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)