The first few minutes of the first episode of AMC's The Walking Dead need to establish the tone of the entire series, but they need to do so without boring the audience. Given that the comic on which it's based alternates between menacingly quiet moments and long stretches of extreme chattiness, it may be a mistake to think about the tone in a singular fashion; however, the fact that these two tonal elements could be characterized as "opposites" means that the opening scene of the series will have to choose one or the other. Director Frank Darabont not only decided on quiet menace, he emphasized the future significance of silence by turning down the diagetic sound and eschewing non-diagetic sound entirely. The result? The series introduces itself to the world with a unusually quiet establishing shot of a car approaching the camera on a deserted road:
As the car nears, the camera tracks it and Darabont uses the resulting tracking shot to create the impression that the person behind the camera is hiding behind the car. The camera pulls back until the burnt wreck in the foreground nearly obscures the patrol car, only to pan right at the conclusion of the long take and reveal that its "hiding place" has been compromised. In short, the camera seems to be hiding from the patrol car, which strongly suggests to the audience that there's something to hide from and that it may be in that patrol car. As if to emphasize that potential danger in the car, Darabont moves the camera-spy-without-a-hiding-place further away from the patrol car before cutting away:
Even after the cut away, the camera still behaves as if the mind behind it wants to remain hidden while scoping out a better hiding place. It begins behind and to the right of the burnt wreck and tracks to the back and to the left as Rick Grimes moves toward it. The resulting shot keeps Rick occupying the center of a long shot until the camera knows he can be trusted:
Or until it knows Rick either can't see him or can but doesn't care. Rick's eyes scan the area occupied by the camera but never directly addresses it. Initially, this means he's not a threat; eventually, and as anyone who's had a long conversation with someone who refuses to make eye contact with you well-knows, when sustained over time it will create the impression that Rick may not be worthy of the audience's trust. And it is sustained over time via another long take:
Note how the camera seems to be following from the front in what almost seems to be a point-of-view shot from the perspective of someone walking backwards down a steep hill, adding to the generally suspicious tenor of the previous shot another possible means of inflicting bodily harm: falling. The steadiness of the camera only adds to the tension: because audiences have come to expect shakiness from their realism, the calmness of Darabont's camerawork creates the impression of rapt attention. Combine walking-backward-down-a-hill with paying-close-attention-to-something-in-front-of-you and the result is a shot in which the formal elements work to make the audience uncomfortable. After cutting to an actual point-of-view shot from Rick's perspective:
The camera again decides that Rick may not be trustworthy and scuttles back behind the cars. The combination of the long takes leading to close-ups and then the abrupt return to the long shot creates a rhythm for Darabont to exploit. The audience assumes Rick will walk into a close-up again, but Darabont breaks the rhythm to show this:
Just in case the audience supposed these cars were merely haphazardly abandoned by people who got away—sorry but no. These cars contain dead people. After another cut to Rick in a long shot walking into a close-up, Darabont cuts to a medium shot with a low angle of framing of a sign that reads "NO GAS" before cutting to a medium long shot in which Rick walks into a close-up:
Darabont again fiddles with the rhythm—medium long to close-up instead of long to close-up—in order to discomfit the audience by creating the expectation that something's closing in on Rick. Darabont emphasizes this immediacy by altering the reason for cutting away from the close-up: as is plain from the look on his face, Rick has just heard the loudest diegetic sound in the episode. Not that it's very loud—shuffling feet rarely are—but it's loud by comparison and it sends Rick scurrying to discover its source:
A shot/reverse shot sequence of Rick seeing the feet of a child segues into a medium shot/reverse shot sequence of Rick going after the child. This is the quickest editing so far in the episode, and it's followed by another iteration of Rick walking into a close-up, only this time it's even more immediate: he walks from a medium shot into a close-up instead of a medium long or long shot. The established rhythm is quickening to keep pace with the increasing urgency of the events being depicted, thereby creating a formal as content-driven source of tension and anticipation that pays off when the camera reverses to this:
Mexican standoff! With a zombie! Who's also a child! With a teddy bear! Maybe the audience was right to be suspicious of Rick!
Darabont cuts to a close-up so the audience can see that although being-a-zombie trumps being-a-child, Rick is still not happy to shoot something that is being-a-child. The theme music then kicks in with a shock: the first non-diegetic sound in the episode, and then the credits roll. Consider what this entire sequence communicates to its audience about the shape of this world, then ask yourself whether you believe the tone established by it accurately reflects that of the rest of the series.