attention (psychology) The cognitive selection of external stimuli. Attention limits and channels what we perceive and give preference to in relation to our environment. While attention is rarely articulated as a factor in narrative film making it is actually in constant use to direct the audience’s reading and interpretation of a story.
To consider attention in relation to lived experience you can create your own demonstration of this phenomena by undertaking three actions. First, focus on the words of this text, pause, hold, then turn your attention to a nearby object, pause, hold, study this object for a few seconds, and then move from visual attention to audible attention and listen carefully to your surroundings. Your perception of the environment changes significantly with each change in attention and this shifting of attention is due in this case to a conscious decision. This is voluntary attention that is consciously directed, but there is also involuntary attention, and involuntary switching, which is unconscious, and upon which almost every aspect of film narrative relies, because the function of storytelling and its narration is to direct attention to the intended story.
Attention in narrative film can be discussed across five aspects of film: image, editing, sound, continuity and narrative.
In the image, framing and composition is organized to focus attention. This arranging of the framing and composition occurs as part of the blocking of a scene, so that the audience in the film will notice the actors’ specific actions and also significant objects in the story. Camera position, camera height, lens angle and camera movement all delineate attention, so, uncertain and unclear blocking and framing on set will undermine the storytelling that has been constructed in the screenplay. As an example: in the story, in the screenplay for the film, the character is holding a car key, and the framing of the shot can draw attention to this, so it is seen and understood by the audience or the framing can miss this, due to the key being excluded from the story: the actor was holding the key on set, but the blocking failed to include it, or the key is in the shot, but not in a composition where attention is drawn to the key, so it’s not noticed and the presence and importance of the key to the story is therefore lost to the film narrative.
Film lighting, narrates story by imitating time of day and place and by designing lighting to create an expressive emotional tone for a scene. If the lighting fails to do this first task then the sense of temporality will be lost. Often in life we are not consciously aware of light indicating time of day, but we expect to walk out in the middle of the day, at noon and find the environment to have light. In a story there will be changes of light that convey changes in time, if this is not achieved in the filming then the story will lose realism: this means that the audience have noted that there is something wrong with the narrative: the light is not supporting the temporality: the narrative feels artificial.
Another central aim of cinematography is the setting and control of light to be sure that what needs to be seen is visible to the audience: for example light will be used to enhance and reveal expression and gesture in performance and to present many story elements that would be lost if the cinematography were not appropriately controlled. Without the successful modelling of lighting to guide audience attention what is most pertinent to the scene for the storytelling can pass unnoticed.
The visual elements of production design, costume design, hair and makeup design, all contribute to the narrative. They establish such story elements as setting, period, social status, character, but crucially they are designed so that there is an overall aesthetic coherence to these aspects of visual design within the narration, creating the ‘look’ of the film, and this look will be one that changes and develops, so that attention can be drawn to changes in design as changes occur in the story events.
Production design will often establish a colour palette for a film, using this to connect and identify locations, but also to indicate character and theme. In a low budget or non-professional film where locations and costumes need to be chosen by what is available and affordable, there is usually little or no opportunity for coherent visual design, and when this is the case both the realism of the film’s narrative is undermined and also the ability to channel the audience’s attention and understanding of the story. When the visual design for a film is not controlled, then the audience's attention is not directed, undermining narration.
Composition, framing, lighting, all have a history through painting and photography that have established conventions, such as the Golden Section, and the Rule of Thirds, and these have been carried forward into film production. These rules of composition differ between cultures, so that attention and meaning are guided by this: In Europe the development of perspective in painting is dominated by the concept of singular person viewpoint and narrative film’s ability to establish objective and subjective viewpoint has developed from this. So, the use of composition in film is part of the form of a narrative: it can be changed or designed to tell a story, especially in relation to viewpoint: taking or not taking a character’s point of view across the film or within specific scenes. For different genres of film different conventions of composition and framing are anticipated. In horror the framing of shots will often suggest that there is a space for an event, a figure who cannot be seen, the tension or disorientation of characters can be indicated by odd framings and angles. What this means for attention is that it works within a cultural system: the audience learns to read images and these develops habits, expectations and they direct the reading of the film.
Editing defines the audience’s attention through changing image size: close ups and long shots, and by the relationship between shots. If there are several characters in a scene then the choice of close up shots to include and foreground different characters structures the attention of the audience and this patterning of shots, who is being shown in close up or not, can change as the scene progresses drawing attention to narrative development. Change in image size also prompts a different reading of the scene, close ups tending to promote a reading of the character’s expression and a sense of their subjective interiority and a long shot prompting an objective, non-participatory reading of the characters and story events.
Random changes of image size and camera position in a scene will make the narration of the story unclear and confused. This confusion is because as the editing changes from shot to shot the audience works to read and interpret this new information, but if shots aren’t changing to support the story, then attention is drawn to the shot itself rather than the story progressing: the random changing of shots damaging the narrative of the film is like an orchestra where instruments go out of tune and out of time: the music is flowing, then there are suddenly breaks and changes which are confusing distractions, bringing the listeners’ attention to the flaws in the performance rather than playing of the music. Poor editing and shot choice interrupts and distracts from the flow of the story, making it’s badly narrated.
To look at another, particular example of how shot choice and framing influences story narration. One problematic habit of inexperienced filmmakers is that of shooting an extreme close up, an insert for any small-scale specific action, such as reading a text message, putting on shoes, opening a door. These short insert shots can be essential to the story, but when they are edited into a film and they do not contribute to the story in any significant way then their purpose is diffuse and unclear: they attract significant attention but nothing more. Filming small-scale actions in close up and editing them into the timeline of the story gives the shot particular significance, but this can be redundant. As an example: if a character always places their phone in their back pocket and this fact is important to the story then it should be shown so that it can be understood by the audience, if it is not important to the story, then there is no reason to give it attention by having a close up insert of this action.
In editing the duration of the shot and the precise placing of the edit point determine attention. As an informal formula for reading and comprehending the narrative in relation to shot length and moving from short time duration shot to a longer duration there is:
SEEN AND READ
SEEN AND READ AND RECOGNISED
SEEN, READ, RECOGNISED AND CONSCIOUSLY INTERPRETED INTO THE NARRATIVE
Shots of half a second or less will be seen by the audience, but pass too quickly to be consciously read and recognized, they offer a haptic effect, but convey no story information: in a sense they punctuate a scene, giving a moment of stress or emphasis, like a sudden drum beat, but they offer no specific narrative. In a sequence of shots portraying fast-paced physical action, or when there is a sudden movement of a character in a scene, a very short shot, less than half a second will add pace and a sense of energy to the action: its part of a sequence which develops the narrative overall, but the single shot itself is not interpreted by the audience as a conscious part of a narrative: its content, what it shows, is not recognized.
Shots of half a second to two seconds will be seen and read, it might be possible for the viewer to recount seeing them, they attract conscious attention, but it is for such a short timespan that their significance in the story in terms of complex plot is impressionistic rather than precise. Adverts often cut to a very short, one or two-second pattern of editing: a car is traveling, there are several shots of the car, there’s an impressionistic narrative of driving at night, but no specific sense of plot: where the car is traveling to and from. If the shots were longer, more than two seconds, the audience would start to consider the narrative significance of what they were watching, but the fast cutting moves their attention forward from shot to shot. It’s possible in a narrative film that a very brief, one or two second shot will convey crucial narrative information, but in this case the shot will have narrative significance because the audience has been keyed in to look for certain pieces of information in the plotting of the story: there’s no key in the door, the cable breaks. This is a specific minimal story event and it’s understood immediately, so the short duration of the shot is effective to carry a clear narrative meaning.
Moving beyond the two second point but still with short duration, two to four second shots, there is seen read and understood, and what is happening in a shot is consciously noted, it’s clear and understandable narrative action: SHOT: packing a suitcase. SHOT: collecting passport. SHOT: Walking down the corridor of flat towards the front door. SHOT: Locking the front door outside the flat. Each shot carries specific plot information: plot points that carry the narrative forward. The audience will know that the character used a suitcase to pack, took their Passport with them and they left the flat, locking the door. These shots establish plot points that will be consciously integrated into the narrative. These events will be part of a wider narrative, but the short length concentrates audience attention on the specific actions.
There is the longer duration shot that is seen, read, recognized and consciously interpreted in relation to the story. Here the significance of events in the shot can be related to what has happened previously in the plot and also to consider what might happen. This thinking, the audience working out the plot significance of the events in a shot takes a few seconds and the shot is given longer duration in the edit to support this, longer than is needed for simply reading what the shot represents and the specific event it shows. This longer duration of shot holds the audience’s attention and prompts them to interpret the story significance of what they are seeing or have just seen.
Often at the end of a dramatic scene and to establish links between scenes there are shots which could be cut short, to two seconds in length, because they carry little meaning, they simply show traveling or leaving, but these shots are edited to rung long, four seconds or more as they provide time for the audience to consider the story events that they have just seen and how they relate to the story overall. The events in the shot are understood and the audience shifts attention to the progress of the story. It’s common to have a different experience of time on first and then second viewing of the same film, and this is because the comprehension of story is already in place for the second viewing. The audience understands the story, having already seen it and so the film runs slower on second viewing: the longer duration of the shots is not needed for the comprehension of the story and they are experienced in the second viewing as pauses, a slowing in the narrative. As an audience there’s also the experience of seeing more in the film the second time it is viewed, and this is because attention can quickly shift away from what is known from the first viewing and then to study other elements of the film.
The issue of the editor knowing the story of the film can have a negative effect in post-production. During the editing the editor will become more and more familiar with the story and the shots that narrate this, and they will begin to anticipate cuts, leading to the sense that the edit point might cut the shot to a shorter duration. What then happens when the edited film is shown to the audience who do not know the story is that the significance of the shot to the story is lost due to the short duration of the edits: the audience’s attention is being shifted so quickly, moved from one shot to the next, that they cannot follow and comprehend the story: the cutting is too rapid: its to fast in terms of pace, like someone speaking too quickly to be understood. To edit successfully the editor needs to be aware that their attention differs from that of the audience.
Also in editing, but beginning on set there are shots that run too long and loose the audience’s attention. On set a shot of someone taking a glass out of a kitchen cupboard, turning on the tap, filling the glass with water, then taking a drink, will run eight, ten, twenty seconds, and then in editing this shot will be left to run, because if the shot is cut into a shorter duration shot it will produce a jump cut, because there is only one camera angle for all the actions shown. If getting the water is incidental to the action of the plot, then it has little function in the narrative, so the attention that the action is given, the long duration shot, detracts from the story; it’s redundant.
Successful editing is described as having a rhythm, this sense of a beat might suggest a timed meter, but shot duration does not have the precision of a musical time signature, what creates rhythm in editing is the shot lengths having the duration necessary to convey the story information for the scene: when a shot runs long in terms of time length just so that it can show a complete action, then the rhythm is slowed and the flow of the story stalls.
Attention in a film narrative is not just visual but shifts back and forth between image and sound, and this is another feature of attention that is controlled by the filmmaker. A particular example of how attention operates to shift between image and sound in a film is the L cut and J cut. In a J cut where the diegetic sound precedes the edit before a new shot this change in audio attracts the attention of the audience effectively creating a distraction from the on screen image and the subsequent cut to the new shot is less noticed, creating a sense of uninterrupted flow, rather than the more noticeable visual and audio disruption of a straight cut where image and sound are edited at the same point: both image and sound changing at the same time attracts attention. Conversely the L cut carries the diegetic sound of a shot beyond the edit point and forward into the succeeding shot and this gives the incoming visual image greater emphasis because it the cutting to a new visual shot that marks a change and this difference is noticed. What is significant in this editing technique is that the filmmaker chooses the emphasis of attention and it is rarely perceived by the audience: they are reading the narrative and if an incoming shot is given more attention in the image with an L cut then it will be read for the development in the story: in a dialogue scene the shift between attention to the image and attention to sound will direct attention to elements that progress the plot. In a poorly cut dialogue scene the audience will notice and follow the cuts, in a well cut scene the audience will follow the narration of the story.
The filtering of sounds, selective attention in listening is something that occurs constantly in real life. It’s an unconscious process and this can be evidenced by setting up a microphone, putting on headphones, and listening through these. Before the headphones are put on the surrounding sound is being unconsciously filtered and when the headphones are put on the sound being listened to can’t be so easily selected as its coming from a single source, the microphone, and the sounds that are normally filtered out, the noise of nearby movement, scrapping on surfaces, tapping, will be heard and so will background sounds, nearby machines, sounds in the environment. In this respect the recording of natural sound, what is actually present in the environment is effectively unusable for a naturalistic narrative film and recorded sound for film has to be very carefully controlled so that the attention that filters sound in real life is mimicked in the sound recording and mixing process for film.
The sound in film mimics the filtering process of lived experience and so can be changed as sound changes in personal experience. This change in attention is usually unnoticed as it is done to match the emotional state of the characters in the story. In a dialogue scene the sound will be separated, with voice having a higher signal to noise ratio than in real life: background sounds will be lowered by using a sound studio to film in with background sound added later, by using close microphone work, or through post-production dubbing. This ‘closeness’ of the recording mimics the sense of sound that one has when speaking and listening to a person nearby and even if the shot size changes between close up and wide shot the perspective of the sound will not change: it will be psychologically correct for the story, not spatially correct. The audience expects to be able to hear the characters as they talk, because this is part of the narration of the story.
In scenes of heightened emotion sound can shift to another very different perspective to ‘natural’ sound. It will move to subjective experience: background sound will lowered to silence and what will be audible will vary: very small items will be audible, the jangle of keys, breathe, and these will be the most noticeable sounds, or a music track will dominate with the composition matching the emotional experience. There can also be a mix of music and small items, personal close sounds. This is a very different sound perspective to the audience listening to the dialogue in a scene as if they are close to the speakers. In the case of subjective sound, they are experiencing the sound as the single character experiences it.
This changing use of sound in film matches the changes in sound when one shifts attention in life to concentrate on a specific subject, as in the case with the demonstration indicated at the start of this discussion: when focusing on an object the surrounding sound drops from attention. Besides the soundscape in a film being altered to represent an intense psychological experience, the shots and editing for this type of scene will frequently establish a character’s point of view, so it’s clear who this emotional inner experience is related to, who the sound belongs to. Through sound and editing film can express internal experience, interior experiences and emotions, without having to move to spoken narration. Film music, the score, can establish the tone for a setting or an event in the story, its glorious, its creepy, but the use of music is not limited to this overlaid use: sound can delineate internal experience.
The use of sound might be usefully split between naturalistic, its setting the scene, but does not represent psychological experience or it expressionistic and linked to specific characters in the film, their emotions, but what needs to be clear is that because of attention they are both experienced as realistic: audience’s don’t consciously separate out different approaches to sound in scenes and it is only involuntary attention that makes this unconscious selection occur.
The usual conceptual division of sound in narrative film is that its diegetic or non-diegetic sound, sound which occurs in the story and sound that is separate to the story. This division is valid, but composed music supports the narrative even though it is not part of the narrative world, and narrative sound is not just the sound in the environment related to where the scene takes place: sound can be carefully controlled by the filmmaker to change the perception of a scene. One thing that attention does is remove the musical score from a conscious reading of a scene: a score or emotional atmosphere is part of the narration, but it’s not what is given attention to by the audience: the drama of the characters and their story dominates.
There’s a resistance with inexperienced editors who want to avoid music scoring that plays through scenes because it seems intrusive to the realism, but this intrusiveness is what is experienced by the editor’s attention and not by the audience. The filmmakers are far more aware of the construction of the narrative than the audience, so that the realism of the film needs to be based on the audience’s perception of the story, not the filmmakers.
The continuity system enables shots to be joined together to create a mimetic film narrative: a film that tells a story that is experienced as realistic. One underlying principle of this is continuity of tone: from shot to shot exposure and sound match, unless there is a change of location. This visual continuity includes colour temperature, which is an important visual factor that is not consciously read by the audience. Continuity is judged moment by moment: the incoming shot is the same or different, the story is in the same place or a different place. Differences will attract attention and the audience will work to understand this difference in terms of story.
Visual continuity depends on attention being controlled so that the narrative is read as intended. Grading in post-production is a key factor in ensuring that there is a narrative flow in the shots and their editing: before grading, changes in exposure, contrast, colour temperature all create loss of coherence and jump the attention out of the narrative to read the differences between shots. Grading doesn’t just smooth out jumps, but marks changes.
The continuity system includes spatial continuity ensuring that its clear what the shot is showing in terms of the space in which the scenes takes place and the spatial relationship between the actors. There are a variety of aspects to this: the scene may use the 180 degree rule, screen section, point of view, screen direction. This system enables shots to be edited together without the audience needing to have conscious attention.
The rules for continuity in editing relate to attention and cognition. As an example there is the match cut: CLOSE UP: someone is sitting on a chair and starts to rise. WIDE SHOT: the person is rising from the chair and stands. A match cut indicates that the action is matched, but what will actually occur in editing is that the action will overlap by three or four frames, with both shots showing the same moment of rising. What this overlap does is allow for the shots to be read as having the same movement and also as this overlap occurs the change of shot will go unnoticed. In this edit the attention of the audience is drawn at the moment of the cut, to recognise if the incoming shot is related to the outgoing shot. It’s not just a question of one shot changing to another to create continuity of action: one movement simply joining to another, but attention shifting and the audience understanding the edit in less than half a second. Also, it is movement of the figures in the scene that motivates a cut, even when the new shot remains on the same subject: sudden movement or sound always attracts attention and continuity editing relies on this. Movement in an out of frame attracts attention and support this sort of edit, and this also the case with a change of screen direction: as the actor changes where they are looking, the shot shows this, and when this movement is completed, then a cut to a shot: to show what the actor can see or where they are standing in relation to their surroundings follows the attention of the audience: they want to know where the actor is standing and what they are looking at.
One of the most frequent blocking methods and editing techniques for moving the action and the editing from shot to shot is having a character moving out of frame, the shot cuts and the next shot has them moving into shot. What occurs in this edit is that attention shifts to the movement and to the edge of the frame, and then when the shot cuts, there is a momentary confusion and then the attention shifts to the movement in the new shot, sustaining the confusion until the new image is read. This staging and editing happens as an unconscious process, with film viewing being a constant shifting of attention.
Narrative film’s use of the continuity is sometimes described as using a language of film, a film grammar as though film narrative film functions like language through thought and speech to create meaningful statements. If this concept, film is a language is taken literally then this is misleading, because film continuity does not use language for its construction but perception and cognition related to seeing and listening. The conflation of film narrative, comparing film to written narrative occurs to a large part because it is possible to narrate stories through both film and writing, and the audience and the reader can interpret understand these as the same story: the mediums seem similar but in fact they are not. Also, film theory has used structuralism as a means of understanding film narrative, but this approach relates to story structure and does not concern itself with how the medium of film narrates stories in terms of continuity and editing. Film, moving image and sound has a mode of narration that is specific to the medium: story is what is experienced and understood by the audience through narration. Film narrative relies on attention and shifting attention. This is not the same psychological or cognitive process as reading a page of writing.
As a last element to consider attention in relation to story narration in film there is how attention functions in relation to comprehending the wider narrative, storyline, plotting: how the audience understands the events in the story as they progress. There are different theories of how attention functions as a cognitive system and each offers a different understanding of narrative comprehension in film.
Attention Filters: there is an excess of external stimuli and much of this has to be discarded: only a limited filtered selection will be received.
Attention Selects: all the stimuli are perceived and some are selected and moved forward to conscious perception.
Attention Catalogues: all stimuli are perceived and then ranked, some stimuli are given attention to and others given lower status but still stored. What needs to be noted here is that what is initially dismissed and set aside as irrelevant can be retrieved, reinterpreted and its significance changes: it can be ranked higher and moved into conscious understanding.
This discussion of attention in relation to film narrative does not attempt to validate from amongst these theories, and each offers insight into film.
In terms of filtering and the conception of their being too many stimuli and some are not received, then narrative film’s controlled use of composition, framing and camerawork are all relevant. The information is controlled by the visual design and the control of attention in editing and sound directs the audience so they are able to read the narrative: they are not overloaded with random and chaotic information. In contemporary film there is understood to be intensified continuity, films having a much shorter shot length, more camera movement and more detailed and elaborate visual design than earlier films. The explanation given for this change in narrative form is that contemporary audiences are very familiar with film narrative and they are now able to read a film with greater speed, but this change in form also relates to changes in storytelling with the effect of this pace changing the experience of film: stories moving away from psychological character-based narrative to the narrative of spectacle. In this respect filtering by the audience can change: saturated film offering a specific type of film form and experience. One might say that in the music video, spectacle often takes over. There is the song and the visuals give a sense of tone, striking visual images, fast cutting: there’s no detailed psychological narrative but the visuals add meaning to the music and vice versa: it's not just the meaning of the images that are important to the change in experience but how they are narrated: the fast editing, the changes in angles, the non-realistic tonalities, all add to the emotional and sensational impact. Equally longer shots in a drama will be taken to offer psychological insight into characters, but what is actually being offered is time for the audience to consider the characters, and what the audience think that the character is thinking and feeling, which has been cued in by earlier events in the film narrative.
In relation to the concept that attention is selective, information is received and then chosen for conscious attention indicates how the audience will interpret the story with their own psychological and cultural bias. This discussion of attention so far, has primarily indicated that the narration of the film constructs the narrative, but with selective attention the reading of the film becomes a cultural experience and a cultural form, not just in terms of plot, but in how plot is narrated. For example a visual aspect of film, lighting, can be gendered with audience expectations of how male and female characters should be presented, how they will be lit. Sexual desire is often presented in a film through looking and seeing, and so how this subjectivity is presented and then experienced by the audience is culturally normative: films are not just cultural in the stories they tell, but in how they tell their stories. Selective attention indicate how taste can operate: people sense that they like and dislike films, as emotional states and these judgements seem natural because they just occur when viewing a film, but there is a pre-judgement: what the audience wants to see and what they will select or reject. Sometimes the audience like where they are being asked to look, whose viewpoint they are being asked to take, and sometimes they reject this and the audience shift their attention away. Audience’s take difference experiences and narratives from film, and this is not simply conscious judgement: they can be attracted or repelled by the narrative: it is possible for the filmmaker’s to direct attention, but selection by the audience is another crucial element in terms of how a film is understood and received.
The third concept, that of attention cataloguing events and therefore the audience being able to change their level of perception at a later stage indicates how story can change in terms of the relevance of events as the story progresses: what seems insignificant to the story becomes crucial. One specific narrative technique that illustrates the cataloguing of attention is misdirection where the narrative of the film leads the audience to follow a story path that will turn out to be false.
What is important to misdirection working is that when the true story is revealed, and the plot that has previously been hidden is revealed, then this has to be understood and accepted by the audience as a valid reading of the narrative recounted in the film and this can only be done if certain elements of the narrative have been read and understood, but then discarded; they have attracted attention, but been ranked as having no significance to the story. For this process to work various people and events can be part of a scene and be understood as incidental, then this can change. One the second viewing of a film that used misdirection in the plot, the clues to this might now be easily recognized: so attention has changed, and events that were previously unimportant are now noticed immediately. It possible to have a film plot where a character who appears in several scenes is effectively dismissed from the plot because they seem to have no significance to the story, but then they are revealed as a crucial character. On set during filming the idea that a character in the story, an actor who is being filmed will not be noticed by the audience seems untenable, but attention means that the audience discard this character as the film is narrated.
Concluding. There are different aspects of attention: voluntary attention, involuntary attention, sustained attention, selective attention, divided attention, alternating attention, visual attention, auditory attention. These might each be considered and applied to the study of narration in film. The present practice in terms of understanding storytelling in film separates this into to almost separate functions: one is technique, how shots are filmed and edited, and the second is how story events are structured into a narrative as though the narrative is not influenced by technique. The concept of attention offers a method for understanding narration in film related to technique. As a practical approach there are simple, relevant questions related to attention that can help a filmmaker: where is the audience’s attention at this point? What are the audience looking at, what are the audience listening to, what will this edit draw attention to? Just because the filmmaker knows what the shot, the scene, the editing is meant to convey in terms of narrative, this does not mean that the audience will make the same reading. Film narration is not just a question of representing one event after another: attention functions across framing, composition, editing, sound and plotting, and directs the narrative: it’s a concept that can be used in writing, direction, camera, design, editing, sound mixing and music scoring.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019