In the blink of an eye

I make video productions as a hobby. Student productions of plays, amateur musicals, that kind of thing. Just amateur stuff, but I use decent DV camcorders and high-quality audio recording.

Thanks to some software my son wrote, I can edit video from multiple sources into a reasonable looking production with multiple camera angles, cuts, dissolves, fades, etc. It's a huge step up in quality from the usual single camera point-and-forget affair.

So now that I am a video editor, it has got me thinking. Why do cuts in movies work at all? Why doesn't a sudden change of point of view and/or distance look so strange to the human visual perception system that it is jarring and incomprehensible?

In his thoughtful book, In the Blink of an Eye, film editor Walter Murch suggests a plausible answer. Humans perceive the world discontinuously as a matter of course. It is well known that when you read, your eyes don't smoothly sweep across the lines of text. Instead, they move to a specific location, pause, you absorb what you see, then they jerk to the next location and pause, and so on. Murch goes on to assert that blinking is overrated as a mechanism to absorb the eyeballs. Instead, a blink provides a boundary between different points of view as your eyes bounce around to take in your visual surroundings.

It is not hard to see an analogy with the way those of us in the technology business see the world. We pause briefly to consider an idea, then in the blink of an eye we context switch to a completely different (and possibly even contradictory) point of view. The brain is adept at assembling these fragments into some sort of coherent whole. It feels natural rather than weird. The hard thing to explain is how people can focus on a chess or Go board for a couple of hours!

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