Emotional Engagement Continuum

There is a range of “emotional” appeals that can be used to engage viewers, beyond the extremes of abject apathy and utopian aspiration. In this section, we present examples of how different approaches manifest a connection with audiences.


In the proverbial children’s story “Chicken Little,” the hen cries “the sky is falling, the sky is falling” as a metaphorical prediction that life as we know it is coming to an end. In a similar way, An Inconvenient Truth (2006) sounded an alarm bell about the dire consequences of global warming. A powerful recent example is Anthropocene – The Human Epoch (2019), a global meditation on humanity’s massive destruction of our planet. Another is The Story of Plastic (2020) and its sweeping exposition of the health of our planet. Both films leave no doubt that we are close to the brink of disaster and that it may, in fact, be too late. Fortunately, they offer robust education programs with specific actions and solutions. It will fall to educators to translate the fear instilled by these films into tangible, actionable results.


Curiosity motivates us to explore our world. New scientific research about octopuses, for example, yielded the bestselling page-turner “The Soul of an Octopus” by Sy Montgomery and two new films, Octopus: Making Contact on PBS Nature and My Octopus Teacher, a beautiful feature-length film by James Reed and Philippa Ehrlich. Both films hook viewers with fascinating new revelations about octopuses’ highly-developed intelligence and ability to bond with humans. Many nature films are constructed around a series of sequences that reveal fascinating behavior and tap into viewers’ sense of curiosity. Curiosity is stimulated by awe as well, particularly as it pertains to science. One study found that when participants watched the sweeping nature scenes in BBC’s Planet Earth, these viewers became more aware of their gaps in knowledge about the natural world and demonstrated enhanced curiosity around scientific topics.  


Using curiosity to engage works across all demographics, but understanding your audiences’ frame of reference and knowledge level is key. Curiosity has a pragmatic caveat that cognitive scientists call the Goldilocks Effect, based on the folkta le of the Three Bears. The stimuli/ information must be neither too simple nor too complex in relation to viewers current comprehension of the world. Whether “fun facts” or a complex scientific analysis, a film can frame the information through storytelling in ways that make it relevant and intriguing to a specific group of viewers.


Investigative documentaries such as The Cove, Blackfish, The Tiger Mafia, Gasland, Food, Inc., Sea of Shadows, Peng Yu Sai, trigger a sense of moral outrage. They mobilize audiences through indignation and anger over the senseless killing of wild animals, harm to the defenseless, unrestrained environmental destruction. The Cove (2009) depicts mass killings of charismatic dolphins hunted in a sea of blood. Sea of Shadows (2019) tracks the near extinction of the world’s smallest whale due to the greedy and brutal pursuit of the swim bladder of the totoaba fish, known as the “cocaine of the sea”. The Tiger Mafia (2019) reveals the practice of speed breeding and killing of tigers for body parts. Peng Yu Sai (2020), a new investigative documentary with 23-year old wildlife presenter Malaika Vaz, dives into the illegal trade of Manta Rays from India’s oceans. The extreme risks that these investigative filmmakers and local allies take to infiltrate illegal practices can heighten viewers sense of outrage at the perpetrators and empathy with those affected. 


Outrage and anger can motivate audiences to action, particularly if the topic relates to a behavior, policy or issue linked to the restriction of human rights.   Importantly, these emotions can also spur viewers to become better informed.  Josh Fox’s Gasland (2010), for example, was a catalyst for a dramatic increase in public discourse and action related to fracking. In an interview with director Josh Fox, NPR described   Gasland as controversial due to the backlash the film received from the oil and gas consortiums, which further heightened public anger about the practices of these industries. Dark Circle (1982), which was recently re-released by the Academy of Motion Pictures, continues to stir a profound sense of outrage at the human and environmental costs of nuclear power. Its powerful storytelling interweaves history, science and human stories of resilience, in ways that are perpetually provocative and transcend time. 


Classic natural history films engage viewers in the beauty, wonders and science of our planet through extraordinary cinematography, symphonic music, amplified sound design, and fascinating factual information about flora and fauna. This combination creates a profound sense of awe, that can stimulate a visceral, long-lasting connection to the natural world. Studies reveal that awe can also make us feel more connected with each other,  and that viewing nature films can generate prosocial tendencies, such as increased generosity.  


The blue-chip nature documentary Nómadas (2020) (see Case Studies) takes viewers on a breathtaking journey of animal migration across Mexico. Using sweeping drone shots and poignant close-ups, the high-quality images capture the immense beauty of protected natural areas and the wildlife within them. Director Emiliano Ruprah emphasizes visual storytelling to engage audiences in Mexico’s rich biodiversity and the value of migrating species. At the film’s end, when the audience is fully immersed and awestruck, the film delivers a hard-hitting message about the alarming decline of species.


Only recently have classic nature films begun to break the wonderland wall to expose the devastating effects of our climate crisis. The final episode of David Attenborough’s Our Planet (2019), for example, shows shocking footage of walruses falling to their deaths due to receding ice habitats.  Okavango – River of Dreams and The Elephant Queen use awe-inspiring cinematic techniques to immerse audiences in the wild, where we suffer the consequences of global warming alongside the animals. Interestingly, recent research reveals that awe’s ability to make us feel more interconnected may have “helped ensure our ancestors’ survival…”.  Perhaps awe-inspiring media can help ensure our survival today as well.