Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen we watch a movie, we’re usually not conscious of the cuts made by the editor. The camera angle may change dozens of times during a scene, and we follow along as if the flashing from one viewpoint to another wasn’t at all unusual. You might think this is just because we’ve been accustomed to watching TV and movies, but researchers have found that even people who’ve never seen a motion picture have no difficulty following along with the cuts and different camera angles in a video.

But little research has actually been done on the impact of changing camera angles in a movie on our perception and memory of a scene. While cutting abruptly between camera angles seems unnatural, moving a camera from place to place while filming can be quite realistic: after all, people walk around all the time; their own viewpoint is constantly changing. One study did find that people have better memories for a static scene filmed with a moving camera, compared to two still shots taken from the beginning and end- points of the camera’s motion.

But what about dynamic scenes? If the people in a scene are themselves moving, will an abrupt cut to a new camera angle disorient the viewer? Filmmakers have found anecdotally that a 180-degree shift in a cut can be extremely disorienting — that’s why when watching a football or basketball game we usually see the action from just one side of the field or court. But do smaller cuts have a similar impact?

A team led by Bärbel Garsoffky showed computer-generated ten-second movies of a half-court basketball game to 12 volunteers. In some of the movies, the camera maintained a steady position either at the side of the court or midcourt, looking straight at the hoop, like this:


In some movies, the camera angle abruptly changed form sidecourt to midcourt (or vice versa) four seconds into the film. In others, the camera moved smoothly between the two positions in a two-second-long pan. After watching each movie, viewers saw 24 still images. Twelve of the images represented actual court configurations from the movie they had just watched, while twelve images depicted the same players, but in positions they had never occupied during the movie. Viewers indicated whether each still shot represented a part of the game they had just watched.

Some of the still shots used the camera angle the viewer had originally seen them from, but others were from different camera angles: 45°, 90°, or 135° offset. Regardless of the camera angle in the test, viewers were equally accurate at remembering whether they had seen that still shot. But the camera motion during the original movie did matter:


There was no significant difference in the results for a static camera versus a moving camera, but viewers were significantly less accurate when they saw an abrupt cut in the movie. This decrease in accuracy was almost entirely found at the point in the movie immediately following the cut, suggesting quite strongly that the cut itself momentarily disoriented viewers. So although the perceptual system can handle cuts in a movie presentation, those cuts do have some cost.

I do wonder if the costs would be as evident in a longer scene. One reason movie editors like to make a lot of cuts is because it maintains visual interest. Perhaps at some point viewers would lose interest in a scene without cuts, and their memory for such a scene would actually be worse than a scene with cuts.

Garsoffky, B., Huff, M., Schwan, S. (2007). Changing viewpoints during dynamic events. Perception, 36(3), 366-374. DOI: 10.1068/p5645


  1. #1 Brock
    January 31, 2008

    As someone who loves movies and the way movies are made, I thought this was a very interesting post. Ever since I started messing around with editing movies on my computer my awareness of editing and cuts used in films has dramatically increased. Sometimes the timing of the cuts or change in camera angle can completely ruin a movie for me.

    I’ve always found rapid cuts in succession very disorienting and hard to follow. You can see it a lot in recent action movies. Sometimes it works, but less often than not.

    Also, I have personally found very long takes (with no cuts) to be very memorable. I’m thinking of movies like Atonement, GoodFellas, or Children of Men with very long shots that I can remember almost perfectly (a rare thing for me).

  2. #2 6EQUJ5
    January 31, 2008

    The first time I saw Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts”, I was certain that I had seen the car (driven by Lily Tomlin’s character) hit the Finnegan boy.

    The second time I saw it, I again saw the car hit the boy.

    It was only after repeated replays did I come to see how’d I’d been fooled by filmmaking trickery. The cuts were absolutely vital to making that collision look real.

  3. #3 Emily
    January 31, 2008

    I agree that cuts are made in film to keep the audiences attention, but I also agree that too many cuts can ruin a scene. It needs to be kept in mind that how a scene is cut reflects how the director wants the scene to be perceived. For example, a fast action scene will most likely have many more cuts than a romantic scene in a movie.

    Another thing to think about is that if we perceive many rapid frames as opposed to one long frame our brains will pick up on and remember the longer frame better (more time to encode the image, etc.). Many times that is effective if a director wants a certain part of the scene highlighted. It is no question that there is a link to cuts in film and how our brain perceives them.

  4. #4 Freiddie
    January 31, 2008

    Movies are just not the same as looking plainly. When we look, we focus on something, and as our head tilts or moves, our eyes stick that thing. However, movies can’t do that. Our eyes are often stuck to the center of the screen, so moving the camera makes it disorienting. Also the sharpness of the motion matters; our heads moves pretty fast while the eye fixes on the new object. We are also prepared when we move our own heads, but not when someone forcedly changes our view.

  5. #5 GAC
    February 1, 2008

    I find this interesting. I also wonder about longer films, but another thing I wonder about is cuts between scenes. For example, the M*A*S*H television series used a lot of fast cuts between scenes, often obviously skipping a good deal of time without any clear transition (for example, Hawkeye might leave the swamp to see the Colonel, and we would cut directly from him walking out of the tent to him walking into the door to the office). I always found it quite jarring when this happened — though in some cases that might have been the reason for the quick cut.

    I compare that with Star Wars, which uses transitional fades that gradually wipe the old image off with the new one — particularly when the next scene is on another planet. This gives some time to reorient oneself and figure out where the Hell you are (which is nice — if a quick cut accross a military camp disorients me, a quick cut between Tatooine and Coruscant would probably scramble my brain).

    A third way takes a little more planning — you can write and direct the scenes so that they can naturally sort of mesh together. I remember in Pan’s Labyrinth, there was a scene that cuts between Ofelia walking in the woods reading from the Book of Crossroads and the captain and his troops riding through the same woods searching for rebels, the transitions being made as a tree passed through the camera’s view, keeping the same environment but also giving a nice transition time between viewing two different activities. The same sort of thing is used within a scene where the captain is shaving, using the wooden pillars of the house to transition between different views of his face.

  6. #6 Pete
    February 1, 2008

    Sometimes I wonder whether there are lots of cuts in films because the actors and director weren’t able to capture enough good material in one take.

    I love Woody Allen for his long takes. I often turn to my wife at the end of a long scene and say ‘That was one take!’. She’ll say ‘I know’ which is one of the reasons I love her so much. The film Russian Ark is one take and 90 minutes long. Wim Wenders does good long takes too, moving the camera round and round the actors.

  7. #7 David Group
    February 1, 2008

    Another memorable long cut is in Tony Jaa’s The Protector, where the camera follows him for nearly four minutes as he walks through a hotel dispatching henchmen one by one.

    1) LONG TAKE VS. MANY CUTS: I guess it depends on the skill of the director. Compare the scene in Casino Royale where Daniel Craig loses control of his car with the final scene in Blue Thunder with Roy Scheider. Very different, but both effective.

    2) Roger Ebert has once stated that when action moves from left to right, it is perceived as moving FORWARD; when action moves from right to left, it is perceived as moving BACKWARD. This is probably because we read from left to right. He wasn’t sure if the opposite was true in countries where people read from right to left.

    3) Have any studies been done on how films make us perceive things that aren’t there? I’m thinking of the “bloody” shower scene in Psycho, where the blade never actually penetrates flesh, or Rosemary’s Baby, where the baby was never shown, but some people swear they saw a shot of the little guy with horns.

    4) As for transition shots from one scene to another, let’s not forget the most famous one, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the bone sailing through the air becomes a spaceship.

  8. #8 Bachalon
    February 2, 2008

    Two words: Bela Tarr.
    Two more words: Andrei Tarkovsky
    Two more words thrice: Theo Angelopoulos

    For one, long takes are harder to stage and demand much more from the viewer. Which is not to say rapid cutting doesn’t have it’s place, but when the average shot length in some movies is as low as 1.8 seconds (Dark City), there’s not much time for images to sink in.

  9. #9 Moody834
    February 2, 2008

    Fascinating…. Movies with frequent cuts elicit responses in me similar to those I experience while playing video games: excitement, suspense, anticipation. Long scenes feel more like dynamic portraits I can take in slowly, savoring them as the world they represent plays out.

    Anyway, this post got me to thinking. Could there be a correlation between rapid or ‘dramatic’ cuts in film and a montage on some sort of physical canvas; between long scenes in a movie and, say, a painting of a city street scene? Would people remember one better than the other, or more accurately?

  10. #10 Hank Roberts
    February 2, 2008

    The Oakland end of the Bay Bridge (San Francisco Bay) is now infested by a huge CBS-outdoor LED billboard that’s both far brighter than life and changes every second or two.

    I’d sure like to see traffic accident statistics for that particular stretch of the highway.

    I ride the bus, and I watch the driver, and the drivers of the vehicles along the way — their faces are lit up by the damned screen, it’s so much brighter than the sky behind it most of the time.


    Novelty was useful once.
    Leaf-leaf-branch-leaf-leaf-trunk-vine-orange_fur_leaf_branch ACK! TIGER! ….

    But now?

    Vehicle, lane-change-brakelight, UNDERWEAR GIANT FACE FOOTBALL lane change-signal BOOB drunkdriver puddle IPOD …

    Why aren’t all of the big highway billboards illuminated like this yet? Ask your state representative about this question, because they’re being pressured enormously to let the static flat billboards all become these giant screens.

    And why don’t you know this?

    Who’d tell you?

    Throwing this kind of disorientation at drivers is going to be really, really stupid. Profitable, though.

  11. #11 Bill
    February 3, 2008

    I find the new fast action movies and especially advertisements are so disorienting that I don’t go to movies anymore and never watch advertisements on TV anymore. To get an old good movie such as Patton or a Hitchcock movie is far more enjoyable to watch. I had not gone to a movie for around 20 years until recently and did not enjoy the continuously fast changing scenes, as well as a loud volume that surely would deafening anyone who sees movies regularly.

  12. #12 mike
    February 3, 2008

    >You might think this is just because we’ve been accustomed to watching TV and movies, but researchers have found that even people who’ve never seen a motion picture have no difficulty following along with the cuts and different camera angles in a video.

    WTF? This is the stupidest thing i read all day and I’ve been at fark already…

  13. #13 Dave Munger
    February 3, 2008


    Here’s a link to the article supporting that statement. I haven’t read the article, but it was cited in the Garsoffky article I cite above. What reason do you have to believe that it’s “stupid”? Both the Garsoffky article and the Hobbs article were peer-reviewed, so unless you can provide additional documentation for your claim, I’m inclined to believe them.

  14. #14 Robay
    February 3, 2008

    I have been around long enough to have experienced the steadily decreasing time (on average) between cuts from largo to prestissimo (over the last fifty years. I have found that the level of interest in the scene is very much a function of the skill of the director and the actors, NOT the length of the scene. The cinematographer can have a huge impact on how memorable a shot is, as well. I generally find quick cuts to be irritating, especially if sustained over time, they can be fatiguing. Quick cuts are useful during hard action because of the level of difficulty of sustaining an action shot. One trick used more the last ten years is slow-motion during action shots, which dilutes the time stream a bit and injects a different level of tension compared to real-time for that segment.

  15. #15 Thomas B Homburg
    February 3, 2008

    End of Days with Gabriel Byrne and Arnold Schwarzenegger = motion sickness

  16. #16 Owen T
    February 3, 2008

    I work in the camera department on feature films. We cut to new angles not just to maintain interest but also to point out objects of interest, to point out who in the scene is important and to tell the story. There is a language to the way things are shot; someone shot from above seems dominated by someone shot from underneath, to give a basic example.
    But we in the industry are very well aware of the way people may not remember everything between cuts, which is why we frequently ‘cheat’; moving objects and people about between shots to make better compositions etc when we know it will go un-noticed.

  17. #17 John from Cincinnati
    February 3, 2008

    I am an avid film lover, especially the ones from 1940s-1960s. To be honest, I don’t like quick cuts. I tend to remember more details about the movies with less quick cuts and longer scenes than the quick cut action movies.

    I practically remember every scenes from Kurosawa’s and Woody Allen’s movies because the scenes play out slowly, steadily and without any fuss. On the other hand, I have also seen countless action movies that generally employ quick cuts to the extreme, and I tend to forget the scenes from those movies.

    Maybe it’s just me, but the longer a scene is, the more I am likely to remember it in its entirety.

  18. #18 E.p.
    February 3, 2008

    i like teh graph

  19. #19 memo
    February 3, 2008

    What the article doesn’t get into is the fact that faster cuts not only mean disorientation for the viewer, but also leaves one in a less critical frame of mind. In the world of television, this translates into a more seamless transition between a tv show and the ads that continually interrupt it; commercials are equally as jumpy and disorienting, which leaves one more susceptible to the manipulative ads, which is exactly what advertisers want. Though it’s true that tv producers try to prevent losing viewer interest with such tricks as forcing an edit every few seconds, the truth is an uncritical viewer with a mind completely in “receive” mode, just absorbing the rapidly-fired information sent from the screen is exactly what advertisers want, and they’re the ones that drive the entire tv industry. I work in this ridiculous industry, and can attest to the phenomenon.

  20. #20 Devil Dog
    February 3, 2008

    “You might think this is just because we’ve been accustomed to watching TV and movies, but researchers have found that even people who’ve never seen a motion picture have no difficulty following along…”

    In Marine Corps Boot Camp, which lasts 3 months, you don’t get to watch television or movies until a few days before graduation. I can tell you, I noticed every single camera move, transition, fade, every last thing that was manipulated visually. It was so jarring to me that I was nauseous within the first 15 minutes of the movie. I grew up watching television and movies, and had only been away from it for three months, I can’t imagine someone who has never seen a motion picture having any less of a reaction yet alone “have no difficulty following along”.

  21. #21 Bob from Hollywood
    February 3, 2008

    The article brings to mind my beef with the current National Geographic film standards where there have to be multiple edits with strobe effects, twirling images, and inappropriate music. This is the opposite of what I was taught in film school – to focus on telling the story. There are so many edits and effects that I have stopped watching the National Geographic channel. Am I the only one bothered by this?

  22. #22 Randy Olson
    February 3, 2008

    What was really fun at film school was listening to all the anxious students in editing class asking the instructor, over and over again, “just tell us the rules for editing.” It’s a natural human instinct to believe there is a clear set of principles underlying such a phenomenon as film editing, and there probably are. But whatever those rules are they are far beyond the current level of knowledge of the science of film editing.

    For starters, as someone mentioned earlier, there is a basic principle of the proscenium — the line you stay behind when placing the camera, as was mentioned with the basketball court. But just about the time you think that’s the one solid rule, you see some of the best movie editors “jumping the line” right at key moments in a movie to get a certain unsettling effect. Same with cutting on action. And jump cutting.

    Bottom line, there are no rules. Gladwell’s book “Blink” begins to get at how incredibly complex these processes are. And at some point, when the science is still beyond us, it moves into the realm of art. Which is what’s so great about the truly great film editors (like Walter Murch who came and spoke with us a number of times). They can’t tell you any rules, they just know when an edit works. They are artists. And when you’re a scientist, you sort of say harumph to that phrase — “yeah, right, an artist” — but when you’ve spent a few years editing your own films then look at their work, you realize what the word means.

  23. #23 Jim Sill
    February 5, 2008

    I wonder if there is a correlation between a child’s ability to remember things and the increase in cuts in today’s TV shows and films. In other words, are we, today’s media consumers, less likely to pay attention to the details than we are to understand a work as a whole? Soviet Montage filmmakers of the early 20th century would have us look at a scene not for the images presented but for its overall meaning. Has the media conditioned us to look past the details?

  24. #24 fjolliton
    February 6, 2008

    About one-shot sequence, see the one from the movie “Death Sentence” at around 45min from the beginning, the scene in the parking last 2min and the camera travel a lot. Very interesting (unlike the whole movie.)

  25. #25 Hillary Short
    February 6, 2008

    Very interesting.
    I do hope that film makers will use this research to make more memorable movies or at least films with more quality.

  26. #26 Jon Debiase
    February 7, 2008

    I have to put my 2 cents in here as a video editor. I believe you simply cannot group all scenes with fast cuts as “Good” or “Bad” nor can you do the same for long scenes without cuts, a GOOD director and editor’s skill and understanding of the visual art is more complex than most people imagine, its also true that there are also many BAD directors and editors in the world. there are several techniques GOOD filmmakers use when they want to have frequent cuts without disorienting their audience as much such as maintaining area of focus so that when the scene changes the thing your brain wants to look at is still in the same area of the screen as in the previous angle, other reasons to have fast cuts are to intentionally disorient the audience at key moments where you believe it will help immerse your audience more into the mood you are trying to create. Please understand I am not defending fast cuts i am defending good editing and i personally frown upon the modern trend of “faster is better” without proper intention. there are whole scores of examples of ‘when to do what’ that I wont digress upon but if this topic has become of interest to you and you would like to learn more about the “art” of editing consider reading “The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film” ok thats more like 20 dollars and 2 cents!

  27. #27 Utbildning
    February 8, 2008

    I don’t think that directors and editors ever think of using cuts (or the opposite, no cuts) in order to enhance (or to reduce) the audience memory of a scene. Instead they are using cuts or longer scenes in order to make a scene memorable (which is something else) or to convey a certain message or to achieve a certain emotional effect in the spectators. If the objective would be to enhance memory any director could easily achieve this by just allowing the screen to go blank or turn slightly pink for say 10 seconds. And then continue with the story. I bet a life time of salary that that “pink scene” would be the one that the audience would remember the most out of all scenes in the movie 🙂

    Remember that film making is about telling a story of some kind and nothing else. I get the impression that many of the commentators here dislike quick cuts since it is perceived as disrupting and disorienting. When you for instance are reading a book where the author is taking the reader between scenes, positions, times and perspectives you follow along this path creating mental images representing the various scenes that are presented by the author. In that case you are creating the cuts yourself. A reader could slow down the cuts by reading slower but is there really anyone who’s doing that? What I am trying to say is that there are many books, even classical ones, where there are “short cuts” and it would be interesting to test if individuals who dislike cuts in movies also dislike “cuts” in books.

  28. #28 Utbildning
    February 18, 2008

    Saccadic Eye Movements and Cuts. Consider a simple dialogue between two people (A and B) sitting opposite to each other at a table. Furthermore assume that the camera “watching” the dialogue is positioned as a third party (C) also “sitting” at the table. Now, there are two (or three) basic ways to portray the dialogue between A and B. 1) To “zoom out” and capture both A and B at the same time. The camera will be immobile all the time and in the resulting “movie” we will see both A and B from the side. 2) Another way to do the “movie” is to use one long take where the camera is going back and forth between A and B. The “movie” will be kind of similar to watching a tennis game 🙂 (many commentators seem to like this kind of movies) 3) The last basic option is to use two camera angles so that the we can see A from one angle and B from another opposite angle. We edit the material and voilá; we’ll have a scene where we first look at A and then we make a “saccadic eye movement” (on behalf of the audience) and then look at B and so on and so forth.

    Would you agree that this last example (No 3) could be seen as an analogy of saccadic eye movements? What do you think?

    By the way, thanks for a great Blog Dave!

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