Thursday, January 17, 2013

Critical Thinking Thursday: Movie Magic and the Power of Editing

Today, I want to talk a little bit about "movie magic," and especially about how the power of editing can make things appear different than how they really are.  This is a trick that's used for everything from movies to televised magicians and even the nightly news, and recognizing it in advance can help you keep a clear head any time you see something outlandish on a screen -- be it Criss Angel, Fox News or a YouTube video.  

What You Have to See to Believe

Humans are visual creatures.  Although we have four other senses that provide us with valuable information, our eyes are the thing we rely on the most. Take just a moment to appreciate how amazing the human eye really is.  This complex little organ takes in light, which then travels to your brain, which sorts through the light, converts it into images and assigns meaning to those images.  The simple act of reading these words on the screen is an impressive feat of nature's engineering.  We've evolved these eyeballs -- and the brains that go with them -- for milennia.  Cameras, on the other hand, have only been around for a few centuries, and motion-capture cameras have been around for just a few generations.  There are people alive today who were born in a time when there were no videos -- and now everybody can take a video with a device that fits into their pocket.  It's awe-inspiring.  

Now that we've got that out of the way, here's the thing about human brains.  Our brains are pretty much conditioned to believe that they can trust the information delivered by our eyes.  If we see something, our default state is belief.  Questioning that belief requires effort -- critical thought, in other words.  So if you're fooled by the things you see, it doesn't mean you're stupid.  It just means that your brain is having a hard time keeping up with these rapid changes in technology. 

Ways That Cameras Can Lie

There are a lot of ways that a camera can lie to you, and a lot of different applications for those lies.  Here are a few examples:  
  • Shooting multiple takes.  For example, a television psychic approaches a man on the street and says, "Excuse me, is your wife named Mary?" and the astonished man says, "Why, yes, she is!"  What the audience doesn't know is that the psychic approached a dozen other people and asked that same question; this gentleman is the only one who said yes.  Since all of the unsuccessful attempts were cut, the psychic looks more successful than he really is. 
  • Editing footage together.  A person on a reality TV show wins a storage unit.  You see the auctioneer cut off the lock, signifying that the unit hasn't been tampered with.  The winner walks inside, opens a box, and finds a priceless antique.  What you don't see?  Between the shot of the lock being broken and the winner walking inside, the camera is shut off and the camera crew places the valuable item inside to be "discovered."  When it's edited together, it appears that the item was there all along.  This was one of the very first "magic" tricks ever done with a camera.  The concept of an item appearing out of thin air was, at the time, inconceivable, and it fooled a lot of people.  Things don't just spontaneously appear in real life.  But they can and do in film, where a shot could have taken hours or even weeks to put together.  
  • Cutting and cropping.  Like the picture above, you can take anything and make it look like something else by zeroing in on one small part of it.  The ability to focus and crop a photograph is one of the things that makes photography an artform, an expression of the person behind the camera, rather than just 'real life.'  But never forget that everything you see could have been manually put together or cut in a way that creates a reporting bias.  
  • Post-production editing.  In the old days, people needed to do this sort of thing in a dark room.  Today, we have Photoshop.  However you do it, the premise is the same: you change a photograph or video after it's been shot to look different.  For example, you can airbrush a model to make her appear thinner.  You can combine human features with animals to create were-people.  Or you can use your iPhone to insert ghosts into cell phone pictures.  
  • Claiming that natural events are supernatural.  This one doesn't even require editing -- just viewers who don't understand cameras.  Have you ever seen those photographs that supposedly have "spirit orbs" or other such things?  What the photographer isn't telling you is that those floating balls of light are actually just dust particles that are reflecting light into the camera lens.  
There are tons more tricks -- from using a green screen to computer-animated special effects -- and of course out-and-out faking (for example: the "stranger on the street" is actually a paid actor).  Here's what's important for you:  Don't trust anything you see on TV without thinking critically about it!  

Ask yourself whether some or all of these techniques could have been used on the footage you've seen.  Ask yourself whether the things you see seem plausible or if they seem to go against what you know about the rest of the world.  Determine whether there is any external way to validate a claim being made in a video you're watching.  For example: Are there other videos from other people that show the same thing?  Can you talk to a real witness who saw it happen?  Is there a paper trail or other history that backs up what you're seeing?  Is there any reason why the footage should have been faked?  

Not everything you see on TV is a lie, but learning how to spot a forgery is a good task to keep in your arsenal of critical thinking skills. 

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