Sequence Analysis (Film) vs. Task Analysis (HCI)

I was reading a book on film theory, French Cinema: A Student’s Guide (Powrie & Reader, Oxford University Press, 2002; currently out of print in the USA), and I found a chapter that I really wish I had assigned to this class (there is always next fall, right?).

The chapter contains a very handy description with some examples of a technique known as “sequence analysis,” which is a structuralist-inspired meat-and-potatoes analysis of a film sequence (usually 7-12 minutes, comprising a single narrative unit). One of the reasons I wish you had all seen it is because, though clearly inspired by structuralism (particularly the notion of syntagmatic analysis), it doesn’t wallow in theory and fancy words, but actually gets very serious and specific about analyzing units of film in a way that anyone can understand and emulate.

Before I share my thoughts on it with regard to its applicability to interaction design, let me at least give you a sense for what it looks like. Basically, you identify a “sequence” in a film, which is a chunk of film all taking place as a part of a singular narrative unit (e.g., a car chase, or the 10-minute mini-movie that starts all James Bond films, before the credits). A sequence analysis then painstaking breaks down and spells out the major elements of every single shot within that sequence, including the following:

  • Description of the shot (including what it shows as well as transitions and effects)
  • Camera positioning and movement
  • All lines of dialogue within that shot

I’ve scanned in two pages from the book that show this kind of analysis in action, derived from a sequence from the 1939 French realist film, Le Jour se lève. They are available in PDF here.

So what is the value of such a detailed breakdown? It is hard for someone in the act of watching a film to analyze it, since the film is always moving, and its experience is ephemeral. And afterwards, one must rely on memory. Sequence analysis renders the fine details of the film easily visible. Once visible, it is much more easy to see patterns emerge, patterns which shape our comprehension, interpretation, and experience of the film; but this shaping occurs only unconsciously.

It made me think about how it compares to “task analysis” in HCI. Task analysis, like sequence analysis, focuses on objective characteristics of an interaction sequence. But whereas task analysis if often used as a means to measure efficiency to ascertain usability, sequence analysis in film is used to gain insight into the objective basis of a subjective phenomenon: the experience of a film. As we start to take the cultural dimensions of interaction design more seriously, perhaps we might learn a thing or two by combining sequence analysis and task analysis.


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