Making video more memorable, interesting, informative, ...

Annie Lang, a professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University, has long been doing research to understand how people view and react to video stimuli. For instance in 1996, she, John Newhagen, and Byron Reeves wrote a paper showing that not only does negative content in news stories make people pay more attention, but it increases their memory for information delivered after the negative item, while decreasing recollection of information coming before. That is, if you want your audience to remember something in a video, structure your story so that this nugget of info appears after a depressing segment. If you're an advertiser trying to brand your product with an audience, you would like the TV station to run your ad after the story on the 10-car pile-up and not before, when people would be less likely to remember it. (Interestingly the converse is true for positive segments: people remember information appearing before a warm-and-fuzzy piece better than information appearing afterwards.)

A follow-up companion paper is still several years old (2003, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 47(1), pp. 113-123), but it has bearing on what many fulldomers are trying to do. Basically Lang and her co-authors Deborah Potter and Maria Grabe, have reviewed the literature in communications research (based on earlier work by Lang and Potter) and come up with a set of guidelines which would make news segments more attention-getting and easier to remember for audiences. Here are their seven suggested rules:

  1. Let the emotions talk: Emotional content draws people's attention. It also tends to increase someone's state of arousal; here we are using the meaning of the psychological and physiological measure of how awake and alert someone is. A person who is more aroused (excited) will devote more cognitive resources to the message than when he is less aroused (calmer).
  2. Slow it down: Unfortunately people also tend to remember less detail in the message when highly aroused, so there is a trade-off when an viewer is more excited. What is thought to occur is that highly aroused brains are spending more time paying attention, but they are also easier to overload. They are alert to everything, and may remember very little as a result. To counteract this, the recommendation is to slow down the pacing for already emotional content. If the content is not that engaging, then editing can be used to quicken the pace.
  3. Dare to be quiet: Audiences can easily be overloaded with unfamiliar material. Their responses can veer towards confusion if they have to process video and audio together. Thus if it's necessary to show complex visuals, you should take a break in the narration so that the viewer has a chance to comprehend what she is seeing.
  4. Match the audio and video: Because processing audio and visuals both tap into the finite resources of the brain, the easier the video producer makes it on the viewer, the better. If the visuals and audio narration don't match up, then the viewer will have a harder time making sense of it all. (Remembering what was said in the narration takes a bigger hit than recalling what was going on in the visuals.)
  5. Know how to deal with negative imagery: This refers to the Lang, Newhagen, and Reeves paper mentioned earlier. People tend to remember information after a negative scene better than information presented before that scene.
  6. Take a literal approach: Again to make it simpler for audience members to process, use more concrete imagery and words, rather than visuals and narration that leans towards the abstract. Images that reinforce the verbal message will also improve an audience's recall of that message.
  7. Use strong chronological narrative: Stories told in chronological order are easier to process. Mixing up the narrative, or using the journalist's inverted pyramid method are less successful.

In addition to outlining these seven guidelines, Lang et al. also produced a series of short (no more than 2 minutes long) news segments. A set of four stories was produced using the same scripts, video segments, and editing choices that were used by local news stations. They were re-recorded with an experienced anchor narrating. These controls were thus mirror versions of what was broadcast. A second set of the same four stories was produced with these seven rules in mind. Although the video clips used and narrative script were the same, different post-production choices were made in editing following the guidelines. The stories were then shown to 45 test subjects.

Lang et al.'s findings revealed the experimental stories to be significantly better than the control stories. The participants found the experimental stories to be more informative, interesting, engaging, and enjoyable. Physiological measures of arousal showed that the re-done stories were just as attention-getting if not more so than the original versions. Finally recall of the information presented in the stories (and recognizing what was not presented) was also improved in the news stories following the guidelines.

Now I have not found similar research being done on longer video documentaries (as opposed to TV news segments), and one can safely bet that no research remotely close to this exists for fulldome shows. However one can make a not-unreasonable assumption that a typical viewer's response to TV news will be similar to that same viewer's response to a NOVA or Discovery Channel program, or to a fulldome programmer. If your goal is to produce a science documentary that keeps the viewer's attention, is believable and comprehensible, and sticks in his mind afterwards, then following the seven rules in your production is not a bad idea.

But what about artistic freedom? Shouldn't we be making a production based on what the director desires? Won't it be artistically stifling to be following "rules" that some scientists came up with?

I tend to disagree with such reactions. First most filmmakers already follow rules of filmmaking, consciously or not. You can elect to be a Godard and see how many cinematic axioms you can break with each film, but it's rare to find someone who is brave enough to keep doing this past his/her "student" phase. Most commercial directors hew pretty close to the standard model. If nothing else, even a three act structure to your narrative is very traditional.

Also there is a huge continuum between complete artistic freedom at one end and the most generic cookie-cutter recipe-based movie-making at the other. At one extreme, the film is a statement that can be obscure to all except for the artist, while at the other extreme, the product is transparently understandable by all. Obviously one hopes that our films are somewhere in the middle, neither completely opaque to the viewer nor so obvious that it becomes bland and uninteresting. I think that even with the Lang et al. guidelines, there is still some room to play for the filmmaker. And if we must follow additional rules for a production meant for a science center or planetarium, isn't it better that we do so in a way that will benefit our audiences? (Obviously if you are producing a film meant for Domefest, you have much more flexibility in where along the continuum you want to fall.)

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