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    Hollywood Films' Cut Structure Mimics Life Pattern

    Written by

    Alex Pasternack

    Founding Editor

    After carefully inspecting dozens of Hollywood films, a team of researchers has determined that the rhythm of shots in movies matches a pattern called the 1/f fluctuation, the same pattern that is found in dozens of natually occurring phenomena, like the flow of tides or the length of the human attention span.

    These results suggest that Hollywood film has become increasingly clustered in packets of shots of similar length. For example, action sequences are typically a cluster of relatively short shots, whereas dialogue sequences (with alternating shots and reverse-shots focused sequentially on the speakers) are likely to be a cluster of longer shots. In this manner and others, film editors and directors have incrementally increased their control over the visual momentum of their narratives, making the relations among shot lengths more coherent over a 70-year span.

    The Hollywood metaphor for this frequency pattern is pink noise, a signal profile that characterizes all kinds of common things – images of nature, the sound of heart beats, star beats, fluctuating pitches of speech, the flow of the tides, the bunchings and thinnings of traffic, or the gyrations of the stock market. It turns out we think at the speed of pink too. James Cutting of Cornell University tells the Times that if you’re sitting down to a task, “sometimes you’re good at it, sometimes your mind wanders, sometimes you’re fast, sometimes you’re slow, and the oscillating patterns that occur are generally one over f.” That led him to investigate films.

    The psychologists looked at 150 popular movies released from 1935 through 2005, counting and measuring all the separate shots, and noting that movies are much more likely to have shots of similar-length now than they were in, say, the ‘50s. The pinkest movie? 1986’s “Back to the Future,” which is ironic if you consider that it is largely set in the ’50s.

    Lest this throw more math into the creative process, the researchers did not find any correlation between the relative “pinkness” of a movie’s cut structure and its critical popularity. Read the full paper (in pdf) here.

    h/t to Kottke