There are many impressive visual stylists in cinema, yet few have the compositional and staging grace that Steven Spielberg has been perfecting for over forty years of his career. It’s hard to call a Spielberg film ‘bland’ given that, whether they succeed or fail on the whole, the visual nature of his films is always embedded with fantastic images, complex blocking, and economic storytelling. Spielberg has been noted as one of the great practitioners of the classic Hollywood style: one that makes use of covering ground in a one-shot, often veering through three to several compositions, in order to cover the scene in a precise way that avoids overt showboating. Of course, that is not the only visual metric through which Spielberg attains visual elegance: he is also a sophisticated editor and his shot compositions are often uniquely framed, making noteable use of numerous types of framing devices and, in many cases, reflections.
Many directors grow into their style, becoming more assured artists as they develop through their career. Spielberg, interestingly, began as an intriguing visual artist: even his first proper ‘short film’ Amblin’ which resulted in him receiving the opportunity to direct episodic television, shows some of those flourishes of visual grace. For example, one shot shows a character running towards a car, the camera pulling back to show the initial image was a reflection in the car mirror. Furthermore, his first major feature — and often argued the ‘first’ blockbuster film — Jaws shows remarkably canny uses of the frame. It’s hard to imagine a twenty-six year old director having made a film this masterfully handled, especially one plagued, infamously, with numerous production issues.
One of the interesting aspects of Jaws is that Spielberg uses multiple planes of action in some of his staging. For example, in the shot of Chief Brody’s office, a tracking shot introduces the viewer to the workspace. In the initial foreground we see the young man, witness of sorts to Chrissie’s death, drinking a cup of water, looking shocked. Behind him sits the deputy office as the old receptionist enters the room. The camera then follows her along into Brody’s office, framing them through the doorway briefly , where he sits typing up the report. As the camera enters the room, the shot splits between two halves, Brody typing away as his receptionist answers the phone. This is an example of the narratively focused way Spielberg uses his camera; the scene encapsulates three types of coverage into one continuing shot. It would be easy for many directors to handle the beginning of the scene in a series of individual shots, even adding an insert shot of the phone as it rings.
Another example of Spielberg’s use of multi-plane storytelling is in the scene where Brody receives a call about the beach incident initially. In the foreground of the shot, Brody is on the phone, behind him his wife is tending to their oldest son who has injured himself. The scene allows for a small piece of domestic hubbub, giving the environment a sense of life, of everyday reality. Fast-forwarding through time, another example of this multi-narrative strand within the same shot can be found in Saving Private Ryan where, for example, we see in this shot, the frame divided into three sections. In the foreground we have two soldiers checking spilled over fruit for something ripe, in the middle in the tower where a sniper is positioned, shooting runners as they try to pass through, and in the third section, a larger crowd of soldiers discussing plans.
This approach is highly effective at creating an immersive world within the frame; the film feels alive. The multiple mini-stories inside the shot give the eye a lot of information to process, making the scene feel more real; it comes across as a genuine even unfolding before us. In the Private Ryan shot, there is also the heavy rainfall, adding another visual layer to the scene, as well as giving it a harsh tonality.
Much is made of complex and long camera moves. It’s the most noticeable kind of shot we have in the cinematic language. Yet, perhaps what highlights the elegance of Spielberg’s approach, is how he handles basic conversation scenes. Even in these moments, moments where it is easy for director’s to rely on standard scene coverage, Spielberg finds unique and powerful ways to depict them. In this conversation scene in Lincoln, for example, there are still attractive compositions and deliberate use of camera movement. One shot in particular begins with all three remaining men framed in the shot, one on either side of one’s shoulders. The camera begins to push-in — slowly, deliberately — as Lincoln muses to his political opponent. The shot develops from a three-person shot into a two-person shot and, eventually, into a close-up of the protagonist himself.
Continuing this theme of simplicity, there is also a strong ability to utilise the multi-compositional one shot without moving the camera at all within Spielberg’s filmography. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a shot of Roy, having erected a model of the climactic mountain in his living room, establishes several strands of story in a single static image. He moves across the Room, beginning in one corner of the frame, the model-mountain central, a television on the right. A similar shot occurs in Jaws, as the Mayor, Brody and Hooper argue over how to resolve the shark situation. The argument consists primarily of a single unbroken shot that tracks the argument through its various stages. Initially, all three men begin on equal footing, as they move along, they come into the view of a graffitied sign — a swimmer with a giant shark fin behind her and an “Aaaah shark!” speech bubble drawn in. Hooper becomes increasingly smaller in the frame, eventually backing away in frustration, as the Mayor’s stubbornness continues to divert the conversation away from reason.
In terms of both visual intrigue (and metaphorical implications) Spielberg shows a strong preference towards reflection shots and mirror shots. Frequently he will elevate an image by panning or racking focus to a reflection of the character. He incorporates these visual elements into the storytelling itself- such as the images of the crowd looking up at the alien tripod in War of the Worlds: the frames contain both the alien danger, as it prepares to attack, and the human fear and bewilderment. Another example can be found in Munich, a film that makes consistent use of mirrors and reflections in its visual storytelling. Often during assassination scenes the camera will focus on characters eyes in reverse mirrors as they scout the scene.
It is hard to find another director who has such a command of scene staging and blocking as Spielberg. His utilisation of this classic form of Hollywood film-making makes him one of the most dynamic directors working, he finds visual beauty and intrigue in scenes that other directors might fall on the conventional for. He expresses the dramaturgy of the scene through character placement, camera composition and movement. Even in a cinematic landscape, such as modern Hollywood, where the hypercut style has become increasingly more common Spielberg has remained loyal to the more dynamic movement of actor and camera.
Interestingly, despite having developed a very identifiable approach to film-making, Spielberg himself has said that he aims to make each project feel as though it had a different director. It’s a curious ambition, especially given how Spielberg’s films have such distinctive trademarks. Despite changing genres, stylistically Spielberg retains very distinguished visual trademarks that establish he is working behind the camera; whether the allegorical chaos of War of the Worlds, the red-blooded adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark or the subdued drama of Lincoln, all these films both distinguish themselves as unique visually and tonally, but also connected by a shared use of visual language.
Framing is another of Spielberg’s strengths. In a Spielberg shot, he finds numerous fascinating ways to photographically elevate the images. Spielberg uses all shapes to frame: squares, triangles, circles. He uses all kinds of foreground interest to frame shots — be it doorway frames, glass windows, or even fossilised shark jaws. These framing choices often direct the eye to important elements in the frame, offer a more layered shot, and add a painterly quality to the framing of images. Of course, in shots where he employs greater camera movement, Spielberg will often find several framing devices — even other cast member’s bodies — to continue the elegance of the composition. Precise framing is one of Spielberg’s greatest strengths; he may be the greatest current scene ‘blocker’ in cinema.
Much more can be said about the formalist power in Spielberg’s framing; his utilisation of cinematic techniques is of the highest quality and skill. His work, whether it comes together into a strong whole or not, is usually presented in remarkable fashion. His use of Janus Kaminski’s striking highlight lighting has become another staple of his work since they first worked together on Schindler’s List. In the shot above, we can see a marriage between the composition and lighting; the framing of Schindler between the curtains, his body emphasized further by the white light striking out against the darker aesthetic of the room, making Schindler a more powerful silhouette in the frame.
Spielberg is an immensely visual director, and this article has only really touched upon the ways in which he communicates the story within the frame. A great deal more can be written beyond this relatively broad view. Any Spielberg film — from any part of his career — boasts a particularly fascinating and sublime visual treatment, whatever one’s preferences. Spielberg is both a meticulous film-maker, but not necessarily a stylistically driven one. His ‘oners’ though highly accomplished are often subdued enough to be almost invisible, whereas most contemporary film-makers intend for them to be noticeable. They call attention to themselves, asking the audience to awe and applaud. For Spielberg, the technique is ever in service of the scene. He has a few flashy moments, but they are significantly rarer in his filmography.
‘Cinema is a matter of what’s in and out the frame’ a roughly remembered adage by Martin Scorsese often goes. Frame is king. Ideally, the frame is where the director fashions the story, using it to explore the scene in question. Spielberg, I think, is the contemporary King of this in Western cinema. His use of the frame is inspired, meticulous, driven and often beautiful. For Spielberg, visual poetry is achieved through the lens in both simple and complex uses of the cinematic frame. Regardless of his controversial reputation, and whether one ultimately likes his films as a whole, in regards to his visual abilities, he is one of the finest.
And that, ultimately, is why we should look to him when we wish to learn how to use the frame.