You’ve seen many Steven Spielberg movies in your time. Despite his popularity, it can be difficult to pinpoint what defines the Steven Spielberg directing style. Perhaps his control of the medium is so natural and intuitive, his trademarks and cinematography techniques go unnoticed in a good way. We get lost in a Spielberg movie in a way that’s like no other filmmaker, which might just make him the greatest of all time. In this article, you’ll learn how a young Steven Spielberg climbed his way up from his first feature, Duel, up to his current work. Along the way, we’ll analyze Spielberg’s cinematic DNA to see if we can discover what makes his films so beloved.
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Steven Spielberg Biography
Who is Steven Spielberg?
Let’s briefly touch on Steven Spielberg the person.
Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. His mother owned restaurants and played concert piano while his father worked as an electrical engineer in the early years of computers.
Young Steven Spielberg
Spielberg grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. He was a Boy Scout and earned his photography merit badge by making a short film. The family later moved to Saratoga, California where Spielberg graduated high school.
Steven Spielberg College & Education
He moved to L.A. with his father and applied to USC film school. He was rejected “due to his poor grades.” He was accepted to Cal State Long Beach and then earned an unpaid internship at Universal Studios in the editing department. He then made a 34-minute short film, Amblin’.
The film was good enough to earn him a seven-year directing contract from Universal vice president, Sidney Sheinberg. This inspired Spielberg to drop out of college — though he would return and graduate in 2002.
HBO Documentary • Spielberg
Steven Spielberg Facts
Collectively, his films have grossed more than any other director in history, and his net worth is $3.7 billion. His production company, Amblin Partners, oversees productions through shingles including DreamWorks Pictures, Participant Media and Amblin Entertainment.
So, let’s jump into his filmmaking style and cinematography techniques.
STEVEN SPIELBERG PRODUCTION DESIGN
Set the scene with production design
One thing I’ve noticed about many scenes in the best Steven Spielberg films is that they very often begin with production design elements. In other words, the scene will start with a particular prop or piece of set dressing that helps contextualize the scene immediately.
It’s also a nice visual reset for the viewer, so that way we all know we’re beginning a new scene. Sometimes this opening shot can add context to the overall story, especially when combined with the previous scene.
For example, in this scene from Jurassic Park, the film transitions to a completely different setting but helps us focus on the essence of the scene first. This tells us very quickly where we are, who we’re about to meet, and what this scene is ultimately about.
That way, the audience is bombarded with new setting, new characters, and dialogue that might confuse or disorient them.
Dig Site • Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park
It’s nice to see little details as well, and it shows an appreciation for the work and for science in general. We get an establishing shot that shows us very little of the surrounding area, but we understand the purpose.
STEVEN SPIELBERG PERFORMANCE BLOCKING
Build kinetic and subtextual blocking
Steven Spielberg movies use performance blocking that moves the actors through the scene. Spielberg mainly does this for two reasons:
- Provide kinetic energy
- Inform on a subtextual level
As the mood and stakes of a scene change, so will the positioning of the actors. Visual choices are the lifeblood of a film director, and while sound and music can signal emotional information, the best visual tool is an actor’s physical movement and location relative to the camera.
This scene from Lincoln begins on the letter (which supports the previous example) but watch the blocking in the scene. Stephens (Jack Earle Haley) begins with his back turned to Grant, a sign of disrespect. When he turns, Grant (Jared Harris) is towering over him, and right in his face, but still polite.
There are more men on the Union side compared to the confederate side, which suggests that the war is not going well for the South. Grant walks away after relaying the ‘disappointing’ news to Stephens. Grant takes his tea and discusses peace. Then he explains how there is just one country — not two.
Terms of Surrender • Lincoln
Spielberg then breaks the 180 degree rule just as Grant finishes his point and gives Stephens a conciliatory pat on the shoulder.
Then Grant crosses the room to sit down and drink his tea. He has made his point and is both confident and relaxed enough to sit down. Most would think that sitting down is a sign of weakness, but Spielberg knows that, in this case, it’s a sign of stability. It’s a sign of calm resolve.
STEVEN SPIELBERG SHOT COMPOSITION
Create shots with many compositions
Great directors don’t simply build a single shot. They build many shots within a single shot, alternating between compositions. This really is one of the best Steven Spielberg trademarks because the change in shot size:
- Evokes emotion
- Directs attention
- Keeps things interesting
Often, the goal is to create a willing suspension of disbelief in the viewer, especially with the kind of movies directed by Steven Spielberg. He can’t risk pulling the viewer out of important moments with a jarring cut.
This fluid cinematography technique isn’t easy to achieve, and requires a lot of practice, rehearsals, and a talented film crew. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but you should plan composition shifts in a shot list.
Check out the storyboard below made using StudioBinder's storyboard software, where we split a single shot into the various compositions. This scene is from Munich, and this specific portion is the run up to the first assassination in the movie.
Munich • Rome Assassination Storyboard
Avner and his team follow this member of Black September before dispatching of him in an elevator lobby.
Insisto Clara, Insisto • Steven Spielberg's Munich
Spielberg uses zoom shots and fluid camera movement to shift shot composition throughout a single camera setup. It switches from a full shot, to a medium shot, to a medium close, to a long shot, and back to medium close — all without cutting.
This camera work is distinct to a style used in many 1970s espionage films and it transports the viewer. Spielberg's movies are truly amazing.
In this video, we look at how Spielberg shoots 'oners' in Jurassic Park. Again, they're not just long takes for their own sake. They help give the visuals energy while luring the audience into the scene.
Spielberg's Oners Explained
Steven Spielberg Filmmaking Style
Move the camera in XYZ Space
One of the most important cinematography techniques used in Steven Spielberg movies is also one of the least discussed. Spielberg and his team find a way to move the camera in every direction.
They don’t track laterally, or dolly in, or crane up and down — they do all of these in a single shot. The movement is complemented by the performance blocking, production design, and background elements.
Final Battle Scene • Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan
This filmmaking style supports the sort of cinematic adventure film Spielberg makes, but also the mature and dramatic films as well.The change in speed is a defining factor, as well as the equipment used to achieve the camera movement. He also builds a static lens plot, explained in the video below:
Sidney Lumet’s Lens Plot • Subscribe on YouTube
Steven Spielberg built a static lens plot in Schindler’s List, and completely avoided using a techno-crane on the film because he wanted to ground the viewer inside the tragic events of the Holocaust.
To use fast and opulent camera sweeps across the ghettos and concentration camps would have been completely tone-deaf, and inadvertently glorified their use. Be thoughtful with your camera.
STEVEN SPIELBERG CAMERA MOVEMENT
Perfect motivated camera movement
To continue on the topic of camera movement, Spielberg is the king of motivated camera movement. The operative word here is motivated.
If a character reaches down to grab something…Spielberg may tilt down to show us the action.
If a side character calls out to the main character...Spielberg may pan over to show who called out.
Peter Confronts Hook • Steven Spielberg's Hook
The reason I say ‘may’ is because some moments won’t need this particular cinematography technique, but it’s a trademark of Steven Spielberg filmmaking that helps to define his special style.
If you want to incorporate the style used by Steven Spielberg movies, this is one trademark you can use in your next project. Consider finding moments in your script that call for motivated camera movement.
STEVEN SPIELBERG MOVIES
Use eye trace to direct the viewer
Eye trace is the term for directing the viewer’s eyes through movement, light, color, and any other method that isn’t an actual cut. You can use eye trace to carry directing through a cut, but this is different than physically cutting to say, an insert shot of a scene element.
Really pay attention as you take a look at this scene:
Schindler’s List • That’s Oskar Schindler
This scene is a great example. The first half shows you, Schindler, getting ready to go out for the night. We get various cuts that tell us a story, but the second half of the scene is where eye trace is used to perfection.
How to Use Walter Murch’s Eye trace • Subscribe on YouTube
Go back and really watch how every decision — the money, the blocking, the waiter moving through the room is strategically built to move our eyes (and the eyes of the characters) toward Oskar Schindler.
This is a classic Steven Spielberg trademark — directing your eyes.
STEVEN SPIELBERG TRADEMARKS
Have characters enter and exit frame
One of the main things I notice about Steven Spielberg movies is how he constantly has actors entering and exiting the frame. He does this with important characters — not simply background actors.
This cinematography technique does a few things. It gives the scene visual variety, suggests a world outside the frame, and allows us to focus on fewer characters.
A big part of this isn’t just beginning or ending scenes with characters entering and exiting the frame. But also doing it in the middle of the scenes. Filmmakers are often so fixated (as they should be) on the imagery that will be on screen that they almost psychologically block out the idea that the space around the characters even exists.
If you want to emulate the Steven Spielberg directing style, make sure to have characters enter and exit the frame to intro scenes, to punctuate scenes, but also everywhere in between.
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Steven Spielberg Cinematography Techniques
Blow out the windows with light
In the early years when I would watch Spielberg films, I’d often notice the lighting. This isn’t always a good thing, mind you, but what I noticed was that the scenes often had windows that led to the outside world, and how the light coming through was almost blinding.
Most cinematographers will admit that the windows are overexposed when considering conventional cinematography rules. But when paired with a soft key light and a large room the results are pretty magical.
This is one of the more technical cinematography techniques that Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski incorporate in their collaborative works. It can achieve a lot of things like building mystery, creating contrast, and an overall sci-fi look that supports these other-worldly situations.
Spielberg and Kaminski will use this technique in multiple films even though they each fit inside totally separate movie genres.
They've used this cinematography technique in sci-fi films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, but also in historical docudramas like Munich and Lincoln.
The Arrest of Howard Marks • Minority Report
These films have a lot of differences from tone and time period, but the technique is so versatile and stunning that it can be used throughout.
When there is a harsh backlight, it often seeps into the under-lit room and wraps around objects and characters. This helps to amplify the three-dimensional space, and often creates a chiaroscuro effect. It also sets a really strong tone and mood — one that may suggest hope.
But it can also suggests mystery, because while light can illuminate a space, it can also blind the viewer and mask imagery through its sheer power. I tried to make sure all of the cinematography techniques on this list were about as practical as could be, and this is one of the more viable Steven Spielberg trademarks you can use to get a similar look in your film.
STEVEN SPIELBERG FILMMAKING
Support moments with visual choices
We touched a bit on this earlier, but Steven Spielberg movies always look for ways to support moments with visual choices.
Think about the famous water ring scene in Jurassic Park. He uses a complimentary plastic cup of water to create suspense. The best part is how the water was introduced when Dr. Malcom describes the chaos theory, and in general, how water is the main source of life on earth.
Water Cup Scene • Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park
The water theme was in the book, mind you, but what wasn’t in the book was the actual water ripples. And Spielberg uses visual techniques in his movies all the time. Sometimes it will be a reflection of something in the mirror, and other times it will be the way someone tosses their hat.
STEVEN SPIELBERG TRADEMARK ESSAY
Guide emotion with views of the face
There is a Steven Spielberg trademark that has been previously dubbed as the ‘Spielberg face.’ This is where he shows a character experiencing an emotion, and then cuts to what they're looking at, which is often awe-inspiring.
Welcome to Jurassic Park • The Steven Spielberg Face
What these shots do is add an extra layer to the Kuleshov effect.
You’re directed and informed to feel the same as his character. Steven Spielberg builds vicarious emotion in his movies, and cutting from this shot also helps to make the VFX more effective.
Now… does the John Williams score help? Of course it does! There is no doubt that John Williams music completely puts scenes like these over the top. But there are some serious visual skills at work when a computer-generated dinosaur grazing can make you well up a bit.
STEVEN SPIELBERG POINT OF THOUGHT
Use ‘point of thought’ when needed
Writer/Director Arnon Z. Shorr describes a technique he dubbed “Point of Thought.” Here's a video that explains this idea with a scene study from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Point of Thought • Subscribe on YouTube
The idea is that while other directors show you a character’s point of view, Steven Spielberg will show you the character's thoughts. What they’re focused on rather than what they actually see.
This is one of my personal favorite Spielberg techniques, and you can see an example of ‘point of thought’ in the shot list below:
Raiders of the Lost Ark • Basket Chase Storyboard
As you can see, this is one of the most important aspects of the Steven Spielberg directing style. And it's a trademark that makes his movies more effective than most. Cinematography techniques like these really get your actors in the right headspace and enhance their performances.
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Steven Spielberg Character Introductions
Care about character introductions
Our final trademark from Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking style are character introductions. Spielberg movies have some of the best character introductions, probably the best. And he knows that thoughtfully introducing a character isn’t exclusive to his protagonists.
You can use side characters to signal an apparent contrast in personality from your main character. It’s almost like a bully tactic or an ipso facto.
Opening Scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark
If you have one character who is starving, you can show another character who is messily shoveling food down their gullet. This makes the hunger of the other character amplified, more apparent, and thus more effective. Think about this technique for your own movies.
STEVEN SPIELBERG FILMOGRAPHY
Steven Spielberg movies list
The man has been making movies for a long time — he's about to enter his 6th decade, in fact. Here's a complete list of Steven Spielberg films:
- West Side Story — 2020
- Ready Player One — 2018
- The Post — 2017
- The BFG — 2016
- Bridge of Spies — 2015
- Lincoln — 2012
- War Horse — 2011
- The Adventures of Tintin — 2011
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — 2008
- Munich — 2005
- War of the Worlds — 2005
- The Terminal — 2004
- Catch Me If You Can — 2002
- Minority Report — 2002
- A.I. Artificial Intelligence — 2001
- Saving Private Ryan — 1998
- Amistad — 1997
- The Lost World: Jurassic Park — 1997
- Schindler's List — 1993
- Jurassic Park — 1993
- Hook — 1991
- Always — 1989
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — 1989
- Empire of the Sun — 1987
- The Color Purple — 1985
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — 1984
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — 1982
- Raiders of the Lost Ark — 1981
- 1941 — 1979
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind — 1977
- Jaws — 1975
- The Sugarland Express — 1974
- Savage — 1973
- Something Evil — 1972
- Duel — 1971
STEVEN SPIELBERG BEST MOVIES
Essential viewing for Spielberg movies
Everyone has their favorite Steven Spielberg movie. He is hands down my favorite director. And I’m going to share with you what I think are the five best Steven Spielberg movies for aspiring filmmakers to watch:
The visual choices in Schindler’s List support the experience of the event. The choice of black and white for the film helps transport us into the past, but also has a subtextual moral connotation. Oskar Schindler’s character arc is possibly the best ever created because we see the human motivation behind a man willing to exploit war before his turn towards heroism.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
This film also features Nazis, but the tone is markedly different. Raiders is the epitome of an adventure film. There are unforgettable moments that use production design and props to build excitement and create iconic visuals. The stunts featured in the Ark transport scene are, to this day, some of the most exciting and cinematic ever put on film.
Saving Private Ryan
Intelligent decisions like adding shutter blades and manipulating shutter speed during the Omaha Beach sequence show that Spielberg is always looking to visually innovate. The use of sound design and point of view during an early sniper scene is fantastic, and the use of reflections and implied narrative during the Mother Ryan scene is masterful.
Munich is one of the most suspenseful of Spielberg’s movies. You always have a reason for concern, and he supports this through camera placement and movement. Scenes are composed in a way that conveys good men who face questionable decisions, and show how every person can be pushed to their limits. It’s a masterclass in filming espionage.
In the age of mixing computer generated effects with recordings, Jurassic Park set the bar really high. A mixture of practical effects, sound design, visual motif, and intelligent source material created a franchise that has grossed over $5 billion in ticket sales alone.
Now, you might not agree with the order of this list, but know that it is based around an attempt to objectively choose the best movies from which to learn Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking style, trademarks and cinematography techniques.
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Take a look at the shot list and storyboard feature in StudioBinder, where you can layout shot specs, easily reorder frames, customize your layout, and build the visual plan for your next great scene.
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Applause for this fascinating analysis of Spielberg's characteristic style – much of which I'd noticed and noted over the years – certainly his visual dynamism – going back to "Duel," "Jaws," and "Close Encounters.." Really appreciate all the detail here, and I must take a look at some of the other director analyses advertised on this site. Great stuff! Thanks!