Viewer’s Mental Framing of Fiction Film

:speech_balloon: Speaker : Jonathan Frome

:classical_building: Affiliation : National University of Singapore

Title : Viewer’s Mental Framing of Fiction Film

Abstract : The cognitive frameworks, or appraisal frames, viewers use to watch a film strongly affects their response, but almost no research to date has measured viewer adoption of specific frames. This study aims to assess the extent to which appraisal frames are influenced by viewing instructions and cinematic style. Participants thought aloud while viewing one of two versions of the same script. They did so under instructions to reflect upon their understanding of the story or the intentions of the film maker. The frames participants adopted were affected by instructions and film version.


:newspaper: Long abstract
Even lay viewers understand that their emotional response to any particular film can be changed by viewing it with a different mental approach, as shown by the common viewer strategy of reminding oneself that an unpleasantly scary or disturbing film is “just a movie.” Similarly, new film studies students sometimes express concern that critically analyzing a film will reduce its entertainment value.

The different ways of mentally approaching a given film have been characterized as “appraisal frames”—cognitive schemata viewers use to interpret and evaluate what is being presented to them onscreen. Although appraisal frames are not a common research construct, similar ideas have been discussed in aesthetics in terms of Wollheim’s (1987) notion of “twofoldness” (simultaneous viewer awareness of a painting’s represented content vs. its physical features). The notion is also implicit in many psychological studies of studied audience response, such as Tan’s (1996) distinction between emotions caused by either a films’ represented narrative events or its characteristics as constructed artifact.

Appraisal frames are not only a key factor determining how viewers respond to films, they are also among the hardest factors to study because they are not directly observable and are challenging to infer even indirectly. Research that posits these constructs strains to validate them empirically. For example, research that instructs viewers to appraise films using certain frames assumes that viewers will do as they are told rather than demonstrating viewer compliance. Post-viewing surveys asking viewers about appraisal frames relies on delayed introspection and cannot easily capture dynamic changes between frames while viewing films. Capturing viewer’s physiological data during viewing avoids these problems, but the data collected is at best a proxy for simple emotion components, such as arousal, and cannot yet be used to detect differences in the high-level cognitive processes that constitute appraisal frame evaluations.

We aim to address some of these limitations in the present study, in which we explore the utility of a think aloud methodology to assess factors that affect the appraisal frames that viewer adopt when experiencing a film. A think-aloud methodology involves asking participants to report their thoughts while engaged in an activity (Ericsson & Simon, 1993), such as viewing a film. It has been widely used to study how people respond to narrative text (e.g., McCarthy & Goldman, 2019). The goal of our study was to assess the impact of instructions to adopt different frames and differences in cinematic treatment of the same script on the frames that college viewers adopt when viewing a narrative film.

Using a 2 x 2 study design, we had college students think aloud while viewing a section of either of two films under one of two sets of viewing instructions. The films were sections of the short film Some Folks Call It a Slingblade (Hickenlooper 1994) or the feature film Slingblade (Thornton 1996) with nearly identical dialogue but different visual styles: the short film reflects a low-key film noir style while the feature film style is more naturalistic (Clinton et al., 2017). Participants were asked either to report whatever thoughts they have regarding their understanding of the films or to reflect upon the intent of the filmmakers.

The participant’s think aloud statements were coded with respect to whether the content reflected any of three non-exclusive appraisal frames used to interpret or evaluate the film content, viewing the film as: 1) representing fictional events or characters, 2) presenting the formal elements of a constructed artifact, or 3) communicating ideas about the real world. A fourth code identified think aloud statements that primarily referred not to the film but to the participant’s own internal states (e.g. “I am confused at this point”).

Analyses reveal that the frames adopted when thinking aloud systematically varied as a function of both viewing instruction and film style. For both films, instructions asking viewers to report their understanding of the film resulted in nearly all statements employing an appraisal frame focusing only on represented events. Instructions asking viewers to report reflections about the filmmakers’ intent resulted in a significant percentage of statements reflecting an appraisal frame in which the film content was seen as an artifact or as a comment on the real world. Finally, the film’s style changed the emphasis of comments not using a “represented world” appraisal frame, with the atypical film noir visual style leading to more comments referring to the film as an artifact, while the naturalistic style lead to more comments interpreting the film as communicating ideas about the real world. These results provide insight into the factors influencing which appraisal frames viewers adopt and demonstrate the utility of thinking aloud as a methodology for exploring an aspect of viewer response, appraisal frames, that other research methods fail to capture.


Clinton, J. A., Briner, S. W., Sherrill, A. M., Ackerman, T., & Magliano, J. P. (2017). The role of cinematic techniques in understanding character affect. Scientific Study of Literature, 7(2), 177–202. The role of cinematic techniques in understanding character affect | John Benjamins
Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1993). Protocol analysis: Verbal reports as data. MIT Press.
McCarthy, K. S., & Goldman, S. R. (2019). Constructing interpretive inferences about literary text: The role of domain-specific knowledge. Learning and Instruction, 60, 245–251. Redirecting
Tan, E. S. (1996). Emotion and the structure of narrative film: Film as an emotion machine. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Wollheim, R. (1987). Painting as an art. Princeton University Press.This text will be hidden

Hi @Joe_Magliano and Jonathan Frome, thank you for your presentation! I thought this was a really interesting experimental design and liked the use of think aloud protocols in studying film reception. As you said, this is a methodology that has not been used before in that context. Could you tell us a little more about the practicalities of using this method when studying film reception? In this study you predetermined the moments in the film where you asked participants to think aloud. What do you think would happen if you didn’t specify those moments? How could think aloud protocols be further implemented in the study of film reception? I am asking because I think you are right in saying that is a valuable addition to the methodological toolbox, as it allows you to capture what is happening during film watching. Thank you.

As I mentioned, there are two approaches to collecting TA protocols. One approach is to select predetermined locations, but that emphasizes the window into mental model construction at that time. Allowing participants to select when to think aloud is arguably a more widely used approach (Ericsson & Simon, 1983). This afford the ability to link thoughts to events in a narrative, which would be useful in studying engagement frames. In the context of reading, one can stop reading and produce their thoughts. In the context of film, you would have to give participants the ability to stop the film.