What is the primary goal of any filmmaker? To evoke a strong series of emotions from the viewers. If you can make the heart rate of the audience spike every few seconds or minutes you will create a more successful film. This is harder to do than it sounds.
There are several companies in Los Angeles that now do test screenings of films before they are released, where they attach heart rate monitors and eye tracking devices to viewers. The more the heart rates spike, the more successful the film will be. When viewers get bored their eyes tend to wander.
The Revenant is an excellent film that takes viewers on a terrifying true adventure full of nail biting moments. From the first scene the main character is placed in grave danger that does not let up until the last moment. What is it like to get attacked by a grizzly bear? How does it feel to ride a horse off a snowy cliff while being chased by angry Indians trying to kill you? What does it feel like to jump in a freezing river with arrows being shot at you?
What does it feel like to get torn apart by a Grizzly Bear in real time?
Using drones, water proof head cameras and other exciting POV camera shots helps us to be in the adventure with the main character. We see the icy rapids pummeling us in the face as we float down the raging river with character. The overhead drone camera shots make the snow covered mountains look stunning and deadly with how far the character has to go to get away from a series of threats.
Keep your camera shots beautiful to hook the audience visually. Recently I watched a film that had one ugly shot after another, and I could not watch it since it looked like a film world I did not want to enter. Even if your locations are killing your characters right and left, you should have wow camera shots every few seconds to keep the viewers eye interested and not wandering. You do not want anyone to look away even for a second.
How does it feel to body surf a rocky snow encrusted river while being chased by Indians trying to kill you? Just looking at this picture makes you feel cold.
The Revenant shows us some of the best mountain snow shots ever filmed. Every frame in this film is stunning and keeps our eyes glued to the screen.
How can you create high intensity emotional moments in your own films? A close up shot of someone walking with bare feet stepping on a huge hidden rusty nail will do the trick. Everyone in the audience will squirm as the nail sinks into the soft flesh while the character cries out in pain. We feel the nail going through our own foot too.
You need a combination of Character Identification, Twists, Surprises and Conflict to create these emotionally charged moments.
You also cannot do the same trick each time. If the The Revenant had three consecutive bear attacks, 20 minutes apart, the audience would start laughing by the third attack. First the main character barely escapes the fur trapper camp being attacked by Indians. Then he floats down the icy river in a swarm of arrows. Next up is the bear attack. We get to see how fast a bear can move and how grizzlies do not mind eating their prey alive screaming. The scene where they stitch up his horrific wounds makes everyone feel the needle going in each time. The character is now dependant on the other men in his group to save his life and get him back to camp. His son is killed right in front of him while he is immobile. Then the two men who are supposed to be taking care of him leave him for dead. He then has to get back to camp without any help severely injured.
These are all highly charged emotional life or death situations we go through with the character that are completely different. The heart rate spikes occur every five to seven minutes and look like a rollercoaster when you graph them out as a timeline. You need the boring parts in between to allow the audience to catch their breath.
One problem with The Revenant is that the climax happens in Act One at the Inciting Incident with the bear attack. This is the most intense moment of the film and leaves the rest of the film on downhill slide with a rather flat ending. Ideally, you want your most intense moment in Act Three right before the end so the audience walks away from an emotionally fulfilling ride. Rollercoasters never have the scariest part at the beginning.
Originality is important too. When was the last time you saw a bear maul someone in real time on the big screen from the character’s POV? Never? This was a big first for movie goers and that one scene does what Jaws did for ocean swimmers. People will now be afraid to go into the forest where bears live.
What film are you working on now? How can you add as many heart rate accelerating moments as possible?
The new book Filmmaking Script To Screen will be talking about how to create Heartrate Accelerators in your stories and films in depth.