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.