In the Beginning: The Importance of a Powerful Opening Shot

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A dreamy sequence of coconut trees forming a cryptic gateway to the thick of the jungle. Standing tall against a pristine blue sky, their leaves sway sluggishly with the gentle gust of wind. Our eyes transfixed in silence, we catch a brief glimpse of a military helicopter gliding by arbitrarily. Fumes of thick yellow smog permeate the air—the soothing portrait dancing feverishly to the haunting guitar chords of “The End”.

Evocative and enchanting, the trees move slowly and rhythmically—lulling us with the union of image and sound, reminiscent of a snake-charming ritual.

It’s quiet and seductive as the chord progression casts a spell on our subconscious, putting us in a state of perpetual trance.

As we grow more vulnerable, immersing in each moment, the snake-charmer speaks to us in the voice of Jim Morrison. The serene, hypnotic jungle suddenly bursts into a napalm flame, as we hear the ominous line: This is the end, beautiful friend.

The Power of an Opening Shot

One of Francis Ford Coppola’s benchmark films, Apocalypse Now is a work of magnificent wonder as a remarkable adaptation of epochal literature (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). It tells the same story through the lens of a gifted filmmaker, who bravely re-imagines the horrors of the Vietnam War on the big screen.

Going down in cinematic history as one of the most iconic opening sequences in a film, the first shot of Apocalypse Now is all it takes for any student of film, old or new, to understand its significance in film.

They say a film, much like a story, can be divided into three parts: the beginning, middle and end.

The end is the conclusion, the closing shot—a scene that gets its fair share of attention.

The middle is the body, consisting of character development and plot twists—where the plot thickens and unfolds.

The beginning is usually the most neglected part of the film, and yet just as important.

Why?

  1. Your opening shot sets the tone of the rest of your film.
  2. It introduces your audience to you.
  3. It gives you a chance to touch upon important themes and elements, and apply certain techniques, such as foreshadowing and juxtaposition.

Surprise Your Audience

Your film may not be based in the 60s or 70s, it may not be about war. You may not have a budget as big as Coppola’s, nor a leading actor quite like Martin Sheen.

But that’s no reason why your opening shot should be predictable and uninspiring.

If your film is promising, go all the way and make every second count! Avoid these common clichés generally found in the opening shot:

1. Close up of an alarm clock.

11:11, 6:06, 12:00—the number is important, we get it; but you’d make a greater impact by making a subtle reference than give it a good 3 seconds of screen-time.

2. Title sequence with complementary music.

This is particularly wasteful when your film is long. Sure, sometimes, it works. But most of the time, it’s just a waste of a good 5 minutes of visual storytelling.

3. Close up of an eye.

Windows to the soul and all that jazz—we know. The last 7 hundred movies had the same idea going for them.

Filmmaking is a labor of love, where each second of passion results in something special.

Your opening shot is a chance for you to reel in audiences with a bang—give it the attention it’s due to achieve something truly remarkable.

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