The intersection of science and art has always yielded fascinating insights. As much as filmmaking is an art that requires a carefully trained eye and excellent talent to pull off, scientific studies often find surprising and actionable evidence of how we process and respond to images. That might take some of the artistry out of the process, but it tells us exciting things about the human brain.
This great example comes from The DIEM Project, which studies eye tracking of moving images. Researchers tracked the eyes of eleven people who watched the same clip from There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson is a gifted director, and he has a keen eye for composition; the selected portion combines long takes, close-ups, and tracking shots.
As you can see from the circles that represent where a person was looking, we are all immediately drawn to contrast, whether that’s a bright object in a dark room or a moving object in a static scene. The most interesting example might be the long shot of a car at the end of the clip. Even when the car is obscured by scenery, everyone’s eyes are focused tightly on the right edge where they expect the car to appear.
This video is a great demonstration of how a master filmmaker can command an audience’s attention with motion and composition. The next time you find yourself watching a static scene in a just-okay movie, you might wonder where the little eye circles would fall.