Steven Spielberg's Style

by Nathaniel Williams
Steven Spielberg is one of America's most iconic directors.

Steven Spielberg is one of America's most iconic directors.

John Shearer/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Steven Spielberg is one of the most popular and influential film directors in history. His films include "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Jurassic Park," "Schindler's List" and "War of the Worlds." His style at the outset of his career was distinctive and has continued to evolve as he has moved from brash newcomer to elder statesman.

Early Career

Steven Spielberg impressed film-goers, as well as the industry, from the very outset of his career. In early films like "Duel," "Sugarland Express" and "Jaws," Spielberg demonstrated a remarkable talent for using classic film style in thrilling new ways. Unlike many of his more experimental peers, Spielberg opted for a fairly traditional selection of lenses, shot selection and screen direction. But like a maestro with an old instrument, he found new ways to make these classic techniques sing. His virtuoso but organic camera moves, and "invisible" but breathtaking editing made these early films among his most exciting.

Golden Era

After the success of "Jaws," Spielberg found a great deal of creative freedom and became drawn to much more ambitious projects. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was a very unconventional blockbuster, but Spielberg's elegant touch and brilliant pacing made the film entertaining despite its lack of typical stars or thrills. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was a very nostalgic, backward-looking action film, emulating the style of 1930s serials with its breakneck style. Finally, his inspired stylistic choices on "E.T.," shooting with lower, child-height angles, made the film a stunning success that broke box-office records.

Newfound Maturity

After a decade of films that appealed to children (and the children within adults), Spielberg tackled adult fair with mixed success. His adaptation of "The Color Purple" left some cold, feeling overly cautious and studied in this unfamiliar cultural territory. "Empire of the Sun" was a self-consciously beautiful film, mixing a wide range of lenses and visual approaches. "Schindler's List" was perhaps his most highly regarded film, using a black-and-white palette and a very restrained stylistic approach to great effect.

Return to Experimentation

After winning an Oscar and the almost-universal respect of his peers for "Schindler's List," a Holocaust drama, Spielberg seemed liberated by the weight lifted off his shoulders. In the following years he would make "Saving Private Ryan," using a wide range of visual approaches to create a highly memorable and influential depiction of the Norman invasion, "A.I.," which melded Stanley Kubrick's clinical visual sensibility with Spielberg's warmer touch, and the wildly experimental "Minority Report," which married classic film noir tropes with mid-60s Italian flair. Not all of Spielberg's recent movies are successes, but he approaches a wide range of subjects and styles with unmatched confidence.


With almost 30 feature films to his credit, Steven Spielberg cannot be easily categorized. However, he routinely favors wider lenses, dialogue playing in two-shots or master shots and frequent, motivated camera movement -- Spielberg is a master of elaborately moving the camera within a scene without the audience perceiving it. He often prefers high-contrast lighting, sometimes with heavy back light or harsh sidelight on characters. His affection for hard lighting is rare among his film-making generation. He stands in contrast to younger filmmakers in his adherence to narratively coherent montage, rarely indulging in sequences that are purely stylistic or associative. Thematically, he is not afraid of difficult subjects but frequently opts for a sentimental treatment.


  • "Steven Spielberg Interviews"; ed. Lester Friedman and Brent Notbohm; 2000
  • "Oxford History of World Cinema"; Geoffrey Nowell-Smith; 1999
  • "Jaws"; Universal Pictures; 1975
  • "Raiders of the Lost Ark;" Paramount Pictures; 1981
  • "Schindler's List"; Universal Pictures; 1993

Photo Credits

  • John Shearer/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images