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Researchers at the scene of the crime

Posted on 23/10/2009
Innovative research is putting film and television scripts under the microscope in a bid to support and enhance the production of film for television. The research was conducted by Adam Ganz and Professor Fionn Murtagh, from the Departments of Media Arts and Computer Science respectively, at Royal Holloway, University of London.

By analysing the scripts from popular US television series ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ (CSI), researchers have decoded the structure and hidden patterns in meaning that make the scripts successful. The research, entitled ‘Tag Clouds for Displaying Semantics: The Case of Film Scripts’, will be published in the journal ‘Information Visualization’ and is already accessible online.

‘Tag clouds’ are a visual depiction of information that use elements such as a word’s size, colour and positioning to instantly provide a range of information, for example a word’s size could reflect its frequency in the analysed text. They feature prominently in the data repository ‘Flickr’, and have been explored by Stewart McKie who is studying for his PhD in the Department of Media Arts and also contributed to the research project.

The research employs ‘tag clouds’ to present important information about scenes in CSI; using the visualisation of words taken from the script to characterise scenes and, for example, the prominence of each character. The ‘tag clouds’ simultaneously encompass a multitude of elements from the script using a purely automated selection basis, with no human selection involved.

With the advancement of new technologies, research in this area this is becoming increasingly important to the television industry. Programme commissioners are looking to develop software to predict the commercial success or failure of a script and the use of ‘tag clouds’ can help both writers and producers understand the common variables of a successful script.

“Our analysis is uncovering structure and patterns in what lies behind the television drama,” explains Adam Ganz. “What we are doing is like what Grissom, Catherine, Sara, Nick and the rest are up to in ‘CSI: Las Vegas’. Ultimately these patterns could be very helpful in helping teams of writers to work together – to keep them on the same page, so to speak.”

The increasing risks and costs inherent in television production have created an unpredictable market, and this research will have significant commercial implications. The convergence of programmes from television to other media, such as films, gaming and the internet, has already resulted in substantial generation of revenue from areas other than television. The use of the techniques developed at Royal Holloway will help to develop a way to understand the distinctive qualities of a show that make it so successful – its unique fingerprint – and ensure those qualities are maintained when the show migrates to other media.

The use of ‘tag clouds’ to present the scripts’ data allows the immediate communication of a range of the script’s properties, and having successfully applied this process of analysis to film and television scripts there is significant scope for it to be employed in numerous other areas – with the same benefits.

“Analysis of narrative like this has implications for many areas beyond our immediate focus on the evolving production process for films and television,” comments Professor Murtagh. “The world is changing hugely for film, television, games, and all online media. Beyond film scripts, our work has relevance for any other partially structured, time-ordered sequence of text segments. Think of getting rapid access to anomalous news-feeds, or finding salient underlying elements in business scenario planning.”

The advance online access in the journal ‘Information Visualization’ (Palgrave Macmillan) is available for subscribed users: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/ivs/index.html


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