Typing Faster

June 1, 2009

Pilot School: Awesome Openings – Lost

Filed under: Craft, Pilot School — petertypingfaster @ 8:14 pm

Since last week morphed into spec week, I figured I’d spend some time this week talking about pilots, and specifically the first act (or teaser, or cold open).

There’s no question that pilots are tough. The majority of them fail to attract an audience. There are plenty of other shows on tv that people are already watching, why should they tune in (and stay with) a new one? If you don’t hook your audience before the first commercial break, the chances of them sticking around for the full hour (or the rest of the series) are slim.

That’s why the first few pages of your pilot are the most important, and that’s why I figured I’d take some time this week to talk about some of my favorite opening pilot moments.

First up: Lost!

Now I’m sure most of you have seen Lost, or know a little bit about it. It was one of the break out hits of the 2005 television season, drew an average of 16 million viewers in its first season and won a whack load of awards (Emmy for outstanding drama, Golden Globe for best drama, etc).

Lost also was (probably still is) the most expensive pilot ever shot with a estimated budget of $10M, and that’s conservative.

So you damn well better believe that the first twenty minutes of the Lost pilot were a rollicking good ride.

There are a few things I’d like to mention about the Lost pilot, but, in case you haven’t seen it, take a gander at these (you can stop at about the 1:30ish mark of Part 3)…

All done? Excellent!

Now go over to Lee Thomson’s awesome digs and download the pilot script.

Alright, once you’ve taken a look at what was on the page and what wound up on the screen, there are a few things I’d like to draw your attention to…

1. Visual Storytelling
Particularly strong in the first few minutes. Just look at the first few shots. Tight on Jack’s eye. The bamboo forest. Seeing Vincent (the lab). Running through the forest, white tennis shoe strung up from a tree, out onto the beach.

It’s a visually striking opening, one that definitely sets a tone for the series, and it’s damn compelling storytelling. As a first time viewer you can’t help but wonder who this guy is, and what the hell he’s doing in this random bamboo forest.

2. Dream Big
The producers of Lost went out and bought a plane. A plane. Which they then chopped up into itty bitty pieces and strew around a Hawaiian beach. J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof could have decided to start their story days after the crash, but where’s the drama in that? In a (spec) pilot you’ve got to go big or go home, you can always pull things back once you get greenlit.

3. Character Intros
Introducing characters can be tough, and the more characters you have in an ensemble the more difficult it becomes. Lost has one of the largest ensembles on television today, and the pilot does a very good job of introducing (almost) all of them in the pilot.

Jack’s a great example. Right from the get go we see him as a man of action. He throws himself into the wreckage and does everything he can to save his fellow passengers. There’s no doubt about who the hero of the show is going to be (though, interestingly enough, the original plan was to pull a Psycho and kill Jack off midway through the pilot. Would of been interesting!).

Bullet points for some of the other cast:
Claire: The pregnant girl
Hurley: The fat guy
Shannon: Hysterical, screaming chick
Boone: Good hearted fuck up
Michael / Walt: Father / Son
Jin / Sun: Crazy Koreans
Rose: Black woman who needed CPR

When you’re introducing an ensemble it’s alright to use shorthand like this. It gives the audience something to latch onto for the first while until they actually get to know what makes these characters tick.

4. Keep Them Guessing
Points one through three all occur in the first ten minutes of the pilot. After that intense ride the show shifts gears, slows down and gives the audience a moment to catch their breath. The audience settles back into their seats, confident in the knowledge that this is going to be a show about the survivors of a plane crash. A modern version of Robinson Crusoe.

And then they hear the Smoke Monster for the first time.

An unearthly roar rends the night air. Trees are demolished, something huge is trumpeting its way around the jungle. What is it? A dinosaur? Something else?

All the expectations the audience had about what kind of show this is going to be just got yanked right out from under them. This show is going to be different, and people stuck around to find out just how different it was.

The Lost pilot is, for my money, one of the best pilots in recent years. It was incredibly expensive, and we won’t see anything similar to it again, but there are definitely some extremely valuable lessons to be learned from it.

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