Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Critical Viewing Cues

Critical viewing cues are the building blocks that filmmakers use to elicit an emotional response from the viewing audience. Media creation, in all of its forms, is by nature a manipulative process. Filmmakers understand this principle. Every element that is in a television program, a movie or any form of media is put there by design and has a purpose. Media is built just as a building or highway might be constructed. Building materials may include music, lighting, sound, set design, camera movement, etc.

Not only is there a physical process of construction but also a complex, psychological process of meaning and values. What is constructed by a few people can become normalized with the rest of society. We often take this for granted, and it usually goes unquestioned. Often we don’t get to see what words, pictures or arrangements that were rejected during the building process. We see only what the media maker wants us to see. Critical viewing cues vary in nature according to the type of media created.

In film, for example, close-ups of a character are used for emotional impact. They are good for suspense and provide easy access to the mind. High-angle shots looking down on a character usually mean the person is submissive, important or powerless. Low-angle shots suggest a character is powerful and commanding. Dutch-angle shots are camera angles not parallel to the horizon. They suggest mayhem or that the character has some type of psychological disorder. A mirror or reflection shot on a reflective surface suggests deep thoughts or the concept of looking into one’s self.

Colors can convey emotions. Sky blue can represent thoughts that are peaceful and calm. It can suggest honesty, good will and wisdom. Green can suggest eternity, jealousy, money, growth, rebirth or creativity. Silver can be seen as cold, alien, and futuristic. Red can represent anger, debt, warning, violence or sex. Lighting is used to create mood. Comedies are often well lit with bright colors to encourage a sense of happiness and humor. In suspense thrillers, it is just the opposite. They are dark and mysterious. The color palette is intentionally toned down.

Lighting is used to create shadows on the characters’ faces, which creates tension and anxiety. If you want to create a sense of tension, your sound design could emphasize a busy signal from a telephone, a fire truck, construction sounds such as jackhammers or a dog barking. On the other hand, if you are looking to create a peaceful mood, you would emphasize birds singing, a heartbeat, or crickets. Sound design is one of the most important parts in creating an emotional response in films. Sound coming from an old car radio can create a nostalgic emotion or mood. A sound coming from a loudspeaker can suggest a voice of authority. A walkman or headphones suggest a feeling of being enclosed and out of tune with the rest of the world.

Another way to convey meaning is through metaphors and symbolism. Filmmakers use animals, plants, weather, objects, occupations, numbers and places to communicate emotions to viewers. An owl can suggest wisdom, occult powers, death, or a supernatural protector. Sunflowers can be used to convey a sense of the sacred or attractiveness. Lightning can suggest that unexpected changes are coming. Coins can suggest wealth. The sun can suggest creative energy. Even a geographical direction like the South can evoke an emotional response of earthly passion or sensuality. A gate can suggest new beginnings or a change in state. A lawyer can suggest a server of justice or a person with shark-like instincts. The number seven is used to represent the mystical or spiritual. It is used for good luck. The number 6 is for structure, balance and order.

A river can represent a place to cross over for change. The top of a hill can create the emotion of getting perspective or achievement. A foggy pier suggests mystery, uncertainty and that things are not what they seem. An island can suggest isolation and loneliness. Critical viewing cues are exactly what they suggest. They cue our conscious and subconscious mind to respond with a certain emotion. In other words, the scary music suggests something bad is going to happen, so we become tense and frightened. A filmmaker may use a long lens to compress the background so the subject appears to have no space or is trapped. Therefore, we feel just as trapped as the character we are watching in the movie. These are just a few of the many techniques that media makers use with their films, television programs and other forms of media.

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