[with object] have an effect on; make a difference to: the dampness began to affect my health
[with clause]: your attitude will affect how successful you are
touch the feelings of; move emotionally: he was visibly affected by the tragedy
[mass noun] Psychology
emotion or desire as influencing behaviour
– Oxford Dictionaries
Cinema and Empathy
According to Aristotle the purpose of tragedy is to arouse fear and pity that result in catharsis. The ancient Indian theory of drama Natya Shastra contains the terms ‘rasa’ which is a ‘literary emotion’ in the text or performed by an actor (such as fear), and ‘bhava’ which is the emotion evoked in the viewer (such as fearing with the character, or pity).
Emotionally, the audience reacts to what they see on the screen or stage the same way they react to it in real life, even while being aware that what they see is fiction. The viewer engages with the story by engaging with the characters who go through different experiences. The experiences can be funny, terrifying, embarrassing; they can evoke guilt, grief, affection, lust, awe, joy, or any other emotion in the character – as well as the viewer. If you look at The Guardian’s 100 Most Memorable Film Moments, the scenes listed are pivotal and often convey some strong emotion: horror in the shower scene of Psycho, hope and fear in the escape scene in The Great Escape, heartbreak during the goodbyes in Casablanca, the escalation of fear as we see birds gathering behind Melanie in The Birds. Film genres even take their names after the main emotion they create in the viewer: comedy, horror, thriller, or romance.
The filmmaker and theorist Dirk Eitzen writes in ‘Emotional Basis of Film Comedy’ (in Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion,):
‘What the average moviegoer wants most of all from movies is not narrative per se but strong and concentrated affective responses. Movies can provide a powerful emotional kick in a safe context. This is what mainstream audiences have always been most eager to pay for in movies – not just the pleasure of seeing a problem through, but the concentrated experience of emotions that are not often triggered in day-to-day affairs: sadness, horror, fear, excitement, the happiness associated with the climax of romance, the thrill of having survived a brush with death, and, as in the [comedy] example offered here, the funny side of inappropriate behaviour.’
Film studies have recently (during the past decade or so) employed a cognitive perspective to investigate how the spectator understands a film and responds to it, and how different aspects such as film narrative, genre conventions, performance, music, and cinematic techniques are used by filmmakers to elicit emotion in the audience. In the introduction of Passionate Views, Carl Platinga and Greg M. Smith describe how until recently many academic fields neglected the ‘messy’ and ‘irrational’ emotions as something that is separate from thinking and can interfere with rational thought. When modern cognitive psychology emerged, the mind was treated like a computer, again with emotions dismissed as interference. More recently, the Cartesian division of mind and body has been abandoned, and with the development of neuropsychology and cognitive psychology, the link between thinking and emotion is no longer ignored: emotions and cognitions need to cooperate in order to help us to evaluate the world around us and react to it.
How does the viewer engage with a character? In the same publication, the scholar Carl Platinga examines how empathy works. First, the viewer should be able to know, to feel, and respond to what the character is feeling, not necessarily putting himself in the character’s place but imagining what the character must be thinking or feeling; secondly, the viewer needs to understand the character’s goals or desires. Cognitivists describe emotional states in terms of characteristics, behaviours, judgements, motivations, goals and objects. Anyone familiar with drama theory will certainly recognise these terms as they are the same terms we use when discussing stories.
Cinematic techniques such as colour, lighting, framing as well as sound and music all affect the way audiences experience the film, but what can a screenwriter do to make sure the story has the desired emotional impact on the viewer? Is the comedy funny enough, or the horror story scary enough? How to make sure the audience is able engage with the story? Does the viewer understand the character? Do the scenes work? Is the story even coherent?
Empathy means experiencing the emotions that another person experiences. In order to do that, the writer or filmmaker must make sure that the viewer understands what the character is going through. That can be done on the page as well as through different film techniques, which is why other professionals in the crew must understand the story as well.
In our feedback we focus on the impact the story has on the reader or viewer, and examine ways in which the story could engage the audience more effectively. We offer a place where anyone can openly discuss their project, its merits and faults, and discover ways to improve it.