Actor and Environmentalist, Leonardo DiCaprio once said in the 2012 Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained, “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.” This statement rings true after we conducted a big data visual analysis of the social impact of Leonardo’s recent documentary on climate change, Before the Flood.

Climate change conversation associated to Before The Flood
Before The Flood Film Poster

Leonardo DiCaprio has dedicated the last two years to traveling the world from Canada to China, documenting how human behaviour like energy production, agricultural practices and deforestation are causing air pollution, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and eroding forests; all of which put every living creature on Earth and future generations at risk. The film’s intent is clear – to raise global awareness and implore people around the world to change what they buy, what they eat, how they get power and even who they vote for in hopes that through collective action, people work to stop climate change. The documentary premiered October 21st and was available online at no cost. After over 40 million views, National Geographic extended the free online viewing from November 6th to November 8th.
Curious to know if such an admirable and ambitious project was effective from a communication and activism perspective, the Alto big data science team scoured the public web with our proprietary technology, Alto Analyzer. From October 20th to November 14th, we analyzed tens of millions of data points from the millions of comments, shares and images provoked by the documentary in English, Spanish and Portuguese from over 61 countries worldwide. We wanted to know if all Leonardo’s work was done in vain or if he truly managed to create “a new collective consciousness, a new collective evolution of the human race inspired and enabled by a sense of urgency” about climate change as he so profoundly states during the film’s finale.

Our Conclusion?

The documentary sparked positive curiosity as we saw an increase in the number of new users who joined the digital conversation about climate change: more than 3 out of 4 users were new to the core debate and of the total users, 98.5% have a positive affinity towards climate change prevention. But, ultimately, attention was not fully grasped as our analysis shows little connection between the visual narratives found in the documentary and those present in the digital sphere about climate change and the documentary. Our analysis shows 46.5% of the film’s visual focus was on Leonardo, policy-makers and environmental experts, while images shared in the social media conversation were of Oceans, the Arctic and Rainforest.
Based on our analysis, we believe areas within the topic of climate change that are underrepresented in the film’s core narrative are civil action and the responsibility of cities. The documentary missed an opportunity to steer the debate towards human responsibility like changing behaviour in consumption and energy production, or the role of cities, not just countries, to confront the future of climate change.

An Open Letter to Leonardo DiCaprio

Here’s where Leonardo succeeded and here’s what he could have done to maximize the digital impact of his message.

3 out of 4 Users Were New to the Debate

During the period of our analysis, we found 2,018,197 million comments on Twitter about climate change, over 421,462 about the documentary and identified an overlap of 106,168 comments, revealing 4.7% of the conversation about climate change was related to Before the Flood.

Climate change conversation associated to Before The Flood
4.7% of climate change conversation associated to Before The Flood

That’s an impressive amount when we take into account the diverse and complex contexts that climate change can be linked to. In addition to the newcomers, 98.5% of the total messages had positive sentiment in connection with efforts to fight climate change:

Tweets Extracted From Online Discussion, October 20th to November 14th

According to our analysis, 74.3% of users involved in the digital conversation were new audiences that did not post about climate change in the 12 weeks prior to our analysis. That’s a total of 240,072 new users just in Twitter. New users mainly interacted with celebrities who promoted the documentary such as musician The Weeknd, and actors Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley. This created a vertical network structure where message dissemination was highly dependent on these profiles. The remaining 25.7% of the audience who were already part of the conversation had more complex ties and communities. The main influencers connecting new and existing audiences were Leonardo DiCaprio and National Geographic, as well as The United Nations and other advocacy organization communities.

Identities involved in the social conversation are new audiences who didn’t post about climate change during the previous three months
Identities involved in the social conversation are new audiences who didn’t post about climate change during the previous three months
74.3% of identities involved in Twitter discussion are new audiences who didn’t post about climate change during the previous three months

However, while Leonardo managed to bring more and new voices to the conversation, the visual perception of climate change perpetuated in the film could have been more effective in order for audiences to have better understood DiCaprio’s intended message and not just fragments of it.

Not All Visual Narratives Resonated

To understand the film’s visual narrative, we analyzed it frame by frame. We applied our proprietary image analytics algorithm, and for every second in the film we captured one image, 5,732 in total. This is what the documentary looks like:

Frame per second of film.
Frames per second of film, total of 5,732 images

We detected the documentary appears to visually position climate change as a major international political issue with 46.5% of visuals being of DiCaprio, environmental experts and policy makers. Leonardo DiCaprio was highly visible in the film – 16.8% to be precise, occupying the highest percentage of visual space in the documentary. Visual categories about nature, industry and pollution, cities, people and clean energy are also represented, but with a lower visual presence.

Visual categorization of film in 10 minute increments
Visual categorization of film

After analyzing the visual breakdown of the documentary and drawing the conclusion that Leonardo, environmental experts, and policy-makers were the main visuals, we wanted to see if these same visuals would be reflected back at us in the public digital discourse about the documentary – and they were:

Echo of visuals from documentary in digital media
Echo of visuals from documentary in digital media

Visual Evolution of Documentary

Our big data analytics team decided to also analyze the chronological visualization of categories. The below timeline of images in the documentary, in increments of 10 minutes, once again shows Leonardo and policy-makers as salient frames. Environmental experts is also relevant, however the distribution of their images is more widespread throughout the documentary. As shown, Leonardo and environmental experts are the central categories in the film. However, Leonardo is mostly found next to policy-makers and environmental experts, while environmental experts are next to all other categories of frames. We believe Leonardo’s visual narratives could have represented new areas of discussion such as civil action or clean energies.

Chronological order of visualization categories in 10 minute increments
Chronological order of visualization categories in 10 minute increments

Finally, through our analysis, we identified the visual contrasts between the general global debate about climate change and the debate created by the documentary.
The film’s visual footprint has a lack of vivid colours in comparison to the most popular and viral images shared online in connection with climate change. Light blues and yellows are more present on social media, while darker tones are much more frequent in the film.
As shown below, all documentary frames made transmedia to social media. In addition to these visuals, we discovered visuals of clean energy and infographics were used more on social media than in the film:

Documentary Gradient Visualization vs. Public Digital Media Images Gradient Visualization
Documentary Gradient Visualization vs. Public Digital Media Images Gradient Visualization

Key Learnings: How to Maximize Digital Impact

We can conclude that Leonardo’s documentary was successful in creating new audiences and new conversations about climate change showing an ability to raise awareness. However, the visuals presented in the film could have had higher resonance and increased digital impact if they were more reflective of the visual narratives currently surrounding climate change in social media. Below is a list of recommendations to Leonardo on how to maximize the digital impact of Before the Flood:
Conduct pre-analysis of current social media sentiment and debate, to design communication to engage new audiences and avoid “preaching to the choir”.Use native advertising approach for art direction of visual narratives. Speak the visual language of your target audience.Collaborate with Influencers within your network to leverage their communities and increase organic reach.Adjust live communication strategy once new audiences emerge to continue growth.Adjust visual narrative strategy if visuals are not echoed back in public digital media.
Want to learn more? Please contact to view the entire analysis and discover additional insight into how to maximize influencer impact in digital communication. To learn more about Alto Data Analytics’s articles and ongoing projects, please sign up to our newsletter below.

Article written by Clarissa Watson, Head of Marketing