Thoughts From Our Heads

Thoughts From Our Heads


Blade Runner: Movie scene shifts and attention span

Tuesday 31st October 2017

This week in preparation for the Blade Runner: 2049 film, I went back to 1982 and watched the original Harrison Ford version. The film is definitely worth a watch before you check out the Ryan Gosling remake. 


The original Blade Runner is set in a futuristic 2019 where we have mastered androids that are practically indistinguishable from humans. It wasn't the impressive attempts at displaying 21st century technology, the gory death scenes or the emotional ups and downs which most struck me about the film; it was the scene changes and the slow nature of the events unfolding. Watching a film from the 80's makes you realise how much entertainment has changed and how film has evolved to capture our attention. The original Blade Runner features long shots of a brooding Harrison Ford, slow and suspenseful movements from the cast and drawn out conversions. Even the action shots take their time. 

James Cutting, a psychologist at Cornell University has conducted some research on the evolution of cinema. "The average shot length of English language films has declined from about 12 seconds in 1930 to about 2.5 seconds today", Cutting said. 

Shorter film scenes demand more attention from the audience, you can't drift off when every three seconds there is something new to follow. But change too much and the audience will become lost and switch off anyway. In the fight for our attention there is a fine line between excitement and confusion. The best films master a mix of both. Cutting says, "the Empire Strikes Back, for example, accomplished this with its rhythm of short-take action sequences separated by periods of relative calm."

The shorter scenes in movies is matched by a shortening of well, everything. Videos on Instagram have a time limit of one minute, we scan for what's new on news apps and Facebook, and are encouraged to share our lives in 140 characters or less. 

So how do these changes in how we consume media affect our work? A common problem I see discussed in training is the ability to focus on one thing at a time. People blame phones, emails, colleagues and managers and tend to overlook their own internal desire for change because they are bored after a few minutes. By constantly distracting ourselves we lose the ability to get into flow (a state of complete immersion and high productivity) on tasks and the quality of work goes down. 

For later Millennials and Generation Z who have grown up with smart phones this issue is even more prevalent. If employees aren't able to focus on one thing for very long they may gain in quick action, immediate response to others demands and rapid decision making but lose in deep focus and deliberation, attention to their own needs and priorities and critical thinking and analysis of options. Like the Empire Strikes Back; we need to find our own right balance of quick and new tasks and longer focussed work. For simpler, routine work we may be able to get away with our short attention span and need for variety but for more complex work we need to find a way to channel our attention and stay with one task.

Here are some tips for improving your attention span:

Remove any immediate distractions from your work environment - turn over your phone, turn off email pop up, clear your desk and and close unnecessary browsers.
Stay focussed on one task for 20 minutes - set a timer and at the end of 20 minutes take a refresh break - walk, drink water, stretch.
Exercise regularly - exercise helps you focus and is great for clearing your mind.
Meditate - meditation techniques help you to shut out the noise and let thoughts pass through you.
Drink water - studies have linked dehydration to inattention.
Prioritise at the start of each day - list out the 3-5 things that you absolutely must get done at the start of your day and work on them in turn, through to completion. 

For more on this topic:

Wired-How Cinema is evolving
Dr Aric Sigman: Remotely Controlled - How Television is Damaging Our Lives