When we talk about cinema, we usually talk about how the filmmaker guides us through the journey overall, and through each image he or she presents. We discuss the movements, the lights and the focus, and how that evokes moods and reactions in us, the moviegoer. (Check out Alison Nastasi's Framed for some of this discussion.)

But a wildly cool new series on David Bordwell's Website on Cinema turns the attention to the viewer. Not the overall reactions, mind you -- the shocked faces, intent looks and emotional reactions -- but rather the way our eyes absorb a scene. By tracking the eyes of a number of viewers watching a scene from 'There Will Be Blood,' psychological researcher Tim Smith attempts to discuss the importance of staging, and what, exactly, our attentions are drawn to as we watch a scene.

Evolving from a discussion on how eyes scan sample images, Smith followed the eye movements as a group of viewers watched a scene from Paul Thomas Anderson's film. The first sees round spots follow each pair of eyes as they ingest the scene, while the next takes those roving eyes and creates "heat spots" that only show the parts of the scene most viewers are paying attention to. The more eyes on a particular spot, the bigger, hotter and more clear that space is.

The eye paths:

There Will Be Blood with gaze locations of 11 viewers from TheDIEMProject on Vimeo.

The heat spots:

There Will Be Blood + eye movement peekthrough from TheDIEMProject on Vimeo.


Smith writes:

The most striking feature of the gaze behaviour when it is animated in this way is the very fast pace at which we shift our eyes around the screen. On average, each fixation is about 300 milliseconds in duration. ...

Looking at these patterns, our gaze may appear unusually busy and erratic, but we're moving our eyes like this every moment of our waking lives. We are not aware of the frenetic pace of our attention because we are effectively blind every time we saccade between locations. This process is known as saccadic suppression. Our visual system automatically stitches together the information encoded during each fixation to effortlessly create the perception of a constant, stable scene.

It's a dense read, but a wildly cool one full of funky science and a few experiments you can test for yourself. Check it out.

[via The Daily What]