Mimic the Movie Masters: STEVEN SPIELBERG – Part ONE

21 Jan

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Mimic the Movie Masters

So I get asked a lot about finding a style as a filmmaker, and I get asked even more about what makes movies cinematic. So I thought, I’d pair the two together in this new blog series. It does exactly what it says on the tin – I’m going to point out a few key elements of a select bunch of Directors, to identify what separates their movies from the rest.

thumb spielberg v2The idea is to give you, the filmmakers, more tools at your disposal, to further improve your work and help take it to the next level. Specifically I am going to highlight each of these director’s individual cinematic signature shooting styles, so you can understand and apply these master techniques to your own independent movies. You may be well aware of all the points I cover, or it may be the first time you’ve looked at these filmmakers in this way; either way, if  it helps someone, it’ll be worth it. I’ll talk about iconic film Directors such as Chris Nolan, Tony Scott, JJ Abrams, Stanley Kubrick and beyond.

But first up, I’m going to start with none other than Mr. Steven Spielberg.

The magic of a Spielberg movie is undeniable; clearly there is no end to the man’s talents! Volumes have been written about his outstanding work but, for the purpose of my humble blog, I’m going to focus on three key aspects of his visual style that excites and manipulates audiences time and time again.

1. Track in on…. “The Spielberg Face”

collectionThe Close Up. It’s a very common shot, a character’s face dominates the screen to give the audience the best possible view of the the emotions stirring beneath. It’s simple enough, but Spielberg goes one step further and with one simple addition, turns a common shot into powerful one.

Instead of a static shot, Spielberg often opts to ‘Push In’. Here the camera slowly tracks onto the face, typically from a midshot to a close up; following Hitchcock’s well known rule that:

“The size of an object in the frame should equal it’s importance in the story at that moment.”

Here the face gets larger (due to the camera’s movement), and so the character’s importance is emphasised, until it often dominates the frame.

Spielberg characteristically uses this when a monumental event is taking place, a happening yet unseen by the audience. As the camera tracks in, from a mid shot to a close up of a spellbound or startled face, Spielberg has his audience mesmerized: like a pet dog standing on his hind legs, salivating, as his owner opens his favourite tin of dog food, we just can’t wait to share in the onscreen character’s wonderment. “What are they looking at?”.


How You Can Achieve It:

Now, you may not have the luxury of a blockbuster movie budget and you may not have a top of the range dolly and operator at your disposal, but that doesn’t mean these shots aren’t obtainable. There are numerous options out there for generating this smooth movement on a shoestring budget; you can build your own simple tracking system (a quick search through youtube will leave you drowning in ideas – here’s just one playlist) or perhaps be even more creative by converting an old office chair like these guys… pretty cool!

No matter what option you take, follow this simple technique to really engage your audience when you need it the most – track in and get up close and personal with your actor.

Technical Stuff:

There are two things I will point out, that might be worth keeping in mind. If you’re reducing the distance between yourself and your subject, you’re going to want to pull focus. For those unfamiliar with this concept, it’s the action of adjusting the focus controls on your lens to keep your subject in focus throughout the shot. In the big league, this is an incredibly pressured position that requires a high degree of skill and understanding – so pay close attention to your focus and make sure your shot isn’t soft.

Secondly, Spielberg is a big fan of wide lenses for a number of reasons (more on that in another post), so if you’re looking to replicate the “Spielberg Push In“, avoid longer focal lengths. A wide lens will accentuate the movement, make the shot more intimate when we get close and will have the added benefit of reducing the amount of pulling focus you’ll have to do.

Anyway, there you have it…

That’s part one of my little study of the maestro, but there’s more to come so stay tuned. What do you think of Spielberg and this technique? Please let me know if this kind of content is of use; in the comments below, on facebook or twitter. It’s always wonderful to hear from you guys.

Incidentally if you’re interested, below is an incredible short documentary about “The Spielberg Face” that I found and posted to Twitter a while back. It studies “The Spielberg Face“, why it’s so powerful and reveals how often it’s utilised in Spielberg’s movies. I’d strongly recommend checking it out.

For now, take care, get in touch and thanks for reading!

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If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy:

Lighting for Film & TV:
10 Tips for Making Your Subject Look Good

Lighting for Film & TV Part 2:
3 Point Lighting

3 Simple Tips for Filming Without Lights (Interior)

3 Simple Rules for Filming Without Lights (Exterior)

By the way… I run a course on Lighting & Cinematography, so click the link or get in touch if you’re interested in coming and learning in person!

Hope this helps!

Free Spirit Film & TV
Film, TV & Online Video Production.

5 Responses to “Mimic the Movie Masters: STEVEN SPIELBERG – Part ONE”

  1. chasingphotography February 1, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Thanks for articles like this, love Spielberg, love learning and reading simple and amazing things like this. Fantastic blog, cant wait to for the next article.

    • freespiritfilm February 3, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

      Wow, thanks so much for such a great message – I can’t tell you how much it means to know that people are really enjoying the blog. The next blog on Spielberg is ready to be released (watch this space!).
      Thanks once again,
      Best of luck with all your filmmaking endeavors 🙂

      • newbiedm May 1, 2013 at 3:45 am #

        I’ll argue that to qualify for a Spielberg closeup, it absolutely requires a bit of a push in on a dolly or steady-cam. Some of the examples in the video are a little too still for my tastes. Great article! I recently began watching JP again, and the shot of Alan Grant seeing the brachiosaurus for the first time in the jeep is absolutely one of the textbook Spielberg closeups.

      • freespiritfilm May 6, 2013 at 12:28 am #

        Haha you’re spot on – that little creep in makes all the difference. I just can’t get enough of how he moves the camera to manipulate the audience. Great stuff.

        And that JP moment is an all time classic, what is Allan looking at?! He’s got us at his fingertips… “they do move in herds!”.

        Thanks for the great comment, nice to know people are enjoying the blog 🙂


  1. Mimic the Movie Masters: STEVEN SPIELBERG – Part TWO « Through The Lens Film School - February 8, 2013

    […] back to Part TWO of my study of Mr. Spielberg; if you haven’t read Part ONE, I’d strongly recommend it if you’re interested in his signature “Push […]

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