Ever since I was a child, I would watch and rewatch my favorite scenes from movies. I have one memory of popping in the VHS tape of—I think it was The Emperor’s New Groove—and watching and rewinding the trailer for Atlantis: The Lost Empire because I was so excited for the film to come out. It’s a habit that’s continued into my adulthood, where, from time to time, I’ll recall a scene from a movie or a game I really like and watch it, sometimes once, sometimes multiple times in a row.
The following is a short list of theatrics, and all they have in common is that they have excellent pacing curves I really, really adore them. So expect randomness in spades.
The Magnificent Seven – The Faster Shot
This first scene is the simplest of the bunch when judging its cinematography. Primarily, that’s due to the limited means available to mid-20th century filmmakers. But they worked with what they had, and what they made was a memorable duel coated in tension.
The initial duel is fairly standard. The challenger, Wallace, wants to prove he’s a faster shot than Britt, prodded on by mocking laughter, but after unclear results—and Britt telling him flat-out that he lost—he demands a rematch, to do it “for real.” This is when the scene gets really good.
The writing is as minimalistic and basic as it comes. Calling someone a liar and repeating it doesn’t come off as smart writing, but it really is when you take into account how mad Wallace is. Nobody thinks straight when they’re angry, and since his worst insult before was “fathead,” he’s just spouting off the first lines that come to mind, those being to deny Britt’s claim. When his opponent ignores him, he tries provoking him by calling him a coward. It’s not the lines themselves that are smart, but how they’re written for this specific character and his present mood that’s smart.
Great as the writing is, this scene is supreme at wordless communication. All the info you need is filled in by the acting: the annoyed seriousness on Britt’s face when he accepts Wallace’s challenge, the hesitation of the impromptu official to call the duel, the men standing up in the background when the rivals position themselves for their duel, very much intrigued in seeing how it plays out, which is exactly as the audience anticipates.
In spite of this being a western, which are all about showcasing what awesome gunmen its main characters are—this scene no exception—a humanness is painted all over it, from Wallace’s desperate ramblings, to the dubious silence of its spectators, to those spectators rushing over to his body after his loss. It’s smart, it’s suspenseful, it’s cool, and it’s leagues and leagues better than the remake, where the death of a man is a sport.
The Polar Express – Train on Thin Ice
My bias leaks in quite a bit for this next entry, because I love steam- and coal-powered trains, and what’s this whole film about? I should say that there’s more to my adoration for this scene than being a simpleminded human who sees a train and clicks like. The shot of the engine flying by after the engineer throws it into reverse is worth a tender of coal. But when I get down to what I love about this scene, I just love watching the engineer at work: the clicking and clacking of the instruments, throwing a switch and seeing that instant feedback of the crankshaft.
Despite the danger they’re in, it’s jolly fun. The conductor has to guide the engineer onto the tracks in the ravine up ahead, and after shouting “Right! Left! Right!” a handful of times, he switches it up with jargon for turning left and right, which is pretty charming and funny. They’re all going to die if they miss the tracks, but he’s so chill about it, shouting nonsense like, “Hang a Louie!”
Unlike the other entries on this list, this whole scene is predicated on ridiculousness. Is it ridiculous that the engineer’s steering the train on ice by reversing the direction of the wheels’ spin? Probably. Not as ridiculous as the kids trying to catch a ticket, which flutters up but not away, otherwise we wouldn’t have the rest of the movie. And then there’s the cause of this whole mess: the ice starts shattering after the conductor coughs up a pin, which then embeds itself in the ice, causing the first cracks. Not the 180 metric ton train slamming into the frozen lake. The pin. Yet I love this scene. It operates on the rule of cool.
Halo 3 – Storm Closing
I hear time and time again how imperative it is that music matches the scene, but rarely do I see a pairing that clicks. The music at the climax of the Magnificent Seven duel does its job, but it’s nothing I would purchase from iTunes and upload to my MP3. This Is the Hour, however…But more on that in a sec.
The end of the Halo 3 level The Storm tasks you with destroying an anti-air gun so that the aerial forces of the UNSC—United Nations Space Command—have free rein of the skies. The start of the cutscene after getting that done is basic enough. Master Chief walks up to the camera and holds his rifle like, “Job well done.” And then the aircraft swoop in.
Halo 3 boasts my favorite battles in the entire series, and this cutscene similarly takes the cake as my favorite. The camera pans away from the Chief, away from the ground infantry battle, and to the aerial combat, where a squadron of Longswords swarm in on the main antagonist’s ship and larger-than-life frigates blast their MAC cannons.
The camerawork is top-notch, and the very scenario of your air force charging in to win the day is grand, but what promotes this cutscene to epicness is the score. I could explain how it builds and rises in tension in harmony with the action, until it crescendos to the point of bursting. Or I could tell you that it’s just damn good music. Like, damn-damn good music. Exquisite stuff. Exemplary. You’d have an easier time building a rocket to the stars than you would finding another song that’s this quality at just over sixty seconds in length.
Or would you?
Belle – Seventy-Second Trailer
The final piece I want to have a gander at is the 70-second trailer for Mamoru Hosoda’s 2021 film Belle. Same as Storm Closing, half the presentation is shouldered on the music, this song an excerpt from Gales of Song, sung by Kaho Nakamura, the protagonist Suzu’s Japanese voice actress. It’s a slow melody, sung in a tender voice, and the accompanying clips, tandem to the song, share a story. Details are vague, as this trailer is only a teaser, but it tells the narrative of a lonely high school girl discovering unimaginable success in a virtual realm, then this rise to fame being muffled by the rise in tempo and the introduction of a monstrous avatar, the dragon referenced in the movie’s Japanese title, The Dragon and the Freckled Princess. From there, things go wrong, with the dragon in constant combat, a structure in flames, and astonishment splashed across the faces of Suzu’s classmates. Shots flicker by at a rapid pace, and then we pause—
—before the song reaches its climax and we’re treated to an absolutely incredible shot of Suzu floating in the virtual world. Inside a gargantuan arena, delineated by the skyscrapers on the flanks and above, and filling that arena to capacity, below her, is a massive, massive crowd. The camera swoops in on her figure, posed confidently, and then the movie’s title, Belle, flares onto the screen at this emotional peak. The final shot winds things down, with a mysterious figure in an unknown space, seemingly unrelated to everything else we’ve seen.
I can’t express properly what a work of art this trailer is. It’s, I dare say, a masterpiece. Its music and its clips are wound together so perfectly, so brilliantly, so harmoniously that a single change would shatter its pristine marble. If Gales of Song were average or the clips were a montage of random, unrelated scenes—or if this trailer had the same effort, i.e. none, put into it as the trailer for Hosoda’s previous film, Mirai—I would have watched this teaser once and then never again. I would have forgotten about it. But the shots aren’t random. They’re timed gloriously to the song, which isn’t average, and which I love so much that before the single released I listened to this video on loop (and still do). That minute of music is just that good.
It’s a wonderful teaser, and it left me chomping at the bit for the full film to make its theatrical release this side of the Pacific.
And just for funsy, here’s an English version of the trailer I made using my amateur video editing skills:
So that’s that. A brief list of three scenes and one trailer that I think are superb, with no necessary correlation and in no necessary order. No commonality exists between them, so what makes each exceptional relies on the goals of the theatrics and how their properties accomplish those goals. Silence speaks gravity in The Magnificent Seven, while This Is the Hour signifies the triumph and glory of humanity’s military endeavor. There are countless, countless ways of making a good scene or a great trailer. These are just four examples.