The first shot in a film may not be the flashiest, but it’s packed full of vital information for viewers. In this post, we’re going to explore some powerful opening shots in cinema, and how to put it into practice in your own films.
Why opening shots really matter
To start us off, watch this video from the folks at Now You See It on famous opening shots.
The “first impression” you get when meeting someone can be compelling, boring, or even strange; but most importantly it gives you an idea of who that person is and where the conversation will be going.
In the same way, directors must work hard to make their “first impression” count. The opening shot of a film is the audience’s initial entry into the world, and an important first step in conveying the story’s main ideas, themes, character arcs, and perspective.
Let’s jump in.
"A film's opening shot is the first impression, here's how to make it a good one." #filmmakers #indiefilm #filmmaking
1. Opening shot of 2001: A Space Odessey
What does the awe-inspiring opening shot say to you?
Takeaways from opening shot:
- The sun, a symbol of life, dawns upon earth. The story is about life on earth, and we’re about to watch the dawn of Man.
- Our POV is that of outsider looking in from space, as if we’re studying mankind.
- The epic music adds weight to this major milestone in civilization.
"Even simple opening shots can have a profound effect." #filmmakers #indiefilm #filmmaking
2. Opening shot of Silver Linings Playbook
As epic as 2001 may be, you can still achieve a similar impact on a personal scale. In Silver Linings Playbook, the opening shot packs just as much punch, but it’s subtle.
- The camera moves towards a protagonist. This movie is about him.
- The camera eases towards his head. This story is about what’s going on in his head.
- The character is facing away. He’s guarded, and going in the wrong direction.
3. Opening shot of Little Miss Sunshine
Similar to Silver Linings Playbook, the opening shot of Little Miss Sunshine is of a single character. However, in this case, we face the protagonist, Olive Hoover, straight on for totally different effect.
- Olive watches a broadcast with wide-eyed optimism. This movie’s about dreams.
- Olive watches a beauty pageant. This is about the pursuit of “superficial” dreams.
- Miss Louisiana is reflected on her glasses. Olive sees herself as Miss Louisiana.
3. Opening shot of Silence of the Lambs
The opening shot of Silence of the Lambs is “jam-packed with content.” Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, an underdog FBI cadet who wants to prove herself. What does this shot say to you?
- Clarice pulls herself up a hill. This story is about Clarice pulling herself out of struggle.
- Clarice is alone. In the film, she will need to overcome her greatest hurdles alone.
- The unused rope next to Clarice indicates she’s either the first or the last to get this far.
- When she reaches the top, birds take off, representing freedom and achievement.
Fun fact: The motif of flight is used throughout the film, especially in this scene:
Back to you..
While there’s no magic formula to an opening shot, directors must inevitably ask themselves how to introduce their stories.
Should the opening shot be of a character like Silver Linings Playbook or Little Miss Sunshine?
Or a wide establishing landscape like in 2001 or No Country for Old Men?
Or perhaps a thematic prop, like the computer screen in the The Matrix?
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We hope you enjoyed this discussion of opening shots and how they set the tone of the film. You know what is just as important as your opening shot? Your final shot! Check out our sister article on first and final frames where we compare the the first and final shots of popular films in split view.
Did we miss anything? Let us know some of your favorite openings in the comments below!