Opening shots

What makes a good opening shot of a movie? I don't know but I presume in some film Masters program you could find out. It probably has to do with setting the tone or introducing the hero or such and such but I reckon that's something that is done in the whole opening scene. I'm thinking specifically about what makes that first shot - that moment when the picture fades up from blackness and you take a little breath in, ready to be go on a journey.

I had a look through my dvd library to try and find some good ones and to see if there are any similarities. What I found is that the majority of opening shots fall into one of three categories: Character, Landscape and Metaphor.

I love that stare of Olive's and how the kaleidoscope of titles relax to reveal Will in his empty home. But this gaze of Woody Allen is strong, it tells us straight away that this movie really isn't about Annie Hall at all but about him. All these shots tie us to a character by showing us, the audience, something the other characters don't ever see.

Fargo scares me to this day and each time I watch it these almost invisible headlights through the mist it takes me right to that place of 'oh my gosh its so cold something bad must be about to happen'. 'Headlights through the haze' can also be seen in the opening shot of Brokeback Mountain, Aladdin and (sort of) Pretty In Pink.

Cloud shots are probably the most common landscape to open a film, it's up there with the 'drop into a city/window' as seen in Psycho and Run Lola Run. I'd like to think the cloud shot started with The Sound of Music and has been best imitated by Toy Story.

A metaphor for what? Well I wouldn't want to speculate, but it's obvious these opening shots are really trying to tell us something true about the story. Seeing these reminded me of a post by tv writer Jane Espenson (BSG, Buffy) on how the first page of a script should really get to the point of the story. She quotes Jeff Greenstein as saying: I am a big believer that the opening line of a pilot (or the opening image, or the teaser) should be the series in microcosm. The 'teaser' as Jane calls it is all about getting the central dynamic or central message on screen as perfect as possible and as soon as possible.

Jane goes on to add that if you're writing a script and 'you've just shrugged and started with your main character waking up in bed, then I'd suggest that you might've missed a really good opportunity'. But that said if you need to show that your character does a lot of laying around or wakes up in an interesting way it might work for you. Off the top of my head I'm thinking about the shot of Scarlett Johannson's butt on the bed during Lost In Translation's opening credits and how in Clerks how Dante falls out of the cupboard as the ringing phone wakes him.

What I have learned during this exercise is that while openings are critical they're often recycled. But I think that's ok. Something familiar (but not boring!) is always a nice easy step for the audience to take into a story, to suck them in quickly.

Do you have any opening shots (or scenes) you really like? Have I missed any critically important shots and need to be slapped? Let me know in the comments.

Note: All screenshots by me for the purposes of this post only.


  1. This is really interesting! I never thought about the importance of a really good opening shot.

  2. @Jayda. I'm the same. I'll be paying a lot more attention with every new movie I watch.

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