Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Horizon - Is seeing believing?

BBC TWO in the UK broadcast a wonderful factual programme on sensory illusions (Horizon, 9pm, 18/10/10). The programme covered many well known sensory illusions such as the McGurk effect, multimodal illusions such as the effect of sound and colour on taste perception, magic tricks such as Gustav Kuhn's disappearing ball illusion, and the perceptual completion of impossible figures. If you are interested in sensory illusions the programme provides a nice, succinct introduction. The programme also goes on to talk about the science of illusions and how illusions allow us to understand the cognitive processes and neurology of perception.

The programme also introduced the phenomenon of Synaesthesia in which perception through one modality (e.g. vision) triggers perceptual experiences in another modality (e.g. taste). We all have some synaesthetic experiences such as smells triggering specific visual memories but for people with more developed synaesthesia these cross-modal percepts are richer and more complex. Synaesthesia is a fascinating research area which up until a few years ago was dismissed by the Psychological research community as hokum. Thankfully a new generation of researchers such as Jules Simner (Edinburgh) have used clever behavioural measures combined with neuroimaging to show that synaeasthesia is a real phenomena and one which can seriously advance our understanding of sensory perception.

Viewers in the UK can catch the programme on the BBC iPlayer:

For other recent public presentations of sensory illusions see the work of Susanna Martinez-Conde (Barrow institute), the special issue of Scientific American, and the Illusion of the Year contest at the Vision Sciences Society annual meeting.

Discontinuity Boy

After 13 years in Edinburgh, a BSc. in Artificial Intelligence and Psychology, a PhD in Cognitive Science, and a couple of post-docs I have finally left! 13 years of continuity have come to an end. This sudden discontinuity has been brought about by my move to Birkbeck, University of London to take up my first lectureship in Psychology. Thank you to everybody who made my time in Edinburgh so enjoyable, my friends, colleagues, collaborators, and students. And thank you Birkbeck for offering me this big break just when I needed it.

My new contact details are :

Tim J. Smith, Ph.D.
Rm 501d
Department of Psychological Sciences
Birkbeck, University of London
Malet Street,
London WC1E 7HX

Tel: +44(0)20 7631 6503
Fax: +44 (0)20 7631 6312


Don't worry, this does not signify the end of 'Continuity Boy'. Far from it. I will continue updating this research blog and I look forward to regaling you with details of the research coming out of my lab.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Amsterdam PhD Position Opening Absorption in Film Viewing

A great opportunity to work with/learn from one of the great minds in Cognitive Film Theory:

The Amsterdam School for Communications Research currently have a four year PhD vacancy.

We are looking for a researcher who has knowledge of (cognitive) theories of narrative and film and wants to study experiential states in film viewers. Experience in psychological experimentation is also absolutely necessary. Interest in manufacturing film materials for the experiments is a recommendation.

A scholarship sufficient for costs of living and tuition is related to the position.

Please pass this announcement on to potential candidates. Deadline for applications is Sept. 12 2010. For details, applications and all correspondence see:

Ed Tan

Amsterdam School for Communications Research

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The other type of continuity

Along with cinema there is another medium that is obsessed with continuity: comics. The universes created by comic giants DC and Marvel have strictly enforced continuity so that super heroes like Superman can pop up in other characters plot arcs such as Batman and all actions fit within their own overarching stories.

The lengths that fans, writers, artists, and licence holders go to to maintain continuity within comic universes (along with the related Sci-Fi and fantasy universes such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who) is remarkable. The recent spate of Marvel movies including Iron Man, The Hulk, and next year's Thor have shown how universe continuity can be maintained in cinema and create innovative sequels/crossovers. Whether or not they work for the general public is yet to be seen. I personally love the Avengers super-hero team but is the world really ready for cinematic versions of AntMan or the Wasp?

I guess we'll find out over the next few years but for now lets enjoy a musical ribbing of the whole phenomenon.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cannes 2010!!

Greetings from the Cannes Film Festival 2010! After years of eagerly reading about all the gossip, film news, and screenings at Cannes I finally got the opportunity to attend the festival. Friends Calum Waddell and Naomi Holwill from new Edinburgh based production company, High Rising Productions ( asked me to join them on their Cannes experience and help out promoting some new film projects. How could I resist!

My first impressions of Cannes have been surprise and awe. You really get a sense of how much film is an industry when you are wandering around the film market and attending the market screenings. The glossy public face of the festival, the Official Competition is really just the polished face of what is really a massive buying and selling market for films. Cannes is completely mis-labelled as a festival as only industry representatives or press can get access to the 'festival' and unless you are pretty high up in the industry most of the competition and red carpet screenings will be out of bounds. Most people attending the festival spend their time in the many tiny impromptu screening rooms scattered around hotels or the palais. This year there are over 1400 screenings during the two weeks with 40 cinemas showing films simultaneously!!! Most of the films will be receiving their world premiers here at Cannes and almost all of them are completely unknown commodities. There is a great chance of stumbling across some real gems that may not make it to your local multiplex for a couple more years. Unfortunately, there is a much greater chance of sitting through some absolute dross :)

Whilst I'm here I'll try to post some reviews as I go along. Lets kick off with a couple of British gems and a few stinkers.

2B, directed by Richard Koehling.

I have to confess to being a bit of a Sci-Fi geek (was it not evident from this blog already!) and loving all things AI. The synopsis for this film got me excited: set in a near future New York, a brilliant scientist is killed by the first post-human that he personally created and attempts to transfer his mind into a new body so that he can live forever. The premise is good, if rather familiar and could have made an intriguing, contemplative sci-fi film. Sadly the budget appeared to be micro and while containing some recognisable faces from US TV, Kevin Corrigan (Fringe) and James Remar (Sex and the City) there was either too little budget to afford action sequences of no inclination to include them. Instead the film consists of a series of philosophical debates on the nature of human life, mind and soul. The ideas are good but the execution is without vision and ultimately tedious.

Edinburgh Informatics department, where I studied Artificial Intelligence has a DVD library devoted to all things vaguely related to AI, cybernetics and robots. 2B would definitely make it into their DVD library. I doubt it will make it into anybody elses though.

Redline by Takeshi Koike

Redline is for those of you who love your Japanese animation loud, fast, and intense. After watching this cinematic hit of amphetamines I felt like I needed a lie down! Koike, the director of the Animatrix section 'World Record' has crafted future universe populated by bizarre humanoid characters and an intense form of car racing where anything goes. The story follows a racer, Sweet JP who is notorious for race fixing. After almost dying in a race he unexpectedly finds himself called up for the Universe's most intense race, the Redline which is to be held illegally on the hostile Roboworld. As he prepares for the race a romance blossoms between JP and fellow racer, Sonosee a typical manga heroin with massive eyes, disproportionate breasts, a school girl innocence and a huge car. The action culminates in the spectacular Redline race in which Wacky Races-esque competitors jostle for position whilst also fighting to stay alive against missile attacks from the Roboworld denizens, mecha-suited warriors, giant gelatinous monsters and huge space lasers.

This film is an intense shot of traditional cell animation with a huge dose of Japanese surrealism. Highly fun if you have ADHD but possibly a bit too intense for the general viewing public. Not to be recommended if you suffer from an existing heart condition.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

New Scientist and the 1/f structure in film editing

My research on eye movement behaviour during film viewing and its relationship to editing style is mentioned (briefly) in the print edition of New Scientist this week (issue 2748) and on-line here
and here

The New Scientist article is in response to James Cutting's (Cornell) recent Psychological Science article on the 1/f structure in film editing. The scale of James' study is unbelievable. He and his collaborators basically created their own handcoded cinemetrics ( database identifying every cut in 150 films! They then used this database to perform incredibly clever pattern analysis to look for repeating structures in adjacent shot lengths. They found that over the last 70 years Hollywood has been evolving towards a 1/f structure. I'll leave the technical explanation of what this means to James (below) but the basic gist is that shot lengths have begun to cluster in sequences of localised repeating lengths. Similar patterns have been observed in all aspects of nature such as tides, music, dance, the spatial frequency of the visual world, and neural firing rates. 1/f is thought by some to be a primitive pattern of processing in the human brain and influences attention fluctuation. James hypothesises that the adoption of a 1/f structure in editing structure may enable film to synchronise with viewer attention and create a more harmonious viewing experience. Of course, given that this was also the hypothesis I put forward in my Ph.D. thesis I am overjoyed by James' finding :) Let's hope this ushers in a new era of mathematically advanced cinemetrics and introduces more people to the area of Cognitive Film Theory.

Attention and the Evolution of Hollywood Film
James E. Cutting, Jordan E. DeLong, and Christine E. Nothelfer
Psychological Science (in press)

Reaction times exhibit a spectral patterning known as 1/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 became increasingly more correlated in length with their neighbors and created power spectra approaching 1/f. We suggest, as have others, that 1/f patterns reflect world structure and mental process. Moreover, a 1/f temporal shot structure may help harness observers’ attention to the narrative of a film.