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Opening Shots: 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

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From Edward Bowie, US Army:

I have a counter-intuitive nomination for best shot: The opening segue from the Paramount “mountain" to the unspecified Andean mountain in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Indicative, I think, that what we are about to see is “…only a movie!"

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Perfect for the “just for fun" spirit that Lucas and Spielberg intended for their paean to the Saturday serial while demonstrating the technical wizardry that gives their “effects" movies their dazzle (and their point.) Relax, get out the popcorn, their won’t be a quiz….a masterpiece!

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JE: Nothing counter-intuitive about this one -- it's intuitive all the way! I recall seeing it the weekend it came out with a friend and film professor of mine. We took in a matinee double-bill -- first "Clash of the Titans," followed by "Raiders." Within the first few seconds, I remember her leaning over and whispering: "Isn't it great to see somebody knows how to make MOVIES?!?!" Yep, it is.

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Watching this shot repeatedly (I like to get my hands dirty, as it were, while getting frame grabs), I thought of a couple basic principles of improv comedy: 1) always add information to the scene; and 2) always say "yes" -- never contradict what somebody else has brought into it. Of course, this shot is anything but improvisational; it's artfully choreographed all the way -- and Spielberg is saying "yes" and adding information second by second.

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First, there's the dissolve from the Paramount mountain to the jungle peak. A man steps into the frame, seen from behind, with a whip dangling from his hip: the soon-to-be-legendary silhouette of Indiana Jones, seen from behind. For a moment, he takes the place of the mountain in the frame, assuming its monumental stature. Next come what look like two backpack-toting "sherpas" in pointy knit caps, echoing the mountain and providing a nice symmetrical frame.

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After them comes another man. The camera tilts up and a man turns around -- the first face we see, barely -- and looks behind him, over and past the camera, so we can assume more people are coming. Another man, this one in a hat that echoes Indy's, climbs up the rise and also turns around, gesturing for others to follow. A cart enters and wipes across the frame from left to right, plunging it into relative darkness. The first time you see it, it all appers so simple and natural. Spielberg makes it look easy, but it must have required considerable effort to capture this very precisely timed movement and framing. For me, these few opening seconds are as exciting, in some ways, as the big booby-trap scene coming up...

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