Shot scale and viewers’ responses to characters in animated films

Katalin Balint, Brendan Rooney

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Characters and their conflicting desires are fundamental to fictional narratives. According to Smith, “Characters constitute a major ›entry point‹ into our engagement with narratives: we look for characters (i.e., we search for human or human-like agency); we sort major from minor characters; we seek to establish the desires and goals of such characters; and we project and anticipate their destinies.” Formal features of character presentation, especially those that regulate visual access to facial information, can have a huge impact on the way viewers perceive and emote with animated figures on screen. We propose a chapter that first reviews the accumulating findings on how visualization of characters influence character engagement in viewers, and then presents the findings of two empirical studies. The novelty of these studies is that we collaborated with professional animation and virtual reality designers so we could manipulate the visual material with high accuracy and aesthetic quality.
The first study (N = 439) employed 2D animation and focused on the close-up shot that is a type of shot scale by which a particular detail of the object is enlarged on the screen. Shot scale, defined as the apparent spatial distance of characters from the camera, is one of the most effective visual devices to regulate the relative size of characters’ faces, the relative proportion of the human figure to the background, as well as to arrange film content according to its saliency. It is thus reasonable to assume that shot scale, in being able to regulate audiences’ visual access to fictional characters’ faces, may influence character engagement responses in viewers. We conducted an experiment that manipulated the location a close-up shot in an animated narrative film. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the five versions of the same animation film, and then were asked to respond open and closed questions. Results suggest that the location of close-up has an effect on the perceived emotional impact and personal relevance reported by viewers.
The second study (in progress) employed animation in virtual reality setting and concentrated on the gaze behaviour of the animated character, the mutual gaze behaviour in particular. We assumed that the opportunity to engage in a mutual gaze with the character would significantly affect viewers’ character engagement responses, such as parasocial relationship and perceived psychological reality.
These findings contribute to the understanding of how visual properties of narratives affect the viewer-character relationship, and activate particular psychological processes. The results of these experiments provide empirically sound information about how shot scale, facial expression and gender affects theory of mind response and emotional experience in film viewers. The results suggest that shot scale indeed affect viewers’ awareness of characters’ mental states, and the perceived relevance of the film narrative. The findings of this project provide empirically sound information for media producers on the role of visual elements in the activation of particular viewing processes, and it informs our understanding of social cognition.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEmotion in Animated Films
EditorsMeike Uhrig
Place of PublicationNew York
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780203731253
ISBN (Print)9781138303287
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2018

Publication series

NameRoutledge Advances in Film Studies


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