If you watch any of Steven Spielberg’s movies, you’ll notice a distinctive element: the Spielberg Face.
If Spielberg deserves to be called a master of audience manipulation, then this is his signature stroke.
You see the onscreen character watching along with you in wonder, awe, apprehension, fear, sadness. It’s the director’s way of hitting pause, to show the audience this is a critical scene, to reinforce how the audience should be feeling in that moment.
For a recent episode of Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak takes a look at how Steven Spielberg constructed the intense opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. His decision to film the Omaha Beach landing from the perspective of a battlefield cameraman — something he cribbed from actual WWII battle footage and John Ford’s The Battle of Midway, where scenes in which on-set explosions made the film skip were kept in the finished movie — made it one of the best depictions of war ever created. I need to watch this movie again soon.
An incredible detail Puschak notes: the shot-length in that scene was surprisingly long, particularly for a battle scene. In fact, the shot length in that scene was more than double that of the entirety of 300, any Transformers movie, and Inception.
The one thing everyone talks about w/r/t Stranger Things is its references to 70s and 80s sci-fi, adventure, and horror films. As this video by Ulysse Thevenon shows, there’s good reason for that…the references are many and explicit.
The ones I noticed the most were to E.T., The Goonies, and Explorers, which I just watched again recently and doesn’t hold up very well in a lot of ways. I also feel like there might be a bit of D.A.R.Y.L. in there too, but I haven’t seen that movie since I was 12. See also Every Spielberg Reference in Stranger Things.
From the films he made as a teenager on up to the recently released BFG, this is a look at the evolution of the films of Steven Spielberg.
I was 20 when Jurassic Park came out and while I really liked it, I didn’t think much about who directed it at the time. It certainly didn’t remind me much of Raiders of the Lost Ark or ET. I watched it again last night (it’s on Netflix) and it is soooooo obviously Spielberg.
From Duel in 1971 to this year’s The BFG, Steven Spielberg has made 30 feature-length movies. This short video features one iconic scene from each one in chronological order. Interesting to note that Spielberg has used Janusz Kamiński as his director of photography for every film since Schindler’s List, a film that marked a new phase of his career. 1
Some friends were playing a game recently: name your favorite Tom Cruise movie and your least favorite Tom Hanks movie.2 I thought it would be fun to play a similar game with Spielberg standing in for Hanks but I can’t really think of who the other director would be… Who is the directorial equivalent of Tom Cruise? Respected, huge box office, but is more sizzle than substance. Michael Bay? James Cameron? Roland Emmerich? One of these guys?
Schindler’s List also occurs almost exactly halfway between the beginning of his career and the present, both time-wise and in film count.↩
Magnolia and The ‘Burbs, respectively, although I could be talked into A Few Good Men or Eyes Wide Shut for Cruise and The Money Pit for Hanks.↩
Here’s the teaser trailer for the Spielberg-directed adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. Hmm. (via the slick new trailer town)
Update: The full trailer has dropped.
I was about to say something about how Spielberg rarely directs animated films but BFG isn’t actually animated. Or is it? CG has gotten so good and blockbusters so reliant on special effects that it’s hard to tell what’s real. I mean, superhero movies are so laden with special effects that they might as well be considered animated. They’re all basically Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but done so seamlessly that you can’t tell Toontown from the real world.
So I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot — whether short or long — held for that exact length of time and placed in that order? Sounds like fun, right? It actually is. To me. Oh, and I’ve removed all sound and color from the film, apart from a score designed to aid you in your quest to just study the visual staging aspect. Wait, WHAT? HOW COULD YOU DO THIS? Well, I’m not saying I’m like, ALLOWED to do this, I’m just saying this is what I do when I try to learn about staging, and this filmmaker forgot more about staging by the time he made his first feature than I know to this day (for example, no matter how fast the cuts come, you always know exactly where you are — that’s high level visual math shit).
Renowned film director Steven Spielberg will direct the new adaptation with Melissa Mathison, who last worked with Spielberg on ET, writing the script. Frank Marshall will produce the film and Michael Siegel and John Madden are on board as executive producers.
I can’t find any direct evidence, but the way the news is being reported, this seems like it’ll be a live-action film and not a Tintin 3-D motion capture affair.
Great short film about how ILM’s groundbreaking visual effects came to be used in Jurassic Park.
When Spielberg originally conceived the movie, he was going to use stop-motion dinosaurs. ILM was tasked with providing motion blur to make them look more realistic. But in their spare time, a few engineers made a fully digital T. Rex skeleton and when the producers saw it, they flipped out and scrapped the stop-motion entirely. Fun story.
Wow. In 1978, George Lucus gathered together Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to go over ideas for a film Lucas had wanted to make about a swashbuckling archeologist, i.e. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Their sessions were recorded and there’s a transcript available online.
Lucas - Now, several aspects that we’ve discussed before: The image of him which is the strongest image is the “Treasure Of Sierra Madre” outfit, which is the khaki pants, he’s got the leather jacket, that sort of felt hat, and the pistol and holster with a World War One sort of flap over it. He’s going into the jungle carrying his gun. The other thing we’ve added to him, which may be fun, is a bull whip. That’s really his trade mark. That’s really what he’s good at. He has a pistol, and he’s probably very good at that, but at the same time he happens to be very good with a bull whip. It’s really more of a hobby than anything else. Maybe he came from Montana, someplace, and he… There are freaks who love bull whips. They just do it all the time. It’s a device that hasn’t been used in a long time.
Spielberg - You can knock somebody’s belt off and the guys pants fall down.
Lucas - You can swing over things, you can…there are so many things you can do with it. I thought he carried it rolled up. It’s like a Samurai sword. He carries it back there and you don’t even notice it. That way it’s not in the way or anything. It’s just there whenever he wants it.
Spielberg - At some point in the movie he must use it to get a girl back who’s walking out of the room. Wrap her up and she twirls as he pulls her back. She spins into his arms. You have to use it for more things than just saving himself.
Lucas - We’ll have to work that part out. In a way it’s important that it be a dangerous weapon. It looks sort of like a snake that’s coiled up behind him, and any time it strikes it’s a real threat.
Kasdan - Except there has to be that moment when he’s alone with a can of beer and he just whips it to him.
Over the intervening decades of enormous wealth and success, both Lucas and Spielberg have carefully tended their public images, so there is a voyeuristic thrill to seeing them converse in so unguarded a manner. As the screenwriters Craig Mazin and John August pointed out recently on the Scriptnotes podcast, one delight of reading the transcript is watching Spielberg throw out bad ideas, and then noting how Lucas gently shuts him down. Spielberg, who had sought to direct a Bond movie-and, astonishingly, been rejected-thought that their hero should be an avid gambler. Lucas replied that perhaps they shouldn’t overload him with attributes. (Lucas himself had briefly entertained, then mercifully set aside, the notion that his archaeologist might also be a practitioner of kung fu.) There’s a good reason we seldom get to spy on these conversations: really good spitballing, like improv comedy, requires a high degree of social disinhibition. So the writers’ room, like a therapist’s office, must remain inviolable.
Mr. Spielberg, who with the sound designer Ben Burtt supervised the conversion of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to Imax, said that no special effects or other visual elements of the film were changed. The audio, he said, had been enhanced for surround sound: “When the boulder is rolling, chasing Indy through the cave, you really feel the boulder in your stomach, the way you do when a marching band passes by, and you’re standing right next to it.”
One of the great charms of the Tin Tin movie (besides its solid story, and uplifting sensibility) is the incredible degree of detail, texture, lighting, and drama that infuses every scene. Because the whole movie is synthetic, every scene can be composed perfectly, lit perfectly, arranged perfectly, and captured perfectly. There is a painterly perfection that the original Tin Tin comics had that this movie captures. This means that the stupendous detail found in say TinTin’s room, or in a back alley, or on the ship’s deck can be highlighted beyond what it could in reality. You SEE EVERYTHING. When TinTin’s motorcycle is chasing the bad guy and begins to fall apart, nothing is obscured. Every realistic mechanical part is illuminated realistically. This technique gives a heightened sense of reality because every corner of the entire scene is heightened realistically, which cannot happen in real life, yet you only see real-looking things. This trick lends the movie a hyperreality. Its artificial world looks realer than real.
The uncanny valley issue has been less noticeable lately, but what really snaps me out of being immersed in movies lately is the Impossible Camera™. In 100% CGI shots, when cameras move quickly with sharp changes in direction over long distances, something that actual cameras can’t do, it snaps me right out of the action because it’s so obviously fake. For instance, any scene in the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies where Spidey is flying through Manhattan. Fay, fay, fake.
Spielberg’s first outing is all about humanity, love, feelings, innocence and all the other softness for which he has since become almost infamous. Whatever tech-lust Spielberg might have, goes on behind the lens, not in front of it. And despite moving on to do some pretty tech-heavy films (Jurassic Park for instance), he almost always keeps the human side of things front and center.