Film as dynamic event perception: Technological development forces realism to retreat

Author(s): Hecht, Heiko


I entertain the thesis that a human need holds the key to understanding event perception in film. Bazin entertained that photographs freed western painting from its obsession with realism. I extend this position by claiming that it is a basic human need to always have one medium that stands for the quintessential way to pictorially render reality. Only the medium that produces the currently most realistic renditions will have to be obsessed with realism. When motion pictures still replaced photography as the superior medium, photographs were - in turn - freed from the burden of realism. Movies will only be caught in this role until a superior medium – maybe virtual reality environments – becomes mainstream. This chapter assesses the remaining differences between natural viewing and motion pictures from the point of view of dynamic event perception. It takes a closer look at the perceptual regularities that constitute natural events, and the extent to which the same regularities can be captured in film. It then explores the violations of these regularities that occur in motion pictures. Some of these violations, such as the camera position at the time of recording differing from the spectator’s viewpoint, cannot be helped. Other violations, such as temporal cuts and jumps between scenes, could be avoided. This opens up the question why directors choose to violate some laws of natural viewing while they stay away from violating others. Among these self-imposed limitations that the director chooses for her or his work are spatio-temporal constraints and causality constraints. I argue that directors have violated almost every single spatio-temporal law that holds for natural events. The causality of natural events, on the other hand, is rarely touched in film: Objects do not spontaneously assemble out of dust, things fall down rather than up, etc. Thus, as progressively as directors play with place, time, and viewpoint, they are extremely conservative when it comes to the causality of events. Even cartoons and science fiction movies only scratch the surface and violate but a few minor causal laws. Does the psychology of dynamic event perception forbid serious violation of event causality in film? Or do directors merely follow self-imposed constraints because they are using the medium whose function it is to depict reality?

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Preferred Citation
Hecht, Heiko: Film as dynamic event perception: Technological development forces realism to retreat. In: IMAGE. Zeitschrift für interdisziplinäre Bildwissenschaft, Jg. 2 (2006), Nr. 1, S. 3-24. DOI:
 author = {Hecht, Heiko},
 title = {Film as dynamic event perception: Technological development forces realism to retreat},
 year = 2006,
 doi = "\url{}",
 volume = 2,
 address = {Köln},
 journal = {IMAGE. Zeitschrift für interdisziplinäre Bildwissenschaft},
 number = 1,
 pages = {3--24},
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The item has been published with the following license: Unter Urheberrechtsschutz