The art of film: research shows we learn to ‘read’ movies

Birkbeck postdoctoral fellow Sermin Ildirar's research into the psychology of film discovered people have to learn to watch films, rather than having an innate understanding of what they're seeing.

Watching and understanding films is a sophisticated skill that must be learned rather than a natural ability, with sound often the key to unlocking the process, a study has revealed.

Sermin Ildirar, a film scholar and postdoctoral fellow Birkbeck, University of London and cognitive psychologist Stephan Schwan from the Leibniz Institute for Knowledge Media turned the camera around on a remote community in Isparta in 2010, deep in the mountains of Anatolia in Turkey, to study how they responded to moving images when they were exposed to them for the first time ever.

Sermin studied a group of 20 viewers aged between 40 and 80 years old who had no experience of watching a screen, as there had been no electricity in the area for a long time. She played them short films depicting actions and events from everyday life, using classical editing techniques, camera angles and basic narratives.

Sermin, from Cappadocia in Turkey herself, said the results astonished the researchers: “I showed them some simple film sequences and couldn’t believe when they interpreted them as individual pictures.”

The study found that the villagers couldn’t make the connection between different cuts in scenes – for example, seeing a house from the outside and then from the inside led to confusion. When the researchers asked first-time viewers to describe the outside of the house of the actor they saw in the following shot, a typical response was “I have never met her before, how can I know her house?”

Sermin also observed a shot/reverse shot sequence – a film technique used to show two characters are looking at each other – was not interpreted as ‘two men looking at each other’ but instead as ‘one man going and then the other one coming’.

Sermin said: “We realised that the understanding of editing techniques like a jump in the timeline or a change of location is a culturally-acquired skill, which by no means springs from our natural perceptions of day-to-day life.”

“Modern films consist of hundreds of film shots edited together. If viewers cannot construct a mental model of what is depicted, they won’t be able to make sense of the content just by using visual cues.” 

A follow-up study in 2017 revealed that sound from the footage can effectively bridge shots for first-time viewers. Collaborating with Dan Levin from Vanderbilt University in the US and Dr Tim Smith from Birkbeck, they introduced synchronised sound to see whether audio increases the understanding of multiple shots as one scene.

Sermin said: “Across a range of films, both dialog and striking environmental sounds (like barking dogs) helped first-time viewers connect shots. For example, we added a simple greeting dialogue to the shot/reverse shot sequence. The actors shown in two juxtaposed shots said “hello” to each other and this simple dialogue glued the shots together in naïve viewer’s minds.”

“Interestingly, using unfamiliar environments led to a very low level of understanding. Film sequences which were produced in the USA confused first-time viewers, but similar scenarios worked when the films were recorded in the village close to where they live.”

Sermin studied film at Istanbul University before working for eight years in the Turkish film industry and on a number of international productions. She met Professor Schwan during her Master’s at Vienna University.

She said: “I spent years trying to find people who have never watched films before and it was a life-changing experience to live with such a community, before I started to test them."

The findings have been published and Sermin plans to conduct a similar study with much younger viewers at Birkbeck’s Babylab, part of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development.

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