Steven Spielberg film techniques – With pretty pictures!

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”:

Track-in shot from Spielberg's 'The Color Purple'
This track-in shot uses a lens of moderate focal length — it looks like 85mm or 100mm.

Filmmaking tipsYou 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”:

Tracking shot in Spielberg's '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”:

Over-the-shoulder shot from Spielberg's '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:

Walk-up closeup shot in Spielberg's '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:”

Spielberg Techniques - Claustrophobic over-the-shoulder shots: an example from 'Munich'
Example from “Catch Me if You Can”:

Spielberg Techniques - Claustrophobic over-the-shoulder shots: an example from 'Catch Me if You Can'

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.

Spielberg Techniques - Wide lenses: an example from 'Schindler's List'
Finally, while Steven Spielberg has a clear predilection for wide lenses, he does also use medium and long lenses in several shots in every film. The still below is from Schindler’s List – a long lens was used to frame the large number of people boarding the train:

Spielberg Techniques - Long lens shot from 'Schindler's List'

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.

Spielberg Techniques - Foreground objects: an example from 'Minority Report'
– In the dinner scene of “A.I.,” David (the young boy/robot) is framed through a circular light hanging from the ceiling. The circular fluorescent light is in the middle of the frame and David is framed through this circular object. Coincidentally, the character being filmed through an object is a young boy, just as in the scene in “Minority Report”.

– 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!

Spielberg Techniques - Foreground objects: another example from 'Minority Report'

– 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.

Framing through circles is an interesting subset of the more general foreground object compositions:

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”:
Mirror entry shot in Spielberg's 'Minority Report'

13. Use of mirrors to emphasise a character

Spielberg's use of mirrors

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:

A match cut in Spielberg's '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:

An uncut master shot in Spielberg's '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!

47 Replies to “Steven Spielberg film techniques – With pretty pictures!”

  1. This info has really given me a clearer picture of how great a difference I could make especially in African filmmaking. I’ll always remember this source. Thanks Steven. More excellence.

  2. I must say the tips I have gotten from you including this one are quite helpful. However I wish to ask , how can an upcoming film maker like me maximize the use of the internet to exhibit works and to profit from it?

  3. Thanks so much for your tips. I’ve been interested in media for years but I am just starting to take my film making much more seriously. Your emails and blogs are incredibly helpful to a beginner like me and I have seen huge improvement already in my work.

  4. Nice work Ed.

    Also, re: #6, I can think of 2 more examples:

    – in DUEL, there is a totally-audacious shot, that is framed through the circular glass “window” of a clothes-dryer door.

    – in E.T., there is a sort of similar shot to this – of Elliot viewed through the glass lid of ET’s “coffin”

    Anyway, great post!

  5. Another poster beat me to the laundromat observation in Duel. At times I’ve thought that shot a little pointlessly “showoffy,” but read a compelling point about how it demonstrates how the character David Mann is “trapped” by symbols of domesticity. Which makes sense.

    Also, after the first chase scene in that movie, there’s a single, unbroken tracking shot of Mann entering the diner which appears to be hand-held at eye-level, with the camera operator walking backwards. This shot is NOT merely showoffy, but fits the mood. Mann has just had a harrowing encounter and almost been killed, and the unstable, mildly lurching camera movement captures the feeling perfectly.

    1. Excellent points, Cameron — thanks for posting.

      Your comment reminds me that I have never seen a shot or cut in a Spielberg film that came across as vacuously flashy. Compelling, impressive, beautiful — but never needlessly so. Even Amblin, the short film that landed him the 7-year TV directing contract at Universal, is fully mature (he had been making movies for several years by then – he started very early!).

      Very interesting point about the laundromat shot in Duel.

      Even without that consideration, however, framing through foreground objects simply works: it draws the viewer in and adds value to our experience. It can be overdone, but sharp judgement helps with that, and Spielberg isn’t short of sound judgement.

      Cheers! 🙂

  6. Thanks for your response. Since posting this, I’ve found a clip of one of my favorite sequences Spielberg has done, from Schindler’s List. The opening shot is to my eyes a subtly perfect composition – artful without being blatantly “artsy.” Then the restaurant scene, with the gorgeously slow moving camera, enhanced by the wall decorations in the background. As I recall, at at a point after this clip ends, it cuts to an opposite-direction movement on the wife’s face, which gives a feeling I like to describe as sensual. As an aside, I’d really like to know what the music is following the snippet of Gloomy Sunday we first hear.

    anyway, I really enjoy your insights, and like the way you approach filmmaking.

  7. Okay there’s a brief moment in Oskar’s apartment at the very beginning here, but I was referring to the street scene.

  8. Thanks again! That makes sense, ’cause Jaws is the first movie I saw that really woke me up to filmmaking techniques.

    There’s yet another scene I just thought of: in Indy/TOD, when Indy is fighting the Thuggee in his room, there are a couple shots of action with the toppled lampshade in the foreground. I’d post that as an example if I could find it. What I like about that is, again not because it’s “artsy,” but the movement of the bodies rolling behind the round lampshade heightens the dynamism of the action. It’s hard to explain, but it’s one example of Spielberg’s gift for action that flows and has kinetic energy.

  9. Useful tips… Uncut master shots with varied shot compositions are really tough! But it is useful to have them in mind while planning for shots. Thanks Man.

  10. Okay, I’m chiming in again, ’cause I just remembered something that happened years ago: I caught a late-night rerun of a detective series on TV, and this is going to sound like I’m embellishing, but it’s true– the opening shot had such a bravura style it reminded me of Spielberg, and I thought “I wonder if he directed this.”

    The show was Columbo: Murder by the Book. Maybe you know of it. If not, I hope you’re able to view it; the opening shot is a great addition to your examples.

    1. Hello again Cameron,

      Yes, I have watched that episode more than once! “Murder by the book” is, unsurprisingly, the best Columbo episode by far, and features many classic Spielberg techniques. It still works beautifully.

      This Columbo episode was particularly instructive in the days when shooting in the 4:3 aspect ratio was still sometimes necessary for independent filmmakers, because it is an outstanding example of how to compose visually pleasing shots in the intrinsically undesirable 4:3 aspect ratio.

      For example, the over-the-shoulder shots in the dinner scene between the murderer and Lilly La Sanka are absolutely beautiful! I remember thinking “Spielberg can even compose great shots in this decidedly uncinematic aspect ratio – what a master!”

      You really know your Spielberg 🙂

  11. I really love your articles! They are to the point and make we want to see some Spielberg movies to see all those great shots…

    Those animated gifs are simply brilliant, it’s much easier to see the scene than just reading about it. I keep wanting to practice shots like that!

    All the best,

    1. Hi Cindy,

      Thank you! I’m glad you find my website helpful.

      Go ahead and study Spielberg movies in detail — it is very educational and never gets old!

      Practicing with a camera is time well spent — it will develop your skills and won’t cost you anything other than time. Your sharpened camera skills will pay off in your next project, guaranteed.

      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  12. Very insightful articles! I like how you explain things in a very simplistic way. Will definitely watch out for your future write-ups.

  13. Thank you! I’m glad you find my website helpful.

    Go ahead and study Spielberg movies in detail — it is very educational and never gets old!
    Useful tips… Uncut master shots with varied shot compositions are really tough! But it is useful to have them in mind while planning for shots. Thanks for website & also you

  14. Thank you! I’m glad you find my website helpful.

    Go ahead and study Spielberg movies in detail — it is very educational and never gets old!
    Useful tips… Uncut master shots with varied shot compositions are really tough! But it is useful to have them in mind while planning for shots. Thanks for website & also you.

  15. I just subscribe to your site, and already I’m seeing some of the things I had questions on, but did not know where to look. Most of these answers you’ll not find on google. The site is awesome.

  16. Hi, i really like ur site!!… very usefull to me…id like to see an article about how to make musical video, just if u have some inf. about’s other part i would like to learn about!

  17. Hi, great article, covers all the good techniques! I was just wondering if you could tell me where in Minority Report that match cut is, like around what time/scene?

    I’m making a video essay on spielberg and wanted to include this but I wasn’t quite sure where it is in the film?


  18. I worked with them in ‘Lincoln’. I was there for 11 days and loved every bit of it. I was featured in the War Dept. scene using a morse code key. Also the flag raising scene, the House scene voting on the 13th Amendment and in the amputee scene in a horse and carriage. I tried as much as possible to learn and watch how they were doing everything. It was an incredible experience and thank you for the article here. I loved it, very in depth and very insightful. I own a Bell and Howell 2709 35mm and am getting ready to test film with it. It was found on a landfill in Long Island and I was lucky enough to buy it off the finder 22 years ago. It was built in 1918 and has links to USN and some animation company in NY. I am looking forward to allowing it to see film for the first time in maybe 50 years and it very exciting. Peace F. O’Doherty B&H 2709 #289

  19. Thank you for a great article – I was aware of some but not all these techniques and your article really highlighted that Spielberg is not just an amazing storyteller, he is one of the greatest visual artists of the 20th and 21st Century.

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