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Science & Technology

What We Really See When We Go See A Movie


Let's say you're in a movie theater. You're watching an action movie - let's say "Iron Man 2."


SIEGEL: There's a racecar flying through the air, its tires are off and bouncing free, crowds of fans are taking all this in. It's the Monaco Grand Prix, and the onlookers are on grandstands and balconies of seaside condos. What do you actually see? Where do you look? Well, Tim Smith set out to answer that question scientifically. He's a vision scientist at Birkbeck University of London and he took part in a recent conference organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He joins us from London. Welcome to the program.

TIM SMITH: Hi. Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first tell us - how did you set about answering those very questions?

SMITH: Well, it's a tricky question because when we see the world, we have the impression that we take in a lot of information. But I know as a vision scientist that actually, our impression of the world is very limited. It's limited to what lands directly at the center of our eyes. And so a way to record people's impressions of a scene is to use of a device called an eye-tracker, which is a high-speed camera system which can monitor where your eyes are pointing in any particular scene. And also which part of the scene it isn't focused on. And that gives us an idea of which bits are likely to make it into their awareness and make it into their long-term memory.

SIEGEL: So you had a sample audience - about how big?

SMITH: About 75 people.

SIEGEL: And the result of this was kind of a heat map showing what all of these eyeballs had been focused on, superimposed on the actual scene from "Iron Man 2." And you discussed this with, among others, Jon Favreau, who directed the movie. I mean, did you discover anything different from what Jon Favreau had seen in his own movie?

SMITH: It was really nice because we did it as a live experiment, which is always very risky because it could have gone disastrously wrong on the night. And I asked him to describe the sequence before. And he told me some details about the production which I was completely unaware of, which is that actual scene was filmed on a parking lot in America. He'd never been to Monaco and probably about 70 percent of the image was CG, or post-effects. So a lot of it had been made up artificially. And some of the decisions he'd made, such as how detailed to render the audience in the background, were based on his assumption about where the viewers would look because he thought that any particular moment, the audience were looking at the main characters, at their faces, at the explosions or the action which is at the center of the frame.

SIEGEL: And your experiment pretty much vindicated that, didn't it?

SMITH: Absolutely. So when I showed it to Jon, he was really surprised because he's sitting with two hats on - both as the director but also as a producer - thinking, I'm going to spend less budget on the special effects in the background because people aren't going to notice. And the heat map exactly vindicates that because it shows that, you get this effect called attentional synchrony, when most of the viewers are looking in the same place at the same time and if you have less detail in the periphery, they're not going to be able to attend to it. So they're not going to see it, at least on the first viewing.

SIEGEL: So this is a strong argument for not going to Monaco to shoot anything there; its expensive. You can do computer graphics around the periphery and nobody will notice the difference.

SMITH: Yeah, at least on the first viewing of a scene. It depends on what you're trying to show and who your audiences are. For instance, I've talked to a few animators; the likes of DreamWorks and Pixar and they invest a lot of time and money in details like costumes and backgrounds because they know that their audiences are going to watch their films over and over again. And the more you watch a film, the more likely you are to look at all the parts of the image.

SIEGEL: Now, I have had one viewing experience that runs counter to what you found. And that is watching baseball games on high definition, as opposed to standard definition television. One big difference for me - and I love watching baseball games - is that on high definition, I actually see the faces of the fans who are sitting behind home plate, many rows deep - they're real people to me. And somehow, it's a more realistic and fun experience, I find, to see that, even though I could follow the action just as well at standard resolution.

SMITH: Yeah. We're in an interesting technological era right now and it's one of the reasons why the Academy of Motion Pictures wanted to hold this event about the neuroscience and the psychology of film because they realized that there are so many technological options like high-def, standard-def, high frame rate, 3-D, CG, that they need to understand what's the impact on the viewer's experience. And exactly what you described is something which comes about by just making a simple decision - do I use a high-def camera, or do I use a standard-definition camera?

But, you could look at more details; you could see it in a different way. And so these are things we need to really understand, by understanding how the visual and auditory brain works and how the audiences are going to respond to those films and TV clips.

SIEGEL: Well, Tim Smith, thanks for talking with us about your research and your conference with the film directors.

SMITH: Well, thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Tim Smith, who lectures in psychology. He's a vision scientist at Birkbeck University of London.


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.