The Power of Emotion

Storytelling can take viewers on a journey through many moods, and build toward a climax that leaves viewers profoundly sad, inspired, outraged, or filled with wonder. Cinematic style, music, sound design, voice, tone, all combine to create a heightened responsiveness. Research reveals that deep emotional sensations can engage and motivate audiences to action.

Gloom and Doom vs. Utopian Visioning?

There are so many urgent stories to tell about climate justice, species extinction, pollution, deforestation, and also about joy, resilience, hope, love, and community. From gorgeous natural history films to short-form digital videos, from hard-hitting investigative docs to comedic adventures, there are many ways to engage. In the early 2000s, when scientists released new data about global warming, a barrage of gloom-and-doom media followed. Yet, research has found that “fear appeals” do not always promote action. In fact, they can have the effect of distancing or disengaging people, leaving them “feeling helpless and overwhelmed.” Studies show that solutions-oriented films are far more likely to be catalysts for action. Inspiring audiences with the possibility of change and an aspirational vision of “credible hope” are key to how filmmakers influence a global environmental movement.

“With The Cove, all you needed was to watch the trailer. People were like, okay, tell me what I can do right now! They didn’t even need to watch the movie.”

–Wendy Cohen, President, Picture Motion

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. Below, 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.



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 Study) 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.


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 folktale 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.

Hope & Resilience

For decades, it has been standard practice for issue-based documentaries to hook audiences with fear and outrage around a critical issue, then leave viewers at the very end with an inspirational dose of hope. Research shows that if people feel there is a fighting chance, they will be motivated to take action. If there is some hope of changing things for the better, particularly as a community action, they are more likely to get involved. Unbreathable – The Fight For Healthy Air (2020) (See Case Study) reveals that nearly half of Americans live in areas with unhealthy air and that asthma is the number one health issue for children in the U.S. The film interweaves historical milestones of the Clean Air Act with current day stories of environmental injustice. It ends with a story in Baltimore about a group of high school students who rally their community and succeed in defeating the building of an incinerator. This is followed by a montage of people protesting, voting, coming together to fight for a clean environment. Through decades of despair shines a lifeline of hope that inspires audiences to act.

Our Gorongosa (2019) (See Case Study), provides a similar story of struggle and hope. It weaves together a story of conservation and coexistence. The filmmakers showcase the success story of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique through the voices of local Mozambicans. The goal is to engage and motivate viewers through a positive conservation story that leaves audiences feeling optimistic about change. The film’s presenter, Mozambican elephant ecologist Dominique Gonçalves, inspires young women in the film with a message of courage and hope that, in turn, inspires and engages viewers.


Laughter is one of the most contagious, prosocial emotional experiences in our continuum.  It can help people from disparate backgrounds to bond and to address difficult topics. Research has found that films using a comedic approach are more likely to bring people together around issues, and to inspire hope, rather than fear.  Comedy has been found to reduce counter-arguing over controversial topics, such as climate change.  The use of comedy as a story-telling device for environmental justice is featured later in this report, in the section on Innovative Trends.

Bag It (2010) (see Case Study) uses humor to engage general audiences about the serious issues of plastic pollution. Charismatic host Jeb Berrier charms the audience with his light-hearted jokes and witty personality. The film takes viewers on an intimate personal journey, while interweaving comedic bits and environmental facts. This creative approach has motivated viewers to reduce their plastic consumption and initiate bag bans in communities.

How Do We Change Hearts and Minds Through Emotional Impact?

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