Shot Analysis: The Godfather

godfatherThe greatest film ever? To many people’s eyes, it is.

Francis Ford Coppola’s film, The Godfather, is truly a tour de force. They say great movies should have a minimum of three great scenes and zero flaws – well, if that’s the criteria, The Godfather has surpassed it in spades. Not only is the film untainted by any poor scenes, the number of sensational ones are nearly countless. From the marvelous opening of the film, where we meet Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone, to the final scene of his son Michael’s ascension to the throne as America’s most powerful gangster, The Godfather is nearly peerless film-making.

Let’s take a look at this beautifully subtle and sensational opening of this legendary 1972 classic:

The Godfather, starring Marlan Brando, reveals itself to the audience not with loud, crash-banging action, but rather with rich character portrayal and quiet brooding atmosphere.

Notice that the camera opens, in the dark, under the foreboding tune of Nino Rota’s timeless score, to reveal a pair of sinister pupils set inside the deeply recessed eye sockets of a frightening, skeleton-like face.

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The opening shot reveal of the undertaker, Amerigo Bonasera, played by Salvatore Corsitto, in Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

The image hints at great evil, but as we zoom out, we see that those piercing eyes belong to a rather meek and balding, middle-aged man, who’s describing his belief and love for American values, but has now come to seek favor from Marlon Brando’s character, Vito Corleone, the highly respected and powerful mafia boss of New York City. You are surprised, and almost confused by the sudden disharmony. But as the scene plays onwards, it’s clear there’s malice in his heart, as he seeks revenge for a crime committed by some ruthless young men against his daughter.

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“That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive”  says Vito Corleone, as he denies the undertaker’s request for vengeance in the form of murder.

As it’s revealed that Bonasera’s been reluctant to be indebted to the mafia, the situation (and his anger), force him to reconsider his morals. And at the end, a compromise is made and a futures contract is agreed upon. At first, this seems only a simple episode, with the logical outcome of two characters agreeing to an exchange, a wrong to be righted, and a duty to be carried out by a seemingly reserved and honorable man despite his position in the underworld. However, what’s actually occurred is the telling of a short parable, one that foretells the larger theme of the film: the battle against one’s beliefs when circumstances challenge your principles.

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 “Be my friend, Godfather” says Bonasera, as he undertakes the sworn oath of indebtitude to the Godfather, Vito Corleone.

Although the scene connects structurally to another (when Sonny, Vito’s eldest son and heir, is killed, and the undertaker is finally set to perform his end of the bargain), the scene is really about the foreshadowing of what will happen to the Don’s youngest, and still noble son, Michael Corleone. As the story slowly unfolds, it reveals it’s inevitable tragic outcome of the failing of the American dream to circumstance.

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Last scene from The Godfather, where Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, officially takes over the throne as the new head of America’s most powerful crime syndicate.

So ask yourself, whether you’re writing the beginnings of your tale or planning the very foundation to your animations, have you put in the thought and work? Do your opening moves, which are the very first things an audience will see or hear, say exactly the right things? Are your words, colors, or designs clear and direct, both in choice and presentation? And ultimately, do those decisions serve the greater purpose of the overall artistic vision?

As Robert Henri most profoundly stated:

“There is no art without contemplation.”

Masterful scenes, like this opening from The Godfather, make a good case for planning and contemplation before taking action. So whether you’re just blocking your animation or painting your first brush strokes, have a vision in mind and make good first steps.

(Note: this won’t be the only time we’ll talk about this marvelous movie!)