jurassic park

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.

So What Exactly Is A Logline (And Why Do I Need One?)

The definition of a logline: one line (or two at the most) which describes what your screenplay is about.

Job done. Simple, right?

Well, not really. As you’ve no doubt already noticed, this post extends onwards and that’s because a logline is a surprisingly tricky thing to master…

… as well as being something you should ignore at your peril!

Today we’ll be looking at how to get the best out of your logline, and why it should be a high priority.

Loglines: The What

So we’ve already covered the basic definition in that a logline should describe the story, but a great logline should go a little further for that. Consider the following examples, and decide for yourself which one is best in each case:

Terminator

Example 1: A cyborg from the future hunts down a woman destined to later become the mother of humankind’s savior.

Example 2: A woman must fight for her life against an unstoppable cyborg assassin, sent back from the future with one mission: to kill her and prevent a future human uprising.

Jurassic Park

Example 1: A group of survivors struggle to escape from a revolutionary wildlife park filled with dinosaurs after a bribed employee sabotages the predators’ security gates.

Example 2: A rich philanthropist leads a team of scientists to populate a wildlife park with living dinosaur clones.

The Wizard of Oz

Example 1: A young girl finds herself transported to a surreal land far way from home. Desperately seeking the one man that can help her return, an evil witch shadows her every move…

Example 2: Dorothy is whisked away by a tornado to the Land of Oz, where she meets a group of friends each searching for something unique.

While all of the above examples could use some tightening up, some are definitely more effective than others and we’ll unpack each one as we discuss the conventions of writing a logline.

Loglines: The How

A logline should convey what happens in the story. That much is a given, and all six of the above loglines definitely do that. But a good logline should include all the same elements and structure that make up a fine screenplay:

– A set of circumstances
– A protagonist with a clear goal
– An opposing antagonist
– A point of conflict between the two parties

The screenplay itself, of course, will have resolution but that isn’t necessary in the logline (as its absence results in enticement!)

So, for example: “A recently widowed wife finds herself in a bitter legal dispute with her late husband’s psychotic and overbearing mother.”

That hits all of the above criteria for an effective logline. So which of the earlier examples fail?

Terminator: In this case example 1 is the weaker of the two. It opens with the antagonist, and while his goal is laid out and the scenario set, we don’t know much about the protagonist except for the circumstance she’s in. Example 2 is far stronger, follows convention, and has a greater sence of urgency.

Jurassic Park: You probably guessed this one. Example 2 is the weaker logline; no conflict, just a setting.

Wizard of Oz: The lines are a little more blurry here–both hit all the criteria (save for the lack of an antagonist in example 2), but the first doesn’t waste words on superfluous detail. It’s extremely uncommon to give characters names in the logline and nor is it necessary to explain that she’s in Oz or how she got there; example 1 focuses squarely on the key players and their motivations, and is better for it.

Hopefully that has helped differentiate between what constitutes a strong and a weak logline, but here are a few more tips that’ll help you nail it:

– The golden rule: When we say don’t go more than two sentences with your logline, we really mean it.

– Remember that you’re trying to sell the screenplay itself, not the story therein. You’ll fail if you try to do justice to the latter in two sentences, but it’s entirely possible to make the script itself enticing in the same space.

– Read it out loud to someone. Their reaction will be very telling, and very valuable.

– The logline can actually be helpful to you, too. If you ever get stuck with the production or find yourself losing your original vision, read it back to yourself. That’s the very essence of your film, right there, and should shine through in every scene of the movie and on every page of the script.

Loglines: The Why

If you can’t sell your screenplay in one line, you’re not going to sell your movie to either investors or a paying audience. It really is that simple.

The importance of a killer logline cannot be understated—if you think of it in terms of a job interview and leaving a good first impression, a strong logline is like walking into the room with a Ted Baker suit and greeting the interviewer with a well-manicured hand. A weak logline is slouching into the room with your sweatpants on.

Come at it with laser-like focus, and your logline will be more that worth the time and effort you put into it in the long run. Best of luck!

Learn more about the School of Screenwriting at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.