Emotions, Psychology and Evolution

According to Billy Wilder, if you want to be a director you must be a policeman, a midwife,  a sycophant, a bastard and a BjChFQOIUAEvdnj psychoanalyst. It took me some time to realize the importance of the last point and truly appreciate psychology. It might have been because of the unhealthy obsession many scholars have (or had, I hope) with Freud and Lacan (or Marx and Althusser, but that is another topic). Do not get me wrong, I can find ‘enjoyment’ in the analysis provided by the likes of Slavoj Žižek in their exploration/exploitation of popular culture (especially in the audiovisual format used in his Perverts Guides). Call me entertained and intellectually stimulated, but I do not have to agree.

Strangely, the words Evolutionary Psychology seem to be too often faced with criticism from the supporters of free-associative film interpretation. I am not an expert in the field of psychology and I investigate these subjects with the somehow narrow filed of view of a ‘maker’. I am looking for tools and understandings that can be applied and exploited in the making of films and not only at the watching/analysis stage.

What is Evolutionary Psychology? In summary, let’s outline the five principles from Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.

Principle 1. The brain is a physical system. It functions as a computer. Its circuits are designed to generate behavior that is appropriate to your environmental circumstances.

Principle 2. Our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history.

Principle 3. Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg; most of what goes on in your mind is hidden from you. As a result, your conscious experience can mislead you into thinking that our circuitry is simpler that it really is. Most problems that you experience as easy to solve are very difficult to solve — they require very complicated neural circuitry

Principle 4. Different neural circuits are specialized for solving different adaptive problems.

Principle 5. Our modern skulls house a stone age mind.

These principles are tools for thinking about psychology and can be applied to a variety of topics. For example, I have seen numerous people (myself included) being labeled as ADD. Instead of using the word ‘disorder’, we could argue that we are hunter-gatherer stuck in a farmers world and only time will test the strength of our survival skills (and hopefully we will not become a casualty of evolution and its natural selection) The concept of survival is essential when discussing emotions.

What is an emotion? From Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “To behave functionally according to evolutionary standards, the mind’s many subprograms need to be orchestrated so that their joint product at any given time is functionally coordinated, rather than cacophonous and self-defeating. This coordination is accomplished by a set of superordinate programs – the emotions.” Back to filmmaking, I have been taught to concentrate on making your audience feel more than making your audience think. Therefore, understanding emotions from a evolutionary psychology point of view is rather important in informing the craft of audiovisual storytelling.

What are the main emotions a filmmaker can exploit when playing puppeteer with the audience’s minds? In Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotions Robert Plutchick’s outlines the 8 following basic emotions:

  • Joy
  • Trust
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Anticipation

Most importantly, it links the stimulus, the appraisal, the behavioural reaction and the survival function of these various subjective reactions (all key ingredients to enhancing storytelling).

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These 8 basic emotions can be experienced and expressed at various intensities.

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Also, it outlines the most (and least) common combination (chords) of emotions and their effect (or label), as well as the odd yet powerful conflicting emotional combos. Imagine, what would be the effect of having your characters and/or your audience experience different emotions at the same time?

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Powerful storytelling is a melody played on the audience’s emotional strings where combinations and dissonances are carefully arranged in an effective progression. If our behaviour is orchestrated by emotions, one can understand how these tools can become valuable weapons to anyone working in marketing, sadly.  I prefer to aspire to manipulate someone’s emotions after they grant me the right to do so.


Is Cinema Dead? Cinema is Broken says Greenaway. 

386428_142132029220209_1520996886_n I was lucky/unlucky to attend Peter Greenaway’s lecture on Cinema in Pietrasanta, Italy. After a tumultuous (lack of) introduction the filmmaker’s dramatic voice quickly started provoking and capturing the audience. Cinema is dead. Who killed it? In Italy, was it Berlusconi? Or (as suggested by someone in the audience) was it simply Italian laziness? Greenaway is not the first nor the last to wonder about ‘the death of Cinema’. Recently, Tarantino’s now famous statement regarding celluloid rapidly bounced around the web gaining momentum and critiques. Greenaway’s reasoning appears to be different, as he accuses the likes of Tarantino to be suffering from the “Casablanca syndrome”.  He believes Cinema has been broken from within, incapable of adapting to a changing world. Continue reading

Film Editing Education: Rules (or Guidelines)

“I want to be an Editor!” I remember my young self saying those words proudly on my first day of Film School. It might have been because of the fascination I had towards the equipment (I had the unusual chance to experience tape-to-tape editing during my childhood and the rise of ‘affordable’ NLE’s created an entire new world for me to explore). It might have been the appeal of a quieter environment, when compared to the busy life on set.  Or, I’d like to believe, I was already aware that editing is an excellent directing school (but clearly, I was not). Continue reading

Anxiety and Boredom: Writers Block? Just type.

WHITE The blog has been quiet for the last couple of weeks. I could blame the summertime relocation to my homeland, the excessive availability of sunshine, tasty food and wine or the distraction of the FIFA World Cup. Truth is that the relocation was a piece of cake, sun did not shine every day and the World Cup only started a few days ago and has not become an obsession (the food and wine bit is true). I have been suffering the blank page syndrome and this has prompted me to browse the web in search of some insight on the phenomenon. What are the causes of writers block? Continue reading

Tarantino. Digital. Projection. Death. Cinema.


Recently, my reader was invaded by news from Cannes. All sources were posting headlines referring to Tarantino’s statement using some combination of the following words: Tarantino, Digital, Projection, Death and Cinema. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Tarantino’s work. But, when I read ”digital projection is the death of cinema,” I could not resist to feel somehow disappointed.

Then of course, when you add the words “As far as I’m concerned” in front of the same statement, one can more easily understand the difference between The Death of Cinema and the Death of Tarantino’s Cinema. Continue reading

Musical Muses: Music and the Filmmaking Process

I remember a dear friend of mine expressing his anger towards Ennio Morricone: ”I don’t understand why he always tells us when and how to feel. There is no free interpretation of the content, and the emotions are induced and manufactured”. I could understand his perspective, and I can also appreciate the kind of realist cinema he personally cherishes. What I could not understand is why be mad at one of the most powerful ‘formalist’ forces (to use a word dear to him) available in the filmmakers toolset?

In a way, I then knew I was not the only person having felt tricked and betrayed by the power of music, feeling strong emotions towards a narrative and visual content that would probably have left me indifferent if it was not for the score. Years ago, this obsession for music in film, and the filmmaking process, Continue reading

Film History Surfing

As part of an ongoing research I have spent some time exploring the history of film and cinema through the looking glass of influential, popular and celebrated films. As a method for mixing a bit of fun with procrastination, I have assembled the evolution of films in an edit running short of 100 minutes showcasing roughly 30 seconds of 221 films. Continue reading

Directing ‘School’: the Edit Suite


Many Film and TV Directors could be tempted to agree: experience in the edit suite is an incredible tool to learn and grow as a Director. We have to admit, the suite will not teach you to work with your cast and crew and communicate your vision. It will, however, let you see what works and what does not, and how different Directors have different strategies to assemble the building blocks that will become the film. Continue reading

Feedback and Creative Insecurity

“I create, therefore I feel insecure” Not always, not for everybody, but I suspect many will somehow feel familiar with the idea. Regardless of the field of choice, when we create something, a script, a shot, a performance, a film, a book, a dish, a scientific paper or a business presentation, it is likely we battle doubt and insecurity at a moment or another. The act of creation generates something new, something never seen, heard or tasted before. This original creation has never been judged and the insecurity could potentially originate from the feeling associated to an imminent round of ‘feedback’. Continue reading

The History of Film in 222 Heartbeats

Disclaimer: The video below does not reflect my personal appreciation of the history of film and cinema. Also, I would like to thank the copyright owners of all the assets included in this montage, and invite them to consider the non-profit educational biographical nature of the work, the limited amount of the copyrighted  works used in relation to the respective wholes and the lack of impact on the potential market as evidence of “fair use”.

It had been an obsession for years, and still is.  Animated maps, graphs, time-lapses and montages aimed at condensing time and showcasing the evolution or progression of political borders, cities and other natural or man-made creations  have always fascinated me.  When watching older films, it is striking to realise how much has changed. But, also how much is, in some ways, still the same.

There is a method behind the madness of selecting 221 films to showcase the evolution of cinema. Even though, I would refrain from labelling it as ‘scientific’: Continue reading