2005

A Coruna: Continued

[continued from previous post]

As for the conference it was hit and miss. There seemed to be a large emphasis on neuroscience and psychophysical methods. There is nothing wrong with these methods, in fact they are very powerful ways of investigating visual phenomenon in very precise ways, but they are not the only methods for investigating visual perception. Quite a few people commented to me after the first couple of days that they were a bit disappointed with the lack of higher-order perception studies and applied cognition. As it turned out these types of studies were reserved for the last couple of days and there were quite a number of interesting posters that made up for my general feeling of “intellectual drowning” during most of the seminars.

Before the start of the conference there was a pre-symposium entitled Art and the Visual System. This was really interesting and was exactly the approach I have been trying to take during my PhD: applying scientific theories and methods to the analysis of visual art. There were a number of really interesting presentations including explanations of the Watercolour illusion (Baingio Pinna), Picasso’s cubism via visual crowding (Denis Pelli), and Mona Lisa’s ambiguous smile via peripheral vision (Margaret Livingstone). Very clever stuff. The presentation I found most interesting was Semir Zeki’s (University College London) discussion of the chronoarchitecture of the brain and its relationship to sensory experience. As an example of his ideas he showed an animation of real-time brain activation whilst watching a clip from the James Bond movie Goldeneye. Brilliant stuff. Although I have to acknowledge Uri Hasson (NYU) who has previously presented similar results of neural synchrony between viewers when watching a feature film (his Science paper can be found here). Hasson presented further evidence of this synchrony at ECVP (abstract). He showed that neural activation was mostly the same if a silent film was viewed forwards or backwards with only a couple of regions showing different activation: the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) when the films depicted non-continuous shots of motion and Wernicke’s area when the shots were semantically related (i.e. the films had a plot).

There were a couple of other relevant presentations at ECVP (such as Kazuya Kito’s eye tracking study of Coca-Cola adverts….sweet industrial sponsorship) but the most relevant was Kiyoshige Suzuki’s presentation of ‘The perceptual organisation with serially presented motion picture shots’…..sound familiar? I couldn’t believe the similarity between his study and my own when I first saw it. He even used stimuli that depicted a ball moving laterally across the screen, exiting the screen, and then reappearing on the opposite edge after a cut! His mode of assessment was primarily introspective and he drew conclusions about viewer’s perception of continuity of object identity and motion across the cut where as I was using indirect methods to find evidence for the same effects (you can see my abstract here). Suzuki has presented work at ECVP twice before, one poster was an empirical reproduction of the Kuleshov experiment (2002) and the other was an earlier investigation into continuity across cuts (2004). The fact that we have both been investigating the same questions was a great shock to both of us. Suzuki seemed to get a lot out of my poster when I presented it on the Friday and we spent a lot of time together discussing our methodologies and research interests. I’m sure Suzuki will prove to be a great colleague and I hope we can stay in touch to exchange ideas and keep each other motivated about this area of research.

During Suzuki’s poster session I also had the good fortune to meet Rosanna Actis-Grosso. Rosanna, in conjunction with Luca Tommasi presented two studies investigating the perception of temporal continuity across cuts at ECVP in 1998 and 1999. Their 1998 poster (sorry, can’t find a link) showed that perception of temporal continuity across a magnification cut during a Michottean Launching event was effected by the degree of magnification. This experiment is the first empirical evidence I know of that shows how a temporally discontinuous edit can be made to appear continuous. My Watched Pot / Stopped Clock experiment owes a lot to this experiment. Their 1999 poster showed that this perception of temporal continuity is effected by the relocation and the resulting apparent motion of the main object on the screen across the cut. This conclusion supported my ideas about the effects of saccadic eye movements on continuity perception across edits. Rosanna made some very interesting comments about the poster I presented at ECVP and it is great to see that her interests still lie in this area even if she hasn’t followed up her two innovative studies.

In general ECVP was a very satisfying experience and I am very glad I went. The people I met, both socially and in an intellectual context really made the conference worthwhile and I look forward to staying in contact with as many of them as possible. Thanks again everyone and I hope to see you at future ECVPs or other visual perception conferences.

A Coruna!

So I returned from the ECVP conference last weekend (27/8) and thought it was about time I filled you in on how it was. The whole trip was lots of fun. A Coruna is a really interesting city, mixing the heat of southern Spain with the rolling green hills of somewhere like Ireland or the Scottish Highlands. The city is positioned on a hammer-head peninsula with a beautiful golden beach down one neck of the peninsula, a harbour on the other side of the neck and a Roman lighthouse on the rocky head of the peninsula. The cool air off the Atlantic makes the climate really comfortable (if a little wet at times) although the temperature of the water makes for a rather surreal beach-going experience: beautiful sand, hot sun, and F*****g freezing water!

I stayed in university accommodation on the outskirts of the city which turned out to be a rather “interesting” experience. I knew the accommodation was somewhat out of the way but I didn’t expect it to be positioned on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere! The accommodation looked like a mini holiday camp with swimming pool, cafeteria, bar, gym, ping-pong table, laundry, bingo, boules, and about 300 old Spanish women! My first afternoon at the accommodation was very surreal as it slowly dawned on me that the place was over-run by Spanish old people (the accommodation was a retreat for old people from Barcelona and Madrid for whom the summer heat was too much), nobody spoke English (even the receptionist), I couldn’t identify any other conference attendees and I was stuck without any way out of this place. It was like a bad comedy horror film! Luckily I met a couple of people during dinner and started to realise that the accommodation actually had its upside: cheap dinner served with all the wine you could drink and fabulously fun people to share it with. The people I met during the conference were what made the whole trip worthwhile (there were intellectual rewards, I’ll get on to them later). The first two people I met were James and Lucie (so sorry if this isn’t how it is spelt, Lucie) from Calgary, Canada. They proved to be the life and soul of the entire trip, especially Lucie who is a mini-whirlwind of unstoppable fun. James and I hit it off immediately, probably due to our mutual interest in applied visual cognition and eye tracking as well as the fact that we are both originally from the North West of England and seem to share the humour and personality traits associated with that. Lucie is his fiance who originally came from the Dominican Republic. Together they form this wonderfully complimentary couple that are both hilarious, endlessly enthusiastic, and adoring. Thanks guys for making my trip so enjoyable.

Staying at the accommodation bred a sense of community that I’m sure would have been lacking if I had stayed at a hotel in the city. By a couple of days into the conference there was a stable group of ECVP people who all hung around together, socialised, toured the city and attended conference sessions. Here are some of the wonderful people I met and hope to meet again:

Nicholas Pugeault – Stirling University

Zsara Hussain – Hamilton university, Ontario

Karol Myszkowski – Max-Planck Institute, Saarbrucken

Baingio Pinna - Università di Sassari, Italy

Kamal (?) – Tokyo

Thursday, August 18, 2005

ECVP and Thesis Progress

So, it’s been a while. What have I been up to? Well, in short I have been writing my thesis. Actually there is nothing short about it. Not the time it is taking to write it, the length of the produced material, or the time I still foresee it taking to finish. However, I have a deadline (end of December) and a schedule that I am, mostly, sticking to so I guess that is all I can do. The act of writing the thesis is actually quite enjoyable. It is really satisfying to finally put in to words the ideas I have had throughout my PhD and take time to research the questions that have always been in the back of my mind. Some of the topics I have already written about are: before the second World War to initiate the drama. The cinematography and score of Nirgendwo are absolutely beautiful. Wah-Wah captured some of the beauty of the African landscape but Nirgendwo really caught its soul.

  • Continuity editing rules and their evolution
  • The Kuleshov Effect
  • Pudovkin’s Constructive Editing
  • Eisenstein’s Dialectical Montage
  • Facial Expression perception
  • Distribution of attention about a dynamic visual scene
  • Matched Exit/Entrance cuts
  • Cuing and Expecting a cut
  • Attention and the cut
  • Eye movements
  • Saccadic Suppression
  • How to empirically investigate film perception
  • As well as describing my first experiment.

This may sound like a lot but some of the sections are only partially complete and there are still a lot of other topics to address. I am going to have to be super productive over the next few months. I’ll try my best to keep the blog updated with my progress as I get closer to completion.

However, this period of intense writing will have to be temporarily put on hold whilst I attend the European Conference of Visual Perception (ECVP). The conference is being held in A Coruna, Spain from Monday 22nd August to the 26th. I’m flying out there tomorrow morning for a pre-conference workshop on Art and the Visual system. Should be interesting. I’ll be presenting a poster at the main conference on the Friday morning. It should be really useful to get some feedback from people highly experienced in visual perception research. Precisely the kind of input I need at this point in my write-up. Well, as long as it is positive J. I’ve posted the poster on my website front page for anybody to read who isn’t at the conference. Feel free to send me any comments or questions.

So that’s where I’ll be for the next week and I’ll try and blog the conference on my return.

On an completely unconnected note, the Edinburgh International Film festival ( opened last night with Richard E. Grant’s autobiographical ‘Wah-Wah’. It was a wonderful film to open the film festival: very satisfying, finely crafted and acted, and very, very British in a way that British film rarely is. It concentrated on the disintegration of the British Empire and its parallels within a family in Swaziland. I found it fascinating to see the life of the colonials, their desperate grasp of a ‘Britishness’ that didn’t really exist anymore in Britain at that time and is long deceased now. I think the topic of ‘British colonial guilt’ should really be dealt with more often as it was such a significant part of our history. Wah-Wah was very brave for tackling it, however incidentally. Check it out when it gets a general release. If you enjoy it I could also highly recommend a German film called ‘Nirgendwo in Afrika’ (Nowhere in Africa) which won the Best Foreign language film in the 2003 Oscars. It tells a similar story about European immigrants in rural Africa but uses the flight of Jews from Germany

Friday, June 24, 2005

Henderson Visit

I just wanted to say a quick word about a researcher who visited Edinburgh University last week. John Henderson from Michigan State University is one of the foremost researchers in the area of visual cognition with specific expertise in change blindness, transsaccadic memory, and visual representation. If you are at all interested in understanding how we perceive the visual world then I highly recommend checking out his research.

For the last decade there has been a raging argument in the field of visual cognition about how much of the visual world is represented and stored for future reference. Evidence from Change Blindness studies (see a Levin and Simons 1997 summary here) in which subjects were shown to miss very large changes of the visual scene across a disruption (e.g. an eye movement, a blanking of the screen, or physical obstruction) seemed to indicate that the subjects were storing very little visual information over time. This evidence seemed to conflict with everybody’s natural intuition that our experience of the visual world is a rich and lasting one. The work John Henderson and colleagues have been doing over the last few years has gradually reconfirmed this intuition by showing that change detection does occur when less explicit measures are used. His results indicate that visual memory is a natural result of scene viewing with attended and fixated regions of the scene receiving a high degree of representation. These results are very important to the area of film cognition and specifically understanding perception across edits. Editing is an explicit manipulation of the audience’s attention and as such we will better understand perception across edits by understanding what visual information is represented across shifts of attention.

Whilst John was visiting Edinburgh I had the wonderful opportunity to present my research to him and receive some very useful feedback. John and his wife Fernanda Ferreira (a well known psycholinguist) are two very wonderful and influential people to whom I wish all the best in their research and hope I get to meet again (and possibly collaborate with) real soon.

The Kuleshov Effect

Sorry it has been so long since I last wrote. I didn’t mean to imply that I wasn’t interested in you anymore… know, things just come up…..distractions……I still love you….

Whoops! I thought I was writing an e-mail for a second (lets hope my girlfriend doesn’t find out). I do regret not blogging, however. I’ve actually had lots of experiences over the last month that I should have blogged but I guess there was just too much and too little time. I’m finally fully immersed in writing my thesis. No distractions (well almost none). I get into my office in the morning and start writing then leave in the evening (with a brief break for lunch to watch trailers on-line…I’m a trailer junky). The thesis is coming long slowly but it is coming. I’m currently writing a section on the Kuleshov effect which should form the bridge between my introduction and the main theoretical and empirical section of my thesis.

Wait, what’s that? You don’t know what the Kuleshov effect is! Shame on you, you haven’t been reading my blog in detail. I summarised the Kuleshov effect in my ‘Edgecodes’ post. Basically it is the effect of juxtaposing the shot of an expressionless face with shots of different objects which results in the audience perceiving different emotions in the face. It, along with other pseudo-experiments conducted by soviet filmmakers Kuleshov and Pudovkin in the 1920s forms the theoretical basis of the cinema we are all familiar with today. It is a really useful reference for my thesis as it shows an attempt to merge film theory with scientific experimentation. As this is exactly what I am attempting to do it serves as a great example of how it should and shouldn’t be done. The Kuleshov experiment has been repeated many times since Pudovkin first reported it, each repetition adding slightly more to our understanding of how it works. The effect now exists in a strange duality where film theorists doubt its authenticity due to evidence that suggests the original experiment never actually took place and recent attempts to repeat it which have failed* whilst psychologists and filmmakers treat the effect as an established fact. In the section I am writing right now I am trying to resolve this two viewpoints and show how better science actually leads to better film theory.

The main reason why we should believe that the Kuleshov effect exists is its continual successful use in cinema. In June’s edition of Sight and Sound magazine, Greg Araki directly referenced the Kuleshov Effect when explaining how it managed to depict the emotionally shattering actions in his film Mysterious Skin without having to show them. The film follows the early life of two boys who were abused by their Little League coach when they were 8. The subject matter of the film is grotesque in the extreme, paedophilia, gay hustling, sexual abuse, baseball, but the film’s aesthetic and its emotional effect on the audience resonates with beauty. Part of the reason for this is probably Araki’s emphasis on facial Close-Ups (CU) for a large portion of the dramatic scenes. Due to the young age of the child actor’s he didn’t want to have to actually show the abuse that was occurring so instead it is all implied through the actor’s facial expressions. The effect is astounding, you believe that the abuse has taken place and that you have been affected by it when in reality you have seen very little. The film orchestrates the viewer’s emotional responses through the use of these Close-ups, beautiful atmospheric music (wonderful use is made of Sigur Ros), quiet Long-shots, and perfect pacing. I left the film in a detached state that stayed with me all evening and still returns to me every time I think of the film.

The interesting thing about Araki’s use of the Kuleshov effect as rationalisation of his use of facial CUs is that he does not surround the CUs with shots of the action or objects which, in the original Kuleshov experiment, imbued the CUs with meaning. In fact Araki’s use is almost counter the Kuleshov effect: the expressive power of the human face without context. As Ingmar Bergman stated so astutely “Everything begins with the actor’s face”.

* Prince, S & Hensley, W. E. (1992) The Kuleshov Effect: Recreating the Classic Experiment, Cinema Journal 31, No.2 Winter


Touzard, G (2003)

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Where have all the fun films gone?

I was discussing this last night with my girlfriend: why are all the fun films all over 10 years old? I’m talking about the films that you watch repeatedly and enjoy thoroughly every time. Films like Back to the Future, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Princess Bride, The Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, the original Star Wars trilogy, Dirty Dancing, Grease (ok, maybe the musical/dance films are just me). Everybody probably has similar films even if they don’t share my tastes. Films that are associated with joy, fun, innocence, and fond memories that transport you back to the time and place that you first watched them every time you see them. Where are the comparable films today?

I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to films. I appreciate fine artistic films, seek out independent and foreign language films, and love to watch a film that knowingly toys with cinematic conventions and the restrictions of Hollywood. I’ll often turn my nose up at overly commercial films or blatantly crass or manipulative films…….however inside me there is always that little kid who first became fascinated with cinema through films that existed purely for fun. Some of my fondest memories of childhood are film related: going to watch Labyrinth in the Apollo 6 in Wallasey with my dad, watching cartoons in the primary school hall on rainy days, seeing Karate Kid II in a mini-cinema on a ferry back from Holland whilst holding down a bout of sea sickness/food poisoning (ok the last is less “fond” and more “green”). The glow of the cinema screen and TV set held me enraptured as a child. Not because of the films that were presented on them rather the experiences, emotions, and sensations they induced in me and the way that the stories entered into me during viewing and became my own.

Have I become hardened by film viewing? Does it become harder for films to connect with you on such an instinctive, emotional level as you get older and you start thinking about a film too much and not feeling? Or have the films changed? I can’t think of any films over the last 5 years that have moved me, enraptured me, and left me in a state of absolute joy. The only films that come to mind are animated and predominantly produced by Pixar. Only in the animated realm do filmmakers seem to have a licence to detach their films from the harsh realities of life and focus on stories that are pure escapism. Yes, it is easier to achieve this using cartoons but live dramatists have been achieving the same thing for millennia so why are all films, no matter how FX-driven, currently unable to sever their ties to reality? Take Back to the Future (BTTF) for instance. BTTF takes a cartoony highschool kid and transfers him to a world that is not his own (the 1960s). There he must overcome many obstacles (getting power into the time machine; stopping his teenaged mum falling for him, etc) so that he can return to an improved version of normality. This is a classic Aristotlean dramatic structure and works so well because of the initial detachment of the protagonist (Marty McFly) from his reality. In the unfamiliar world the normal conventions and expectations of reality can be abandoned (or rather replaced by historical, kitsch, cartoony conventions) and so experiences can be heightened and played out for pure fun. The shackles of reality do not bear down upon the protagonist.

I’m sure there are recent films that use a similar dramatic structure but all seem to carry too much of the reality with them. I don’t think I am alone in my disillusionment with the current decrease in film as pure entertainment. You just have to look at the genres that consistently perform well in DVD sales: comedies and horror films. Audiences don’t want to take dramas home. Artistically respectable, innovative, and experimental films are only bought by collectors who place them on a shelf at home almost for prestige value not because they ever actually intend to watch them (sadly, I often fall into this category). The films that audiences constantly return to are those that have a good, easily accessible story, and move them in pleasurable ways. Why, when I have gone to the DVD rental shop recently have I completely failed to find any films that fulfil these requirements? Where’s the nerd-wins-cheerleader’s-heart films? Where’s the girl-becomes-dance/music-diva films? Where’s the fantasy films with imaginations bigger than my own? Where’s the intimate awe, the enrapture, the comfort?

I think Hollywood needs to either start taking itself VERY seriously and start producing artistic, philosophic, and intelligent films that don’t crumble under the pressure of the business men and focus groups. Or, they need to throw caution to the wind, stop trying to appeal to everybody, stop focussing too much on the technology, the glitz, the “cool” factor, and make films from the heart. Then maybe I’ll remember why I originally fell in love with film.

Friday, May 06, 2005


I stumbled across a wonderful documentary about the history/theory/practice/future of film editing the other day. I was reading this month’s Wired article on George Lucas and it mentioned an interview he did for a documentary called Edgecodes. Apparently, Lucas’ true calling is as an avant-garde filmmaker and experimental film editor and it is to this that he is planning to turn after StarWars (once he has finished cashing in with the merchandising, of course). The wired article is very interesting to learn about Lucas’ part in the evolution of special effects and non-linear digital editing (he personally financed the development of one of the first non-linear editing systems, Editdroid in the early 1980s). However, even more exciting is Edgecodes.

Edgecodes is a documentary produced by Travesty productions in Toronto. It is available for purchase on-line and can either be downloaded (thank god for broadband!) or purchased as a DVD from their website: I really wish I had encountered this documentary three years ago when starting my research. Without a formal film school education I have had to teach myself editing and the theory of continuity from books, dissecting films, and experimenting with my own films/animations. After 3 years (plus a lifetime) of a long hard slog I finally feel as if I have an understanding of how an editor approaches a film and how they regard the art of editing. Edgecodes gives you an insight to this in 75 minutes…..Nuts!

The film is primarily made up of taking heads discussing the development of film editing whilst examples are intercut with their dialogue and the entire film is edited in a way that highlights exactly what they are talking about. It is a wonderful resource for obscure early cinema clips such as Keaton in Sherlock Jr. walking into the cinema screen and being tormented by the editing. There is also a replication of the classic Kuleshov Effect. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this effect it was the first time that the potential of editing for creating meaning through juxtaposition of shots was formally shown. (Lev Kuleshov was a Russian Filmmaker and theorist who, in the 1920s along with the likes of Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov experimented with the potential of editing for the creation and manipulation of meaning, primarily as propaganda. The Kuleshov Effect refers to the juxtaposition of an actor’s expressionless face with one of three point of view (POV) shots: either a bowl of soup, happy child, or a dead woman. The supposed effect is for the viewer to project different emotions on to the face of the actor depending on the POV shot: hunger, parental pride, or loss and sadness.)

The most satisfying part of the documentary for me was to hear renowned film editors theorising on the reasons why they edit and why editing works. Like a lot of supposed opinion in this area most of what was said could be related back to text books, such as Zach Staenberg (editor of The Matrix) describing editing as being about making decisions based on graphic, spatial, temporal, and rhythmical relationships between shots which is a direct reference from Bordwell and Thompson’s ‘Film Art: An Introduction’ (1979/2003). The acceptance of this theory by film editors shows that either it must have some grounding in truth or the editors just don’t have any better way of expressing their intuition about their art. The same can be said for the comments about the reason why editing works: each comment can be directly related to film text books and, whilst thought provoking, don’t really get us any closer to an understanding. However, the overriding impression I gained from Edgecodes is that the editors are eager to understand, they spend their lives experimenting on themselves, trying to induce and control their experiences and so they are eager for any new technology, technique or theory that allows them to do this. I feel that they (and by result, their audience) will be the ones to really benefit from any greater understanding about the psychology of the edit I can produce. Here’s hoping.

Monday, April 25, 2005


This is just a quick post to highlight some "sterling" research being done by a close friend of mine. Scott Nowson is studying the use of language in blogs and seeing if it reflects the bloggers personality. He was the person who inspired me to start blogging my own research as he has been doing this for over a year. Check out his work blog, Blogademia to get more insight into his research as well as any other tidbits of information of academic interest to the blogging community.

Blogging is a very interesting cultural phenomenon which is starting to become so popular that it is reshaping the way that information is distributed especially by the journalistic community (see news blogs such as Guardian's). Only recently has it begun to receive attention from academics but the work that is beginning to appear is very interesting. For a quick "gateway" to this research check out Scott's blog.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Sickened by Tarnation

Ok, I have been studying continuity editing WAY too much!

I saw a preview of the Jonathan Caouette’s autobiographical film 'Tarnation' on Monday night and the sensory shock it inflicted on me made me physically sick for two days! For those of you not familiar with this festival favourite, Tarnation can be loosely described as an autobiographical documentary chronicling Caouette, a Texan-turned-New Yorker actor-come-filmmaker’s life. The main focus of the film is Caouette’s schizophrenic and institutionally abused mother and her effect on his own psychological development. The reason why such a “small” film has received such coverage and critical acclaim is its innovative use of existing still photographs, audio recordings, and home videos. This, melded together with Caouette’s camp aesthetic/personality/sexual development and his ability to push iMovie to its limits (the film was initially made on Caouette’s home iMac with no budget) makes the film as sensory shock to the system. In my case this shock was obviously literal!

I watched the film on the front row of a very small independent cinema (Cameo Edinburgh, check it out if you get the chance) and the rapid editing, constant visual manipulations (I didn’t know iMovie could make so many after-effects!), and stills-montage sequences bombarded my senses. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a criticism, I thoroughly enjoyed his creative use of the graphical potential of the material he was working with. He managed to imbue the photographs and poorly filmed videos of his youth with an energy and “camp” vitality that perfectly suited the subject matter. However, watching an entire film constructed from one such montage sequence after another is exhausting. And to top it off the subject matter isn’t exactly easy going either.

Caouette is obviously a very talented creative editor and he does seem to realise that his film can verge on being too much at times. He periodically presents calm soundtracked sequences of travelling landscapes which serve as a well needed respite but no sooner have you regained composure than he is plunging headfirst into another sensory and emotionally exhausting sequence. In reflection I think the brutality of this film when viewed on a big screen may actually be due to Caouette’s inability to think outside of the iMovie preview window. This is a common error made by rookie editors and is also those trained on television before moving to cinema. Their shots are often too close and too short. This works fine when viewed at a small viewing angle in a living room (in fact, it is preferable) but when projected on a cinema screen there is just too much on the screen for the eye to take in at one time. As the shots are also shorter the viewer doesn’t have time to scan the image with their eyes and pick up the important details and so they can often experience a sense of sea-sickness as the images move across their retinas in an unpredictable fashion.

This is my excuse for why I left the cinema feeling rather ill. That and the dodgy beer and chocolates I ate during the screening (if checking out the Cameo cinema, don’t drink the Stella Artois).

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.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A quick word on "Continuity Boy"

I just wanted to take a moment to explain the name of my blog. “Continuity Boy” is a play on the classical Hollywood tradition of referring to the person who supervised the script and the continuity between shots as a “Continuity Girl”. This has recently transmogrified through political correctness to “Script Supervisor”. This person (who is pretty much always female, hence the demeaning use of “Girl”) has the incredibly difficult task of checking that all shots specified in the script are filmed during production, correctly labelled so that the editor can locate them, and that all details of wardrobe, makeup, actor and prop locations remain the same across shots that may be filmed months apart. Whenever film viewers spot “continuity errors” in a film, e.g. a cigarette that is suddenly burnt down across shots, these are mistakes made during production that should have been fixed by the script supervisor. However, the blame for bad continuity cannot be solely placed on the script supervisor as their job requires them to tell many other members of the production staff how to do their job in a way that creates eventual continuity and as such miscommunications and power struggles can often make this task very difficult. Script Supervisors get my up most respect.

A good description of a script supervisor’s job can be found here.

The reason why script supervisors are almost always female is due to the gender differences in our ability to store and compare visual information. Females typically perform better on tasks that require visual information to be processed in parallel with other sensory signals and then stored in memory. This is thought to be due to the fact that the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that links the right and left hemispheres, is a fifth larger in women. This means women can process multiple sensory signals and perform parallel cognitive processes (such as perception and storage in memory) better than men. There is also a theory that oestrogen levels in women give them an added advantage in spatial memory. By comparison men are better at extracting spatial information from a visual scene and reconstructing/transforming this information to compare views of a space (this is best exemplified in mental rotation tasks). These different styles of visual information processing mean that men and women typically differ in how they approach a task such as reading a map. Men can abstract from the spatial relationships represented on a map (e.g. corners, distances, sizes) to the real space quite well whilst women typically prefer to use landmarks and salient visual features.

This increased attention to detail explains why women are typically better at spotting and keeping track of continuity errors across shots (although a Polaroid/digital camera also comes in handy).

Sorry to disappoint the readers who thought the name “Continuity Boy” indicated that I was actually a superhero sidekick. I wish. Although the image induced by that interpretation is one that warrants a cartoon……

And so it begins.....

So here it is: the first post to my blog chronicling my research on the perceptual foundations of continuity editing.

The what? (I hear you call).

Well I've decided to start writing this blog because I'm meant to be writing a thesis, and this provides a good distraction.... No seriously (mostly), I'm writing it because, as with all webpages, I built mine over a year ago with the intention to continually update it with details of my Ph.D. research but once it was semi-complete there doesn't seem any reason to tinker with it. As such it has laid in a rather stagnant state which means it is of only temporary use to anybody who is interested in this area of research. I believe one of the main reasons why more people haven't been working in this research area is that there is no "way-in" for the casually interested academic/student/member of the public. During my travels to conferences and my e-mail correspondences I have spoken to a lot of people from many different areas of academia who are asking the same questions but don't know how to answer them. Hopefully, this blog and the associated webpages will provide some insight into the way I have attempted to answer some of these questions. It is not intended to be a definitive guide to this area but by outlining my ideas, references, and methodologies I hope to point interested researchers in the right direction.

But wait! What questions?

Well, the topic of my Ph.D. thesis is the empirical investigation of the cognitive processes involved in film viewing. My specific aim is to use empirical methods to investigate how the natural processes involved in visual perception can be used to validate the conventions used by film editors. When editing a film, a film editor constantly has to make decisions about how and when to cut between shots. These decisions function on many levels. Does the cut drive the narrative of the scene? Does it induce the right emotion in the viewer? Does the action flow smoothly across the cut? To simplify the editor’s task conventions exist that allow the editor to quickly arrange a “rough” sequence of shots which can then be tweaked for stylistic or affective reasons. These conventions, referred to as the rules of continuity editing, can be found in any film theory text book and are taught to film students the world over. Yet, the reason why the conventions exist is not really known. Editors will take a stab at explaining the benefit of one composition resulting from the application of a convention over one which violates a convention but their explanation is only built on introspection and hearsay. As with all artists, an editor’s craft is one of feeling and intuition and as such it is not their job to express the conceptual steps they take whilst creating their art. This task is better suited to somebody who can approach the problem objectively and utilise methodologies that allow the problem to be dissected via the testing of specific hypotheses. By applying empirical methods to the task of understanding the cognitive processes involved in film viewing we can begin to understand the moment-by-moment behaviour of film viewers. This allows us to better understand how the decisions made by an editor affect the resulting experience of the film viewer and, in turn, validate the conventions or continuity editing.

So that is a brief introduction to the research area that will be the subject of this blog. More information on my specific methodologies, experiments, and theories can be found on the rest of this website. As for the future of this blog, well my intention is to use it primarily to discuss my ideas as they develop over the course of writing my thesis. I probably take the occasional detour into related themes (e.g. topical discussion of films) as well as any references, interesting websites, books, etc that crop up. But for now I’ll think I’ll leave it there. Please feel free to comment on any of my posts and contact me if you have any requests for information/facilities I should provide on this website.

All the best.

Tim J. Smith (aka Continuity Boy)