You’ve seen many Steven Spielberg movies in your time. Despite his popularity, it can be difficult to pinpoint what defines 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.
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.
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.
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.