Cuts in movies, and their impact on memory

[Originally posted in January 2008]

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

More like this

It has long been known that scores in certain visual perception performance tests have risen steadily through the 20th century

I suspect that scene cutting in movies, increasing in exposure, followed by TV may have caused some of this effect. There is no natural analog to the scene cut, scenes simply to not spontaneously re-orient in the real world. I believe that scene cuts have caused stimulation and development of some cognitive skills that we otherwise wouldn't have (much like reading, a non evolutionary skill has.)

Interesting - can we extrapolate the effect of a current music video with its multiple cuts *per second* ?
Continuous disorientation? (Scary questions: do the producers use this knowingly?)
As a side note, more and more artists are using MTV-style cutting on the projection screens at their live concerts...

Editor cuts here being very different from censorship cuts, which are clumsy, obvious and stick in your memory for a very long time. I remember once watching a film with all the kissing scenes removed. The characters would approach, perform and action akin to banging heads (as the actual momet of kiss was cut out), and then continue with the action.

jay, - arguably, there is a natural analogue to the jump cut: in our dreams.

Or at least, the transformed result that we perceive as our memory of the dream. Perhaps the original parse tree had all the interim detail present, but in transformation to sensory-currency of memory of the sort we can actually use, the unnecessary transition bits that weren't part of the story were edited by not carrying over.

Hence, I'd say that the apparent discontinuity is not totally alien to the way we patchwork our own perception together spatially and temporally to fake our continuous reality experience.

but then there are movies like "Rope" where Hitchcock used virtually no cuts, (every reel of 10 minutes was a continuous shot, and all cuts were hidden...) and in the end, Hitchcock decided it was a failure as it did not allow for any of the narrative control that good editing can provide.

No comments on this article per se, but it reminds me of other psychological phenomena that I've noticed introspectively.

We've all, probably, experienced absent-mindedness, that mental state in which our working memory is temporarily wiped clean, leaving the brain to run entirely on automatic, and we end up doing something bizzare such as putting the box of tissues in the fridge without realising that we are doing so.

I've noticed that episodes of absent-mindedness are associated with certain triggers, such as a sudden influx of new sensory data. For example, my working memory is often wiped clean at the moment that I walk out of one room and into another, and I believe this is because the sensory data from the previous room is suddenly replaced with sensory data from the new room, and the brain gets distracted processing the new information.

Another trigger seems to involve a short, unexpected delay, which I often experience while I'm on the computer. Suppose I want to launch a particular program in Windows. I click on the Start menu, find the relevant subfolder, and ... the computer groans for a while as the content of the menu is being loaded, and in that delay my working memory is wiped clean and I accidentally launch the wrong program because my brain is now operating on automatic.

Now, I have asperger's, which almost certainly has some bearing on the above observations, but is absent-mindedness in other people associated with the same triggers? I'd be interested in that. Though I imagine that because the relevant triggers don't reliably produce absent-mindedness, it wouldn't be easy to investigate scientifically.

Just got to point out that a type of "abrupt cut" is entirely routine in the real world. Look up from your screen at something. Look at your rear-view mirror when driving. Look from one person to another while having a conversation. ect ect

Hell, our visual systems don't even really capture most scenes as one view. Instead we mentally stitch together various components in memory.

Sure, switching between two completely different positions looking down on a single scene is a bit unnatural. We don't teleport after all. However, we do abruptly switch salience targets all the time, and are quite good at interpolating.

The abrupt cut does a good job of mimicking the way the human mind works. If I turn from my computer to look at a scene outside the window, my eyes might register everything that exists in the line of sight between the computer and the window, but it doesn't catch my attention and it doesn't get recorded in my memory.

My mind doesn't think

computer-desk-cupboard-cabinet-wall-window-scene outside window, which is what a camera that didn't make abrupt cuts would record,

it thinks

computer-scene outside window.

Adrian, I think you may have a point about absent-mindedness. I don't have aspergers, but similar triggers seem to cause me to be absent minded. Another thing that I find is that if someone speaks to me while I am thinking about something, the thing that I was thinking about will "pop out of my head."

I hate to complain, but the study doesn't seem to factor in pacing. Most editors (okay most GOOD editors), are not simply interested in making "a lot of cuts" to maintain visual interest.

It matters where those cuts are placed, and there are even rules to decide that pacing - the most important of which is to cut on movement. That practice is a reason that the brain can handle the different perspectives because the viewer is focused on the subject and their movement. Not just on full body movement, but on the lift of an arm, the turn of the head, etc. It is when the viewer, focused on the subject, sees the subject "jump" from cut to cut that they become disconcerted. And that abruptness signifies a bad cut.

Another thing is that the author is referring to movie cuts, but the example given is of a sporting event with multiple subjects. These type of shots are not usually core to a narrative film. The reality is that a viewer can only focus on one subject at a time, even with just two subjects on the screen, and film shots are designed such.

I think that the researchers would have benefited themselves by reading up on some basics of editing philosophy, or bringing in a professional editor to help guide the subject material.

Interesting study. Further to SZPT, there are different kinds of cuts that can be achieved with the same two camera angles which did not seem to be considered in the design of the study.

As a practising editor, one of the most basic choices I am making when choosing to cut is whether I wish the audience to feel the edit as smooth or jarring. The smooth edits are the kind we see in films and TV most of the time, and the jarring ones are seen in music videos and in certain adverts & promotional videos. The smooth edits are intended to seem invisible to the audience, and the jarring ones are intended to excite the viewer. They are used when creating a reaction in the audience separately of any storytelling.

Francois is right that this disorientation is done intentionally, although I'd suggest that the technique has evolved through years of practical execution rather than from an intellectual position.

The management of whether the audience is left momentarily confused or not is a key skill of the professional editor, so from my point of view this study has conclusively identified the kind of cut that was chosen, rather than said anything about editing as a whole.

By David Wigram (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

The visual system of the brain shuts down when you blink or move the eye ball. If you touch your eye ball with you finger you will see things move because the visual system is not being shut down. With film cuts there is no shutting down of the brains visual system - this is unnatural.

By Martyn Strong (not verified) on 18 Aug 2009 #permalink