The MOST Important Filmmaking Tip

Add If you want to learn the most important lesson in filmmaking to become a better artist, then applying this idea will change the way audiences experience your films.paragraph text here.

This is a big promise, isn’t it? “The ‘most important’ lesson?”

With 20 years of teaching and working in film, I can safely say I have figured out at least one universal truth to filmmaking.

If used wisely, this filmmaking lesson will radically transform your approach to creating content, no matter what your job in filmmaking is. But if you do not want your skills challenged, please stop reading here.

How I Came to this Conclusion

I know, I’m making you read before I reveal the secret. I’ll get to the point. It really isn’t that much of a ‘secret’. Great filmmakers have talked about this for a century. (Not that I’m a great filmmaker. I’m just a decent enough teacher.)

The idea came from the famous film editor, Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye. In one paragraph he talked about the picture editors priorities when deciding where to cut.

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Murch said that an editor should make the majority of decisions to cut to another shot in order to highlight emotion. A ‘beat’ is another word used to identify an emotional moment on-screen.

An ‘emotional beat’ refers to a significant change in the character that the audience observes. Emotional beats are the heart of film storytelling.

Recognizing emotion in the script and the performances helps you build the story in a more emotional way.

Lesson: always highlight emotion.

How To Recognize Emotional Beats

Emotion in a film is based on three things:

1. Decisions that characters make when they are on screen

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2. Epiphanies (a moment of realization) that characters experience when they are on screen

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3. And their reactions/responses.

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What the emotional beat is:

They show changes in the character. Audiences need to see and experience these moments because they empathize with these direct expressions of emotion. The emotional beat is the story playing out in real time. Something has to be at stake for the character. An emotional beat is the character interacting with forces in the story.

Why the emotional beat is important:

Without emotion the story will fall flat, failing to give the audience a reason to care. Emotional beats help the audience understand the character. Emotional beats pull the viewer into the character’s emotion, and thus into the story.

How to draw on the emotional beat:

Emotional beats happen in the moment of transformation. You see the change on the character’s face. It is not what they say — you see it in their eyes. Make sure that this ends up on screen.

Film has maximum impact when an audience experience change. Pay close attention to changes that happens on screen. Make all your filmmaking decisions to focus on emphasizing these emotional moments. If emotion doesn’t happen on the screen, it won’t be realized in the story.

Since film is a language made up of visuals and sound, emotion is communicated by what the audience sees (and hears in juxtaposition to the image). Because of this, emotion must be witnessed by an audience through the expressions of the characters.

If the character tells the audience exactly what they are thinking or feeling rather than showing it, this is ‘on the nose exposition’ and generally bad filmmaking. The audience wants to experience it with the character, not be told about it. Never ‘tell’ what you can ‘show’. Omit exposition and find a way for decisions, epiphanies, and reactions to transcend the screen.

What does emotion have to do with story?

Emotion, the ability to recognize and empathize, is something common and to humans. We communicate with emotion, giving your story a point of view, context, and urgency.

A story is a moral tale that connects the audience to the problem and emotion of the protagonist.

We are attracted to stories because they inspire the hope that we will learn something about ourselves through the emotional journey of the hero. This is the ideal of a well told film.

Emotion is story because the creator, the performer, the character, and the audience all share in a common bond that is held together by the emotion that hides in subtext.

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One of my favourite movies is Lost in Translation. In it Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson deal with existential crises, boredom, and loneliness. Except for a couple throw-away lines, neither actor say what they feel. The movie ends with a Murray whispering to Johansson but the audience do not hear what he says. However, the emotion is plastered on their faces. We do not need to hear what he said — it is even more powerful that we do not hear his dialogue. The ending is satisfying because we share in what they feel. This story is art because it connect with our heart.

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An Anecdotal Story — Albert Maysles
An Anecdotal Story — Albert Maysles

I had the enormous honour of spending time with the infamous documentary filmmaker, Albert Maysles, before his passing. If you haven’t seen his films, you must. It will help you understand how to capture emotion with a camera.

We met at a film festival and I was able to grab his ear between fans wanting his attention. I asked him point blank; “How do you decide what to point your camera at?” He took me by the elbow to a quiet corner.

He told me about Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens. He talked about the challenges of anonymity in his approach to filmmaking, dealing with the egos of his subjects who played up to the camera, and the moments he would pick up the camera, point it at his subject, and roll film. He said it all came down to the ‘intimacy of the moment’ and the ‘vulnerability’ of his subjects as they were ‘truthful’.

“You mean their emotions,”I asked.

“That’s one way of putting it,” he agreed.

I believe Albert would be happy that I share this story if it helps people learn to capture honest emotion in film.

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(The culmination to my time with Mr. Maysles; he handed me his camera and I filmed while asking him questions. I got to interview an iconic filmmaker with his own camera.)

Recognize Emotion

Focus on decisions, epiphanies, and reactions.

Learn to recognize honesty and transparency on the screen. This applies both to actors and documentary subjects. Even a lie is an honest moment if the audience recognize it for what it is.

False emotion makes the story fall apart. We just don’t believe it. We see fake emotions in bad acting, manipulated or forced writing, inexperienced directing, and lazy editing.

The ability to capture and deliver emotion is something that takes experience and skill. It rarely happens in your first film.

If an image or sound does not create or work in conjunction with an emotion, it doesn’t belong. When it comes to the person on screen (whether actors or subjects in a documentary), they are there because they have an emotion that is going to be expressed.

The key is to recognize emotional moments and ensure that they are organized in a way that best connects with your audience.


I hope you didn’t skip to the summary. Well, if you did at least you got this far.

The secret to great filmmaking is capturing the emotion on-screen.

Focus on the following when deciding what to put on screen;

Decisions make by characters or subjects
Epiphanies experienced by characters or subjects
Reaction of characters or subjects.

If you are able to get these moment up on the screen, I guarantee that your filmmaking and storytelling will capture the interest of an audience and you will be underway to becoming a great artist.