Visual Disturbances: what eye-tracking and 187 unlicensed clips reveal about change blindness and our perception of films

My most recent essay film, Visual Disturbances, premiered in the open access journal [in]Transition yesterday. This open access journal features peer reviewed academic video essays and showcases a wide variety of film and media analysis. Visual Disturbances uses some cutting-edge eye tracking visualizations to explore how film audiences both perceive and mis-perceive movies.

A few readers may remember my 2007 Disney mashup, A Fair(y) Use Tale. That film, in its own small way, helped open up the video essay genre by sampling commercial films for educational purposes.

Visual Disturbances is a very different kind of film but relies on the precedent set by A Fair(y) Use Tale and the diligent work of scholars, attorneys, archivists, and activists to bring Fair Use into the 21st century. For Visual Disturbances, I should give a very special shout out to attorney and UC Irvine Professor Jack Lerner. His students at UC Irvine’s Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic reviewed the film and wrote a valuable opinion letter regarding its Fair Use status. That letter ultimately helped procure an Errors and Omission insurance policy that helps protect the film from frivolous copyright shake downs. Visual Disturbances uses 187 unlicensed clips (down from the 385 clips used in A Fair(y) Use Tale!) from commercial films to explore how audiences watch a movie. Cinema suffers from a basic problem telling a story: the medium captures too much visual information from reality. Thus, early on, Hollywood filmmakers developed a series of tactics for subtly focusing audience attention on key narrative details. Directors skillfully used framing, lighting, lenses and camera movement to gently guide the audiences’ gaze around the frame. Editing protocols then smoothly arranged space and carefully signaled temporal changes to bind the hundreds of fragments that constitute a film into an easily legible narrative whole. And not surprisingly, these tactics steered audience attention so that we “see” the same movie as everyone else.

What happens, however, when a filmmaker chooses to ignore these rules or, even better, to subvert them? Where do audiences look and are they “seeing” the same film? Visual Disturbances uses psychologists Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris’ (of The Invisible Gorilla fame) concepts of inattentional blindness and change blindness to explore how audiences perceive and mis-perceive cinematic images.

In particular, the film focuses on the French filmmaker Jacques Tati and how his films purposely betray our perception. Tati only made a handful of films over his career and they seem deceptively simple on the surface. Yet, repeated viewings reveal alternative (and sometime bizarre) readings of narrative events. Visual Disturbances suggests that Tati’s method for staging action promoted a kind of visual blindness and that select filmmakers across film history have intentionally utilized this technique as a stylistic option.

To reveal this hidden film style, Visual Disturbances employs a variety of research methods: mixing audience focus groups with historical and industrial research, original filmed material combined with formal analysis of existing films as well as cutting edge eye-tracking visualizations. My Bucknell colleagues Aaron Mitchel and Nathan Ryan (and students Taylor Myers and Alexander Murph) helped me use eyetracking technology to examine how audiences watch and re-watch a movie. Do Hollywood’s narrative techniques compel us to see the same thing over and over? And does Tati’s more open style encourage audiences to “wander” around the frame and discover new material? WatchVisual Disturbances to find out!