How to Style Your Cinematography like Steven Spielberg

From “Jaws” to “The Color Purple,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg has given us many of the most iconic moments in cinema. We have already extolled the genius of Spielberg in this previous NYFA article, but today we examine some of the specific cinematographic techniques he employs to achieve such spectacular results to help inspire your own cinematographic stylings.

Sideways tracking shot.

A sideways tracking shot follows the movement of the characters. Although it is a classic technique, Spielberg makes it his own. “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,” writes this LA Video Filmmaker article.

Spielberg also uses the variant of having the actors approach the camera after tracking, ending in a close-up, as exampled by the scene in “Jaws” when the camera tracks Brody and his wife to the fateful boat.

Introducing a character.

As the below video essay details, Spielberg often uses either action or fraction (glimpses of body parts or features) to introduce his protagonists, and some of his most memorable introductions employ both. Think of one of the most iconic character introductions of all film time: to Indiana Jones in the first “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The long take.

A long take, aka a “oner,” is a continuous shot played out in real time. Unlike other directors, Spielberg’s long takes tend to be less stylized and more emotionally driven. As this No Film School article puts it, “Spielberg disguises these long takes in a number of ways, allowing audiences to become immersed in the dramatic energy of the scene without feeling the kinetic energy of the camera.” For some examples from everything from “Saving Private Ryan” to “Jurassic Park,” check out this video by Tony Zhou.

Over the shoulder.

Over the shoulder shots are common enough in cinema, but Spielberg uses dramatic and claustrophobic over the shoulder shots to create effects that push the boundaries of classic cinematographic framing. The dramatic shot uses a wide lens, making the character in the foreground look bigger than the other character, which conveys a feeling of dominance. The claustrophobic shot increases the amount of shoulder in the frame, pushing the main subject away from center. This article offers some “pretty pictures” to illustrate these techniques in “Amistad” and “Munich.”

Frame within a frame.

A cinematic frame within a frame utilizes physical objects–mirrors, windows, doors, power lines–to divide the frame and create striking composition. In “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, use a circular lamp fixture, and in “Minority Report,” they use a headset held by one of the characters in the foreground. The novelty of these framing devices suggests how you can use everyday objects for brilliant aesthetic effects.

What are your favorite examples of Spielberg cinematography? Let us know in the comments. Learn more about cinematography at the New York Film Academy.

How to Style Your Cinematography like Steven Spielberg by