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Here’s looking at you

2 January 2017

Although this is January 2, in the US, it is a holiday because January 1 occurred on a Sunday. It is also the last widely-recognized non-working holiday for awhile.

So far as PG is able to ascertain from online activity, the entire publishing and self-publishing industry is off duty. PG will probably go off duty pretty soon.

So, he’s posting some items that interest him which he might consider a bit far afield on a more normal day.

From Aeon:

About 25 minutes into the action film Iron Man 2 (2010), there is an explosive sequence in the middle of an auto race through the streets of Monaco. The scene is a technical tour de force, with explosions, cars flipping and fire everywhere, all in front of thousands of panicked race spectators. At a 2014 event at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the film’s director Jon Favreau got to see the eye movements of audience members who watched the clip. He told us he was thrilled – and relieved – to see that everyone was watching the actors Robert Downey Jr and Mickey Rourke, particularly their faces and hands, and that nobody was looking at the crowd – because the crowd was all computer-generated, and if you look closely they don’t look all that real. As long as you don’t look closely, Favreau (who was also an executive producer) could go a little cheap on these effects and save the money for where it would really count.

This phenomenon – the audience’s eyes moving in unison – is characteristic of film viewing. It is not typical of real-world vision. Rather, filmmakers use editing, framing and other techniques to tightly control where we look. Over 125 years, the global filmmaking community has been engaged in an informal science of vision, conducting a large number of trial-and-error experiments on human perception. The results are not to be found in any neuroscience or psychology textbook, though you can find some in books on cinematography and film editing, and in academic papers analysing individual films. Other insights are there in the films themselves, waiting to be described. In recent years, professional scientists have started to mine this rich, informal database, and some of what we have learned is startling.

To understand how the eyes are affected by movies, you need to know a bit about how they work outside the theatre. When we are just living our lives, our eyes jump from one location to another two or three times per second, taking in some things and skipping over others. Those jumps are called saccades. (Our eyes also make smooth tracking movements, say when we are following a bird in the sky or a car on the road, but those are somewhat rare.) Why do we do this? Because our brains are trying to build a reasonably complete representation of what is happening using a camera – the eye – that has high resolution only in a narrow window. If any visual detail is important for our understanding of the scene, we need to point our eyes at it to encode it.

The way people use eye movements to explore a scene has a consistent rhythm that involves switching between a rapid exploratory mode and a slower information-extraction mode. Suppose you check into a resort, open a window, and look out on a gorgeous beach. First, your eyes will rapidly scan the scene, making large movements to fix on objects throughout the field of what you can see. Your brain is building up a representation of what is there in the scene – establishing the major axes of the environment, localising landmarks within that space, categorising the objects. Then, you will transition to a slower, more deliberate mode of seeing. In this mode, your eyes will linger on each object for longer, and your eye movements will be smaller and more deliberate. Now, your brain is filling in details about each object. Given enough time, this phase will peter out. At this point, you might turn to another window and start all over again, or engage in a completely different activity – writing a postcard or unpacking.

. . . .

In these initial studies, Hochberg and Brooks documented the switch from an exploratory phase lasting a few seconds at most to an information-extraction phase. The duration of each exploratory phase depended on the complexity of the slide being viewed. When presented with more complex pictures, people explored for longer before they settled down. And when they were given a choice between looking at more complex and less complex images, they spent more time looking at the more complex images. Later researchers investigated which visual features specifically draw the eyes, finding that viewers tend to look at parts of an image with edges, with a lot of contrast between light and dark, with a lot of texture, and with junctures such as corners.

. . . .

One difference between real-world scenes and film is that movies move. How does this change what people look at? In a recent experiment, Parag Mital, Tim Smith, Robin Hill and John Henderson from the University of Edinburgh recorded eye movements from a few dozen people while they watched a grab-bag of videos, including ads, documentaries, trailers, news and music videos. A number of effects carried over from looking at still pictures. People still look at places with a lot of contrast, and at corners. However, with moving pictures, new effects dominate: viewers look at things that are moving, and at things that are going from light to dark or from dark to light. This makes good ecological sense: things that are changing are more likely relevant for guiding your actions than things that are just sitting there. In particular, the eyes follow new motion that could reveal something that you need to deal with in a hurry – an object falling or an animal on the move.

Motion onsets are known to powerfully capture attention, even more quickly than the eyes can move. For example, when we first see Edward Scissorhands in the 1990 Tim Burton film of the same name, he is attempting to hide in shadow in a complex scene. It is the involuntary movement of his scissors that gives him away, attracting the viewer’s eye at the same moment it attracts the eye of Peg the Avon Lady.

. . . .

People also tend to blink at cuts. This might be a response to the sudden change in brightness that can occur at a cut. Or, it might reflect that our brains are taking the visual change as a sign to take a very quick break, and using the opportunity to wet our eyes. Last but not least, when we watch edited movies we make more eye movements. Whereas eye movements happen 2-3 times a second when we are looking at naturalistic stimuli, when watching unedited videos, eye movements happen at a rate of about four per second; when you add in editing, this rate increases further to about five per second.

Link to the rest at Aeon

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10 Comments to “Here’s looking at you”

  1. The first time I watched Avatar, I was drawn to what they wanted me to be drawn to. The second time I watched, I purposefully concentrated on the female lead. It was really enjoyable to watch her watching him.

  2. As a movie ‘moves on’ and you’re not going to get a second look at things, most eyes will be on the ‘action’ and not on the background unless the director gives you a reason to look at it.

    Anyone remember the big deal about ‘Three Men and a Baby’? The film somehow caught a ghost that no one notices until it’s pointed out to you. (In the apartment they used a little boy had disappeared years before, yet he’s in the film sitting on a window sill, yet no one ever noticed until the boy’s mother saw the movie — and was more than a little shocked.)

    • I got curious and found an explanation. 😉

      The figure behind the curtains is a “standee” (a stand-up cardboard cutout used for advertising displays) of Ted Danson, dressed in a top hat, white shirt, and tails, that was left in front of a window on the set and thereby “sneaked” into the background of one scene. The standee prop was created as part of a story line involving a dog food commercial in which Danson’s character (an actor) appears, but references to the figure were cut from the finished version of the film.


    • Oh, come now, Allen:


      “The figure behind the curtains is a ‘standee’ (a stand-up cardboard cutout used for advertising displays) of Ted Danson, dressed in a top hat, white shirt, and tails, that was left in front of a window on the set and thereby ‘sneaked’ into the background of one scene. The standee prop was created as part of a story line involving a dog food commercial in which Danson’s character (an actor) appears, but references to the figure were cut from the finished version of the film. (The standee shows up once more in the film, as Ted Danson can be seen standing next to it when the baby’s mother comes to reclaim her child.)
      … All indoor scenes for Three Men and a Baby were shot on a Toronto soundstage; no actual residential structures were used for interior filming.”

      • Well, that was the tall tale I’d heard — and I never noticed it until I was told to look for it …

        Can’t believe anything these days …

  3. Still some stalwarts remain, PG. 🙂 And I, for one, wouldn’t mind more articles like this one. I wonder what scientists will say of netizens in 50 – 100 years time?

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