The Perception of Motion Pictures

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  • Topic: Film, Persistence of vision, Movie projector
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Reading the Visual – Dr Daniel Chandler
MC10220

Matthew Ruckwood
03/05/2005

The Perception of Motion Pictures
“Why, when we look at a succession of still images on the film screen, are we able to see a continuous moving image?”
During the late 1970s and early 1980s a small group of film scholars radically broke away from the time-honoured explanation of how the human eye (and mind) perceived the apparent motion in cinema. They abandoned the notions of ‘persistence of vision’ and the Phi phenomenon that had pervaded film writing for almost a century and instead sought after a more accurate, less inadequate reason for the illusion of motion in motion pictures.

Namely, these film scholars were the duos of Bill Joseph and Susan J. Lederman and Joseph and Barbara Anderson, both of whose accounts on the matter were published in The Cinematic Apparatus in 1980, but which have remained largely and peculiarly ignored ever since.

Their compellingly convincing, scientifically accurate research and explanations should have drastically altered film academia. But it didn’t. The fundamentally flawed ‘persistence of vision’ theory and the misunderstood Phi phenomenon continue, even to this day, to be applied and referred to in film discourse, in both analytical and formal discussions of the medium.

Why should this be? And where exactly does the truth lie behind how the viewer perceives motion in film, if not in the desperately clung-to concepts of ‘persistence of vision’ and Phi? This is what I aim to discuss.

At the heart of the ‘myth of persistence of vision’, as Joseph and Barbara Anderson dub it, lies the basic question referred to at the beginning of this essay. The term offers an Page 1

Reading the Visual – Dr Daniel Chandler
MC10220

Matthew Ruckwood
03/05/2005

easily understandable concept, held on to because of, frankly, ludicrous grounds such as its supposed elegance and even ‘poetry’ (Herbert nd: WWW Document).

What, then, is persistence of vision? At its most basic, it is the term given to the process of the retina retaining an image it has been presented with for a fraction of a second. When a successive image is presented, the after-image supposedly combines with the new one. Further explanation of how exactly this leads to the illusion of motion in cinema varies, depending on the theorist, from the ability of the retina to hold the image for one-twentieth of a second (allowing a fusion of the next film frame and thus a perceived continuous movement) to a coupling of this theory with the aforementioned Phi phenomenon (Jones nd: WWW Document).

This is a common practice – film scholars who do recognise the inadequacy of persistence of vision, instead of searching out the work presented in The Cinematic Apparatus in the 1980s and the various journals that have covered the issue since, substitute it for the Phi phenomenon.

Investigated and discovered in 1912 by Max Wertheimer, the Phi phenomenon was demonstrated through a now classic experiment. Two separate lines were presented in rapid succession at varying time intervals. At a certain speed, the viewer reported seeing movement between them – ‘a disembodied movement in which the line did not move from one place to another’ (Anderson & Anderson 1993: 6) – despite the fact that all that was being observed were stationary lines flashing on and off. In effect, something in the brain is causing movement to appear to be occurring, with the spectator forming a kind of ‘mental bridge’ that ‘conceptually completes the action frame-to-frame’ (Jones nd: WWW Document), at least according to Michael Jones of

Page 2

Reading the Visual – Dr Daniel Chandler
MC10220

Matthew Ruckwood
03/05/2005

the Richmond Moving Image Co-op organisation. Although, it must be said that he is far from alone in his mistaken assumption of applying Phi to film.

Indeed, James Monaco in How to Read a Film states that the persistence of vision theory was,...
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