5 Trademarks of Steven Spielberg Movies
Steven Spielberg isn't your run-of-the-mill movie director. He's a visionary and trailblazer who goes beyond the usual confines of his role, branching into virtually every genre from Action-Adventure to Horror. But what is it about Steven Spielberg that stands apart from his peers? What are some of the trademarks of Steven Spielberg movies that have come to represent his unique style?
Here we explore five of his cinematic trademarks and common themes found in his blockbuster resume.
Sense of Spielberg Wonder Through Transitions to Wide Shots
Because Spielberg’s filmography spans more than fifty years of directing movies in multiple genres and subgenres, we sometimes have to differentiate his common themes and trademarks from decade to decade as he evolved as a cinematic storyteller. However, there’s at least one common theme and trademark of his work found in all of his movies — moments that showcase a sense of wonder and catharsis through cinematography.
Visually, all Spielberg movies utilize visual camera placement and movement to create an added sense of wonder. Spielberg's most wonder-filled work came early in his career with films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Wonder could be achieved through intimate moments between characters, yes.
But true wonder in Spielberg films encompasses his transition from intimate or close shots to extreme wide shots that showcase the context of the story’s world.
In Jaws, the quest to kill the shark begins through a wide shot that transitions from the camera moving through a shark bone jawline as we watch the Orca head out to see. It gives us this sense of wonder as the characters embark on their journey.
In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg offers multiple wide shots in his film that encapsulate the wonder the characters are experiencing. We see their reactions (more on that below), but it’s not until Spielberg transitions to a wide shot that we experience the sense of intended wonder of the moment.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the wide-shot perspectives create wonder in the audience as we see the scope of the story ever-present.
In E.T., we feel the wonder and awe of our own world through E.T.’s as he first lays eyes on the expansive valley of suburbs. We wonder who within that valley E.T. will turn to for help.
In Jurassic Park, it’s not enough to just see the first dinosaur in the park. The wide shot of Grant’s first sighting is impactful for sure. But it’s not until we experience the true welcoming to Jurassic Park that leaves that sense of cathartic awe.
As he grew as a director, he tackled more serious subjects not involving fantasy, adventure, and outright wonder. Yet he still managed to create wonderment by using wide-shot transitions.
So when you watch Spielberg’s movies, pay attention to these wide-shot transitions and how they create a sense of wonder, even if during some of his movies that wonder is horrifying (Schindler’s List).
In Spielberg's movies, he's got this other way of kicking things off — he plays with fractions. Not the math kind, though. These are tiny glimpses and snippets of things that make you ponder their meaning and compel you to continue watching. It could be a specific piece of clothing, a cool weapon, or just some random visual elements we don’t understand yet but will. He throws them at us in bits and pieces, making us scratch our heads and wonder how the heck these things fit into the character or the story that's about to unfold.
At the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as the opening credits roll, we catch these quick glimpses of this mysterious figure.
- We don’t see his face.
- He’s checking a map.
- He’s examining poisoned darts.
- His companions hang on his every step.
It’s not until something threatens him that we see his face.
In the opening of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, we catch glimpses of something or someone in the woods. We see brief visuals of an alien ship. And we see silhouettes of individuals searching for that something or someone — particularly a man wearing a set of keys. All of these fractions engage our interest and are later answered as the story goes on.
In the opening of Schindler’s List, we see fractions of Schindler.
- And finally, his Nazi pin.
We also notice the reactions of people as he walks through the room. He’s a man of power and respect.
We also get this experience of Spielberg fractioning during kinetic suspense scenes as well. Look back to the moment when we first saw the T-Rex. The introduction started with fractions of visuals leading to the big reveal.
Even the opening of the film played with our imaginations and wonder by way of fractions.
And when we go back to Spielberg’s first blockbuster hit, Jaws, we see the results of Spielberg fractions. Now, we also know that this wasn’t initially Spielberg’s intended choice. Because of production issues with the shark, Spielberg was forced to show us less and less of the shark throughout the film. But this fractioning actually added to the tension and suspense.
Read More: Screenwriting Wisdom from Steven Spielberg
Spielberg Family Dynamics
Once you watch Spielberg’s autobiographical film, The Fabelmans (Spielberg was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay), you’ll understand why his films often presented the dynamics of family. It’s the most common (and probably the most easily recognized) theme within most Steven Spielberg films — especially the early ones.
Spielberg came from a broken home. He dealt with divorce. He had issues with his father while also holding him high. He loved his mother very much. Everything we see in The Fabelmans is represented in most of his movies.
In Jaws, Chief Brody takes a moment to connect with his son amidst the chaos and stress of trying to keep his town safe from a man-eating shark.
In Close Encounters, Spielberg reveals the strain between Roy and his family after he has a close encounter with the UFO.
In E.T., we get to see Elliot's dysfunctional family — two brothers who don't get along, a single mother who is barely hanging on, and a kid sister who's just along for the ride.
The great thing about his use of family dynamics is that it allows the audience to further empathize with his characters, especially when the broken family elements are in plain sight (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, War of the Worlds, The Fabelmans). The audience can relate to those dynamics because they represent a majority of families in one way, shape, or form.
Often considered a Spielberg crutch in some circles, Spielberg faces refers to the director’s use of cutting to the close-up reactions of characters and their faces to showcase an intended emotion. In many of his films, it’s used as a way to showcase, you guessed it, wonder. Some see this as a cheat for Spielberg to get audiences to feel a certain way. It’s often misrepresented as manipulation on his part. But what such critics don’t understand is that all of cinema utilizes visuals (and sounds… more on that below) to conjure an intended reaction in the audience. He’s just mastered that cinematic tool.
These close-ups of his character’s faces convey:
He further accompanies these close-ups with the effective use of the dolly shot — camera movement that enhances the reaction shots of his characters, delivering the intended emotion full-force with dramatic and cinematic flare.
Whether you love them or find them cliche, it’s a Spielberg go-to — an effective one.
John Williams Music in Spielberg Movies
Steven Spielberg and John Williams share one of the most iconic and enduring collaborations in the history of cinema. Their partnership spans over fifty years, playing a pivotal role in shaping the emotional landscape of Spielberg's films. Their first collaboration occurred in 1974 for the film Sugarland Express. Williams has scored the music for the majority of Spielberg's films, creating unforgettable and instantly recognizable soundtracks. Their collaboration is marked by a seamless integration of music and storytelling, with Williams' compositions enhancing the emotional depth and impact of Spielberg's visuals.
- The iconic two-note theme from Jaws
- The soaring melodies of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
- The triumphant march of Raiders of the Lost Ark (and its sequels)
- The haunting score of Schindler's List
These are just a few examples of the magical synergy between Spielberg's directorial vision and Williams' musical genius. And Williams, now likely retired, closed off their collaboration with The Fabelmans.
Williams has a talent for being able to capture the essence of Spielberg's storytelling and elevate it to new heights. The music for each of his Spielberg movie scores — iconic or not — becomes an integral part of the narrative, enhancing the audience's emotional connection to the characters and the story. Once again, some find the music overly manipulative — but, again, that’s the point.
Spielberg has often credited Williams with bringing his films to life through music, and Williams, in turn, has spoken highly of Spielberg's unique storytelling abilities. Their work together has not only left an indelible mark on the films they've created but has also enriched the cinematic experience for audiences around the world.
These are just five of the director’s trademarks. Keep an eye out for them as you watch his films. And as you do, which other common Spielberg trademarks have you noticed?
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies and Instagram @KenMovies76