A pier. A large ship. A small office. Then, after a moment of peace, 5 men come walking out. In perfect single file and intimidating as all hell. The opening to “On the Waterfront” is remarkable, with an intense score that sets the mood for Marlon Brando’s war against the union boss. The ruckus created by the music highlights an important theme of the movie: challenging the status quo. Only from the opening shot, we know exactly what world we are in. We are in a world of order, but something is not quite right.
Maybe comedy is more your speed. Perhaps the greatest comedy ever put to screen, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” understands the importance of an opening shot. A foggy day covers a dramatic landscape. In the distance, the sound of a horse getting closer and closer. We see the crown of Arthur coming through the fog. But instead of him riding a horse like we would expect, Patsy is behind him banging coconuts together. It is a subversion of expectations that the movie will lean into for the next two hours.
The opening scene is the first thing the audience sees. It is the first impression of the film. And while first impressions aren’t everything, a bad one just makes the job a lot harder. A film has to either live up to their opening or work so hard to recover from a fumbling beginning.
To learn more, check out this video by Now You See It that analyzes the opening shot of four influential movies. From the epic, macro openings of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” to the hyper specific micro shots of “Little Miss Sunshine,” an opening sets the entire movie in motion. See how these filmmakers perfected it.