Home > Science > Thank Chaos for engaging films.

Thank Chaos for engaging films.

It appears that we’re predisposed to be engaged by certain movies over others. This doesn’t mean that we like or enjoy them more, just that they can hold our attention.

An article over at National Geographic breaks down the findings. According to James Cutting, a cognitive psychologist at Cornell University, the pace of a film is what really draws us to it, and that the closer the pace approaches the nebulous 1/f pattern, the more interesting we’ll find the film. He found this ratio by comparing a film’s average shot length vs. the length of any one scene. The 1/f pattern isn’t anything new; it’s a popular ratio within chaos theory that is found in things like nature, music, and economics.

However, the films that come closest to approaching the 1/f pattern, aren’t necessarily considered the greatest films. Using IMDb as a judge (which we all know is the epitome of determining a film’s worth) he found no correlation between a film’s pace and its ranking. So, while Rebel Without a Cause, The 39 Steps and The Perfect Storm are some of the most engaging films of all time, none of them manage crack IMDb’s top 250 best films list.

Cutting found all this by studying 150 films over the last 70 years, which once again shows that the only difference between me and a professor is that nobody gives me a grant for what I do. He found that within the last 30 years, more and more films approach the 1/f ratio. To me, this suggests that subconsciously directors are aware of this pattern in other films and do their best to emulate it.

Though I probably wouldn’t understand a word of it, I’d love to see the raw data for this study. The article suggests that overall, action films are the best at reaching the 1/f ratio, but I’d really like to see how certain films ranked, and if there were certain genres that didn’t follow the pattern at all. Cutting mentions that film noir don’t adhere to the ratio, but I wonder more about horror and suspense films. Often these are movies that are specifically designed to be off-putting and upsetting to us. It’d be bizarre if they approached this ratio. Imagine if a film like Irreversible, whose director purposefully inserted a low-frequency noise in the background designed to make the audience physically ill, had perfect pacing. I’d also love to see how some of my favorite films, and some of my guilty pleasures stack up. Is Armageddon better paced than Jaws? What about 300 vs. The Godfather?

As usually science has answered some questions I never thought to ask, but hasn’t answered the questions I’m now thinking of.

Also posted at icine.org

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