Side Note – On 2001: A Space Odyssey and Directing Attention

A couple of days ago, I conducted research in a form both efficient and comfortable. There were no complex apparatuses of science present, only me, my notebook and my TV. This particular means of studying was not wholly unfamiliar, it was quite similar to how I researched the guidance methods in the games I played these past weeks. The main difference was that I was watching a film this time, 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.

In an effort to broaden my research, I studied the film and how the watcher’s attention was guided. I was enthusiastic about learning what video games and films had in common and where they differed. 2001 was a perfect choice, as its visual language is very impressive, especially considering that the film’s 44 years old. I was awestruck by the quality of the visual effects, but that’s not why I’m composing this post. Let’s get to the important stuff, the research part.

Visual guidance and the direction of the observer’s attention is not a new phenomenon by any means. Throughout watching 2001, I found that the abstractions of the methods that I applied to guidance theory in game level design could very well be applied to the visual language of films as well. As such, I’d say it’s safe to assume that although there’s no common terminology for the methods of guidance, there’s a common mentality to how attention guidance is conceived in visual media in general. At several points in the film, I found my attention directed through same or similar means of establishing contrast or irregularity in the visuals.

In order to make it clearer, I will provide snapshot examples from the film with accompanying descriptions. Hopefully this’ll make my thoughts and observations easier to follow. Above all, I recommend you to watch the film yourself after you’ve read this post. It’ll make the examples perhaps even clearer and enable you to confirm or object the observations that I am about to present. Plus, you’ll get to see a great film in the process!
A final word of warning before we get to the pictures, some of the things I mention may contain spoilers to the story. I’ll try my best to not reveal too much, but if you have not seen the film at all before, you have been warned.

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Motion and silhouetting: The above shot demonstrates how the film uses contrast/silhouetting as a means of directing attention. As you can see, the already dark fur on the apes is almost rendered black by the shadows cast on them by a nearby rock. The motion is a bit hard to see in a still picture, but the scene establishes a nice contrast in terms of that as well. The apes move and shift slightly, which works well against the very still environment/wasteland surrounding them.

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Shape and material: This is from where the audience is first introduced to the infamous monolith, an element more or less synonymous with the film itself. Aside from the contrast of the dark monolith against the bright sky behind, our attention is also drawn to the figure because of its shape and material. Midst the rocky, irregular shapes of the environment, the monolith’s unnaturally smooth surface and sharp edges seem very much out of place. Unlike the rocks around it, it is also very reflective and metallic in its appearance.

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Motion and focus: Again, the still above does not demonstrate motion very well, so I’ll describe it the best I can. The pen seen approaching the right hand side of the screen slowly hovers through the air during the scene. Naturally, our eyes follow the moving object, but not only because it is the only thing in motion at the screen. The depth of field is also focused on the pen, leaving the scenery behind out of focus and blurred. Focusing the camera on an object has become more widely used in video games with the development of shader/camera effects. This was not possible or much too expensive on past generations of hardware.

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Framing: This means of directing attention is one that I did not observe during my research of games. Personally, I found this particular instance very visually delicate. In previous shots, the lander (seen in the middle) gently flies through space. As it approaches the landing spot, the perspective shifts to a view from inside, looking up. The ‘teeth’ slowly open and the lander gets closer, slowly as well. The way that the tips of the opening door all point towards the lander is very aesthetic.

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Flashing lights/screens: During this shot of a control/landing panel, the screen with the yellow lines flashes as the screen shows the crew getting closer to the landing spot. This is especially effective as the surroundings are more dimly lit, in a dark red tone.

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Focus point: This observation is perhaps the most theoretical one. This is a still of the all-seeing ‘eye’ of the HAL-9000 computer. The thought that struck me was the small dot at the centre of HAL’s eye/lens. If it had not been there, it would’ve been harder to focus at the very centre of the eye. It acts not only as a focus point for the viewer, but does make the lens look a lot more like a mechanical eye too, which helps establish HAL as being more human than current technology.

These are the most summarizing snapshots that I took during my study of the film and I think that they communicate the methods I observed pretty well. Of course, there might be more to learn from the film, so I’d once again recommend anyone to watch it themselves, if you’re interested in all this.

As I mentioned before, the methods follow the same pattern I often noticed in the games I played. Most often they involve establishing a contrast or an irregularity in the visuals, in order to catch the attention of the viewer/player. There’s a clear advantage to this, as one can use a variety of the different elements of the visuals to do this. It can be achieved through a moving object in an otherwise static environment, through using complimentary colors against one another, through focus depth, conflicting shapes, etc etc.

With this study of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I feel that I have been given a wider perspective. There’s a lot to gather from observing other medium that depend on visual language, some of which might be applicable to video games, or vice versa. Some of the uses of these methods that I observed were perhaps not as easy to employ in a video game in the same way, that all depends on the linearity (or lack thereof) of the storytelling.

I hope that this post helped ‘enlighten’ you as much as my study helped enlighten me. In addendum, I will say that it is fascinating to discover these patterns and common elements in the different mediums. I guess it shows just how much they have in common, yet our experience of them may vary so wildly from time to time that we don’t feel that they are very similar at all. It’s a dopey thought, but one worth thinking about if you appreciate both films and games, like I do!

Until next time!

Marcus out.

Note: 2001: A Space Odyssey belongs to Stanley Kubrick, all rights reserved. Stills from the film are only used for demonstration purposes, according to fair use rationale.