The Perfect Storm is the perfect movie, say scientists

Posted by Emma Woollacott

We suspect Cornell University's James Cutting is after a job in Hollywood. He and his team have applied cognitive psychology to work out which films are the most engrossing.

Based on modern perception research, they deconstructed 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. The films represented five major genres — action, adventure, animation, comedy and drama. Then, using a complex mathematical formula, they translated these sequences of shot lengths into what they call 'waves' for each film.

What they were looking for was the 1/f fluctuation - a concept from chaos theory describing a natural human pattern of attention that's been found in music, engineering and economics.

Cutting and his students found that modern films — those made after 1980 — were much more likely than earlier films to approach this universal constant.

"This may explain the more natural feel of newer films, and the 'old' feel of earlier ones," say the authors. "Modern movies may be more engrossing — we get 'lost' in them more readily — because the universe’s natural rhythm is driving the mind."

The Cornell researchers reckon that as a comparatively young art form, film has gone through a kind of natural selection, as the edited rhythms of shot sequences either succeeded or failed to produce more gripping films.

The best were imitated by other filmmakers, so that over time and through cultural transmission the industry as a whole evolved toward an imitation of this natural cognitive pattern.

Overall, say the authors, action movies are the genre that most closely approximates the 1/f pattern, followed by adventure, animation, comedy and drama. But they also found individual films from every genre that had almost perfect 1/f rhythms.

Rebel Without a Cause, though it was made in 1955, is one, as is The 39 Steps. So, too, was The Perfect Storm - remember, we're talking popular appeal here, rather than artistic merit.