When my DP Tery Wilson told me a particular Steadicam shot she wanted in the feature film we worked on, it struck me as important. And important it was. “This,” she said, “Is the beginning shot of the whole movie.” No pressure!
It struck me how big and weighty the first scene — and really the first shot — in a movie is. It sets up story, character and tone. It has to hold your attention from one moment to the next. The first minutes of a film are prime real estate. If you’re not hooked, you might bail. Next movie on Netflix. Next attempt at entertainment.
We are far too impatient as a modern audience to sit around for setup that takes too long.
Pace is influential here as well. Although It Follows is similar in structure to an old school horror movie — slow mounting dread throughout the story — it gets to the meat of the matter right away. That’s something I always thought the old horror movies back in the day had trouble with.
The screenwriter has to catch the attention of the first reader through to the first audience who see the film and can recommend it to their friends.
Having a bombastic beginning also relates to my earlier post about title sequences. You don’t always see flashy title sequences in movies but when you do, you better believe they are doing an important job. You can see that post on title sequences here.
That first shot in It Follows is not just a great beginning, but also an example of fabulous shot design. The shot doesn’t break away into any edits as the girl runs from the house, is chased by an unseen follower, and eventually rushes away from the home.
What’s genius about this shot is how it follows the first person you see, establishing the horror element of an unrelenting terror. We first see the girl run out of the house, track alongside her as she runs down the sidewalk, then we become the mysterious follower, never taking our eyes off her until she flees the scene. This shot never stops moving, perfectly simulating the monster of the story.
The Dark Knight
You can see a fantastically simple yet effective opening shot in for The Dark Knight. It’s truly brilliant in its simplicity, as the very first shot doesn’t show any people, but succeeds in building tension and expectations of sudden violence to come.
An extreme zoom into a building as a window suddenly explodes outward tells us everything we need to know about the upcoming scene: stuff is going down, and it’s going to be shocking. The whole film is a slow boil to an epic, explosive showdown. It’s only fitting that we see that echoed in the very first, seemingly innocent cityscape shot.
And that whole bank robbery scene is so engaging that you can’t help but be hooked — ready for the ride.
Make it your goal to master creating a beginning – and especially opening shot – to your film that not only captures your audience’s attention but says something about plot and tone. You’ll be more likely to get an opportunity to make another film and then we’ll be studying your film making choices.