Film Studies

Film on the Faultline

Film on the Faultline
Edited by Alan Wright
Article by Ozge Samanci
Earthquakes in Film: Exploring Visualization Strategies

Policy-makers have the capacity to minimize the possible damage created by an earthquake in a populated area if they have the required information represented in a comprehensible way. Through the visual simulation of hazards and risks, seismic loss assessment aims to identify the most influential attributes and criteria in earthquake decision making in order to improve our understanding of the perception, assessment and communication of risk. A visualization project based on the creation of a visual vocabulary and grammar drawn from film can aid decision making in the event of an earthquake and directly affect the process of minimizing risk and damage. I was part of a research group that made empirical and experimental tests which explored the effects of visualizations on engineers and decision makers. The study of the representation of the earthquake in the movies offers a novel perspective for developing software maps by merging the approaches of film studies, visual culture and humanities with public policy and psychology.

Figure 3.1 a- c: Stills from Street (1976).

Figure 3.1 a-
c: Stills from Street (1976).

The representation of an earthquake in a fiction film has most likely been produced by a layman such as a director, a cinematographer or an art director rather than by a specialist such as a seismographer, a scientist or a geologist. The disjunction between the interfaces offered by a layman and a specialist contains significant potential for research. Even though, in the case of earthquakes, the information for risk visualization has often been gathered by scientists, policy-makers are not necessarily scientists and they may not be familiar with scientific terminology. Establishing a link between scientists and policy-makers presents a significant challenge. A film survey can help identify, more broadly, communicative strategies.

To this end, we compiled a list of films which portrayed earthquakes, drawn from the databases of the American Film Institute, the definitive reference work for American feature length films, and the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), a fan created online database. A keyword search for “earthquake” yielded approximately 200 titles which included Intacto (Fresnadillo, 2001), Masumiyet / Innocence (Demirkubuz, 1997), Superman (Donner, 1978), A View to Kill (Glen, 1985), Kingu Kongu tai Gojira /King Kong versus Godzilla (Honda, 1962), Volcano (Jackson, 1997), Earthquake (Robson, 1974), Escape from LA (Carpenter, 1996), The Running Man (Glaser, 1987), Earthquake: Nature Unleashed (Takács, 2004) and The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake (Elikann. 1990), The Great San Francisco Earthquake (2005). With the exception of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, all films in this list can be classified as fiction. The availability of the titles from video rental services and library sources designated the final list.

Figure 3.1 a- c: Stills from Street (1976).

Figure 3.1 a-
c: Stills from Street (1976).

Six hundred frames from 12 films were selected, captured and analysed in order to illustrate the strategies of cinematic visualization that they employed in the representation of earthquakes. The films surveyed revealed a number of common themes and familiar techniques, which supplied the basis for a set of categories that were then used to develop software maps to aid in visualization and decision strategies for seismic loss assessment. The reader should consult the website “Snapshots: Representations of Earthquakes in Movies” [http://dm.lcc.gatech.edu/~osamanci/earthquakesinfilm.htm] in order to view the frames and figures that I will refer to throughout the chapter. The site currently exists in two versions. In Version I, the frames are presented in linear order [http://dm.lcc.gatech.edu/~osamanci/earthquake/earthquake.htm]. All frames sourced from a single movie appear within a single slide show. In this way, viewers are able to see the earthquake related frames in relation to story development. This version functions as a support for Version II that presents the frames according to visual strategies [http://dm.lcc.gatech.edu/~osamanci/earthquake/filmtech.htm].

Figure 3.1 a- c: Stills from Street (1976).

Figure 3.1 a-
c: Stills from Street (1976).

After identifying these visual and thematic categories, we applied the concepts of “inside perspective” and “outside perspective” as developed by Bryant and Tversky (1999) to describe how viewers and participants imagine themselves in relation to the scene. Bryant and Tversky study the effects of various representations by taking a three dimensional representation of a character surrounded by objects to six sides of the body. They found that “[a]lthough 3D models and depth-enriched diagrams promoted a 3D mental representation but flat diagrams did not, instructions to adopt an inside perspective enabled 3D mental representation from flat diagrams” (Bryant and Tversky 1999: 155). While few of the frames in the sample completely exhibit insider or outsider points of view, the majority of representations contain representational strategies that enforce both points of view. The viewer of the film is invited to imagine themselves as simultaneously inhabiting a space that is both inside and outside the field of action. Whether the product of a conscious or an unconscious creative choice on the part of the film-maker, a balance between insider and outsider perspectives helps the spectator to continue viewing without feeling alienated. In the theatre the same technique is referred to as the “fourth wall,” the boundary between the stage and audience that has been removed, so to speak, but that continues to exist as an invisible barrier that prevents the action of the play from invading the real world.

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