Thursday 4 September 2008

Research Bulletin: The Nature and Nurture of Understanding Film

At the 2008 International Congress of Psychology, some very interesting research by Sermin Ildirar (Istanbul) was presented. Ildirar and her colleagues discovered a group of individuals living in very rural, mountainous, regions of Turkey who had absolutely no experience with moving picture presentations (e.g. television and film). Although they had been exposed to other forms of electronic media (e.g. radio), they had never before seen a television sitcom or sat in a movie theater. Ildirar wondered whether these individuals would be capable of understanding common editing techniques employed to communicate narrative in these visual media. For a comparison, people who had up to 5 years of TV viewing experience, and another group who had more than 10 years of experience, were also evaluated in this study. Two broad categories of editing were examined, simple techniques such as an establishing shot (e.g. showing the exterior of a house, then a person sitting inside a house, to establish context; the person is sitting inside the house that was just shown) versus more complicated techniques such as cross-cutting (i.e., interspersing scenes from two separate events in order to draw some relation between them). Surprisingly, the researchers found that individuals with no previous exposure to moving picture narratives did not understand the simple editing techniques, but were able to comprehend the meaning of the more complicated edits. Individuals who had some exposure to television (i.e. up to 5 years) were more similar to the people who had absolutely no experience with television at all, demonstrating that an understanding of these tropes takes some time to develop. Those with more than 10 years of experience had no difficulty understanding any of the editing techniques. These are fascinating results, as they demonstrate that our ability to understand cinematic techniques is by no means innate, and that contrary to our intuitions, more metaphorical forms of editing appear to be easier to comprehend than techniques we would consider rudimentary. A great strength of this study is its unique population, and the inclusion of two comparison groups, allowing us to examine in a cross-sectional fashion how experience leads to the development of this very specific sort of narrative understanding. The study is currently being prepared for submission to a peer-reviewed journal, and follow-up studies are planned. A copy of the conference abstract can be found here.

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