You’re sitting in a theater. The action and sound on the screen makes your heart thump, your pupils dilate. That action and sound can make you sweat, clench your hands, cringe, or cry. Why is this, and can we exploit this to make better eLearning video? How does video engage the viewer like no other medium we use?

When film was film and there was no video, it was called moving pictures. The directors at the time (early 1900s) came up with the ideas about how camera movement and film editing exploited human emotions. But they didn’t understand what they were doing. They just did it.

What the cinema directors came up with about 100 years ago still works today. A cut happens inside a scene and a dissolve shows the passage of time or changing from one scene to another. These two tenets of filmmaking are so basic in the human emotional psyche that there’s not really a substitute. Sure, we’ve made some crazy transitions over the years, but they are still cuts and dissolves.

Those same directors (Eisenstein and DeMille to name just two) also exploited, (mostly unknowingly) how movement across the screen can create emotions, along with lighting effects, sound effects (even before talking pictures, sound was important), and all the other subliminal things that go into creating an experience in cinema. Why does it matter how pictures move? Why does it matter? The answer is pretty complex.

Homo sapiens’ proclivity for movement is apparent, known, highly researched, and documented. On the savannah, humans used our unique peripheral vision at first to determine if there was a flight-or-fight scenario. Put simply: eat or be eaten. Our peripheral vision may be unique but so is the way we track objects. This is true both in the reality presented in front of our eyes in a scene and on a somewhat smaller screen. It’s the reality a video creator wants us to see and feel. The art of forcing the eye to look at various things on a screen is invaluable and we don’t exploit it in eLearning nearly enough.

Nanner nanner … made you look!

Sometimes you can’t stop yourself from looking. There is a body of research that shows how video (and cinema) is immersive. A talking head is rarely riveting to our eyes unless the presenter is so animated and tells such a good story that we cannot take our eyes of him or her. So I generally don’t count talking heads as video. Video sometimes forces you to look where the video is telling you to look.

Techniques and how (and why) they work

As a developer or designer of media to support learning, think of it this way. The most basic, most subtle technique is movement across the screen. Left-to-right tells us one thing. Right-to-left tells us something completely different.

Left-to-right movement shows progression of time. We always go from left to right in our culture. Surprisingly, even cultures whose language is read in a different direction (Arabic or Hebrew or some Asian languages), left to right motion signifies progress, progression of time, positive elements, etc. This is something that we can use reliably in our video to denote good things.

Conversely, right-to-left in a shot is read as menacing or confused, but not progress or moving the story forward.

In a study at Cleveland State University, investigators used a clip that had left-to-right movement, then reversed the direction in all the shots to explain some of the movement-related perceptions that humans had. They tested a large group of people to see what their perceptions would be about the movement across the screen. Here’s a video clip from “Now You See It” that explains some of the research on this so you don’t have to take my word for it. Or you can read the paper the researchers submitted for presentation to the Visual Communication Division of the International Communication Association at the annual conference in Phoenix AZ, May 2012.

But what about other kinds of movement? For example, response to movement toward the camera or away from the camera is obviously not possibly derived from cultural differences. Lateral movement is essentially two-dimensional. Toward and away movement relative to the camera becomes three-dimensional. According to the ideas of film critic Roger Ebert, and other claims as presented in the video “Now You See It,” something coming directly toward the camera notes power, strength, or dominance. Movement away from the camera can show weakness or diminishing of a character or object (the presenter’s words, not mine). You can also look down on a character either by having the camera above the character or having a character be the camera so someone comes into the scene from “above” as in looking down on a character.

Looking down is looking down, whether it’s metaphorical or real (as far as a video or film can get real), it really doesn’t matter. What matters is how your audience reacts to movement in the scene. Other important movements were not discussed in the article or in the video: for example, trucking, where the camera is moved along a track or is mounted on a pedestal with wheels—the camera itself moves in this case. Interestingly, zooming a lens in and out doesn’t have quite the same effect as moving the camera because there is no parallax movement behind the camera. We’re just getting closer to or further from the subject. It’s not as powerful because the audience knows instinctively that it’s a zoom and not a real movement.

Putting it to use

How do you begin to incorporate these concepts that I have very basically introduced here into your next eLearning video? Even if you don’t make video, these concepts are locked in your brain because of all the media around us that makes use of them. The way that a director blocks a scene (determines character movement) and how and where objects appear in a scene makes use of these concepts in order to establish key story elements. Blocking is a whole art in itself, and understanding movement is one of the keys to effective direction.

Most people know how to take video, although given how much video is shot vertically with a phone makes me wonder. Takin’ ain’t makin’, for sure. But you know how to make video, correct? Since movement is so deeply embedded in our collective human psyche, it’s not too far-fetched to believe it’s part of how we make video, even if we don’t consciously know it. Gaining this knowledge, and learning how to use it, pushes your video-making skills to a whole new level.