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With the Right Skills, Watching Movies Can Be Engaging and Educational

by Merritt Mecham, a film student at BYU who helps produce "The Matt Townsend Show" on BYU Radio

Everyone knows that watching movies will turn their brains to mush…right? 

Wrong! If people have the right skills, watching movies can be a very engaging and educational experience. In fact, because our world is so inundated with media, having knowledge about how media is created and what it is trying to tell you is vastly important. This knowledge—Media Literacy—is not yet widely taught. 

As parents, family movie night can be a great place to help your children learn these vital skills. Here you can set up a basic foundation of media smarts that can set your children up for success later on, and make family movie night a chance to actively learn and engage with each other.

The first thing you should know is the difference between Passive and Active viewing. Passive viewing means that you are watching the film, but you’re not present or engaged with it. Most of do this—how is your engagement level when you’re watching late night TV? When you are a passive viewer, the information from the film (the images, sounds, movement, music) all flies into your brain and gives it a big crash of stimulation. If you sit there and let your brain get crashed into enough, that’s when it turns into mush.

Active viewing is when you are present and critically engaged with the film. It means you are picking up hints, noticing patterns and differences, and identifying film techniques. To go along with our metaphor, when you’re an active viewer you create an airport for the information flying into your brain. Instead of letting it crash into you, you help it land and then categorize it for future thought. When you’re an active viewer your brain doesn’t turn into mush because you are learning as you watch.

In order to teach your children how to be Active Viewers, they need to learn about the film craft. Check out some basic “intro to film” textbooks from your local library, or use the concepts I’ve listed below. Before you sit down to watch the movie, tell your children to keep an eye out for these concepts. After you’ve watched the movie, lead a discussion with your children and see what they found.

Story, Character, and Theme. What are the character’s strengths and weaknesses? What do you think the film is trying to say? How does the story make you feel? 

Light vs. Dark. Which characters have light colored clothes? Which characters have dark colored clothes? Does that correspond with how good the characters are? When are the characters in places that have lots of light? When are the characters in shadows? What do you think that means?

Image Juxtaposition. Were happy images placed next to sad images? When the scenes transitioned, did the end of one and beginning of the other correspond? 

Distance. When were the shots close up to the character? When were they far away? Did this impact how you related to the characters?

Sound and Music. How did the sound make you feel? Were there moments when you recognized that specific songs went with specific characters? (I talked about film music in an earlier show, which you can listen to here)

Movement. When does the camera move? How does that relate to what’s happening in the story?

If you or your children aren’t used to looking for these things while you’re watching, go back to your favorite scenes and see what you can find. Discuss the different things you notice, and be open to different interpretations. Chances are, you and your family will love this “treasure-hunt” for these film concepts.

So, now that you’re set with how to watch the movie, what movie should your family watch? My advice: don’t underestimate your children. While you’ll most likely not what to show your children films with mature themes, show them quality films that are more technically complex than the TV shows they normally watch. This way you will enjoy the film more, and you’ll be teaching your children to enjoy more intelligent films. 

My suggestions:

Disney’s Fantasia (1940)

Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Chaplin’s City Lights (1931)

Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) or The High Sign (1921)

Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) – This is a bit scary, so it would be better for older kids

And there you go! Tonight, use family movie night as an educational opportunity. Not only is it better for your brain—it’s a lot of fun! 

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