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Hollywood Keeps You Entertained By Using Chaos Theory

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What is it about some movies that keeps you entertained, while other movies just can't seem to hold your attention? Why do old movies sometimes just "feel" different from newer movies? The answer, according to cognitive psychologist James Cutting may lie in chaos theory.

Cutting, along with two of his graduate students, Jordan DeLong and Christina Nothelfer, from Cornell University, recently published a paper in the journal Psychological Science, in which they deconstructed, frame by frame, 150 films from from the last 75 years, including equal numbers of action, adventure, animation, comedy, and drama films.

Cutting speculated that there may be a mathematical pattern - like the golden ratio so highly valued by Renaissance painters - that underlies effective filmmaking. The 1/f fluctuation, a concept taken from chaos theory, is also a pattern that occurs naturally in the human mind, as well as in music and economics. The researchers found that the shot-by-shot organization of films made since 1980 were more likely to approach that 1/f pattern. That is, the decisions made by directors, cinematographers, and film editors in setting the pace of the film synced up more closely with the natural patterns of human attention. This may explain why older "movies" feel less natural, and why it seems easier to lose oneself in a modern Hollywood blockbuster.

Are Hollywood filmmakers purposely editing films to match the 1/f fluctuation? Cutting says that is not the case, especially given that the films analyzed included examples from more than 500 different directors, cinematographers, and film editors, each employing different styles, preferences, and skills. More likely is the idea that films are undergoing a sort of natural selection, such that the most engaging movies were later imitated by other filmmakers. Over time, the industry as a whole evolved toward an imitation of this natural mental pattern of attention.

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It is important to note, however, that just because a movie might approach the 1/f pattern, does not mean that it will be a box office success. This is because the pattern describes the way a film is presented (which the average viewer is not usually aware of), instead of the narrative or plot, which is on what most viewers base their evaluations.

Here are some of the specifics:
Four noir films from the late 1940s were found to have no observable pattern in the shot-by-shot composition of the film: Detour, Mildred Pierce, Asphalt Jungle, and Sunset Boulevard.

In contrast, six Alfred Hitchcock films made between 1935 and 1955 did a decent job of imitating the 1/f fluctuation: The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, Rebecca, Spellbound, The Trouble with Harry, and To Catch a Thief, as well as two James Bond films (Thunderball and Goldeneye), and two of the Star Wars films (The Empire Strikes Back, and The Revenge of the Sith).

Action films did the best (closest to 1/f), followed by adventure, animation, comedy, and drama. However, several non-action films had patterns closest to the 1/f pattern: The Perfect Storm (adventure), Pretty Woman (comedy), Rebel Without A Cause (drama), and Cinderella (animation).

And the evolution of filmmaking is not over either, Cutting writes. "We suggest that over the next 50 years or so, and with action films likely leading the way, Hollywood film will evolve toward a shot structure that more generally matches the 1/f patterns found elsewhere in physics, biology, culture, and the mind."

Next time you can't stay focused while you're at the movies, you can probably just blame the math!

Cutting, J., DeLong, J., & Nothelfer, C. (2010). Attention and the Evolution of Hollywood Film. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610361679