The opening sequence of a narrative performs a number of functions including starting the narrative, establishing characters and setting, and engaging the audience.
At the beginning of a narrative there is usually a disruption in the lives of the characters. At the beginning of Dawn of the Dead (Zak Snyder, 2004), the lives of the characters are thrown into chaos when the dead start returning to life. In Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012), the main characters set off for a weekend away unaware that their lives are being manipulated by a shadowy organisation. At the beginning of Warrior (Gavin O’Connor, 2011), Brendan Conlon is forced to start fighting in mixed martial arts tournaments when the bank threatens to foreclose on his family’s home. The opening sequence of a film instigates the chain of cause and effect that is ultimately resolved at the end of the narrative. This event is often tied closely to character motivation. Conflicts in narratives can either be external or internal. The zombies in Dawn of the Dead are a great example of an external conflict. Internal conflicts are those conflicts that occur within the character. At the beginning of Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2002), Will Graham, a former FBI profiler, returns to the Bureau to investigate a serial killer called The Tooth Fairy. Throughout the narrative, Graham is caught between the desire to apprehend the killer and the desire to protect himself and his family from further harm. The important point to remember is that the opening sequence of a narrative often results in a change in the life of one or more characters, resulting in a series of events linked by cause and effect, that are ultimately resolved at the end.
The opening sequence is also important because it helps to establish characters, their relationships and motivation. In the opening sequence of Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, 2005), director Jason Reitman uses a number of production elements to establish the charismatic Big Tobacco spokesperson Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). The film begins with a television talk show host introducing a panel of guests invited to talk about lung cancer, including a fifteen year old boy with lung cancer. When Naylor is introduced to the audience, the sound of the booing audience is emphasised in the sound mix. Cutting to a shot from behind Naylor, the audience jeers and heckles him. The screen freezes as a woman in the crowd spits at him. “Few people on this planet know what it is to be truly despised,” he says. “I get paid to talk. I don’t have an MD or law degree. I have a bachelor’s in kicking ass and taking names.” Reitman cuts to a shot of Naylor at a podium, adding the sound of machine guns and grenades while he talks.
The opening sequence of a film also introduces the audience to the setting of the narrative. The setting plays a vitally important role in the storyline. InEquilibrium (Kurt Wimmer, 2002) mise en scène and visual composition are used to establish the setting, a world controlled by a repressive totalitarian government which has outlawed emotion. In the opening sequence of the film, The camera tilts up to reveal a cityscape. The buildings are a drab, uniform shade of grey. The sky, too, is dominated by grey clouds which contribute to the sense that this society is completely emotionless. Throughout this sequence, the shots of the city are largely symmetrical which contributes to the sense that, devoid of emotion, the city has reached a state of equilibrium. In one shot, a large zeppelin flies between two almost identical buildings. The people walking in the foreground are all dressed in shades of grey and black. The camera dollies in on rows of people dressed in identical grey uniforms listening to a speech by their leader. Both the symmetry of this shot and they grey costumes contribute to the sense that they live in a repressive and emotionless society. Establishing the setting at the beginning of this film is particularly important because it plays a significant role in the motivation of the main character who eventually struggles against this ruthless totalitarian regime.
The opening sequence of a film also plays an important role in engaging the audience. Think about how the opening sequence of any film that you’re studying helps to engage the audience. How does it make you identify with the characters and their situation? What techniques – such as camera techniques, acting, miss en scene, editing, lighting and sound – are used to help engage you in the narrative and make sure you sit through the remaining two hours?
127 HOURS (DANNY BOYLE, 2010)
127 Hours is Danny Boyle’s film about of Aron Ralston, who was forced to cut off his own arm after being pinned under a boulder while canyoneering. The film opens with the screen split into thirds, showing shots of streets, beaches, festivals and stadiums teeming with people, some shots using time lapse photography to emphasise the bustle. At the beginning of the film, Rallston is a loner who heads out into the desert without informing his friends or family. Faced with the prospect that he might die alone, Ralston finds renewed value in the relationships that he has with friends and family. The opening sequence of the film helps to establish how distant and disconnected Ralston is from family and community. A series of shots in the opening sequence also shows his progression from a busy city to the isolation of the Utah desert.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (THE COEN BROTHERS, 1998)
The opening sequence of The Big Lebowski helps to establish Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski and kick off the narrative. The film opens with the song Tumbling Tumbleweeds performed by Sons of the Pioneers. The Coen Brothers show shots a tumbleweed rolling over the hills and tumbling through the streets of Los Angels. “Way out West there was this fella. Fella I wanna tell you about. Fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski,” says The Stranger, the film’s mysterious narrator played by Sam Elliot. “Sometimes there’s a man…well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude in Los Angeles. And even if he is a lazy man, and the Dude was most certainly that, quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles county, which would place him high in the running for laziest worldwide. But sometimes there’s a man…” This voice over, in combination with Jeff Bridge’s acting and his dishevelled appearance, helps to establish The Dude. The tumbleweed is a motif that represents the way The Dude drifts through life. The narrative begins when he returns home and is mistakenly roughed up by two thugs, one peeing on his rug. The Dude sets out to seek composition for the rug because it “really tied the room together”.
GARDEN STATE (ZACH BRAFF, 2004)
At the beginning of Garden State, Andrew Largeman (Zack Braff) is a depressed actor who relies on prescription medication to make it through the drudgery of everyday life. The film opens with a steadicam shot moving across the cabin of a crashing aircraft, gradually dollying in on an uninterested Andrew, who promptly wakes up from the dream. Mise en scène helps to establish how meaningless and empty Andrew’s life is. His bedroom is entirely white and completely devoid of colour. Braff cuts to an overshot of Andrew as he stoically listens to an answering machine message. “Look, I don’t know how to do this but you’re gonna need to come home now,” his father says. “Last night…your mother died last night, Andrew.” Braff cuts to a shot of Andrew reflected in the bathroom mirror, his face bisected by the mirror. The camera pulls focus as he opens the doors to the cabinet, revealing shelves of prescription medication. Driving to work, mise en scène continues to convey how emotionless his existence is, his car gridlocked in a desaturated shot of colourless cars.
HOT FUZZ (EDGAR WRIGHT, 2007)
The opening sequence of Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz performs a number of functions. First, it establishes the character of Constable Nicholas Angel, a exemplary member of the Metropolitan Police Department. This is achieved through a range of production elements. The most prominent element for achieving this character development in the opening sequence is sound, principally dialogue, which is used to establish the character: “Police Constable Nicholas Angel: born and schooled in London, graduated Canterbury University in 1993 with a double first in Politics and Sociology. Attended Hendon College of Police Training and displayed great aptitude in field exercises, notably Urban Pacification and Riot Control…In the last twelve months, he has received nine special commendations, achieved highest arrest record for any officer in the Met and sustained three injuries in the line of duty, most recently in December when wounded by a man dressed as Father Christmas.” This dialogue is accompanied by a series of tightly edited shots closely related to the narration. After this narration the chain of cause and effect in the narrative is initiated when it is revealed, through acting and dialogue, that Angel is being relocated to a rural police station because he’s been making the rest of the force “look bad.”
RAISING ARIZONA (THE COEN BROTHERS, 1987)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s screwball comedy Raising Arizona has an entertaining and memorable opening sequence which establishes the affable repeat offender Herbert “Hi” McDunnough (Nicholas Cage). The entire sequence is set to the song ‘Way Out There’ by Carter Burwell. The uptempo banjo helping to characterise Hi as a hapless hick. So too does his voice over. “I tried to stand up and fly straight,” he says, “but it wasn’t easy with the son of a bitch Reagan in the White House.” The Coen Brothers cut from a shot of Hi’s parole hearing straight to a shot of him robbing a convenience store. The editing and structuring of time throughout this sequence helps to establish that he’s a repeat offender who can’t help himself.
STAR TREK (JJ ABRAMS, 2009)
If you don’t cry during the opening sequence of JJ Abram’s Star Trek, then you probably grew up on Vulcan. The opening sequence of the Star Trek reboot is a great example engaging the audience by encouraging them to identify with the characters. Lieutenant Commander George Kirk is forced to defend the USS Kelvin against a Romulan ship while the rest of the crew, including his pregnant wife, flees in the escape pods. As he charges the enemy ship, the sound of the battle fades and Michael Giacchino’s emotional score rises. Speaking over the airwaves to his wife, an emotional Kirk helps to name their newborn son. “Tiberius, you kiddin’ me? No, that’s the worst,” he says. “Let’s name him after your dad. Let’s call him Jim.” It’s manipulative stuff, but it works! George Kirk’s heroic sacrifice also motivates the narrative’s main character, James T. Kirk, to aspire to be a captain in Starfleet.
WATCHMEN (ZAK SNYDER, 2009)
The opening of Watchmen engages the audience with a battle between washed up superhero The Comedian and a mysterious assailant. The fight, which makes extensive use of speed ramping, is accompanied by Lois Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. The credit sequence that follows helps to explain a complex alternate history in which masked vigilantes played an important role in America’s history. The credit sequence reenacts significant moments in throughout this alternate history to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’.
STUDYING THE OPENING SEQUENCE
Watch the opening sequence of the film that you’re studying several times.
• How are characters and the relationship between characters established through the use of production elements?
• What is the event that instigates the narrative?
• Is the setting an important part of the narrative? How is it established?
• How does the opening sequence engage the audience?