I have been admiring and studying Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking techniques for some years now and in this post I will share some of my findings. No written description can ever do justice to an artist of Steven Spielberg’s magnitude, but I do hope that you will find this post inspiring and instructive.
1. Track-in shots
In this type of shot the camera physically moves in on the subject, typically going from a medium close-up to a tighter close-up. The movement is smooth, the background is blurred, and it is typically used to draw attention to a significant moment in a character’s story.
There are many examples of this shot in Steven Spielberg’s films – here is a classic example from “The Color Purple”:
You can infer the approximate focal length of a lens in a track-in shot by looking at how the background changes in the frame and how quickly the main subject increases in size as the camera moves in.
The more gradually the foreground subject increases in size, the longer the focal length of the lens used; the more quickly the background moves in the frame, the longer the focal length.
2. Sideways tracking shots
Moving the camera sideways is one of the classic filmmaking techniques, but Steven Spielberg always adds tremendous value to it and makes his tracking shots look absolutely distinct from everyone else’s. His sideways tracking shots can be very long, typically tracking with two characters who are walking and talking. Spielberg adds considerable visual texture to the shots by putting all manner of objects and extras between the camera and the two main subjects, to enhance the richness of the frame and the visual perception of movement.
Again, there are numerous examples of this shot in Steven Spielberg’s films. The example below is from “Saving Private Ryan”:
3. Sideways tracking shot with actors approaching camera at the end
This is a variant of the sideways tracking shot and is an absolutely classic example of a Steven Spielberg film technique. The camera tracks sideways with two actors walking and talking. The actors then stop and the camera also stops, at which point the actors move towards the camera, ending up in a tight close-up of both actors facing each other up close. This shot is typically used by Spielberg to cover scenes in which one character is attempting to persuade another character.
There are two great examples of this shot in Steven Spielberg’s films: one is in “The Sugarland Express” (in the scene with Goldie Hawn and William Atherton at the halfway house) and the other is in “Jaws” (in the scene in which chief Martin Brody and his wife walk and talk before he boards the boat).
4. Dramatic over-the-shoulder shots
Like the other film techniques in this list, over-the-shoulder shots are very common, but the over-the-shoulder shots filmed by Steven Spielberg are truly something else. He typically films a character over the shoulder of the protagonist using a wide lens, which makes the protagonist in the foreground look much bigger than the other character, conveying a feeling of dominance. It works like a charm.
There are lots of these over-the-shoulder shots in all of Steven Spielberg’s films. The example below is from “Amistad”:
5. Character approaches the camera to be framed in a closeup
Spielberg is not the only director who uses this technique, but he is the best at it by far.
An example from Amistad:
6. Claustrophobic over-the-shoulder shots
These are over-the-shoulder shots in which the foreground shoulder occupies an unusually large portion of the screen, cramming the main subject against the side of the frame.
Spielberg uses this technique to emphasise a moment of particular significance and he uses it very sparingly — never more than once in a film. These are not standard over-the-shoulder shots; they have special significance.
They are a perfect example of breaking tried-and-tested framing rules to achieve a particular effect.
Example from “Munich:”
7. Wide lenses
Steven Spielberg loves wide lenses, and he uses them to film tracking shots, over-the-shoulder shots, close-ups, and any other shot in which he wants to make the foreground subject dominate the background. He can be very bold in his use of wide lenses, much bolder than most other filmmakers, which is sweetly ironic, given that he is so frequently (and unfairly) accused of always playing it safe. I think you will find that Steven Spielberg is actually one of the most ambitious, risk-taking filmmakers in the whole history of cinema.
8. Framing characters through rich foreground objects
Steven Spielberg loves to frame characters through openings created by all sorts of objects.
Some of my favourite examples of this film technique:
– In the opening sequence of “Minority Report”, a young boy is framed through a chair in the foreground. It gives the shot an extremely intimate feel, as if you were spying from a hiding place. But there is more to it than that – this technique is made powerful by the fact that framing a character through an opening created by foreground objects really tends to focus our attention on that character. It is much more visually compelling than using a “clean” frame with no foreground objects.
– Again in the opening scene of “Minority Report,” when Marks is taken away by the pre-crime officers, he is framed through a halo in the foreground, held by another character. The officer holds a halo and approaches Marks, and the camera is right behind the halo, framing Marks in the middle of the circular object. As with the other instances of this technique, framing a character through a circular object really focuses our attention on that character and adds tremendous value to the shot. Pure Steven Spielberg; pure cinematic bliss!
– In “The Color Purple”, there is a shot in which Danny Glover is framed through a clean circular patch on a window that is otherwise covered with frost. Celie is indoors and watches Albert (played by Danny Glover) through this circular clearing in the frosted window.
9. Deep space
“Deep space” is a framing technique in which actors and objects are placed at different distances from the camera to enhance the illusion of depth. We can loosely define the key planes as foreground, middle ground and background, but obviously the key elements of the composition can be placed at any combination of distances from the camera.
The still below, taken from Schindler’s List, is an example of the deep space technique at its finest:
10. Track-in 2-shot
In this shot the camera frames two characters in a medium 2-shot and very slowly moves in to end on a tighter 2-shot. This technique is typically used to cover a scene in which to characters are discussing a topic of special importance. This is another film technique that is covered in detail in my free subscriber-only Filmmaking Tips.
11. Hand-held camerawork
Again, there is nothing new about hand-held camerawork, but Steven Spielberg is one of the few filmmakers who can truly pull it off. Spielberg used plenty of hand-held camerawork in “Schindler’s List” as part of a conscious stylistic choice, but it wasn’t the first time that he used hand-held camerawork (there is a hand-held shot in “The Sugarland Express”, when William Atherton and Goldie Hawn go into the men’s WC at the halfway house). He has used hand-held camerawork with some frequency ever since “Schindler’s List.”
There are some beautiful hand-held shots in “Catch me if you can.” Spielberg does these hand-held shots so well and uses them to such great effect that one cannot imagine those scenes being filmed with anything other than a hand-held camera. Another recent Spielberg film that features plenty of outstanding hand-held shots is “Munich.”
12. Mirror entry shots
In this technique the camera frames a character reflected in a mirror in a wide shot; the character then enters the frame, resulting in a closeup. It is a very effective way to shift from a wide shot to a tighter shot of the same character, all in one uncut shot. The following example is from Spielberg’s “Minority Report”:
13. Use of mirrors to emphasise a character
14. Match cuts
Spielberg uses match cuts to great effect. As the name implies, in a match cut an element in the second shot matches an element in the first shot. The example below is taken from Minority Report:
15. Dark Silhouettes Against Backlight
Spielberg frames characters as dark silhouettes against a bright backlight in scenes of intense, quiet drama. Notice how he used this technique in his 1968 short film Amblin’, when he was only 21, showing how advanced his skills were long before he was paid to direct professionally.
16. Uncut master shots with varied shot compositions
The last film technique in this list is absolutely the hallmark of Steven Spielberg and I have never seen any other filmmaker even come close to using it so well (or at all).
Steven Spielberg sometimes covers multiple-character scenes with a single, uncut shot in which the camera and the actors move in such a way that the shot goes from a wide shot to a close-up to an over-the-shoulder back to a wide shot, ending on a close-up – all in a single uncut shot while the actors move, talk and do things.
The following example is from Catch Me If You Can:
I cannot say enough good things about this film technique: it is smooth, it saves a lot of production time because it covers quite a bit of material in a single setup and, despite being a single uncut shot, it involves multiple shot compositions as a result of the camera’s movement. It is the height of directorial brilliance.
Of course this type of shot needs the right scene – you cannot go out and force it onto a scene that doesn’t need it – that’s not how filmmaking works! I still have not had the opportunity to use this technique, but I know that sooner or later I will come across a scene that can really benefit from this technique and, having used it, I’ll know exactly from whom I learned it!