Wednesday, 18 May 2011

WJEC A2 Film Studies Exam Practice Section B: Spectatorship and Emotional Response

How far is the emotional response to mainstream films triggered by specific techniques used by the filmmakers?

(This answer is far from perfect and any suggestions for improvement would be gratefully recieved)

The emotional response to mainstream films is almost completely triggered by techniques used by filmmakers. Creation of character through the script and narrative structure, the use of stars and actors and their performances and the director and crews use of film form all help to provoke specific responses from audiences of mainstream films. There are generally clear preferred readings encoded in these films as the filmmakers want to make the viewers feel a certain way. The films studied are all dramas and therefore it is conventional that they are likely to make the audience feel sad.

Film form is an integral part of triggering an emotional response in the audience and creating a preferred reading. The soundtrack is a prominent part of the film form in the three films studied for this topic. ‘American History X’ (AHX) uses violins, a choir and complements this with a great deal of slow motion during scenes of emotional intensity, for example when the protagonist’s brother dies at the end. Similarly ‘United 93’ (U93) uses violin music complemented by a documentary-style aesthetic with handheld cameras and long takes. This cinematography helps to create a sense of realism and therefore the viewer will be reminded that the film is based on real events and the emotional resonance will be greater. While the use of music may detract from the sense of realism, it is very sad and will add to the emotional response of the audience. Similarly the filmmakers of ‘This is England’ (TIE) use the soundtrack to increase and guide the emotional response of viewers. Slow, piano and violin music is used at various points in the film to give a sense of sadness. Most notably, this technique is employed in a scene where a character (Combo) begins a racist rant in the presence of a group of friends, including a man of Caribbean origin. The sound of Combo’s voice is decreased as the sound of the music increases. This technique brilliantly makes the audience feel sad as the music replaces the characters words and the cinematography and editing emphasise close ups on different members of the groups as they react to the offensive story.

Black and white cinematography is also used in flashback scenes in AHX. This is to signal to the audience that these scenes are in the past, but it also gives the scenes a sad tone as the events have already taken place and the audience knows that the past cannot be changed. TIE uses cinematography in other interesting ways to create emotional responses in viewers. For example the scene where the protagonist Shaun plays by himself by the sea is dominated by extreme long shots and high angle shots. These emphasises the loneliness of the character as he is clearly all by himself with no one else around and this cinematography also makes Shaun appear very small and vulnerable. Accompanied by piano music, it is clear the filmmakers want viewers to empathise and sympathise with this character. 

The performances and use of stars and actors also triggers emotional responses in the audience. Most significantly, the performance of Thomas Turgoose as Shaun in TIE is powerful and emphasised by frequent close ups on his face. The use of an unknown actor adds to the realistic tone of the film and the performance of the young actor is made more emotionally involving by his prominence in the narrative and also the fact that his mother died during the shooting of the film. Similarly U93 uses an ensemble cast of barely recognisable actors and avoids the use of stars to add to the realism of the film. Again, numerous close ups and constant handheld cinematography emphasise the performances of the actors and create a strong emotional response from viewers. In contrast, AHX has a far less realistic tone (with use of black and white and slow motion used frequently giving a more stylised aesthetic) and the use of some major stars (Edward Norton and Edward Furlong). However their performances are brilliant with Norton particularly appearing with a bulked up physique, Swastika and other Nazi-inspired tattoos and wild eyes that suggest a man who has lost his mind. The narrative structure also shows the transformations of Derek’s character over the course of the film and his performance inspires disgust and anger at the beginning, but then later the audience is encouraged to sympathise with him and feel pity as his brother is murdered.

The narrative structure and scripts of the film are also vital techniques in creating emotional responses from viewers. Racist language is very notable in AHX and TIE and can easily shock the audience and make them feel sad or angry. The use of a child in TIE as the hero/protagonist adds to the emotional impact, particularly as he descends into using racist language and socialising with violent, threatening skinheads. Both AHX and TIE have main characters that are charismatic leader types that are incredibly articulate but also extremely racist. The films give these characters a platform to express extremely right-wing, offensive and controversial views and this can cause offence and shock to audiences but also sadness and despair.

U93, on the other hand gains a great deal of its emotional impact from its depiction of a real life recent event. Much of the films sadness stems from simply knowing that this is an accurate representation of what happened to the fourth hijacked plane on September 11th 2001. The techniques used by the filmmakers add to the emotional response but there is an inevitable sadness triggered in the majority of audiences just from knowing the subject matter of the film. This could also be argued for the other two films. Themes of racism and racial conflict are going to cause many audience members to feel sad but how the film is constructed and the techniques the filmmakers use will be essential considerations when analysing how emotional response is created. 

More A2 exam answers:

Is Fight Club a film about power and control rather than liberation?

Analysing La Haine

World Cinema: Distinctive Visual Features

World Cinema: Social and Political Context

WJEC A2 Film Studies Exam Practice Section B

A2 Film Studies Exam Practice Section B


  1. It is a good essay, and definitely a good 'A'!
    You talk about the films in a really deep analytical way and offer great comparisons so very good writing skills! The thing to improve on would be considering the structure of your essay a little more, in relation to the demands of the question. The question is asking you 'How far', it isn't asking you 'Explore...', therefore, it is important that you offer a little debate which I'm sure will make the essay perfect!! You have indeed offered counterarguments as you discuss the importance of script, stars - but these factors should be carefully used in the essay structure to offer a counterargument. Ie: first half of essay talking about micro-features, and the second half discussing other factors (script, stars, genre! Good luck for your exam!

  2. Thanks for the feedback Karim! Very useful!


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