Perceiving Scenes in Film and in the World
James E. Cutting
THE REAL WORLD is spatially and temporally continuous; film is not. We evolved in a continuous world and, regardless of how much we may enjoy them, we emphatically did not evolve to watch movies. Instead, movies evolved, at least in part, to match our cognitive and perceptual dispositions. The result is a curious melange of short shots with instantaneous camera jumps between them, something not at all like the rest of the world around us. Why and how do we accept this? Part of the answer, I claim, is that we do not necessarily perceive the world according to its physical structure. For example, although we evolved in a Euclidean world, our perceptions of space around us are generally not Euclidean and generally do not need to be (for more discussion, see Cutting & Vishton, 1995; and Cutting, 1997). In addition, although we evolved in a temporally continuous world, our perception of time is not tightly bound to any temporal meter. Thus, there is a considerable plasticity to our perceptual world; it just happens that the world is mostly rigid and evenly flowing.
Part of the success of film can be attributed to the goals of what is sometimes called Hollywood style (see Bordwell, Staiger, & Thompson, 1985). 1 Without endorsing any political or social aspects of this genre, one finds that Hollywood style has a main goal that is almost purely cognitive and perceptual—to subordinate all aspects of the presentation of the story to the narrative (e.g., Messaris, 1994; Reisz & Millar, 1968). This means that, generally speaking, all manipulations of the camera, lighting, editing, and sets should be transparent, unnoticed by the filmgoer. To go unnoticed, these techniques must mesh with the human visual system. Finally, to understand why film works so well is to understand much about how we perceive the real world; and to understand how we perceive the world tells us much about how we understand film. This is, I claim, the fundamental tenet of an ecological approach to cinematic theory.
This chapter is about our perception of space (or, better, layout) in the world and in film; and then of how space and time can be cut up to make a film scene. But first let me establish some terminology. Film is made up of shots, each consisting of the continuous run of a camera. For seventy-five years, the maximum standard shot length for 35 mm film has been ten minutes—a thousand feet of film or the running time of one standard reel—although few shots are ever that long. In the production of a typical Hollywood film, shots tend to be much longer in the initial photography, and then in the editing process, each shot is trimmed to a few seconds in length for the final film. The shot is then juxtaposed, without transition, with another shot taken from another point of view. This juxtaposition is called a cut. A scene usually takes place in a single location. Typical scenes are made up of many shots and cuts; and most films, of course, are made up of many scenes. We do not usually speak of real life as being made up of