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Human Attention and Film Syntax

All artists engage in directing attention. I'm always asking the questions "what makes something stand out?" and "what makes something meaningful right now?" Asking these questions brings scientific knowledge to design tasks where directing and harmonizing attention is an essential goal. 

Caleb Brown (Philosophy In Motion) and I have just presented some of our research on film syntax and attention at CamraPenn's Screening Scholarship Media Fesitival (SSMF) at the Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia. We took apart several scenes from Hal Ashby's film Being There (1979) to show how directors can use basic patterns in human attention to create meaning and to heighten attention. We looked at the way that eye contact is used to negotiate meaning in conversation and we looked at the ways joint attention can be established through careful editing and shot framing. It seems that a lot of the communicative power of film can be traced back to basic attention patterns that viewers identify with as they watch film

You'll notice in the images below that several visual elements (e.g., the rule of thirds, lead room violations, mise-en-scène) work to establish points of salience. These work together with the editing techniques and the framing of the shots to reify joint attention as we move from attention contact in the wide shot to attention following with the two shot.