Establishing shots

As I noted here, the opening of your story sets up expectations for how it’s going to finish. In fiction, usually it takes a paragraph or two, at least, to establish the opening, but in visual media, it’s different: The first panel of a comic book or the first few seconds of a movie can establish where you are, and possibly tell you more, even if nothing’s happened.
As the book Celluloid Skyline points out, movies that open with establishing shots of the New York skyline or the bustling streets are sending a message: This story takes place in the Big Apple. The. Big. Apple. Big things happen here, not like your pissant little village.
Swoop up a skyscraper to the highest floor and we’re moving into the executive suite. Show us the docks and we may suspect some McGuffin’s about to be smuggled or shipped in. Show us a glittering society event and we know we’re mingling with the upper crust.
On the other hand, you open on a peaceful little small town and the message is that this will be a homey, traditional story of traditional values—whether reaffirming them or rejecting them. Or the opening is a set-up, to contrast with the horror that’s about to happen (who would suspect that Wewahitchka, Florida, would be attacked by a plague of zombies?).
All of which is prompted by watching The Towering Inferno recently and realizing how poorly they opened: It’s just a shot of someone in a helicopter flying over the ocean while the credits role, which tells us nothing about anything.
Given the story involves a badly constructed skyscraper, the film could have shown us the crews building it; since firemen and the challenge of high-rise firefighting play a large role, that could have been the focus. But instead … nothing of interest.
That’s not to say the movie would have worked with a better opening: It was a flop. But there was no need to turn me off from the start.

2 Comments

Filed under Movies, Reading, Writing

2 responses to “Establishing shots

  1. Pingback: The hook | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: The Bird King and the power of setting | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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