The Establishing Shot – Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
An establishing shot at the beginning of a film is a narrative tool to inform viewers of the general mood of the story, its central character(s) and the overall location. It helps the viewer find their cinematic ‘footing’ without confusion as the story unfolds.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast presents an important establishing shot for two reasons. First, it has a strong opening sequence, cleverly constructed to lay out all the important elements of the story. Second, it was the first time an animated feature film paid so much attention to the narrative traditions of non-animated filmmaking.
The opening sequence of Beauty and the Beast begins with a brief but ominous back-story, the dark undertones only the viewer will know as the story switches to the beautiful fair maiden, innocently singing of her woes. The viewer forgets, if only for a moment, the dark prophesy of the first three minutes and is swept away in the establishing shot that follows.
Belle walks right out of her sweet little cottage, starts singing and the viewer knows immediately they signed up for a fairytale musical. The camera follows Belle, the young woman, as she wanders through her village. The viewer learns she lives just outside of town. The town has much activity and the shopkeepers and residents are all abuzz in the morning routine. Through Belle’s singing, the viewer learns that this morning routine, this daily repetition, is something Belle longs to leave behind. She wants more. Now the viewer starts to get a sense of the story and where it is headed. The viewer remembers the dark back-story presented before they met Belle. The viewer senses that a beast hidden in an enchanted castle and a clever young girl looking for adventure are destined to meet. That’s all the viewer needs to know. The roller coaster is almost at the top of the rail. Hold on, the film ride is about to begin.
Equally important in the establishing shot of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is the recognition of real-life filmmaking practices. On real-life film sets there is a complex team of prop artists, choreographers, lighting designers, sound technicians and third assistant directors operating in perfect sync. The legacy of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is that this animated feature, created entirely in a computer, looks as though it has that support of a full non-animated crew behind it. It is the first time an animated feature film was created as though it were a non-animated feature. The impressive attention to detail, the song and dance numbers, the rich backgrounds, the dynamic camera movements compete with tracking shots, bring to mind any large budget non-animated feature film of the past 50 years. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast sets the bar high for other animated features to follow. Gone are the days of a very flat-looking Mickey whistling on steamboat.