THE OBSERVER EFFECT

Until I directed “Occupying Ed” I had a rule: never let the screenwriter on set during filming.  Why?  Because I knew—even though I’m very confident when it comes to staying focused while directing a movie—the presence of that extra set of eyes would sneak in and prevent me from being able to focus 100%.

Even if that screenwriter promised to stand in the corner and keep still, silent as can be, I would be aware of their presence.  Even if it were a small number, there would still be some kind of percentage of my focus wondering if they liked what they saw, liked what they heard, and so forth.  And, it would be doubly difficult to rewrite something in the middle of the scene if certain words just weren’t flowing as well verbally as they did on paper.

I like the freedom to rewrite a scene while we’re filming, and having the ability to feel the natural flow of what comes from letting the scene organically change when needed.  Having the screenwriter present can sometimes cause a challenge in that process.

What I’m talking about is The Observer Effect.  Which, I just learned, is an actual thing!

According to Wikipedia, The Observer Effect (also called the experimenter-expectancy effect, expectancy bias, or experimenter effect) is a form of reactivity in which a researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to unconsciously influence the participants of an experiment.  It is a significant threat to a study’s internal validity, and is therefore typically controlled using a double-blind experimental design.

An example of The Observer Effect is demonstrated in music backmasking, in which hidden verbal messages are said to be audible when a recording is played backwards.  Some people expect to hear hidden messages when reversing songs, and therefore hear the messages, but to others it sounds like nothing more than random sounds.  Often when a song is played backwards, a listener will fail to notice the “hidden” lyrics until they are explicitly pointed out, after which they are obvious.

On a film set, observers have a great influence on the process regardless whether they are screenwriters, production assistants, other actors, or camera crew.  It is because of this my new rule is: keep the sets closed at all times.  From everyone.  No one should be there on set but me.

Okay, I’m kidding.  I won’t go that far.  But I do think it’s a wise move to limit the numbers of eyes on a film set.  Actors are delicate creatures (cough) that need to feel safe in their environment so they can do what they do.  Same goes for directors, cinematographers and sound people.

Really there shouldn’t be anyone else on set that doesn’t need to be there.  On occasion for a tricky move, it’s important to have assistance and various crew people on hand.

Sometimes, of course, The Observer Effect is so minimal it’s as if there is no effect.  When we filmed “Occupying Ed” the screenwriter Jim Lair Beard and his wife, Christine, were extras during some scenes.  And you know what, it was an absolute pleasure to have them on set and to share in the experience.  I never once felt like my focus as director was in any way compromised.

That experience was so lovely that it changed my mind about The Observer Effect.  But, it’s still true: You can never purely observe anything because the presence of the observer changes the thing.  Keep that in mind.