Empathy in Motion: Filming with Empathy

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  • by Kellie Coppola

Visual Storytelling is an incredible forum for empathic experiences. Whenever we press play on Netflix, settle into our seat in a movie theater, or even watch a commercial we have a unique opportunity to be moved by a story that isn’t our own. To connect with characters on a deeper level, and feel their emotions with them.  

Justin Donaldson has experienced the interplay between empathy and visual storytelling firsthand and has even allowed his experiences to influence his craft.  The avid filmmaker and former SEEK co-op worked in our Creative Storytelling Department from May 2017- April 2018 and has since graduated from the University of Cincinnati DAAP program. Upon graduating, he has gone on to pursue his passion in film and join HBO as a Motion Graphic designer. Filmmaking has been a constant passion for Donaldson, but it was his experience working with empathy at SEEK that catalyzed his inspiration for his DAAP capstone— a semester-long project that allowed him to encapsulate everything he has learned during his undergraduate career. This project not only rounded out his higher education, but it allowed him to use the skills he learned at SEEK to revisit a situation in his life where he wasn’t empathic, examine his behavior and emotions, and connect with others over this experience while creating - in my humble opinion - cinematic genius. 

The six-minute short film Cassette Romance follows a couple, James and Logan, through an argument that takes place just before dinner with friends. The conversation is about moving to New York. The two characters have differing opinions and what begins as passive aggressive communication landslides, bringing their clearly-intimate relationship to the brink of an end. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a song plays on the cassette player that takes them to a magically-romantic place where their differences don’t hurt, if only for a moment. The moment tragically ends when a call about their dinner plans brings them crashing back to reality. They leave as if nothing ever happened.  The couple shows a lack of empathy for one another, unable to put aside their own needs to act for each other, instead, they submit to fighting— together, yet alone— against the misery of the consequent termination of a relationship they hold dear.

At SEEK, we talk about empathy as “head, heart, and gut” and the “gut” means that when we identify others we have to act on the other’s behalf (not our own desires for the person). This film shows what happens when we stop at the heart: the connection is severed, two people act on their own interests despite the connection they’ve created. And even though their respective decisions might have been to protect themselves, they are left to deal with the hurt, resentment, and isolation of breaking the connection that has become apart of them. Justin wanted to focus on this experience because it is a side of relationships that is so real, so felt, but not commonly shown in film. And because this was a situation he had been in before with a friend where he left feeling a disconnect, and really wanted to work through it to make himself understand how he could connect better.

“The argument in the movie is actually inspired from an argument I had with a friend. She is really talented and when I suggested moving to New York where there is more for her, she said no. She wanted to stay with her family, and I just couldn’t understand why. I left feeling really bad about it, thinking ‘that was monstrous’ and I never wanted to relive that moment. So, I used this [the film] as a way to work through the argument. I align myself a lot with James [the male protagonist], and this film really allowed me to see myself. The girl I had the argument with ended up hearing about the film, saw it and thought it felt familiar. Eventually, she figured out it was me and we were actually able to talk about it. It helped us understand each other.” 

I personally left the screening feeling, sad, hurt, and frustrated for the characters. “Empathy in Filmmaking,” the accompanying short film helped me understand why I was feeling that way. It breaks down the intricacies of the film into six parts— Screenplay, Casting, Color, Sound, and Conclusion— to show how filmmakers can use these elements to create empathy in film (you can find it here). More importantly, it also highlights why empathy is important in film, a lesson Justin learned during his time as a co-op at SEEK when he filmed a Red Door immersion. 

“It was a Red Door immersion about insulin and people who struggle with obesity. I was a videographer for the process and remember just being there in an immersion and hearing this woman’s story about her and her children. It literally brought me to tears - I was sitting there holding a camera and crying because it was such an intimate and raw story. 

In that moment I realized that these real stories portrayed through video should be shown more often. It taught me something about humans, and I think other people need to know this lesson: people have deeper stories than what you see on the surface. You can see someone and make a surface level judgment about them, but you don’t actually understand them.”

Justin learned that empathy is crucial in filmmaking because of its ability to create connection. It teaches valuable lessons about how to and how not to treat people, because of the emotions that emanate as conflicts play out on screen. And through his work connecting brands with people through visual storytelling, he learned that he wasn’t the only one that had something to learn about empathy.

“Brands need to know that it’s about more than just selling a product. You can easily make a commercial and sell to people. But to make people care, you have to get them to feel and understand why it’s important and how it can really impact them. And the best way to do that is through storytelling. I feel like too many brands just shove things in people’s faces rather than try to genuinely connect with people and make them relate.”

This part really resonated with me. I see (read: I exit out or click through) commercials all the time that make me roll my eyes, feeling like someone is shouting at me to do something but not really saying anything at all. But then there are commercials like this one that really move me and make me feel like I’m heard and welcomed by them - not just there to contribute to their bottom line. 

While the video essay gives several applicable lessons to create empathy in film, Justin gave me a few other tips that are applicable to brand messaging:

  1. Use real stories as the basis for your storytelling. 
  2. If you cannot use real consumers, use actors that can empathically connect with the stories of your consumers.
    Justin watched over 500 audition videos to find the two people that really fit the part. He wanted to find people that resonated with the story and could deeply connect with each other to make the relationship feel as real as possible. In fact, he said the actor who played James messaged him during auditions saying that the screenplay was something he, himself, experienced in real life with his significant other. 
  3. Get feedback.
    Justin reached out to several colleagues to ensure that the romance scene felt real and engaging because he knew he needed to put his own judgment aside to make the moment create connection, which is something we regularly practice when analyzing data after Red Door immersions. 

What are you doing as a brand to connect with consumers empathically through visual storytelling? If your brand doesn’t do this currently, what is the first step you could take?

We’d love to hear from you. Join our discussion on LinkedIn. 

Justin Donaldson begins work with HBO on August 1st. We thank him for all of his hard work at SEEK, wish him luck at HBO and can’t wait to see where his drive and heart takes him next! 

Interested in bringing your consumer to life for your brand long after research ends?  Chat with our studio team. Contact Dave Sander at dave@seekcompany.com.