Art of the Opening Scene — How to Start a Movie 6 Different Ways, From Nolan to Baumbach

The Art of the Opening Scene — six methods of how to start a movie using character introductions, character dynamics, cold opens, and genre rules.

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00:00 Intro — The Opening Scene
01:20 Technique 1: Enter the Villain
02:07 Technique 2: Enter the Hero
03:39 Technique 3: Establish Relationships
05:17 Technique 4: Plot Catalyst
07:03 Technique 5: Follow Genre
08:24 Technique 6: Flip Genre
10:40 Flashbacks
10:52 Flash-forwards
11:27 Dreams
11:53 Metaphors
12:15 Bookends
12:30 Red Herrings
13:17 MacGuffins
13:48 Final Takeaways

How to start a movie — obviously, there is no single answer to that question but there are ways to find the perfect opening scene. The first scene in any story has a great burden placed on it and the decision of how to open a movie should be given careful consideration. In this video essay on the art of the opening scene, we will examine six methods that illustrate the various ways to begin a movie. Let’s start with how to introduce a villain or hero.

When the ensuing story follows the combative relationship between a hero and villain, it can be advantageous to make those introductions as soon as possible. Especially, in the case of The Dark Knight — when we already know plenty about Batman from the earlier film — setting up his primary adversary for this chapter sets the bar for what he will be facing for the rest of the film. In Skyfall, even though we had our formal introduction to James Bond in Casino Royale, we can add a new layer onto both his characterization and plant a story problem for him in this new chapter.

In Marriage Story, writer/director Noah Baumbach shows us how to start a movie with pure characterization. We are introduced right away to Charlie and Nicole with an extended montage of their personalities, and a brief history of their marriage. For this movie, this opening scene is perfectly suited to give us as much information and sympathy about this couple before we see their separation and divorce for the rest of the film. Without this opening sequence, our ability to sympathize can decrease.

In Uncut Gems, we skip the character introduction altogether and begin with the plot device that will kickstart and motivate the characters throughout. The opening scene takes place in an Ethiopian mine where a rare and mystical gem is unearthed. The power and influence this gem has is given center stage before we meet any characters.

Finally, in La La Land and Get Out, we have two genre films (musical and horror, respectively) that begin with opening scenes meant to obey and break their genre rules. In La La Land, before the main character introductions, we get an explosive opening sequence full of bright colors, elaborate choreography, and a mix of fantasy and reality that musicals are known for. In Get Out, we have a mix of tones in the opening scene: both comedy and horror. This hybridization of the genres clues us in that the following movie will meet but also challenge the pre-established genre rules.

Whether you choose a character introduction, establish the character dynamics between the main characters, or set up the genre, how you begin a movie matters.

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Songs used:
“Also Sprach Zarathustra” – Richard Strauss
“Rainy Night in Tallinn” – Ludwig Göransson
“Exit Strategy” – Alternate Endings
“The A400 Intro” – Joe Kraemer
“Bank Robbery (Prologue)” – Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
“Grand Bazaar, Istanbul” – Thomas Newman
“Skyfall (Instrumental Cover)” – Adele
“What I Love About Nicole” – Randy Newman
“What I Love About Charlie” – Randy Newman
“A Time For Love” – Bill Evans
“The Ballad Of Howie Bling” – Daniel Lopatin
“Uncut Gems” – Daniel Lopatin
“High Life” – Daniel Lopatin
“Another Day of Sun” – La La Land OST
“Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” – Michael Abels
“Run Rabbit Run” – Flanagan and Allen
“Hold Your Breath” – Astyria
“Roller Skates” – Virgil Arles

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  1. Joker; when he runs to get his sign off the bullies and they kick hime to the ground; then the word Joker appears above him; with the rise of sad cello and violins in the background. Sets up the mood for the movie.

  2. Mortal Engines. It's a chase scene, but because it's literal cities and towns on wheels, it's unique. And the title card appearing right after the giant doors on London close is gold! Throws you right into what kind of world it is.

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