Directors’ Trademarks: Steven Spielberg

The Reflection Shot


Spielberg is known for using complicated camera movements and angles. One of his favorite camera angles is using a mirror or window reflection to capture his characters indirectly. He uses this technique to show the face of a character when the camera is located behind them. This allows the audience to see the details of a scene/setting without losing the connection to a character. Spielberg also switches it around by filming a character who is facing the camera through a window. Typically the character is watching something through the window, and that scene is reflected for the audience to see. Spielberg also uses rearview mirrors in cars to frame and show action, such as in Jurassic Park when the T-Rex is chasing the Jeep. In Munich, Spielberg uses several complicated shots with reflections in car mirrors to show activity inside cars while also allowing the audience to see what is happening outside the cars.

Parent Issues

Just about every main character in a Spielberg film either has some sort of issue with their parents (usually the father), or they have kids with whom they don’t have the best of relationships. This trend starts at the beginning of his career. His second film, The Sugarland Express revolves around two deadbeat parents running from the law to try and prevent their son from being taken into foster care. Close Encounters is full of neglectful parenting, and I don’t think I even need to talk about The Color Purple. More famously, we all know about Indiana Jones’ rocky relationship with his father from The Last Crusade, and then in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it’s Indiana’s turn to experience the difficulties of being a dad. The kids in Jurassic Park conveniently lack parents, and War of the Worlds is basically Tom Cruise’s attempts to reconcile with his kids. And these are just some of the examples…

Glowing Lights

close encounters

Like many directors in the 80’s, Spielberg experimented with the visual texture in his films. He may have been one of the first to perfect the technique of using bright lights to add ambience to his films. In specific, his use of camera filters and overlays in Close Encounters paved the way for a decade of soft filters and lense flares in film. Like Ridley Scott, Spielberg used light to add texture to his films. He used fog to amplify the effect of light bands, and used post-production effects to expand the glow of various lighting elements. He maintained these techniques in later decades, but with less emphasis and better clarity. Jurassic Park is full of interesting background lighting, especially once the storm hits. Minority Report is an interesting canvas of dark and bright, glowing lights, as is A.I. Even in Lincoln, Spielberg pays special attention to the contrast between the dark and drury, and bright, glowing white light.

John Williams

While Spielberg’s films are known for their entertaining stories, relatable characters, impressive production values, and attention to detail, it is the soundtracks that make them the most memorable. No other director has made so many films with soundtracks that are as easily recognizable. But while some of that is due to the director’s choice of where and how to put music in their film, most of that credit has to go to John Williams. John Williams is one of, if not the best composers of film soundtracks. One note of the theme from Jaws, Star Wars, or even Indiana Jones is enough for most people to recognize these films. John Williams and Steven Spielberg have created a working partnership unparalleled in the film industry. The substantial amount of success that they have achieved is due to both of them being very good at what they do and their work complimenting each others’ very well. Williams has composed all of Steven Spielberg’s films except for one (Color Purple).

Want more? Check out the last installment:

Directors’ Trademarks: Ridley Scott