The Faces On Our Screens

Whenever I go to the cinema I always try to get a seat at the back of the theatre so I can see the entire screen. A couple of weeks ago I went with a friend to see a film called A Separation. We got a bit distracted by our catch-up conversation and arrived 5 minutes into the screening. The only seats we could find were in the second row. The film was playing at an art house theatre so the screen was not too large but really close to the seats. It was a real effort to watch the images and read the subtitles at the same time and now that I think of it I cannot remember much of the mise en scene but mainly the characters’ faces (except for that very nicely staged shot under the end credits: the newly divorced couple waiting in the courthouse hallway on separate sides of the glass wall).

I grew up watching subtitled movies as I couldn’t understand any of the main spoken languages until much later, so I never had a problem following the screen and reading subtitles at the same time. Even now, I don’t find them distracting and after doing a bit of research on how the audiences watch a film I don’t doubt I haven’t even missed much or what I might have seen without subtitles.

TJ Smith a lecturer in Psychology at Birkbeck University of London has put years into researching how we watch movies. He says that:

Only the visual information at the centre of attention can be perceived in detail and encoded in memory. Peripheral information is processed in much less detail and mostly contributes to our perception of space, movement and general categorisation and layout of a scene. The incredibly reductive nature of visual attention explains why large changes can occur in a visual scene without our noticing. Clear examples of this are the glaring continuity errors found in some films. Lighting that changes throughout a scene, cigarettes that never burn down, and drinks that instantly refill plague films and television but we rarely notice them except on repeated or more deliberate viewing. 

The visual information at the centre of my attention when watching A Separation was split between the subtitles and the characters’ faces. The film is a family drama with more weight on dialogue than action. There’s heightened tension between the few characters in the film. These are characters who don’t always tell the truth. Their actions contradict their emotions. Their faces were more important to me than any other elements on the screen because of that intense desire to read their emotions.  So their faces carry more of the story than the dialogue. Naturally their faces were what I noticed the most in the film.

Since the face is the main source of emotions and therefore information, obviously the closer an object is to an actor’s face the easier it is to notice if it changes. Boo those hats, earrings, collars, scarves, ties, buttons…

Levin & Chabris the guys behind The Invisible Gorilla experiment did another perception test on continuity on the screen.


Of course these changes were done on purpose and therefore they are quite obvious even on the first viewing. On the second viewing they become annoying (at least for me). The first time we watched the clip we focused on the dialogue. The second time, we spend less time listening to the dialogue so we take in more of the surroundings and that’s when we get to notice the changes.

I hear this on set very often: ‘whoever in the audience notices that continuity mistake is obviously not watching the story’. I completely agree! But whoever Likes the story and watches the film again will start to notice those mistakes.

I did like the story in A Separation so I need to go and this time see more than just the faces. Go and see it, it’s worth it. Have a look at the trailer!

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One Response to The Faces On Our Screens

  1. Pingback: What you lookin’ at? | Tales from the Scripty

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