You don’t need to be a film scholar to know that how a movie opens helps to establish everything it will be, both visually and narratively. An opening sequence’s only objective is to instill in the audience a movie’s tone while simultaneously reeling them in. In some instances, like Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL, that sequence is kinetic and technically masterful, hinting at a twisting and winding, fast-paced and stylish story to come; in other instances, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER, that sequence is static and fixed on a character, not an action, letting us know we’re in for a haunting character study.
In the world of publishing, it’s common knowledge that most agents and editors will read the very first page of a manuscript and if they aren’t hooked, they toss it. That’s because if you don’t have your audience from the get-go, it’s difficult to pull them aboard mid-journey. Film works the same way: you can tell from the opening sequence and what it accomplishes if this is a story you’re going to easily engage with or one for which you’re going to have to work. And for my and most of your money, too, if global box office receipts are any indication, director Steven Spielberg is better than most at crafting opening sequences that inform, intrigue, and convince us to come along for his wild rides.
Spielberg is as chameleonic as a stylist as he is a storyteller, bending his direction to fit the genre, be it sci-fi, adventure, fantasy, comedy or drama (or most often a blend of all these), resulting in a wide variety of shots and techniques that in and of themselves comprise a mini-film-school. And now, thanks to editor Antonios Papantoniou, class is in session.
If you want epic we’ve got your epic right here: Papantoniou has collected the opening sequences from each of Spielberg’s 13 films between 1971 and 1991 – DUEL through HOOK – and provided a shot-by-shot analysis of each, revealing not just how the director put the sequences together, but what he accomplished narratively, thematically, and tonally by the decisions he made.
This is grade-A stuff right here; here’s hoping there’s a 1991–2016 follow-up on the way.
STEVEN SPIELBERG Opening Shots (1971–1991) from Antonios Papantoniou on Vimeo.