What’s the difference between Crank 2: High Voltage and Rushmore? Depends who you ask, and there’s no accounting for taste. (I love both, for what it’s worth.) But what if there were a way to quantify the pure cinematic DNA of any film—using signals such as shot length, amount of camera movement, color palette, and more—and distill it all into a visual "fingerprint" that can be taken in at a glance, and compared instantly with any other film?
Well, a student designer named Frederic Brodbeck went and did exactly that. He calls his animated filmic uber-infographics "Cinemetrics," and once you’ve seen them, you’ll wish he made one for every film in the IMDB.
Cinemetrics grew from Brodbeck’s insight that "nobody has ever seen a movie the way it really is, but always just a partial view. Since motion pictures are a time-based medium, they can only be seen one image at a time—only as a fraction, never as a whole—that’s why it’s hard to capture and display them in their entireness." Creating a visualization of a film that lets you "pop out" of its one-dimensional linearity and assess it all at once was Brodbeck’s goal, and he had to homebrew half a dozen pieces of software in order to do it.
"It’s not as easy as loading a movie and pushing a 'start’ button," he tells Co.Design. But the results are stunning in what they reveal, especially when comparing two films side by side. You’d probably think that the original Solaris—directed by that king of the glacial pace, Andrei Tarkovsky—would have a lot less overall movement than Steven Soderbergh’s shorter, snappier-feeling remake. Actually, the opposite is true: Tarkovsky’s Cinemetric has a lot more pulsating movement, an attribute that Brodbeck’s visual design makes instantly obvious.
Brodbeck’s quantitative visual analysis uncovered some other non-obvious information, too. "In terms of motion, many movies share a similar pattern: a bit of action in the beginning, small bursts of movement in between and a rather big peak shortly before the end. So there must be a strong correlation between motion and dramaturgy," he says. And who can deny the fun of comparing a Cinemetric of Aliens (all steel gray and blue pulsating spikes, perfectly distilling James Cameron’s kinetic style) to a Cinemetric of porn (flesh tones and about four camera angles in the whole film)?
Brodbeck hasn’t wrapped up his code into a neat package that non-technical cinephiles can operate. But given how important data visualization is becoming to all the media and culture we consume and create—Facebook Timeline, anyone?—the IMDB might want to take my tip above about hiring Brodbeck seriously. Talk about a blockbuster iPad app.