The Evolution of Hollywood Blockbusters

The 39 Steps - title shot of classic movie

New films feel new, old films feel old. But why? There's a scientific explanation.

It's more than black-and-white vs. color, standard screen vs. widescreen, classical music vs. rock soundtrack. There's something else that makes films of yesteryear feel very different than modern films -- something about the rhythm and texture. But what?

New research suggests that modern movies are more engrossing — we get "lost" in them more readily — because the universe’s natural rhythm is driving the mind. Really.

Science has an explanation. Cognitive psychologist (and film buff) James Cutting of Cornell University, with students Jordan DeLong and Christine Nothelfer, decided to use the sophisticated tools of modern perception research to deconstruct 70 years of film, shot by shot. They measured the duration of every shot in every scene of 150 of the most popular films released from 1935 to 2005 in five major genres: action, adventure, animation, comedy and drama.

The researchers looked for patterns of attention, specifically a pattern called the 1/f fluctuation. This concept from chaos theory is a pattern of attention that occurs naturally in the human mind. In fact, it is a rhythm that appears in music, in engineering, economics, and elsewhere. It is essentially a constant in the universe, though often undetectable in the apparent chaos. The film researchers looked for the 1/f fluctuation using a complex mathematical formula to translate movie sequences of shot lengths into "waves" for each film.

Cutting and his students found that films made after 1980 are much more likely than earlier films to approach the 1/f fluctuation universal constant. The sequences of shots selected by director, cinematographer and film editor have gradually merged over the years with the natural pattern of human attention. This may explain the more natural feel of newer films — and the old feel of earlier movies.

Researchers don’t believe that filmmakers have deliberately applied nature's 1/f fluctuation to movies. It is more likely that the moviemaking art form has gone through a kind of natural selection. The rhythms of shot sequences were either successful or unsuccessful in producing more coherent and gripping films. The most engaging and successful films were subsequently imitated by other filmmakers. Over time, the film industry evolved toward the natural cognitive pattern of the 1/f fluctuation.

Action movies get closest to the 1/f pattern, followed by adventure, animation, comedy and drama. But there specific films in every genre that have almost perfect 1/f rhythms, such as The Perfect Storm in 2000, Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, and Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece The 39 Steps in 1935.

Cutting, DeLong, and Nothelfer report in the study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.