The secret of film perception and cognition studies: How psychologists help filmmakers to understand their audience

In 1896, the Lumière brothers shot a scene for the back of a train, which is considered to be the first short film ever filmed and recorded in history. Even though the earliest films were shot in black and white, it did not diminish the powerful impact of how images in film can appear to be a part of the real world. Early audiences were shocked by how tangible and vivid the train scene appeared.  In watching the sequence unfold, they felt like the train was headed directly towards them.  For more than 100 years now, the film industry has continued to evolve into a mega entertainment industry that now has a significant impact on the national economy.

You might assume that scholars know a considerable amount about films since they continually study them, but only a few findings about fundamental mechanism on audio-visual perception and cognition for human beings have been studied and documented. According to the previous studies, psychologists discovered how audiences perceive and interpret color, motion, shapes, and events from motion pictures. Another question that should be asked is, what happens in the viewers’ brain after they receive audio-visual information? Also, what causes individual differences regarding interpretation and preferences?  Lastly, how do these studies change the film industry?

An Unique Change

Lingfei Luan, a Ph.D. student in Neural and Cognitive Science at Bowling Green State University, is well known for her studies on the film perception and cognition. She received her B.A degree in Film Production from Beijing Film Academy, her first master’s degree in philosophy, theory, and film studies from the University of Paris VIII, and her second master’s degree in Media and Communication from Bowling Green State University.

Lingfei Luan

Her master’s thesis, “Finding a Basic Interpretive Unit through the Human Visual Perception and Cognition – A Comparison between Filmmakers and Audience,” is making a breakthrough in the psychology of art.

With so many studies in film popping up everyday, choosing which one to apply it to in the market can be tricky. In Hollywood, over 200 companies provide film testing and audience study services, such as script doctor and focus groups, but few truly succeed.

Lingfei Luan identifies the inherent problems with current processes and utilizes the scientific method to fill the gap between the film industry and the audience.

She is the first psychologist to design a comparative study between the filmmaker and the viewers and has found the essential reason as to why viewers did not like film ‘’New York, I Love You.” This is also the first time that a psychologist uses a complete story to test participants in film perception and cognition history. She designed the experiment with the help of James Cutting, a professor and department chair at Cornell University, who has been conducted psychological studies on many popular Hollywood films over the years. With Cutting’s assistance, Lingfei Luan’s experiment received both convenient and practical results on how to improve filmmaking in the future.

Using film to study how human beings perceive and interpret audio-visual information is an engaging project because this can aid film studio in reducing their risk level in investment.

Connecting Two Culture and Markets

Later, Lingfei Luan cooperated with Feng Ding, an assistant professor at the Beijing Film Academy to study the secret of Ang Lee’s films. They recruited 57 undergraduate students as participants and randomly assigned them to watch one of Ang Lee’s films. After viewing a film, participants were required to take both a memory and cognitive test. Apart from genre and filmmaking skills, they found that Ang Lee’s successful movies follow human beings perceptual and interpretable information processing mechanisms in the film.


Shot Length Standardized and Recall Score Standardized distributions for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Lingfei Luan believes that film companies (especially Hollywood) need to address their audience’s preferences around the world market if they want to be more successful. Even though, there are other evident issues such as cultural differences, finding why an audience likes or does not like a film is essential for a more successful and effective film industry.

Now, Lingfei Luan is working with two graduate students from the Beijing Film Academy on the preferences of Chinese martial art films in the American market. Nan Zhao and Chongbi Li, are both second-year master students in the School of Management at BFA. They are cooperating with Lingfei Luan and her complex lab on Chinese Martial Art Films. They select and analyze 20 Chinese martial arts films based on IMDb ranking, and then recruit participants to segment and summarize the events in the movie. Their study aims to find a significant relationship between viewers’ causal construction and the degree of understanding.

In 2018, Lingfei Luan was invited as the jury for Hainan International Film Festival. This coming June, she is planning to present her studies at The Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image (SCSMI) in Germany. For the future, Lingfei Luan is trying to introduce other disciplines to conduct additional experiments from various perspectives. Film perception and cognition studies as a research paradigm and investigation tool connects film practice and studies, among which, filmmakers and film companies could use these scientific findings as guidance to reduce their investment risk.

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Contact Person: Lingfei Luan
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Country: United States


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