Patterns are key in grabbing our attention. Don’t believe it? Just think about the last movie you enjoyed.

February 26, 2012

I don’t have predictions for the 84th Annual Academy Awards tonight, but I do love getting lost in a great movie. My taste in movies is a little eclectic and I don’t stick to a particular genre – a good story, character development and something unexpected is always a winner.

What I don’t think a lot about, though, is the timing of the edits and how this might impact my overall enjoyment. After reading about the effect a movie’s timing can have on keeping your attention, maybe I should!

(I have seen quite a few of the movies on this graphic. We’ll just have to see which one will win…)


In movies, patterns are good for keeping our attention
Last year, a published study from James E. Cutting of Cornell University explored the shot lengths of Hollywood movies to determine if the shot structure and pacing of a movie had any impact on the ability to grab our attention.

“Roughly since 1960,” Dr. Cutting said, “filmmakers have been converging on a pattern of shot length that forces the reorientation of attention in the same way we do it naturally.”

Scientifically-termed “1/f,” this pacing describes the near identical distribution of shot lengths, meaning that each shot is on average about the same length. This wavelength, also called “pink noise,” is so ubiquitous that we see it everywhere in nature. Your heartbeat follows this same pattern. Humans crave patterns. A pink noise pattern makes us happy – It’s like listening to the rhythm of the tides and can be very comforting.

Think about it. This is fascinating. A film can grab our attention just by following our natural attention span. Just when your interest wanes, the scene changes and re-engages you again.

I’m not certain if movie directors and editors are consciously aware of this pattern, or if modern movie styles have just naturally fallen into this trend. Maybe prior to 1960, we had a different attention span length? Has the information age impacted the way we enjoy movies? Regardless, following the right “formula” can lead to some amount of movie success.

And if we’re talking formulas, let’s not forget the movie poster (movie poster designs: guilty as charged).

See the larger version.

In music, tension is good for eliciting “chills”
What about music? Do we prefer patterns in our music too? Most of us remember the chorus (the repeating pattern) of our favorite song, so patterns are clearly strong here too. As it turns out though, there are stronger forces that can influence your feeling about a song, most notably the sad ones. As noted in this WSJ article, is there a melodic formula that can literally make you cry?

If you watched the Grammy’s you saw that Adele swept many of the night’s awards with six wins, and her “Somone Like You” song is indeed sad and soulful. According to the article, this song is full of “appoggiaturas”:

An appoggiatura is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. “This generates tension in the listener,” said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. “When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good.”

Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.

With songs, we crave this feeling, which keeps us listening to the song again and again. I suppose in moviemaking terms, this would be the same relief we feel when a climactic scene is finally resolved.

As designers, when we create work for branding and marketing, we are conscious of our goal and use pacing, tone and more to elicit a reaction. After all, this is the purpose of  communication design. If the viewer becomes conscious of the patterns and formulas does it lessen the impact or are we so hard-wired to respond that makes an impact regardless? I am very much interested in the science and psychology behind it all, but I think for tonight I’ll just get lost in the celebration of the craft (and maybe a little fashion with the red carpet photos).

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