The Five Ways To Know You’re Watching a Spielberg Movie

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Between War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin and the Christmas/New Year’s Jaws marathons on Spike, there’s a decent chance you saw something directed by Steven Spielberg over these past few holiday weekends. And like any director who has worked as long as he has — 26 films over almost 40 years — Spielberg has both stylistic and thematic tics that pop up again and again in his work, regardless of genre (And he has worked across many genres, including war, sci-fi, adventure, historical drama and animated). Perhaps you’ve noticed one of these five, which we’ve compiled in the video above. (Special thanks to video editor Valerie Lapinski.)

1. Daddy issues

Spielberg’s parents divorced when he was 19 years old, an incident that clearly affected the young man. In films from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, fatherhood is something to be feared, avoided and run away from…until it isn’t. An older Spielberg has said that, had he been a father at the time, he would have thought twice about having the main character in Close Encounters abandon his family so quickly.

(MORE: See War Horse on Richard Corliss’ Top 10 Films of 2011)

2. Streams of light

War Horse is the 13th film that Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have worked on together, a partnership that began with 1993’s Schindler’s List. In that time, Spielberg’s films have become increasingly full of interior scenes characterized by their backlit windows, with streams of light that pour in and leave the characters in silhouette. But the director has always relied on intense lighting, from above or outside. In speaking of the shot in Close Encounters that opens this video, of the small boy standing against a doorway blasted out with an alien light, Spielberg has said that it is one of the key images of his career, “That beautiful but awful light, just like fire coming through the doorway. [Barry's] very small, and it’s a very large door, and there’s a lot of promise or danger outside that door.”

3. Awestruck faces

Film writer Matt Patches has dubbed this “The Spielberg Face”, an appellation adopted by a recent Kevin Lee video essay. “If Spielberg deserves to be called the master of audience manipulation, then this is his signature stroke,” says Lee in his piece. From Close Encounters on, Spielberg has relied heavily on shots of faces, agape, looking upward or off screen (sometimes with a dolly in as a cherry on top) to telegraph the wonder or fear that the viewer should hypothetically be experiencing.

4. This shot

A character sees something through a window, windshield or other piece of glass. The camera sits on the opposite side so that we see what they are seeing as well as the expression on their face as they see it, without a need for a cutaway shot. We first noticed it in Jaws and have observed it many times since.

5. The music of John Williams

The most famous film composer of our day, Williams has worked with Spielberg on every one of his films save The Color Purple, which was scored by Quincy Jones. His main themes for the Indiana Jones series, Jurassic Park, E.T., Close Encounters and Jaws (not to mention the Star Wars and Harry Potter films) are some of the most memorable of the post-Hollywood blockbuster era.

Were there any we missed? Please let us know in the comments below or Tweet it to us at @TimeCulture.

Note: Apologies to Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, Amistad, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Sugarland Express and Always, which we were not able to incorporate into this video.

No apologies to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Hook or The Terminal. You are all terrible.

LIST: The All-TIME 100 Movies

60 comments
christopherdrum
christopherdrum

You forgot a big one: extended shots of children eating.

Hook, E.T., Jurassic Park, Close Encounters, A.I,  all come to mind right now.

JoannaLeigh
JoannaLeigh

Sooo true...Schindler's List, The Color Purple....  to list Steven Spielberg's movies is like being let loose in a bank vault. Embarrassment of (cinematic) riches!  AND.... as if that isn't enough, he adds to that creative tapestry the 2nd golden era of WB cartoons with Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain. Characters which are as well known and loved as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Yosemite Sam!  

DNTME
DNTME

#6 ... 95-100% of those shown killed will be males.

johns3765
johns3765

What movie is the spaceship that is shown during the music part in?


danbleed
danbleed

Endings often feature a procession of people.

techceo
techceo

This is Time magazine needlessly breaking (and dumbing) down  a video? The Terminal is one of the best movies of all time.

Love Hook and Indy 4, too.

SherrieSnyder
SherrieSnyder

I love Spielberg films especially "Jaws" it's my absolute favorite,also' Indiana Jones" all of them and my kids love" Jurassic Park"  I even wanted to go there and see those dinosaurs in real life and the awe struck faces were perfect who wouldn't have a face like that see real life huge dinosaurs.and the music is perfect.I love Spielberg film and believe he is one of the greatest film makers.

SethuBaskaran
SethuBaskaran

they missed the shot blood mixing with other substances... eg. blood streaming into beaches- saving private ryan, blood mixing with milk- munich, blood flowing with falls- the lost world, blood observed by the snow -schindler's list....


AlbertoBoschini
AlbertoBoschini

I have the idea the second one (Streams of Light) is present in a some scene in "Schindlers List". Maybe I m wrong, but I have the feeling.


RyanWeiss
RyanWeiss

Steven always has continuous and creative great ideas of how he wants his main characters to solve a really hard problem. The main characters in his movies are very careful about what it is that is being thrust upon them. They are usually very patient, collect a lot of clues and know when the time is right to do what they need to do.

FrankCap
FrankCap

One of Spielberg's signature shots is the gradual raising of the camera above a hill or wall that reveals a significant object. For example, Roy Neary stops his wagon in Wyoming before the barb wire fence. They get out and the camera rises behind them to slowly reveal Devils Tower. It is almost the counter shot to the awestruck face view. It is what is revealed in the distance that produces such awe. He uses it in almost every film.

MichaelMorelock
MichaelMorelock

I'm not sure if it is in every movie, but a lot of his movies have a shooting star. Watch for it. There are several in JAWS. Spielber g is an incredible filmmaker. And atop the list of Directors that I  make it a must to see no matter what the film is about.

StephenSurridge
StephenSurridge

Spielberg gets Hitchcock's rule of cinema - that film is about inciting emotion in an audience. No other director has come close to Spielberg's ability to get the global audience terrified, laughing, crying or cheering. Having John Williams do your music is a great help. Spielberg is amazing.

DanielDiPietro
DanielDiPietro

There are always kids and at least one fat one in the bunch. And BMX bikes.

yourvillainbob
yourvillainbob

A dog or a child must die. Sometimes both. Jaws. Schindler's List. The Lost World. Incidentally, this is also the only time The Lost World can ever be mentioned alongside those other two. 


PJD
PJD

Hook was made for the children of the 90's. Tell a room full of us that it's terrible and prepare for the deafening roar.

SylvieLacour
SylvieLacour

Some people here said Spielberg's movies don't touch people, or that he did some of these movies for the paycheck... Get real, guys ! I'd say that he probably does not need to work anymore, and since maybe the last 20 years, considering the money he made from ET, CE3K, Indiana Jones. Not to mention the fact that his pal George Lucas gave him percentage points on the profits from Star Wars (he traded for some from CE3K, good call, but I'd say Spielberg got the better deal on this one). I think Spielberg does movies for one reason : that's what he is made to do. That's like asking Stephen King why he writes books : because that's what he was made for ! You may not like Spielberg's movies, to each his own… But he has touched billions with his lost little alien, scared about as much with a malfunctioning rubber shark, made us believe dinosaurs roamed the earth again, and gave a voice, so soft and deafening, to 6 millions lost souls… Kubrick may have been a master filmmaker, but I always thought he was a cold-hearted and clinical watcher. His films are often stunningly beautiful, but I'll trade all of his works for "You're gonna need a bigger boat", or "ouch"… It's only my opinion, but I think Spielberg is one of the greatests. His movies have a heart, a beating heart. And I am one of those crazies who simply love his biggest bomb, 1941, but also Always, and Hook. In fact, ironically enough (I'm French), the only film of his I haven't seen is Tintin ! Even when he is bad (The lost world !), he is so much better than everyone else.

YvonnesPlace
YvonnesPlace

Dagnabbit! Now I have to watch all these movies right away, since you so cleverly planted them in my head! Great music, inspiring, adventure, terror, laughter, mystery that is what a Spielberg movie is all about!

AngieRawlings
AngieRawlings

Characters talking to one another in the background while the main dialogue is happening. In other movies, you can see that the background actors are talking, but you can't hear it, but in a Spielberg film, you get to choose which conversation you want to listen to.

MariaEscorcio
MariaEscorcio

Jaws may not be the pinnacle of Spielberg's directing career, but I saw it in the theater when it first came out and I've seen it a thousand times since.  I have it on both VHS and DVD, a soundtrack, movie poster, and even an autographed script.  For as many times as I've seen Jaws, that scene where the shark breaches the surface still makes me jump.  When a film continues to elicit that kind of reaction almost 40 years later...that's cinematic magic.

Kathleen
Kathleen

I was listing my favourite films on Facebook and came to realise most of them were from Spieldberg.  Jaws, Indiana Jones, ET.  These are movies I've watched over and over.   He really does capture that sense of adventure and fun - and the personalities of ordinary, everyday people.  Also he does such a good job of capturing the spirit of the era.   

He's quite fixated with aliens isn't he?  I think he genuinely believes in them. 

BrianJohnPietrusinski
BrianJohnPietrusinski

What about "Sugarland Express" and "1941?"  Apologies to those or no?  Too bad this was written over a year ago because I would have loved to have seen what clips could be included in "Lincoln."

ChrisCard
ChrisCard

Hey!  Say what you want about "The Terminal" because it was boring as heck, but "Hook" was great and "Crystal Skull" was fun, despite some flaws.

RoslerR
RoslerR

Hook was a fun movie...picky picky.

ghramsey1227
ghramsey1227

They left out Roy Scheider's expression upon seeing Jaws broach to the surface. 

coolcalm
coolcalm

Anyone know the movie at 3:02?

AndrewG.Gatto
AndrewG.Gatto

So, that's 5 more than just a shooting star. Good to know. 

JasonJayMurphy
JasonJayMurphy

#6 Gratuitous scenes that depart from the plot making working class people out to be horrible monsters, bigots, and tyrants.

srlefevre65
srlefevre65

"Not Lost In space"?  Stanley Kubrick's films have many a problem.  The third act of 2001 is nearly unwatchable.  Still better than Spielberg, though. 

srlefevre65
srlefevre65

Spielberg, Spielberg, Spielberg...  Why so famous?  Dinosaurs?  Long extinct.  Killer sharks?  No evidence to show that a shark can have the mental capacity to behave how the shark in Jaws did.  Alien??  Don't even get me started.  Bland directing, ridiculous plots, poor performances, and overall stupidity.  And why the hell does Laura Dern present as having no knowledge of chaos theory even though she has a F'ing doctorate.  Like I said, pure stupidity in every aspect of every Spielberg film.     

SimonKendra
SimonKendra

@AngieRawlings oh yes! i noticed this in both Jurassic Park movies and i love it and hate it at the same time ever since! haha


DavidTheisen
DavidTheisen

@BenMoreno I liked Hook! it was a fun movie!!!! I don't understand what the fuss is about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull!! it was a fun action packed movie just like all the other Indiana Jones movies!!! and it was about a real artifact!!! i thought it was neat how they connected the Mayan's beliefs and "God" they look to, with the crystal skull and connecting them with extraterrestrial beings! it made it really believable too! i mean SO what if Indiana's son was a teen, and all that! it STILL was a fun movie! kinda hoping there would be another one!!!

BrianJohnPietrusinski
BrianJohnPietrusinski

Whoops, almost forgot "Always" as well.  Guess that can be put on the "No Apologies" list.

De'AndreWallace
De'AndreWallace

@srlefevre65 Dinosaurs may be long extinct but that doesn't take away the mystery of them or take away the potential to make a great movie about them. Shark are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet and there are still a lot of things that we don't know about the behavioral patterns of Great Whites. E.T. is a film meant for kids and even for adults it was and still is a great film. Look at the seen from Jurassic Park when the T-rex is breaking out or when the raptors are in the kitchen with the kids and tell me those aren't scenes with great direction. Most if not all of the plots in his movies are simple and easy to follow. Daniel Day Lewis was nominated for an Oscar in Lincoln. Characters in his movies are actually very smart. Laura Dern was a paleo-botanist in that movie, why the hell would she know anything about Chaos Theory when she studies extinct plants? I think you're the only stupid person here and you need to get your head out of your ass. 

MichaelMorelock
MichaelMorelock

@srlefevre65  Name one shark movie that was as popular as Jaws. You can't. His Direction is what saved Jaws. These are fictional movies, not real life. Schindler's List is one of the best movies made in last 50 years.I would like for you to point out to me the stupidity in that film making. He also created the summer blockbuster. Most directors owe him for paving the way for them. I would love who you would think is a better Director than Spielberg.  It is stupid for someone to belittle a legend, because of ignorance or jealousy. 


dwtime
dwtime

srlefevre65 wants us to watch tiny sharks chasing minnows for 90 min, what a great idea!  Wait how about an island full of monkeys, turtles and little birdies, sounds like a classic!  You would make a 'fantastic' director.

TishTash
TishTash

@srlefevre65 Why so much hate? Spielberg's no Ingmar Bergman, but he ain't chopped liver. Enough people out there like his films enough that he ends up making more. As prolific as he is, he's bound to have a few stinkers ("Hook" anyone?) but why the hate on "Jurassic Park," "Jaws," and "E.T."? Do you harbor that much animosity toward "Saving Private Ryan," "Munich," or "Schindler's List"? (Although, I have to admit, the last scene of that film lost me.)

Spielberg's directing skills may be debatable, but they're not exactly bland, as evidenced by the clip. The plots are ridiculous because they're fantastic, as in fantasy. Aliens don't exist (to our knowledge), dinosaurs died out that's true, and killer sharks may be an exaggeration (although I wouldn't tell that to Bethany Hamilton). But you seem to have lost the ability to suspend disbelief that most film fans willingly succumb to. It's not a sin to escape in a subreality that entertains. Your attitude smacks of "Get off my lawn"-ness; I hope your kids don't cry too much after you gleefully break the news re Santa when they reach three.

ghramsey1227
ghramsey1227

@srlefevre65 Spielberg didn't have anything to do with "Alien" or Alien's franchise ever.  

"Aliens" was written and directed by James Cameron.  

To my knowledge they have not worked together either which is a pity since it would be magic.

BlindTruths
BlindTruths

@srlefevre65 You do realize Sharks are some of the most intelligent animals on earth, right? "no evidence to show they have the mental capacity" my untanned Indian backside. How about you do some research before you speak out of that thing you sit on. Alien? Is one of the single most iconic Science Fiction films ever, ask any number of current day Sci-Fi directors what gave them inspiration, $10 Alien will be in their top 5 if not top 3. You sir, are a moron.

srlefevre65
srlefevre65

By "Alien", I wasn't references the film of the same name. I was referencing "ET". "Alien" is one of the greatest sci-fi films ever. Also, you should head out the the beach this summer and tan that "Indian backside". Or are you too busy jabbering about the intelligence of sharks. I'd like to see you post a link to an article showing that a shark would have that level of aggression toward a specific group. Because as far as I know, there has never been a case where a shark has tracked a group of fisherman across miles and miles, hell-bent on murdering and eating the lot of them.