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In this short event at Encounters Film Festival, PhD candidate  Stephen Hinde and Iain Gilchrist from University of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology asked what the eyes can tell us about the way in which we watch and understand films.

Hinde began by outlining a short history of the field of psychocinematics, beginning with Munsterberg’s 1916 writing on ‘The Photoplay’ and moving through Eisenstein’s work in the 1940s towards theorising eye movements in film viewers. He discussed Hochberg & Brooks work in the 1970s on the Perception of Films and more recent work on film cognition, edit blindness and immersion.

Using a range of static and moving image examples, Hinde then demonstrated how our eyes interpret images and editing and how we build our understanding of story through this. He showed that our eyes do not necessarily work in the way we intuitively believe them to – we are largely unaware of where we are looking and what we see, as our focus is on the overall perception that we build from looking at a variety of points often in quick succession. With examples, he showed that when we are staring at one point, everything around it becomes visually indecipherable – a fact we forget in the day to day act of looking. In addition to this, Hinde Screenshot 2016-06-13 14.04.59showed how ‘saccadic suppression’ allows the brain to block visuals that are received during eye movements, only processing visual information received when the eye is settled and ‘looking’ at something.

Hinde also used the example of Joe Magee’s short film Modifried, screened as part of Encounters’ Depict! Award 2014, to demonstrate with eye-tracking software how the eye moves across the screen when watching a film. Magee, also speaking at the event, discussed how he as a filmmaker considers an audience’s visual and cognitive interaction with a film when storyboarding, shooting and editing.

The full film with audio can be viewed on the Depict! website, and below it can be seen in silent with eye-tracking data overlaid to show the way in which the eye is drawn to different areas of the screen throughout the film.

MODIFRIED with eye-tracking data overlaid 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hinde showed that as viewers our eyes are drawn to images of people, primarily to their faces and specifically their eyes. We are also drawn to follow movement – a fact that all film editors must instinctively know.

Screenshot 2016-06-13 11.56.34Screenshot 2016-06-13 11.56.44


Screenshot 2016-06-13 11.56.14Screenshot 2016-06-13 11.56.20







Hinde discussed how the quality of a viewer’s immersion could be measured, including the measurement of ‘presence’.  A high level of presence would mean that perceivers feel that they are “in the situation” depicted on screen, while low presence indicates a feeling of merely observing the events unfolding on screen. However, presence can be difficult to measure scientifically. It is usually measured in a questionnaire after the viewing experience, which means that it can be difficult to get reliable and detailed data. Another approach is to ask participants to provide a series of marks throughout the viewing experience to indicate their varying levels of presence throughout.

Hinde’s presentation was followed by a Q&A, where he was joined by Prof Gilchrist and Joe Magee, who brought their perspectives on the subject.

Stephen Hinde is a Film and vision psychologist with a polymath background in physics and computer science. Academic qualifications include:  a  BSc. in psychology from the University of Bristol, an MA in Buddhist Studies from the University of Bristol, and a BSc in Physics from University of Sheffield. Industry experience in USA, France and UK in  high performance Cloud computing sytems for media processing  as a researcher at Hewlett-Packard Research Labs, and Operating System design at IBM. Hinde has worked for Bristol-based film and media companies such as Watershed, Aardman Animation and South-West Screen. He also worked as a Research Collaborator in the School of Experimental Psychology with Professor Tom Troscianko at Bristol University before enrolling in the same school to undertake a doctoral course.

Further reading:

  • The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (1916) by Hugo Munsterberg. Freely available as an e-book on The Project Gutenberg.





Upcoming event: Attention, Immersion and Psychocinematics


Filmmakers effectively use inherent natural human mechanisms of vision and cognition which, when studied, can allow scientists to better understand the brain.The psychological study of the relationship between cognition and films is called psychocinematics, and it aims to uncover new insights into science, while informing filmmaking and the development of new cinema technologies. To an external viewer a film audience might seem passive. However psychologists using techniques such as eye tracking observe that the viewer is in fact very active. Through their eye movements audiences actively select information for attention from a vast, potentially overwhelming sensorium. The filmmaking art is to create a smooth flow from shot to shot and to draw the viewer’s attention to the important information. The story becomes a collaboration between audience and director, with meaning created through the successive and well orchestrated flow of information.


Led by Stephen Hinde and Professor Iain Gilchrist from Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology, this session will discuss some of the findings from the University of Bristol in watching audiences watching film. We will look at the nature of immersion in the film experience, and see how it comes through audience attention carefully orchestrated from moment to moment. We’ll also be joined by award-winning film maker and artist Joe Magee, whose short film Modifried will be used in an eye-tracking demo to illustrate paths of attention for a film viewer.


This event will take place as part of Encounters Film Festival at 3.30pm, September 16th 2015. More details here


Presented with the support of a Wellcome Trust Engaging Science Grant