Directors’ Trademarks: Steven Spielberg

No director is as well known, nor has had as much success in Hollywood as Steven Spielberg. He invented a style of filmmaking that audiences ate up in the 1980’s, single-handedly invented the modern blockbuster, and was influential in helping George Lucas make Star Wars. From a young age, Spielberg was fascinated by theater and film. In his teens, he used an 8mm camera to film movies with his friends. Later, he became an intern at Universal Studios, and the rest is history.

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Spielberg’s career started small. First he directed segments of TV shows, and then later entire episodes. His success convinced the studios to give him a chance at directing a full film. Duel was his first feature-length film, made for TV, and was an immediate success showing his technical competency, as well as, his ability to make entertaining cinema. His feature-length debut was The Sugarland Express (1974), and his breakthrough followed in 1975 (Jaws). He turned down the opportunity to direct a sequel to make another hit, 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which gave him his first Best Director Oscar nomination. The hits kept coming, with Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 and E.T. in 1982. He finished the 80’s producing a number of big hits while directing two more Indiana Jones films, and the critically acclaimed The Color Purple (1985) along with Empire of the Sun (1987). In the 90’s he continued his proficiency at directing both entertaining blockbusters (Hook, Jurassic Park 1 + 2), and critically acclaimed dramas (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). In 2001, he directed a film as homage to Stanley Kubric (A.I.), then created two entertaining films in 2002 that resonated well with audiences (Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can). War of the Worlds (2005) was his next big hit, before he returned to the Indiana Jones franchise (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2008). His first animated film was 2008’s The Adventures of Tintin. His latest films were a pair of dramas. War Horse in 2011, and the award-winning Lincoln in 2012. 

So the question posed is, if you are watching a Steven Spielberg film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Spielberg’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:

The Spielberg Face


When a film technique has an unofficial name based on the director who first made it famous, you know it is a big deal. “The Spielberg Face” was first used to great effect in Jaws. The idea is simple, zoom in on a character as they are looking at something. Most of the time, this character is amazed, and their face is full of surprise, and the thing that they are looking at is not revealed to the audience until after the character shows their expression. To contemporary audiences today, this technique might not seem that special. Lots of other directors and filmmakers have since used something similar in their movies. Spielberg, though, was the first to show how effective it could be. By focusing on characters’ faces first, rather than filming from an angle behind them, Spielberg’s films could create a better human connection. He was showing that, although special effects have their place, his films were about people above all. “The Spielberg Face” is present in almost all of Spielberg’s films, including the dinosaur reveal scene in Jurassic Park, frequently in Close Encounters, and even in The Color Purple.

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