Hollywood as evolutionary tinkerer

In the latest issue of The Evolutionary Review, James Cutting and Ayse Candan claim that Hollywood films are evolving to better exploit our evolved capacities. In other words, “although we didn’t evolve to watch movies, movies have evolved to match our cognitive and perceptual proclivities” (Cutting & Candan, p. 25).

Cutting and Candan provide an overview of research that tries to make sense of changes over decades in terms of how films are shot and edited. The increasing number and shorter average duration of shots in Hollywood films, and the rhythm with which shot length is varied, put Hollywood on track to soon take optimal advantage of our innate attention patterns, Cutting and Candan claim. They note that Hollywood techniques of chunking movies into scenes makes stories easier to follow and more likely to be remembered. They provide a biological and cognitive account of “edit blindness,” the tendency for viewers not to notice even rather abrupt cuts during scenes.

Cutting and Candan provide a Darwinian view of filmmakers as tinkerers who continually test visual storytelling techniques, retaining techniques that engage viewers. Over decades, this process has selected for films that are increasingly well matched to our innate cognitive and perceptual proclivities, so well matched, Cutting and Candan (p. 27) suggest, “to some degree, one can study movies to study the mind.”

Films have gotten darker over the years, the better to draw viewer attention to the center of the screen, where the salient action occurs. [Image from James E. Cutting’s website.]

Films have gotten darker over the years, the better to draw viewer attention to the center of the screen, where the salient action occurs. [Image from James E. Cutting’s website.]

This article is a good overview of recent work by Cutting, Candan, and their colleagues. Also recommended is a visit to Cutting’s website, where one can download several recent publications by Cutting’s group.

I’m particularly intrigued by a study said to be under review in which Cutting calculates the average luminescence of Hollywood films and reports that "American films noir are not actually darker than other films of their era."

Cutting is a clever researcher who can grapple with both the complexities of human visual processes and the nuances of Hollywood storytelling conventions, a rare combination. Moreover, he considers all of this in its evolutionary context, a move that opens up promising areas for future research.

Works Cited

Cutting, James E., and Ayse Candan. “Movies, Evolution, and Mind: From Fragmentation to Continuity.” The Evolutionary Review 4 (2013): 25-35.