Star Wars and the power of the opening shot
Updated: Feb 18, 2018
It's fair to say that after the opening shot of Star Wars, cinema changed forever.
Most obviously, the opening sequence of 1977's Star Wars: A New Hope signalled a new era in visual effects technology. As the impossibly vast spaceship fills and chokes the screen, audiences get their moneys-worth of the jaw-dropping effects pioneered by John Dykstra and his team at Industrial Light and Magic. It was a masterstroke by George Lucas to put those game-changing effects up on the screen right from the get-go.
But there's more to this opening shot, in which a small spaceship flees a much larger vessel above an alien planet, than just fancy effects.
It's been copied and homaged endlessly since, with countless spacecraft cruising past the camera in everything from Alien to the most recent Star Wars flick, The Last Jedi. Yet the beginning of the original Star Wars still has an impact that hasn't been dulled by decades of copycats.
As an example of the kind of analysis you could expect if you requested script notes from me, let's break down this opening shot to examine what an introductory sequence needs to do and examine how Star Wars does it. Why is the opening shot of Star Wars so compelling, so exciting and so enduring?
Because it tells a story.
What can we learn?
First impressions count, so an opening shot is significant. As writers, what do we need to do with our opening moment?
The most important thing is to nail the audience to their seat.
We need to set out our stall. Star Wars does this is by front-loading a big, spectacular, dynamic visual effect, because it's a big, spectacular, dynamic, visual effects-driven movie. If it's a comedy, we need a laugh. Horror, we need something scary.
In practical terms we also need to establish where we are and what the audience is looking at. We don't need to lay everything out in the first moments - a bit of mystery is a big part of drawing the audience in, and we don't want to burden the opening with too much exposition. Yes, Star Wars opens with a wall of text, but compare A New Hope's intro text with the dense and confusing crawl at the start of The Phantom Menace. Trade disputes? Yeeesh.
We can draw the audience in with a sense of place and a sense of tone, even with a beguilingly oblique tease. Take the opening moments of Blade Runner, which alternate an abstract image of an eye with a landscape of a futuristic city. This establishes both a sense of tone (the eye denotes the unsettling subtext of surveillance and paranoia) and sense of place (we're in a hellish urban future). Note how we zoom in on a particular building where we find the owner of the eye, uniting these two elements.
The beginning of Star Wars tells us we're in space, and the tone is urgent, exciting, and action-packed. But just as it's more than a spectacular opening visual, it's more than an establishing shot. Compare the beginning of Star Wars to any other film that begins with a spacecraft gliding past the camera - Alien, for example. Alien opens on the outside of a giant industrial spaceship, giving us a sense of the environment in which the film will take place, while the eerie deserted location and unsettling music establish the scary, creepy tone.
But Star Wars takes this to the next level. How? By showing us two spaceships.
With one ship, we have a setting.
With two ships, we have a chase.
With two ships, we have a story.
And how does the audience react to that story? Note the size of the ships. The first vessel is tiny. The second is vast, spear-like, blasting its weapons. We understand immediately we're watching an underdog running from an overpowering technological enemy.
A common piece of writing advice is to show something happening rather than to tell us what's happening, and this shot is a case in point. Before a single word has been uttered, we understand these opposing forces. Before we meet a single character, we have the beginnings of an emotional connection with the underdog.
And in that one shot, we understand the underlying conflict of the entire Star Wars saga.
I know, I know - the spaceships only appear after the signature Star Wars wall of text, possibly the most egregious example of telling rather than showing in cinematic history. But the strength of the spaceship chase is that it would stand alone without the info from the text. You don't need to know the words "rebel" or "empire" to understand the dynamic of the entire Star Wars story from this image alone.
In other words, the opening shot of Star Wars not only establishes where we are and gives us a sense of the film's tone, it also sums up the philosophy of the saga in a single image. How many opening shots can say that?
Since 1977, the intros of the Star Wars films have seen diminishing returns. The prequels are particularly bad for just dumping a spaceship above a planet with no context or emotion, although Revenge of the Sith does at least plunge us into an actual star war.
Which brings us to 2017's The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson's film begins with perhaps the least spectacular opening shot of the saga. The opening shot sees spaceships coming head-on towards us - the audience - for the first time in the Star Wars saga. But although it's unshowy, it does speak to the themes and subtext of The Last Jedi: the collective nature of the experience, that anybody can be a hero. As the ships envelop the screen we become part of the armada. And that immersion in the story is then echoed by the film's closing shot of the small boy with the resistance merch looking at the stars, acting as an audience surrogate.
As opening shots go, few can beat the original Star Wars' barnstorming intro that does so much to both establish and encapsulate the dynamic of the story. Think about your screenplay and ask yourself: if the story can be summed up in one image, what is it? Is that my opening shot? Does my opening moment establish a sense of place and tone? Does it tell a story, or better yet encapsulate your story in a single image?
And above all, does it nail the audience to their seat?
If you want to make sure the Force is strong with your screenplay, drop me a line about script notes.