A couple of months ago, while cruising the Web, I came across a piece written by Canadian blogger Jay Stone called “Chaos Theory and the Rhythm of Movies” (http://communities.canada.com/shareit/blogs/stonereport/archive/2010/02.aspx). He referenced an article in the journal Psychological Science in which authors James Cutting, Jordan DeLong, and Christine Nothelfer of Cornell “used the sophisticated tools of modern perception research to deconstruct 70 years of film, shot by shot,” looking for a pattern called the 1/f fluctuation. “The 1/f fluctuation is a concept from chaos theory, and it means a pattern of attention that occurs naturally in the human mind,” Stone writes. “Indeed, it’s a rhythm that appears throughout nature, in music, in engineering, economics, and elsewhere.” The Cornell authors, by measuring “the duration of every shot in every scene of 150 of the most popular films released from 1935 to 2005,” established that modern movies, particularly those made since 1980, “were more likely to approach this natural pattern of human attention.” Action movies, in particular, “most closely approximate the 1/f pattern, followed by adventure, animation, comedy and drama.” Among the movies they studied that have nearly perfect 1/f rhythms are Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm (1955).
I found this to be fascinating, but I was mystified by exactly what the “1/f fluctuation” is. I’m not a physicist; I’ve read one book on chaos theory and a few other titles that tried their best to explain Einstein’s universe to me, but I’m not about to be able to explain what the 1/f fluctuation has to do with the attention spans of movie audiences or engineers or economists. The paper itself, “Attention and the Evolution of Hollywood Films” (http://people.psych.cornell.edu/~jec7/pubs/cuttingetalpsychsci10.pdf) is sufficiently technical to have me feeling out of my depth as I read it trying to find a clear answer to my simple question.
A wonderful article on the PhysOrg website, however, clarified it for me (http://www.physorg.com/news185781475.html): Cutting and coauthors “found that the magnitude of the waves increased as their frequency decreased, a pattern known as pink noise, or 1/f fluctuation, which means that attention spans of the same lengths recurred at regular intervals. The same pattern has been found by Benoit Mandelbrot (the chaos theorist) in the annual flood levels of the Nile, and has been seen by others in air turbulence, and also in music.” Furthermore, “Cutting said the significant thing is that shots of similar lengths recur in a regular pattern through the film.” Continue reading