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A matter of time

10 April 2012

"Koyaanisqatsi. Koyaanisqatsi."

I watched Koyaanisqatsi yesterday. It was a long time coming, I’ve been listening to the awesome soundtrack for more than 20 years. But then I’ve always liked Phillip Glass. And to be fair, that was one of the main reasons I decided to finally watch a 30-year-old experimental, obscure and unscripted documentary.

As it happens, I liked it. It was sort of powerful, and even though the messages were a bit blunt and obvious in places, it was a beautiful piece of work.

But this is not an overdue review of Koyaanisqatsi. No, instead I want to discuss a phenomenon I discovered watching the film: time-lapse effects.

Koyaanisqatsi is filled with time-lapse effects. From cloudscapes pouring over mountain ridges like waterfalls to shadows creeping across desert canyons, it is used to emphasise patterns too slow to notice in real-time. But as I watched the high-speed footage of New York traffic, I noticed something peculiar. The faster the speed, the less important the individual cars and people seemed to be. It was almost like the producer had an “emotional importance”-slider, and he adjusted it to help us focus on specific individuals whilst others became just like insects, lost in a blur.

Why is this? Why do people depicted in slow motion seem more important? And why, when we speed the footage up, do they look first appear comical and then unimportant?

Time to process

How many of the cars seem important to you? Answer: the one in the middle.

My first thought was that this effect might have something to do with our brain being given more time to process slow-moving objects and people than fast-moving ones. It might just be that our brain is struggling to make sense of those blurry shapes and therefore disregard them as unimportant. This didn’t ring true however, and even if I guess this might be the case, it doesn’t explain why I felt a more emotionally attachment to the slow-moving people. Clearly there must be more to this phenomenon than pure processing speed.

The ‘cool factor’

So then I started to think in terms of how slowed down human movements could possibly make more of an impact than hasty, speeded up ones. And I remembered a post I wrote many moons ago on the essence of ‘cool’. In that post, I concluded that slow determined movements was a sign of a person being confident and feeling in control, and that this is why people look cooler in slow-motion. Ok, great! That must be it then. That’s why I felt the urge to focus more on the slow-motion people than the hi-speed ones.

Erm, no. Very few of the people in the film seemed to be in control, and they didn’t look cool, even when slowed down to a crawl. Also, the same emotional attachment could be felt towards cars in high-speed traffic footage, where cars slowing down or stopping suddenly appeared much more important. And they didn’t look cool either.

The answer might be ‘no answer’

So I’m still no closer to an explanation to this intriguing phenomenon. It might be that by slowing down footage, they occupy more time and therefore trigger our brains to give it more focus. And by giving it more focus, we automatically become more attached to it – perhaps just because we’ve invested time and energy on studying it.

Or. It could just be an anomaly of how our brain works. A side-effect, if you will. Nothing that would give us any kind of benefit, but also not enough of a drawback to be selected against. I know, it sounds a bit like a cop-out but sometimes that’s how it is.

So, sorry about leading you all into this blind alley! Feel free to scorn me in the comments. Or – even better – perhaps you’ve got some ideas regarding this phenomenon.

At least this post wasn’t a total bust; I got to use the word ‘phenomenon’ five times, which is just great!

P.S. I know this post is a bit on the short side, but that’s due to unforseen circumstances. Hopefully everything will be back to normal in a few weeks.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 April 2012 17:14

    It’s guess it’s the focus. Just as when a camera focuses from the foreground to the background, your focus is drawn there. Just the same as if you are actually looking at a real life scene, your eyes focus on the object you are paying attention to.
    The faster moving images are a blur, constantly changing and impossible to really focus on, so we are drawn to the only part that is “in focus” on the screen.
    I know that doesn’t explain why, but the fact that we can see it clearly has to be one of the factors. And it’s easier to search for, and find, patterns within an area that doesn’t have too much informational noise, like rapidly changing images.

    Or maybe it’s that the small movements in the slow moving part are seen as a more significant change, compared to the constantly moving fast moving parts of the screen?
    As if the brain is assuming “this part doesn’t more and this part always moves”, respectively. Thus, when this rule is broken, it becomes something to pay attention to?

    I don’t know. I want to blame squirrels. They’re obviously up to something, maybe they’re conditioning us to want to move really slowly so they can take over the world!

    Like

    • 11 April 2012 07:45

      Heheh! Yes, we should ALWAYS be able to blame squirrels. Dirty creatures!

      But you might be onto something: focus is certainly part of attachment. And in a non-scripted and sparse film like Koyaanisqatsi, anything that get your focus will perhaps inevitably make you emotionally attached. And perhaps the minimalistic music helps with this as well..

      Like

  2. 10 April 2012 17:39

    I loved this film when it came out and saw it many times. Even included a YouTube video on one of my blogs a while back with a few minutes at nearly the very end.

    So glad you enjoyed it. Great music.

    Like

    • 11 April 2012 07:46

      I’ve LOVED the music ever since I heard it 20 years ago, and I always intended to watch the film. It just never happened. Until now, that is.

      Like

  3. 11 April 2012 02:14

    I have no explanations. And I didn’t know this movie even existed. I know! I am lacking in culture. I am culture-deficient.

    I like the title very much. “Koyaanisqatsi” is a very, very fun word. I have a weird thing for double vowels.

    Like

  4. 26 April 2012 13:24

    Why on earth would you want a cake you couldn’t eat? What the hell would be the point of that?

    Like

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