Everybody knows this scene. Even if you didn’t see the movie you may have heard about the bear attack scene from The Revenant. It’s such a simple detail in the story but within that one scene is a ton of story taking place.
Leo plays Hugh Glass, a wilderness tracker trying to lead a group of fur traders out of Indian territory.
In the bear attack scene, Glass shows his will to survive against a bear who is acting on its natural instincts to protect her cubs.
Both are locked in mortal combat and by the looks of the scene it doesn’t seem feasible that Glass can survive, but he does.
This scene has to do two simultaneous things working for the story. It has to sell the viciousness of the attack and make the threat of death as real as possible while also telling the viewer that Glass can somehow, survive.
Sell the viciousness:
During the entire scene the camera never goes any higher than Leo’s head. This gives the viewer an almost point of view of what Glass is seeing. Once Glass goes down the camera keeps the entire rest of the scene at low camera angles because he never gets back to his feet. The camera is also all in close up so the viewer has a limited view of the surroundings. The view only sees what is happening to Glass and a little bit to the left or right. All of the action is done in front of us, so close that we can focus on different specific details on the attack, as though it was happening to them. What does this achieve? When the bear is attacking, there is no escape from seeing what happens.
The scene is shot in one complete shot with no cuts. This isn’t a traditional long take as the cuts have been hidden with the help of CGI but the effect is the same.
Long cuts have a psychological effect on the viewer in that the longer the shot goes, the more real it feels because we are experiencing cinema in real time.
There is also no music over the diegetic sound. At no point in this scene does the filmmakers want you to think that you are watching a film. In the end, as far as they are concerned, you are watching a real bear attack.
Sell the survival:
The brunt of this part falls on the acting skills of Leo but the story artists has to put the actor in the best possible position to deliver the performance in a way that the viewer can accept and hopefully believe.
How do they do that. During the bear attack, Glass’s face is fully in view. As he’s being mauled, he remains conscious. He screams, pants, and grunts at every strike the bear gives him. He manages to get off a shot from his musket. Which doesn’t kill the bear but makes his next move more believable. Glass finds his knife and when the bear comes to finish him, Glass is able to bury the knife several times into the bears vital arteries in its neck. They tumble down the side of a hill and the bear lands on him. You can still see his breath going up from the cold wilderness air when Glass’s party arrives to help him.
To recap here is the power list of techniques used to pull your audience through this ride.
- Camera Height, simulates POV.
- Camera shots are close up, focus everything on the small details.
- Long takes or the whole scene in one shot (if possible).
- No music or non diegetic sound in the scene.