The Opening Shot

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The opening night of Encounters Film Festival started fittingly, with a discussion on opening shots helmed by Festival Director Rich Warren. Warren was joined by Programmer Gaia Meucci-Astley, filmmaker Mark Jenkin (Hard Cracked the Wind) and directors Hanna Ladoul and Marco La Via (Anywhere With You). The collective thesis, it was revealed, was to connect the idea of an opening sequence of a feature with that of a short film as a whole; just as a successful short can announce the arrival of a vital new voice, so too can a successful opening shot announce the arrival of a landmark feature.

In the ensuing discussion, the most notable of emerging themes how effectively so many of these opening sequences relied on landscape to establish their theses and, if not landscape, then a certain milieu or sense of place, be it physical or psychological. Examples given include Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and Joachim Trier’s Oslo Aug 31st (2011), both of which hark back to elements of the city symphony genre pioneered in the 1920s by filmmakers keen to record the rapidly changing world of modern cities - both films use their opening sequence to describe the urban landscape we're about to visit. Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986) envisions a sweaty, humid New Orleans in the sticky morning.

In contrast, Little Miss Sunshine doesn't establish a geographical space, but it does establish the humble origins of its protagonists - the play of scuzzy VHS across the reflection of Abigail Breslin's glasses, the sparse crowd of father Greg Kinnear's motivational classes. Don't Look Now (1973), selected by Mark Jenkin, is one of the most famously radical openings, outlining the whole film's character, mood and formal style in a mere six minutes, with only scraps of dialogue and a vague sense of physical place.

Supercut of opening shots from well-known films, The Art of the Opening Shot by Danish vloggers Filmnørdens Hjørne, provided an interesting juxtaposition. The vast majority were landscape or vista shots, with only a handful featuring actors, their faces largely turned away, unidentifiable. For every instantly recognisable iconic opener, there was a rather bland helicopter shot of a cityscape, even in classic movies associated with a unique style.

Perhaps the takeaway here is that the opening shot is not the be-all and end-all of a film. A shot on its own is might be meaningless. It’s the combined friction developed by sound, editing, direction and storytelling, and that good ole fashioned film language, that gives it meaning.

Written by Fedor Tot for Encounters Film Festival.