Shaping film: A quantitative formal analysis of contemporary empathy-eliciting Hollywood cinema

Tess Lankhuizen*, Katalin Balint, Elly Konijn, Mattia Savardi, Anne Bartsch, Sergio Benini

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Previous research suggests that particular formal features of film, such as the use of close-ups, can affect the levels of empathy experienced by viewers. As empathy is a key aspect of audience’s filmic experience, creative decisions in editing and cinematography may be motivated by the filmmaker’s intention of eliciting empathy. The goal of this study is to investigate what film scenes intended to elicit empathy look like in terms of those visual formal features theoretically or empirically linked to viewer empathy, and if these features converge on something that might be dubbed an empathic style of cinema. Formal features included concern shot scale, face depiction, cut rate, camera perspective and angle, saturation, lighting, motion, and background clutter. Exploratory quantitative formal analyses of scenes sampled from contemporary popular empathy-eliciting Hollywood films (N = 100) revealed that such scenes are, at first glance, highly dissimilar in form. Further investigation through principal component analysis and correlational analysis, however, hints not so much at a singular empathic style of cinema as it does at certain general principles, namely the reduction of perceived distance through close-ups and face depiction, the balancing of arousing features with comprehensible levels of visual complexity, and the prioritization of coherence and reduced visual contrast to enable a smooth viewing experience.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)704-718
Number of pages15
JournalPsychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts
Issue number4
Early online date8 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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