A film’s opening scene is important for many reasons. It is a promise made to the audience that the rest of the film will live up to its first 1-5 minutes. It is where the audience will decide whether or not to invest the next one and a half to two hours of their time watching a movie so, it needs to be special. While an opening scene can be great in varying ways there are a few effects that need to be established in order to grab our attention.
Setting the Scene
The first is showing the world in which the characters live in. This is somewhat related to genre and is important because people like to know upfront what kind of story they will be told. If it is a sci-fi movie or fantasy then they should see images of advanced technology or views of the sky from what looks like another planet. If the story takes place in a world like ours then the setting will be very familiar.
Effects of Tone
The next effect that needs to be utilized is Tone: the overall impression of the movie. This needs to be implemented so that the audience can fall into the same mood as the film they are watching. It also helps viewers to know what to expect and builds anticipation and intrigue.
It is wise to introduce the main character in the first scene so that the audience has as much time as possible to develop a connection to them. They will often have a “characteristic moment” in which viewers are shown what they can expect to see from this individual.
Finally, there should be conflict or drama which excites the viewers and takes them from the edge of their seat and into the world within the film.
How Do you Pick Just One?
There are just too many spectacular openings to pick and frankly, I find it very difficult to narrow this down. However, there is no better film than Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight that exemplifies all the aspects of a compelling introduction. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy The Dark Knight, it is the second installment to a three part series. Bruce Wayne (Batman) who is a well-established figure in Gotham City, has successfully defeated Ra’s al Ghul as well as his own personal fears in Batman Begins. One of the great things about the Batman comic book series is that the villains play as important a role as the hero and we see this in The Dark Knight with the introduction of the Joker in the opening scene.
The Dark Knight
The scene starts with an establishing shot, quickly zooming in on the window of a typical Gotham City corporate building and showing to the audience the type of world this story will take place in.
Aside from its black exterior, the building is unassuming next to the many other corporate buildings around it.
The window suddenly shatters from within and with it our expectations of this being a typical day in what looks like the financial district of the city. This is echoed by the music as it ticks like a time bomb and gets louder.
We are taken into the interior where two men wearing clown masks fire a zip line to the adjacent building.
The scene cuts to a mid shot of a man holding a clown mask and a duffel bag. He is slouching and is eerily still as he stands on a corner, waiting. The camera creeps closer to the mask, emphasizing the importance of it. The Joker has a painted face throughout the majority of the movie and so is wearing a mask already.
Before we are able to see his face a van runs the curb and screeches to a stop which signals to us that whoever is driving is in a hurry. The man on the corner puts his mask on and gets in.
Now back to the men in the window as they zip across to the adjacent building.
We are shown the streets below, emphasizing how far up they are and the risk they are taking. The music score becomes louder and quicker creating a tense and edgy tone. The sound blends with the imagery and is an undercurrent to the drama displayed on the surface. The choice in camera angles and the quick movement between shots also hints at the danger they are flirting with and builds momentum towards the scene’s climax
From here, we are taken back and forth from the three men in the van and the two now on a rooftop cutting wires. Both teams are in conversation about the Joker, except for the man from the corner who sits silent in the back seat of the van. One of the men in the van describes themselves as “three of a kind”, a reference to a card game and foreshadows the Joker’s use of the playing card as his calling card.
We have still not seen a single man’s face which creates a mysterious tone. They speak of the job he hired them for and planned out which entails stealing money and splitting it between them. They speculate on how he received his name and it is clear they know very little about him and what he actually looks like. This serves to foreshadow the Joker’s character before he is even introduced. It also shows the sway he holds over others even if they have never met him. It plants in the audience’s mind his ability to manipulate others to commit evil acts which he does throughout the movie.
Finally, it is revealed where the men in the van were driving to as they speed up the street of Gotham City Bank, get out and with guns and hand grenades hold the bank up. They remove the pins from the grenades and place them in the hands of the people in the bank. A detail which shows the sick and twisted plan of the Joker. Not only does he have the ability to corral criminals to do as he wishes but he also enjoys placing ordinary citizens in situations where they are forced to confront death. We see him continually perpetuate this idea, which he speaks to later on when he says, “I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempt to control things really are… Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.”
This sentiment is continued as we follow each member of the gang as they split up in pairs of two to complete their assigned tasks. That is until there is a hitch in the plan and a bank employee runs out of his office firing a shotgun. The pair of clowns, one of whom is the man from the corner, hide for cover and when the firing stops one of them asks the other if the employee is out of ammunition.
The man from the corner nods his head, encouraging the other to stand and fire at the employee who fires back one last shot, hitting the clown in the arm. The injured clown says, “Where did you learn to count?” which adds humor to the tone. The man from the corner stands and shoots the employee in the legs, then tilts his head as if to study the dying specimen, showing that the character is deranged and mentally unhinged.
With the use of montage editing we are taken to the other pair who are breaking into the vault. We discover that they are robbing from the mob and one of them comments, “Guess the Joker’s as crazy as they say ” and that part of the plan was for each gang member to kill their partner after their task is complete.
With each task complete and each gang member taken out, our understanding of the clown on the corner continues to build along with the level of conflict. We are left with two gang members piling up duffel bags full of money towards the entrance of the bank and are faced with another snag: one of the clowns has caught on to the Joker’s plan and confronts his partner at gunpoint, “I’m betting the Joker told you to kill me as soon as we load the cash?”.
The man from the corner glances casually at his watch and moves to the side of the entrance forcing his partner to stand directly in front of it. We hear his voice for the first time explain that he will instead be killing the bus driver. His partner is confused and doesn’t know that there is a bus driver involved, until a school bus comes crashing through the entrance killing the partner.
After the bus driver has assisted in loading the bags of money on to the bus, the man from the corner guns him down. He steps up to the bus to get in but stops when he hears speaking to him the bank employee who he previously left to die on the floor. The employee laments the change in the way crime in Gotham is now conducted, that it is not done with honor or respect anymore.
He heralds Batman’s new villain, one unlike the rest, one who doesn’t follow any rules or stand for or believe in anything.
The clown from the corner walks up to the employee and shoves a grenade attached to a purple string in his mouth, explaining that what he believes in is “whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you stranger.” He removes his clown mask and accentuated by the music, we finally see that the man from the corner is the Joker with a face painted in makeup; a mask behind a mask. The symbolism behind two masks is what the Joker thinks he is stripping away from society by causing chaos. In reality he is just piling so many masks on himself that he doesn’t even know his own truth anymore. This is proven by his inability to tell a consistent story about the cause of the scars on his face.
The Joker casually and awkwardly walks back to the bus and gets in. As he steps up onto the bus a flash of purple can be seen from beneath his jacket. This brings to light for the first time in the scene that his suit is a dark purple and completes his persona. He locks the door behind him, the string from the grenade attached to his belt.
We watch in fear as the pin is pulled from the grenade in the employee’s mouth.
As the camera closes in on his face the grenade explodes with a cloud of smoke, the Joker’s final joke in this scene.
The bus pulls out of the bank entrance and falls in line with several other school busses on their route to school, emphasizing the amount of detail put into this plan. It also shows how skillfully he uses the uniformity of a well developed plan to create chaos.
Story within a Story
A great opening scene is a stand-alone sequence which tells it’s own complete story within the overarching plot. In this way opening scenes are like short films, creating an atmosphere which sets the tone and is the starting point to be expanded on throughout the remainder of the story.
Nolan accomplishes this by skillfully using every element necessary to create a successful opening scene. He uses just enough foreshadowing to reveal the plot and one of the primary characters to rope the audience into the story but not too much that they are overburdened with or bored by the information.
He introduces the Joker by slowly adding details about him leading up to his big reveal in a natural and rhythmic way. The Joker’s personality is uncovered by how he reacts to conflicts as they arise and what we ultimately discover is that he is the orchestrator of the conflict in this scene.