Engaging one’s audience is fundamental to communication. Movies have been doing it well for more than a century. A glimpse at how they do it can give educators and instructional designers useful ways to leverage learning technologies.
To keep a movie audience’s attention, technology and technique must be invisible. If the audience sees the filmmaking tools — a microphone, a cameraperson — it’s a mistake. Anything that breaks the viewers’ suspension of disbelief or emotional involvement could disengage them from the movie. Two principles moviemakers use to make sure this doesn’t happen are story and film continuity.
Chatting with CLOs in our PennCLO doctoral program, I discovered that film industry terms like “talent management” and “storytelling” have found their way into corporate business and workforce learning and even acquired panache. Despite genuine interest in storytelling, however, no one seemed quite sure what it was.
Storytelling in films is a technical craft. A movie story usually starts with a character in a particular time and place. This protagonist experiences an event that significantly transforms him or her. The effect of this incident on the protagonist is what the audience follows in the movie. We enter a character’s life when something important happens and leave the story when the problem is resolved.
Take “Star Wars,” for example. The story doesn’t really begin until Luke Skywalker’s foster parents are killed. Their death is the inciting incident that irrevocably pushes Luke to go forth and save the princess. If they hadn’t died, Luke might have remained a farmer.Stories need characters, but they also need important things to happen to those characters.
Movie storytelling has a visual component as well. A typical movie scene opens with an image that shows the main character from head to toe, more commonly known as a long shot. Most of the scene’s action and dialogue takes place in mid-shot. The scene’s climax is often filmed intimately in close-up. Classic movie scene exposition — long shot to mid-shot to close-up — creates a gradually increasing intimacy, drawing the viewer closer to the characters as the scene becomes more intense.
Today, the technology to accomplish what once required an entire studio is both affordable and accessible. Without Flip cameras, Apple’s iMovie, PBworks and Adobe Connect, I couldn’t teach the PennCLO filmmaking course. The downside of accessible technology is that we are awash in billions of boring videos.
But with time and effort, we can learn to create engaging and motivating experiences. What we need is the learning equivalent of cinematic literacy — being conversant and expressive in moving image and sound conventions.
There is a growing interest in film techniques in the academy. Education, communication and ethnography scholars such as Stanton Wortham at PennGSE and John Jackson at the Annenberg School for Communication have spent the past year joining me in exploring film’s capacity to render scholarly research, and what a graduate thesis constructed as a film might look like. In the CLO space, futurist Elliott Masie, founder of the MASIE Center and the Learning Conferences, has been offering iPhone video workshops in collaboration with CNN.
What if we were to think of an online course like a movie? What kind of design would we need to engage audiences as movies do? As an educator, I envy the way people watch movies and play games for hours on end without coercion. Learning experiences should evoke the same type of emotional involvement.
Hollywood movies use underlying concepts and principles shaped by trial, error, process, practice, review and refinement to ensure audience engagement. These principles determine what tools to use and how to use them.
At a time when Eastman-Kodak is filing for bankruptcy and celluloid film has all but vanished, what is film’s legacy, and what is its relevance to learning? As teaching and learning increasingly become audiovisually mediated, some affordances are obvious. But perhaps learning experiences can derive the greatest benefit from dynamic exchanges among technology, craft and audience.
Amitanshu Das is director of GSE Films and a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.