Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Top 10 Overused Openings to Period Pieces


The filmmakers behind The Croods face a unique storytelling challenge. How do they begin their prehistoric picture without wasting too much time establishing its intended era? While it only took you and I a quick glance at the caveman cast to see that The Croods takes place in the stone-age, most Americans asked about the image above exclaimed, "Cool! The new season of Survivor stars cartoons!"

Over the years, Hollywood has repeatedly relied upon ten techniques to clue audiences in to a film's antiquated time period. Although seemingly simplistic (and often painfully obvious), these cinematic cues have proven to be the most effective methods of telling an audience that the movie they're watching takes place in the past. Sure, many of these tricks stem from Hollywood's assumption that all Americans are idiots, but we as a nation made Avatar the highest grossing film of all time, so maybe they're on to something.

Anyway, without further ado...

Ten Tried and True Tricks for Telling the Neo-Neanderthals of North America that the Movie They're Watching is NOT Happening Now

10. A Title Card Declaring the Date
This one seems almost too obvious until you remember that the average movie-goer spends more time staring at their phone than they do the silver screen. Hiring Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones to read the date aloud helps, but even this fails to reach the balding businessmen with a Bluetooth buried in both ears.

9. Drop a Stack of Newspapers in Front of the Camera
While you can hope and pray that your audience will see the newspaper's publication date, it's probably better to just focus on an easily identifiable headline instead. Does your film take place in the 1940s? Use a headline about World War II. Making a movie about the mid-60s? Try 'Beatles Invade America.' To insure the illiterates in the audience are not lost, you can always have a knickered newsboy hold out the newspaper, screaming, "Extry! Extry! Read all about it! (Insert easily identifiable headline here)!"

8. Fill the Opening Shot with Anachronistic Clothing and Props
Women with parasols riding horse and buggies. Men in top hats driving Model T Fords. Girls wearing mini-skirts twirling hula-hoops on their un-emaciated hips. And so on.

7. Start with a Scene from the Modern Day, then Fade Into the Past

You know this trick. It's sorta like the wolf man's transformation, only in reverse. The movie opens on a run-down home, its grounds unkempt and overgrown. Then the image begins to blur as we slowly fade into the past, where the house is now new and the lawn is a suburban Dad's wet dream.

6. Open the Film in an Empty Desert. Subtitle It: Los Angeles, California
"What?! But we live in Los Angeles, honey! And that's not what our home looks like! Hey, that's the La Brea Tar Pits, innit? Well, why is there a real mastodon where the plastic mastodon should be? I'm confused. I told ya we should've stuck to watching sports." Okay, so this one doesn't work on everyone. But as a kid, I LOVED it when a Twilight Zone opened like this.

5. Have a Character Mock the Mere Mention of a Modern-Day Reality
"Man will never fly" is the first groaner that comes to mind, but even good movies use this weak tactic. Hell, half of the jokes in the first Back to the Future seem to be based around the idea that Doc Brown -- an inventor -- can't fathom the fact that new things will be -- gasp! -- invented in the future.

4. Open on an Old Photo that Magically Comes to Life
In the not-so-distant future, simply showing a photograph will be enough to make kids realize they're glimpsing the good ol' days. But until then, filmmakers will need to use not-so-special effects to turn a faded old photograph into the first scene of the film.

3. Open on an Old Person Narrating, Flashback to their Younger Self
Think: Citizen Kane, Edward Scissorhands. While recalling these films, also try and remember how hard it is to create truly believable, non-distracting aging make-up. After all, if Orson Wells couldn't pull it off...

2. Open the Film with an Obvious Pop Song

This can be expensive, but if done right, it can instantly win over a crowd. Not only will audiences intuitively understand that WAR FOOTAGE + A DOORS SONG = THE VIETNAM WAR, they'll inevitably mistake their feeling of familiarity with the song for an emotional connection to the film. (Note: When picking a pop song for a movie that takes place in a pre-pop song era, always use a song EXPLICITLY referencing that time period. For example, a film about ape men would use The Kinks' Apeman. Anything else could be confusing.)

1. Sepia Tint
Previously the product of Cinemax sex scenes and silent film dream sequences, sepia tinting became the go-to visual shorthand for 'THIS SH*T'S OLD' in the early 90s thanks to the one-two punch of Ken Burns' Baseball and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. That said, unless you're an Oscar-winning director with deep pockets and an adoring audience, you'll only want to OPEN your film in a sepia tint, transitioning to color a.s.a.p.

In closing: According to an imaginary, self-described "high-ranking studio executive" currently raising funds for a feature film via Kickstarter, the real question is not IF the filmmakers behind The Croods will use these tips, but HOW MANY will they use. And he should know -- he's written over a dozen unproduced screenplays, nearly half of which are XXX parodies of preexisting period pieces.

God bless underestimated America!

This post was originally published on April 16, 2012.

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