Raiders of the Lost Overture
Raiders of the Lost Ark annotation
The first 13 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark is a masterpiece on storytelling. With barely any dialogue, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas funnel a broad audience through the Indiana Jones experience, training them on the rules of this particular world before expanding into the main thread on the actual storyline.
Play with expectations of the category.
This movie starts before it even starts. The first frame is a cross-fade from the Paramount logo to a jungle peak. Less than 4 seconds in, and a wry comment is already being made: this is a movie about movies. We’re going to play with the format of movie-making while we’re making a movie. Instantly, a playful, witty tone has been set, one that will continue for the next two hours. It also serves as a kind of warning: pay attention, or you might miss something cool.
Introduce and connect brand identity elements with the product.
For the first 3 minutes, we never see Harrison Ford’s face. Instead, we are first introduced to his iconic calling cards—his fedora, his leather jacket, and then his bullwhip, which he uses to disarm a man trying to kill him with a gun. Once he defeats him, only then does he turn his face to the camera. In marketing terms, Spielberg has introduced the key brand identity elements before the product itself, Indiana Jones.These elements continue to precede Indy’s entry into a scene throughout the movie. Indy is an amalgam of dozens of B-movie heroes; as such, his identity elements are a character of their own.
Reward, but don’t require, noticing details.
Before Indy enters the booby trapped cave holding the golden idol he seeks, we see him filling a bag with sand. No explanation is given, and none of the dialog mentions it. Why is he doing this? At this point, we have no idea, and we don’t even know what he’s after either.However, those in the audience who remembered, or even noticed the bag in the first place, are rewarded 4 minutes later when Indy attempts to use the bag as a dummy weight in place of the idol. Spielberg is again demanding, instead of asking for, your attention. The more you notice, the more fun you’re going to have. Audience training at its best.
Set patterns that can be recognized and anticipated.
The infamous spider scene. Throughout all but the end of the opening sequence, Indy is completely unflappable, no matter how grotesque or lethal the obstacles are that leap, crawl, or jab at him. He anticipates hidden danger and outsmarts the traps that have killed others. At this point, the character is ludicrously flawless. That sets a key pattern that is both followed and broken throughout the movie.
Break those patterns to create impact.
After what appeared to be the climax, Indy still needs to make one more daring escape, as he finally reaches the bi-plane that will take him to safety. Yet again, he is presented with one more threat—the python waiting in the passenger seat. The pattern already established is broken, twice. This time, the threat isn’t lethal at all; it’s the pilot’s harmless pet snake. And Indy is terrified of it. The punchline from the pilot, “come on, show a little backbone!” sums up the whole package. Also, note the “OB-CPO” registration number on the bi-plane. Four years after Star Wars, George Lucas puts in a sly reference to Obi-Wan Kenobi and C-3PO for those really paying attention. It never hurts to pander to your best customers.
Begin the whole story once the tone has been set.
The sequence ends with another classic reference to B-movies: the hero “riding” off into the sunset. In a little over 12 minutes, there’s been more action, character exposition, drama, and humor than most entire movies, and all before the actual story begins. There’s an important design lesson in how this overture enables and improves the audience’s ability to follow and enjoy the rest of the flick. Without any major plot points and with very little dialog, we learn:
Character exposition: Indy is brave, improvisational, and tough, but fallible; snakes freak him out
Tone: This is as funny as it is exciting. We’re going to thrill you, but it’s all just a joke. Exactly the same premise as an amusement park
Pacing: Fasten your seat belts, and pay attention. Cliches and surprises are intertwined here.