The Magic that happens between the Frames

Last night, my daughter asked me why a movie is so much more scary than the book. That was her question, she just turned 5.

I tried to explain my theory, which goes something like this.

In watching a projected movie in a cinema – film not video – images are projected one at a time, and your brain works on the images and makes it look like they are moving, but they are not. It is a series of of still images – the motion is an illusion. So you have a series of images, flashing before your eyes. But what, you ask, happens during the time the images are no on the screen? When the screen is black?

Ahh, the magic that happens between the frames. It is why going to the cinema is different from watching a movie at home. In a cinema (movie theater) you are sitting in a dark room, surrounded predominantly be strangers. So you have a few things happening.

1. You are anonymous – Most people are not going to laugh at someone getting poked in the eyes, or someone getting hit over the head by a piano. But in a movie theater, people will. Why? Because no one can see you. No one knows you are laughing. You have a sense of freedom, no one can see you as you laugh at someone else’s misery, because you are hiding in the dark. So you are liberated, liberated to cry as well at one of those chic flicks you secretly sneak into after buying the ticket for the Action flick – you know who you are. The darkness is in a way comforting, in that it allows you to be  anonymous, one with the crowd. it is safe to laugh or cry, because you are just one of the Crowd. – Wasn’t that a King Vidor picture?

2. You are surrounded by strangers, so while it may in one sense be comforting, you are surrounded by strangers, sitting in the dark. What are they doing behind you? is one going to attack you? Are you safe? All this is working on you, churning in your brain, parts of your brain that are primitive (Primitive referring to first and not underdeveloped.) The primitive brain (I think it is called the Lymbic center) which works differently from the more cognitive parts of the brain.

Now you are seeing 24 FPS, and no matter how many blades the shutter has (2 or 3) half the time you are sitting in complete darkness. You see an image, and faster than you can consciously realize, you are sitting in complete darkness, surrounded by strangers, watching images that are huge, and fill your field of view. And it is in between  those bright images, in the darkness where our fears, and hopes and dreams have their home, that is where our brain processes what we have seen. It works in a dark movie theater, surrounded by strangers, watching film projection – we are transported out of our chairs into the world we are watching. All because unknowingly, our brain is working at what it sees. It has the time to process, to dream. Cinema exists in the realm of dreams.

Given the right conditions, and the effect can be amazing, engrossing, all en-composing on an emotional level.Put us in a bright auditorium, and the effect is lessened. Distracting music, or popcorn munching, and it breaks our brain away. Watch it on a small screen, in the comfort of our own home, open to distractions, and in control of the “film.” We lose so much of the effect.

Electronic projection, as far as I know, does not follow the same rules. The frame never goes completely black, there is always an image visible to us. So no existence in the realm of dreams.  Perhaps one day digital projection will be able to give us complete black in-between the frames to dream in, perhaps it is here already? Gamers have a big influence as well, demanding higher frame rates and smoother motion. Our visual acuity has improved as well over the years. We have become much more adept at deciphering the meanings of a shot or image in a much quicker time – Harken back to Dziga Vertov, and those wacky Russian Constructionists filmmakers – This just leads to quicker cutting, not necessarily a higher frame rate. Higher frame rates – for why? To render motion smoother? For more reality? Yes, a greater sense of reality, but again, no time for us to enter the realm of dreams. I don’t go to the movie theater for a dose of reality. I go for this elusive feeling known as Cinema.

In the Cinema we are as we are meant to be. A social animal, scared, on edge, huddled in the dark, with our emotions running on high, we are dreaming, but we are not asleep.

Thanks for reading.

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20 Responses to The Magic that happens between the Frames

  1. Michelle Shyman May 15, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    love it; love the sitting in the dark being scared; the insertion of our own imaginations into the blackouts.

  2. Bubber July 2, 2011 at 11:28 pm #

    Superbly ilulimanting data here, thanks!

  3. Kate Gladstone August 16, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

    The King Vidor movie you have in mind is THE CROWD.
    Are you a King Vidor fan? What about Paul Leni (director of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS)?

    • sgladstone August 16, 2012 at 10:47 pm #

      Kate, I was aware of that, which is why I wrote wasn’t that a King Vidor picture. It wasn’t really a question.

  4. Kate Gladstone August 16, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    The primitive system of the brain (that you mention above) is called the limbic system.

  5. Kate Gladstone August 16, 2012 at 10:32 pm #

    There actually _are_ electronic glasses that momentarily turn the visual field black, at very rapid and regular intervals. These are used to treat “lazy eye” —

    (Admittedly, these special glasses are programmed to do this trick only to one lens: the lens over the stronger eye — in order to force the lazy eye to do its work. However, it should be possible to program the equipment to do the same thing for both eyes simultaneously.)

    • sgladstone August 16, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

      Yes and there are “Active 3D Glasses” which shut one eye off at a time to provide the 3D effect. Which is neither here nor there, as they are not used to completely black out the picture allowing the brain it’s momentary darkness in which to process the image. Never said it couldn’t be done, only that it isn’t done.

  6. Kate Gladstone August 16, 2012 at 10:36 pm #


    If reality isn’t in color, how do we manage to tell the difference between color and black-and-white?

    And what are the grounds for figuring that we are *really* meant to be “scared, on edge, huddled in the dark”?

  7. sgladstone August 16, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

    The answer to both is the same. We are either predator or prey. 🙂 From what I have learned color is not the most important component of our vision, contrast is. Color is a cheat. In many ways I feel Black and White is more real than color, because in Black and white to create a compelling image so much more has to be put into the image, it has more context. Adding color to an image adds a level of separation to the image.

  8. Alan Dean September 19, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    Due to the persistance of vision, our brains never get
    to see the dark frame. Sorry about that. Nice theory though.

    • sgladstone September 19, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

      Really, are you sure about persistence of Vision? I’m encouraging a good conversation, but there is no light actually hitting the eyes, so any persistence would be what then?

      Good conversation. I’ll go look up some sources.

  9. Kate Gladstone June 13, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    The part of the brain that you’re talking about (one of the older parts, or — to make this precise — a system composed of some of the older parts of the brain) is called the “limbic system.”


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