Spring is upon us, and what better way to celebrate the beginning of brighter days than to celebrate the best film beginnings of all time! Check back all month long as we look at the films with the best beginnings.
Check out last week’s article from this series here: The 10 Best Opening Title Sequences in Film
First impressions are important, and that’s why the opening shot of a film is not to be taken lightly. More than any other shot in a film, this is the one that audiences will pay attention to the most. Before they are invested in a story or distracted by their love or hate for the characters, they are going to form opinions about the film. The opening shot is the best opportunity for the filmmaker to invite their audience into their film, and it’s is not just about visuals either. This is a moment for the filmmaker to really capture the attention of the audience. To accomplish this, the best opening shots often incorporate as many senses and emotions as possible. Energetic music, lush textures, close-up details, and nostalgia are all components that have been used successfully in opening shots.
There are various types of opening shots in feature films. Often times, the opening shot of the film is just that. A standard shot. It could be a short clip of a character, of the setting, or maybe a sign. Other opening shots can be more complex. They can be longer, such as a tracking shot. In a tracking shot, an entire scene may unfold with the camera never cutting away. It requires a lot of planning and coordination between the crew and the actors. Or, the initial quick shot could be in slow motion. This is common, stretching out a single image to make a point or cause the audience to pay attention. Another type opening shot option is medias en res. For this type of a shot, the film opens in mid-action. This is a way for the filmmaker to immediately capture the attention of his audience with something exciting.
Our list picks some of the most impressive opening shots to ever be seen in film. Some filmmakers have several films that could have ended up on this list, but we chose the best one in order to try provide as much variety as possible. Opening shots are relegated to the everything that happens before the first cut of a film. Depending on the style, this could be an entire scene or just a few seconds of one.
First, let’s take a look at a few excellent opening shots which missed the top ten:
Pan’s Labryinth (2006)
Blade Runner (1982)
Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
AND NOW THE TOP TEN:
10. Boogie Nights (1997)
Why is it top ten? Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who takes ideas and techniques from filmmakers that he admires and incorporates them into his style. That’s exactly what he did with the introduction for his second feature film. An understudy of Altman, Anderson saw how effective a complicated tracking shot could be at the beginning of a film, most specifically in Altman’s 1992 film The Player (see # 8 on this list). The most immediate source of inspiration for this shot was Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which has a long tracking shot inside a club, introducing several characters at once. Anderson took these two ideas and combined them to make something different. From Goodfellas, Anderson took the quick pace and idea for the setting, giving his film a somewhat seedy, yet energetic tone. From The Player, Anderson saw how the setting and plot could be set up right from the opening shot, not requiring separate scenes of exposition in order to fully explain what needed to be explained to the audience. But it’s also not just an homage to what had come before. The technical execution, synchronization with music and sound, and planning involved showcased a new complexity and proficiency in film that we had never really seen before.
9. Searchers (1956)
Why is it top ten? Another legendary filmmaker making his mark on the audience right out of the gate. Shortly after the credits we see a black screen, but it’s not really a black screen. It’s an interior space, but without any light. A trick perhaps, and also a change from your interior film shot that uses artificial lighting to make up for lack of natural light. The door opens, revealing this truth as the setting becomes immediately apparent. It’s the old west. A colorful, sandy bluff is seen in the distance. Then the camera tracks through the open doorway, revealing more of the majestic scenery. We also see a women, with an old-fashioned dress, an instant notification of the time period that the film is taking place in. The entire journey from darkness to amazing imagery lasts only a few seconds, but it is such an interesting opening that it sticks with you. So much so that at the end of the film you are reminded of it again when Ford iconically frames John Wayne in a doorframe. These moments are like bookends to the film.
8. The Player (1992)
Why is it top ten? Building on great tracking shots of yore, Altman’s opening to his 1992 film The Player brought the technique to a whole new level. Here was an opening shot that not only unfolds like a complete scene, but was designed to establish a tone. Yes, a veteran movie director had begun his film with a pretentious opening, but look closer and you’ll notice it’s actually a semi-satirical statement about the excesses of Hollywood. It’s all there, and shaded brilliantly in early-90’s yuppie pastels and bright, cheery attitude. There’s a lot of activity, almost overwhelming at times, but that’s the point. Altman is showing that making movies is a business, and as such, there will be politics and strong opinions at play. This is, therefore, a poignant set-up for a film that later involves murder and other shady dealings.
7. Fight Club (1999)
Why is it top ten? This sequence could easily have counted as a title sequence, but it performs both duties well. As a title sequence it’s not immediately apparent what we are looking at, a CGI generated jungle of strange dark shapes. The perspective continues to move and then things get brighter and feel more organic. This is inside the mind. We see flashes from brain activity, ideas and actions being carried out. Further still the camera keeps pulling, it’s a massive tracking shot all cast in the same eerie blue tint as the rest of the film. Then we see a human form, the camera focus shifts and we see the main character, ready to pull the trigger. It’s a flash forward to the end of the film, and a disturbing way to start things off. But it’s also a sort of summary of what is about to happen. The connection between the mind and action is what the film discusses, and the final twist is actually given away right at the beginning of the film. It’s both an impressive storytelling moment and technical achievement.
6. Raging Bull (1980)
Why is it top ten? This one also counts as a title sequence, but as an opening to a film I think it is more impactful. Here Scorsese gives the audience a beautiful image to admire, which, once you start to consider, isn’t all that beautiful. At first, the slow motion seems somewhat calming. We see an athlete at work, dancing, if you may, with himself. Horizontal lines add some symmetry to the shot, but also look like a cage. Then you notice the details of the background, which are obscured in smoke. This is a dirty, smelly place. The air is heavy and dense – like expectations weighing down the fighter. The flashing lights illustrate the spectacle of the upcoming violence. Expectations run high, and indeed the audience becomes interested to get inside the head of this athlete. We see him in his natural element and now we want to know more.
5. Contact (1997)
Why is it top ten? There are tracking shots, and then there are tracking shots that are so epic they trace the entire span of time and space making your contribution to the universe seem very very very insignificant. The latter would be this one from Contact, which is a spellbinding use of special effects. Originally a universe-spanning tracking shot was envisioned by filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky for the opening shot of his unmade Dune adaptation. But that was the 1970’s and there was no constructive way to make that shot workable with technology at that time. By the late 90’s, CGI was being used more and more in film, and it finally made the idea doable. But possible and complete are two different things, and this one took a significant investment in time and money to pull off. The 4170 uninterrupted frames of CGI required for this intro shot were a record at the time of the film’s release for the longest ever in a live-action film. That’s a serious commitment to having a strong opening to a film, and the type of artistry and technical achievement required to pull it off are the reason it makes this list.
4. Touch of Evil (1958)
Why is it top ten? While more contemporary filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Robert Altman, Alejandro Inarritu, and Martin Scorsese have all put extensive tracking shots in their films, Orson Welles was the father of the long take. In many of his films he features a long shot where lots of action occurs all in one carefully orchestrated take. Originally designed as a method to explain a setting to the audience in a non-confusing way (cuts were liable to do this and shaved away unnecessary screentime), the idea developed over time to become something more. In the fluency of a long tracking shot, audiences could experience a film at the pace of real life and see action unfold in real time. Camera movement could explain the lay of the land when the orientation and arrangement of people or things in a setting were important. In this iconic shot, which is referenced to in Altman’s own epic opening shot (see #8) Welles applies his familiar noir stylings to a long tracking shot as cold opening of his film for the first time. The audience watches as a sinister criminal attaches a bomb to a victim’s car. It’s a nerve-racking couple minutes as the audience waits for the expected violent end, and indeed breaking the shot up with cuts would have ruined that tension. It’s a brilliant use of the technique, one that film studios of the time thought was completely rediculous (the theatrical version of the film was re-cut without the long tracking shot, much to the chagrin of Mr. Welles who complained, only to have it fixed by the studio but they added the credits playing over the scene.)
3. Star Wars (1977)
Why is it top ten? Possibly the ultimate in media res shot, Star Wars simply explodes onscreen. This is a great opening shot because it immediately establishes Star Wars’ greatest attributes: stunning visuals, amazing sound, and intense action. The fact that we get all of this at once, in a beautiful and non-traditional opening shot, makes this one a winner. Before there are characters, or even a plot, we are given the setting; the vastness of space. We see impressive-looking space ships zoom by, a sign of technological advancement, yet this is not a peaceful interlude. This is a struggle, and immediately the audience is on the edge of their seats. More importantly, this opening shot showcased the stunning special effects in spectacular fashion. This type of detail and realism was something that audiences had never seen before, and by giving them a glimpse of the awesomeness right off the bat, Star Wars sets itself up to be one of the most entertaining films ever made.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Why is it top ten? This one may also count as a title sequence (which I covered in last week’s article, here), but it is no less impressive just because of some words sprawled across the screen. 2001 opens with an overture, a traditional aspect of a film’s music that is used to introduce an audience to a film’s musical elements, often against a stationary backdrop. In 2001, that overture is black, to mimic the unlimited possibilities of the black monolith. It’s a moment of confusion, beauty, and peace, but it isn’t the film’s opening shot. That opening shot is a solar eclipse filmed from the moon’s perspective, perfectly aligned vis Kubrick’s geometric eye. It’s a prelude to the film’s first scene, which takes place after a sunrise on Earth, and a foreshadow for the film’s middle stage that ends with a trip to the moon. This image of the sun via an eclipse is later referenced a few other times in the film. Saying it’s an important moment in an understatement. This is the dawn of humanity. Then there’s the music, a clip of Strauss that is perhaps the most perfect, and famous, use of classical music in all of film.
1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Why is it the best ever? This film won the academy award for best cinematography, and from this first shot it is apparent that it deserved that award. The opening shot of Apocalypse Now is an iconic moment in the history of film. The reason it is so great is that it does so many different things well all at the same time. To open such an epic film with such a meaningful and interesting shot not only sets the film up for success, but immediately slams the audience face-first into the discomforting setting. Fire and death against the backdrop of a serene lush jungle is a slap to the face as a reminder of the serious and deadly topics this film explores. It’s in medias res and a tracking shot all at once, and it uses both sound and picture together brilliantly. The slow motion helicopter coupled with the stagnated sound of its blades spinning through the dense air creates a drury tone, and then “This is the End” starts and it is apparent that war is definitely hell. The audience becomes a casualty to their own previous indifference, and the lives they left behind before starting to watch the film fade to the back of their mind. This is a powerful beginning for one of the most powerful films ever made.
Join us next week as we celebrate more excellent film beginnings.