Tuesday 27 October 2015

Journal of Whills: Part 19 - The Opening Shot

One old saying about movies is that if you can grab an audience with your first shot, you’ve got them. The first shot of ‘Star Wars’ grabs you instantly, it is the go-to for shots that grab audiences right from the off. The sheer scope and depth of the objects that hurtle through space before our very eyes is awe inspiring. And how much does it say about where the good guys are in comparison to the bad, we instantly know where every character stands and what kind of battle they are about to fight as one tiny spaceship is pursued by the largest one ever. That Star Destroyer shrouds everything in its wake and even after so many repeat viewings it still astounds me with its size. How does it do that?
But of course, technically that is not the first shot of the film. Following the 20th Century Fox fanfare, one that for many people means 'Star Wars' more than the studio (perhaps my only regret with Disney producing 'The Force Awakens' is that the fanfare I so heavily associate with the film will not be present anymore)What Lucas did was open with ten immortal words that immediately generated curiosity among the audience. This was advertised as a science fiction film yet it was not set in the distant future. It as set 'A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away'. Originally it was followed by 'an amazing adventure took place', but is that not just so unnecessary, we do not need to be told that an 'amazing adventure took place' in just a few seconds from now every audience would see I for themselves. Aside from that it simply defies all logic of what a fantasy or sci-fi film should do, it cements the idea of 'Star Wars' being a modern myth, it solidifies the notion of having no relation to our earthbound reality. But it never seems derivative or as if it is forcing you to listen, it invites you in to this universe.
Five seconds, then BANG. The huge logo fills the screen, accompanied by an orchestral blast. It refuse to waste time to answer any questions those first ten words raised, and thrusts you straight into the action. But because of the inviting nature of the earlier message, you do not feel forced into it, you have willingly participated in the beginning of this journey. The opening crawl that follows was, as already stated in this series, was penned by Brian De Palma (as a sort of apology for openly mocking the film at an early private screening). With some simple editing and using the power of implied words, De Palma cut what had previously been a nonsensical and overly long description, into an instantly empathetic and engaging scene setter. It drops just enough names like Princess Leia and Death Star so that the stakes are set out, but we can still be surprised by later developments.
After reading that a viewer might be annoyed at all the work they are having to do before they have even seen a single moving image. Lucas did something very unusual in doing away with opening credits, he did not want to waste any more time and make the audience do any more reading, nor break the illusion he had built up so well by instantly reminding every viewer that the characters were being played by actors, with sets designed by people that exist in our world. It may seem like a small decision, but he actually faced a fine and a stern telling off from the directors guild of America for such an action
The opening states that 'Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans', so we are expecting some kind of spaceship. We do get that, but first there is one more thing to credit, the fact that the camera pans down over a number of moons and the curvature of a desert planet. This was the first time in film that a camera had panned across space. Until then shots in space were always done with a fixed camera, but here you are moving slowly and eloquently through the stars.  
As I said before, when you do see a starship it is the miniscule Tantive IV being chased by an Imperial Star Destroyer. You get a sense of how powerful this 'Evil Galactic Empire' is, and how valuable this stolen information is to them. These Rebels are clearly outmatched, with the odds stacked against them. How could anyone possibly win a battle like this?
That is for the rest of the movie to answer. Did you notice that? You are already hooked.

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