Pink Noise and the Rhythms of our Brains

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As should be expected by now, there was yet another article in the NY Times recently that started me thinking (Watch out... this can be dangerous!). The article ('Bringing New Understanding to the Director's Cut', 3/1/10) discussed how the editing of a movie, i.e., the number of shots in each scene, how long they appear onscreen, the pacing, and the order in which they are bundled together greatly affects our perception of the movie. And that includes convincing ourselves we just saw a ‘terrific’ film, even if we didn’t find the film to be all that good. 

According to studies by James E. Cutting of Cornell University and published in Psychological Science magazine, there seems to be an innate relationship between 'a movie's tempo and the natural rhythms of the brain'. And whether they realize it or not, film editors have over time gotten much better at keeping our eyes glued to the screen without our even knowing about it.

 The technical name for this phenomenon is the One Over Frequency pattern, or 1/f, and it’s commonly referred to in the film industry as ‘pink noise’. According to this article, the sequencing of the various film segments and they way they are bundles together within each scene, as well as how they appear scene-to-scene, creates wave-like patterns. And just as the tempo of a song can either put you to sleep or have you dancing behind the wheel of your car, the visual sequencing and timing of the individual elements of a film, and how they are bundled together with other sequences within the film affects our perception as to whether a film is riveting or simply ‘eh’. 

What’s interesting is that both the level and frequency of 1/f levels has dramatically increased over the years. After going through 150 films produced between 1935 and 2005 frame-by-frame and graphing their respective pink noise levels, two films made in 1955 – John Ford’s ‘Mr. Roberts’ and Billy Wilder’s ’The Seven Year Itch’ were found to have the lowest measures of pink noise, and ‘Back to the Future’, made in 1987, spiked the highest among the sampled movies. (If anybody sees a one over f pattern graph for ‘The Hurt Locker’, please send it my way.) The study also revealed camera angles employed in the early days of filmmaking did not change as frequently as they do in today’s flash-driven blockbusters, and cameras tended to linger on their subjects for longer stretches before cutting away to the next visual. Of the 150 films examined, the slowest-paced films had as few as 300 individual scenes, with some lasting a minute or longer before cutting away to the next scene. Conversely, scenes in newer films such as ‘Quantum of Solace’ average mere 1.7-seconds of screen time before breaking away, which might explain why you don’t remember eating that $12 bag of popcorn with cheese sauce. According to Dr. Cutting, a classic example of effective pink noise can be found in the sophisticated scene editing between Rocky Balboa and his nemesis, ‘Drago the Russian’, as they train for their boxing match in ‘Rocky IV’. Precision scene cuts between Rocky and Drago ping-pong back and forth in carefully timed image clusters, resulting in a classic one over f pattern, i.e., pink noise. Patterns and sequencing play an integral part of how we respond to as well as ‘see’ the world around us. I’ve long noted repetitive patterns in the composition of my photographs, and I often joke about the fact I’ve only taken about 3 or 4 pictures my entire life – the rest of them are simply variations of the same basic composition. Pictures I’ve captured decades apart , when broken down to their basic design components, mimic each other like some sort of an inside joke created in the recesses of my mind’s eye.  And my guess is if you examine a selection of your own photographs you’ll quickly discover you too compose images based on similarly repetitive patterns and compositions, some common to all of us, and some uniquely your own. 

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Interesting read.  I also find it highly amusing that a study of editing styles was done by a guy named Cutting.

I'll have to track down this article, sounds very interesting -- I'd love to see some graphs.

Personally I find a lot of the hyper-fast cutting to be visually and mentally tiring. I have a harder time keeping my attention trained on a Michael Bay-style action movie than I do on a Hitchcock thriller. One overwhelms the senses, the other keeps you in rapt attention on the edge of your seat.

Thanks for another fascinating article Allan.