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.
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.
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