I had always wondered why Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is so highly regarded by audiences and filmmakers alike. Now I know.
Establishing Character Dominance
We don’t get to meet Indiana Jones until we’re a few minutes in. As the credits roll by, we see a figure, always in silhouette, always, it seems, in charge. He’s someone who goes towards danger when others run away. He’s scruffy, intelligent, and observant. He isn’t worried that he’s being followed by a band of killers, like his partners are as they travel through the jungle. It must be a familiar occurence. He carries a bull whip and is incredibly proficient with it as a weapon.
Note, we know these things about Indy without being introduced and without any dialogue about him. This description is derived completely from the visual story we are given.
Below are the storyboard studies I did up to the introduction of Indy.
How did we become intrigued with this character so fast? Why are we enraptured with him, when we also have two other characters, in whom we can see faces and motives? Why is he such a dominant force for our attention?
In observation, Indy’s dominance is portrayed through silhouette, size, placement in the picture plane (that is to say, staging), and the way other characters react toward him.
Silhouette is probably the most used-type of shot, not just in the first few minutes, but in the rest of Raiders as well. Putting Indy almost exclusively in shadow adds an air of mystery about him. In many frames, he is the only one in silhouette, while others are in light. This singles him out and gives him importance.
Silhouette alone doesn’t always make a strong dominant character though. Making the silhouette large and have it take up a significant amount of frame space, and it definitely gets some strength points. Size of the character in the frame can make us focus on him more, even if subconsciously, as he’s walking away.
But just because there’s a large silhouette in the frame doesn’t always mean that character is the dominant character either does it?
Welcome to the magic of staging. Staging is where things are in a shot and also how they move. In many of the jungle walk shots, Indiana is in the center of the frame. We focus very much on him. He’s in the center, so he must be important.
Not only is he occupying center-stage, so to speak, but in many scenes, he’s physically apart, ahead, and even above his devious partners. In one shot, we only see his legs, walking toward the camera. In another, the scene where he pulls a Hovitos dart out of a tree, we only see his torso and hands, considering the poison and then nonchalantly dropping it to the ground while his partners a blurred almost to non-existence with depth of field.
Even though they’re really inconsequential and die pretty quickly, having those two partners is a great way to make Indiana stand out. Indiana doesn’t die. Indiana doesn’t freak out. Indiana is smarter and quicker and his business is more important than theirs.
The combination of all these things, mysterious silhouettes, size of the character within the frame, staging, etc., make Indiana Jones THE main character of the show. Forget everybody else.
Continuity in Cutting
Many consider Raiders to be one of the most influential action films of all time. I’d like to support that assessment, but I don’t think I’ve seen enough action movies to accurately do so. But I have seen a few, and I have come to a different assessment… that action movies have a lot of action!
In all seriousness though, how does one follow all the action shots when they’re strung together? As I found the answer to this question, I realized I’d been taking really good action sequences for granted. The answer is all in the staging and the cutting.
That sounds so easy. Just stage it, film it, cut it and string it together, right? Right? That’s all. In my first year of Cinema Studies, I never, not once, took notice of the placement of the audience’s eye when a shot was cut to the next.
It was a huge ah-ha moment when I discovered this magic trick.
Do you see it? Where the action is in one frame is where it starts in the next frame.
Why did I not consider this? Why did I not notice these things before? It’s such a basic fundamental thing to do for continuity. Thank you, Spielberg.
Priming, the World and the Story
While most people think of Raiders as THE action film, it is important to consider that the action is built on a strong story and a robust world.
The story is all about how Indy believes. In the beginning, Indy doesn’t believe in gods or otherwordly powers and by the end, his belief in them saves his life (and Marion’s). To punctuate that point, one of his last lines is “They don’t know what they got there,” accompanied by a look of frustration.
The world is built around Indy. The props and settings all feel like they belong. The audience is well primed for things to come, and even subconsciously anticipate them.
Anton Chekhov famously said “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”
In Raiders, the gun is the snake on the plane with Indy in the beginning. It’s when our stoic and brave Indy freaks out. We find out snakes are his worst fear.
And what does he face when he goes after the ark? A gigantic pit of snakes. The audience can’t stop watching now.
Another subtle example of priming and world building is the combination of relics and sand. In the famous scene where Indy is about to take the lavishly gold idol off the pedestal, he considers the relic’s weight and takes sand out of the bag, allowing it to slip through his fingers.
He does the switcharoo and for a moment, all is fine. Then all hell breaks loose. This is at the beginning.
Then there’s the opening of the lavishly gold ark at the end. Belloq opens the arc and what’s inside? Sand. Belloq lifts the sand and allows it to slip through his fingers. For a moment, all is fine. Then all hell breaks loose.
There isn’t a conclusion to studying Indiana Jones, but there is a conclusion to this particular blogpost. There’s so much to learn in the film, I tried to pick out some new things I saw and pointed out things that made me excited. I encourage everyone who’s even remotely thinking about going into the film industry to study Raiders. A study like this will change your life.