One line of my research examines communication through Narrative media, focusing on the rational (meaning based) and emotional (affect based) factors that influence the ways in which directors and actors relay messages to audiences. I do so by measuring (both quantitatively and qualitatively) the intentions and experiences of creators during filmmaking, and the impressions and reactions of viewers while viewing – and then looking at how, when, and why they converge.
I used the production of my feature film Belief to collect a host of data about the creation and consumption of narrative media. Make Belief was a multi-study project extending from my doctoral dissertation. Four particular studies were conducted:
1. Creation. I charted the emotions and attitudes of the actors, crew, and myself as director throughout the filming of over 100 scenes. I was then able to see how certain performers coalesced over time, while others grew apart. I also was able to correlate the quantitative data with key personal and production events to see how performances and emotions were impacted. Ultimately, what could be seen both in the film and in the behind-the-scenes footage was later corroborated by the data. This paper won the 2013 Best Paper – First Place Award from the Division of Film, Theatre, and New Multimedia at NCA.
2. Screening. I compared the responses of all creators to the responses of viewers invited to a special live test-screening of Belief. The central premise of my theory of narrative communication held true, that the greater the emotional match between creators (when creating) and viewers (when viewing), the more viewers appreciated the film. Other research examined emotional alignment (or empathy) and its impact on evaluations of character identification and moral judgment of characters. This paper won the 2012 Top Paper Award from the Mass Communication Division at NCA.
3. Individual Scenes. Similar to Study 2 in nature, this study used an online survey interface to show participants a series of specific scenes from the film, and examined the alliances that audience members made with specific characters. Results largely corroborated those of Study 2, with some intriguing nuanced findings about rival characters. This study was presented at NCA 2013.
4. Visualizing Dramatic Structure. The fourth study brought an audience to a special screening room to engage in “Segmentation Technique” – where, throughout the screening, they would note whenever they felt something ‘meaningful’ occurred in the film. This data was analyzed to chart patterns of attention, and then correlated (collectively and individually) with segmentation data from the creators watching the film. What emerged was evidence for a 3-act structure in the audience’s attention patterns, as can be seen below. This study will be presented as a Top Paper of Film, Theatre, and New Multimedia at NCA 2014.
Ultimately, Make Belief presents a glimpse into how we consume and relate to narrative media. It also makes a fairly compelling argument for studying such media as a 2-sided communication process, rather than focusing on merely uses or effects.