One of my favorite things to watch for in movies is how the director chooses to visually introduce the main characters into a film.
We mentioned this previously, using Raiders of the Lost Ark and Castle as examples.
You can also learn a lot from how it is done badly. Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, for example. The first time we see teen heart-throb Anakin Skywalker (aka future Darth Vader), he’s in a elevator, whining about how nervous he is about seeing the Princess again.
How could it have been handled better?
Imagine Obi-Wan Kenobi looking for Anakin. He opens a door into a musty training room, mostly dark with only a few lights hinting at the facility. In the dark distance we see a light-saber furiously hacking away at robotic foes. Kenobi interrupts “Anakin!” The saber retracts and disappears into the darkness. A figure approaches. Anakin steps into the light, sweaty, hunky, shirtless. Kenobi follows with “It’s time.”
And THEN they’re in the elevator. Every teen girl would have swooned once he stepped into the light.
Instead we get “I hope she remembers me” in a whiny voice.
However, rather than suggesting things which will never get changed, like what I just did above, perhaps the best use of our time would be to analyze how some directors have introduced their characters successfully.
One need only look at director Luc Besson’s work in his incredible film The Professional. The film follows an uneducated, but incredibly adept mob hitman as he inadvertently befriends a teen girl, protecting her from an evil DEA agent.
The first time we are introduced to Leon, the hitman, played wonderfully by Jean Reno, is at the opening of the film where he executes, pun intended, an elaborate hit.
We first only see him in shadow or as a blurry image moving quickly and silently in the background. This is followed by the sound of gunshots and exploding bullet holes piercing through walls as Leon dispatches all of the bodyguards meant to protect his main target.
Left alone and cornered, the target calls 911 and steps back into the dark corner, cowering. From the darkness behind him, Leon appears, putting a knife to his neck. It is the first time we see Leon’s face completely.
We learn later that the skill of a hitman is determined by how close he gets to a target. Sniper rifle = beginner. Knife = expert. Leon is established from the beginning as an expert.
On the way home he runs into Matilda, played by the young Natalie Portman. Her character is introduced by showing her sitting on the stairs, her feet hanging over the edge.
She wears cartoon covered leggings, showing her age. She smokes, showing she wants to be older. She has a black eye, showing she’s abused. All without any words spoken.
Matilda, a visual contradiction… cartoon leggings and a cigarette.
Lastly, the first time we meet the villain, corrupt DEA agent Stansfield, played with intense creepiness by Gary Oldman, he’s facing away from the camera, only the back of his head is seen. He’s sweaty. He’s wearing headphones. We can hear classical music.
One of his subordinates tells a suspected drug stealer that Stansfield doesn’t like his music to be interrupted. The extent of the explanation and the apparent fear of the subordinate who explains his boss’ unpredictability sets up Oldman’s character without him having to say a word.
When the subordinate must finally interrupt Oldman, he does so very gingerly, in fear. Oldman’s dazed and unstable responses show how unhinged he really is… only THEN does he turn around and show his face.
When you see characters introduced so well, it gives the audience a wealth of knowledge about who they are, their situation and how the audience should feel about them before they ever show their face.
Great directors don’t waste this important opportunity.