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Response to Zettl, “The Two-Dimensional Field: Forces within the Screen”

This week in my communications class we’re moving away from still images into the world of video, and what better place to start talking about video than the screen itself. In chapter 7 of Herbert Zettl’s Sight, Sound and Motion: Applied Media, we read about screen space and the field forces that shape our perception of objects.

Up until the early 2000’s, it was common for widescreen screens to be seen only in movie theaters. Television and computer screens were more square than rectangular, the shape being one of 4 feet in width for every 3 feet in height (4:3). With the advent of HDTVs, it was possible to display a lot more detail on consumer quality screens, and thus one could recreate the cinematic experience at home on their TV. Since most motion pictures are recorded in widescreen, or the aspect ratio 16:9, a 4:3 aspect ratio just wouldn’t do on HDTVs. Computer screens and TV screens are now a lot wider than they are long, such as the TV pictured above.

Now, why did we decide on 16:9 in the first place? Why not have 9:16 screens that are much taller than they are wide? Zettl explains that “a horizontal arrangement seems to suggest calmness, tranquility, and rest.” Vertical space, in contrast, seems “more dynamic, powerful, and exciting” than horizontal space. Tall buildings are a lot more powerful of a statement than a long stretch of beach, and people have used this property of our perception for centuries when designing structures.

As Zettl points out, people are very good at detecting when something isn’t horizontally stable. Does that picture of the TV above look weird to you? It looked weird to me when I added it, and the reason is because the left side is slightly higher in the frame than the left side, a fact that I’ve illustrated in the graphic above. It’s only a difference of about 10 pixels, but people are great at noticing these problems. At best, tilting the X axis can make an image appear more dynamic or can be used to enhance the instability of a horror movie, but at worst it can really make us uncomfortable. Diagonal lines are best to be avoided if you want peace and tranquility.

Just try and relax. I dare you.
Just try and relax. I dare you.

Another force at play inside the frame is the magnetic pull of its edges. If something is in the corner or right near the edge of the frame, it looks as though it’s glued there despite the pull of gravity. It can also be used to define a boundary. If a person is standing right at the edge of the frame it can give the illusion that they’re against a wall, which is why in horror movies people in hiding are often shown to be cornered in the edge of a frame. There’s no escape.

Drawing upon our earlier discussions of left and right, positioning is also a big deal on screen. We’re naturally inclined as a culture to pay attention to objects on the right-hand side of the screen as being more important than the left, and so in comedy shows the host is always on the right. In news broadcasts, the trend is usually reversed so that the screen is balanced. The low-energy footage is on the right and the newscaster is on the left, cancelling out our perceptions of left and right in a sense.

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