Friday, July 28, 2006

Spectatorhsip and Narration in Moving Images Conference

I just returned from the Spectatorship and Narration in Moving Images Conference sponsored by the Konrad Wolf Film School in Babelsberg and the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image (SCSMI). The conference took place at the Konrad Wolf film school, a really technical/modern facility in Babelsberg, outside of Berlin.

While the conference itself was relatively small (50-100 attendees per day), the quality of the attendees and participants was incredible. There were people form Germany, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Hungary, England, Scotland, Canada, and the U.S. David Bordwell was the most famous scholar present, but other high quality attendees included Torben Grodal, Murray Smith, Carl Plantinga, Peter Wuss, Richard Allen, and Joseph Anderson.

The focus of the conference was on trying to understand how viewers interact with moving images (movies, television, video games, etc.) broadly using approaches from the cognitive sciences and related fields. While this may sound overly academic, it should be of interest to anyone with more than a passing interest in visual media and how they work. Film studies and other academic approaches to visual media have been extremely disappointing in their ability to understand how viewers perceive, comprehend, and engage movies and other visual media. Over the past 20 years or so cognitive approaches have begun gaining ground, and the conference in Babelsburg was the most positive sign yet that this approach is growing strong.

One of the biggest issues right now in the cognitive study of film viewing is the role of emotion in the film going experiences (for example, why do some people like sad movies) and the role of empathy (do we feel what characters feel, identify with them, just understand them...).

Of the more established scholars the following I found pretty interesting: David Bordwell (UW Madison) talked about the challenges that cinematographers and directors faced with the coming of Cinemascope; Torben Grodal (U Copenhagen) discussed the evolutionary roots of how we respond to different film genres (he concentrated on children's movies like Bambi); Carl Plantinga (Calvin College) and Murray Smith (U of Kent), in separate presentations, discussed the role of emotion and empathy in film viewing; and Monika Suckfull presented a really interesting paper on tracking patterns in films (in this case thematic elements) using a piece of software called THEME.

Some of the most exciting papers came from young scholars doing exciting work with new technologies. Tim Smith (Edinburgh University) uses eye tracking and attention research to more fully understand continuity editing; Aleksander Valjamae (Chalmers University) in Goteberg Sweden does research on how sound can increase the illusion of movement in virtual reality displays; and Jonathon Frome (University of Wisconsin)and Andreas Gregersen from (University of Copenhagen) gave presentations on video games (Jonathon's on the challenges of making video game players sad and Andreas's on how we learn to move video game characters through perception and action).

Though I've touched on just a few, there were a lot of other really interesting presentations and ideas at the conference. Just to plug myself, I discussed how viewers try to understand character action and motivation using social psychology research and discussed how this parallels how we do this in the real world.

If any of this sounds interesting, you can check out the conference program and abstracts at:

Anyone interested in visual media and how viewers interact with it should check out this relatively new field of study.


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