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Steven Spielberg - Master Visual Storyteller (A Series of Breakdowns)

post #1 of 70
Thread Starter 

Steven Spielberg is my favorite director, by far.  He and Lucas are the sole reasons I'm even attempting the hellish gig of making movies.  E.T. was the first movie I have a memory of, in the cinema.  Return of the Jedi the second, thankfully at the cinema as well.


Spielberg's portrayal of ordinary people in fantastical situations is a staple of the man's work, but IMO what he does best, and what is worth highlighting, is the construction of individual scenes in such a manner where they leave an indelible mark on the mind of the viewer.  And make the scene compelling to watch unfold.  A scene's job in every movie is to advance not only the narrative, but develop the characters, and hammer home the theme. 


The frame and what's inside it is the director's tool for telling the story.  Spielberg once recommended people watch movies with the sound off, and if they can still understand what's going on, the director is doing a good job.  But too many filmmakers fail to either understand this, or just aren't good enough to utilize it.  Plenty of directors are able to do enough to tell a good story without necessarily practicing silent filmmaking.  But there is another level of visual storytelling that only the masters are able to use to elevate the material into something greater.


So what is this special method of visual storytelling?  Well, it's using the frame to its maximum potential by framing the actors in certain ways to convey various ideas that build on different concepts merely suggested in the script.  Character behavior is suggested by body language and movement rather than dialogue.  The vast majority of communication is done using body language, usually unconsciously.  Spielberg takes this unconscious human trait and uses it to tell his story scene by scene, shot by shot, moment by moment.  He is a master at this, possibly the greatest to ever utilize it.  


He also applies this to action sequences and its why his action scenes are so memorable.  But going back to character, I'd like to present my first case study using two important scenes from Jaws, the film that launched him.  I posted this breakdown a long time ago in another thread, but it felt appropriate to use as a jumping off point for this series.





Jaws' terrifying nature is established in the very first five minutes. The mechanical shark rarely worked, forcing Spielberg to construct the film without showing it very much. This was a blessing in disguise, as it gave the shark an almost supernatural presence over the film, amplifying it's effectiveness. Let's go over the first sequence...




The opening titles are superimposed over an underwater traveling shot, presumably from the shark's point of view (POV). POV shots are something Hitchcock used very effectively in his work to heighten suspense and audience participation in horrific events. Jaws is almost a full on homage to Hitchcock, with Spielberg using his own virtuoso methods of scene construction to elevate Hitchcock's methods. And John Williams' amazingly simple, almost primal music cue, gives whatever is swimming along a formidable presence.





The next shot is a long lateral tracking shot across the faces and bodies of a group of young people partying on the beach. Young people and their promiscuous ways have long been a staple of horror movies, and Spielberg gives that familiar horror trope its due in the opening moments.






As the camera continues tracking along, we even come to an obvious bit "making out", which is often a precursor to a violent murder in horror movies. The audience knows its a horror movie, so this subtle bit of foreshadowing is effective. It also creates a direct correlation to the next bit...







The camera comes to a rest on a young man, all by himself, separated from the group...longingly staring at something in the distance...






The camera cuts to this girl, staring back at him. The mutual attraction is obvious. The smoke from the bonfire slightly obscures her, giving her an almost dream-like presence (dream girl).  Spielberg has broken the long oner tracking shot with a cut, in order to convey the separation of the two young people.







And the smoke from the young man's cigarette is a subtle technique in connecting them visually using smoke.  Little touches like the smoke are something most filmmakers might miss.  But Spielberg takes advantage of it.  










Spielberg picks the two young people up in another lateral tracking shot as the girl runs to the beach, the boy trying his best to keep up.  Spielberg uses the same lateral tracking shot as a visual cue that something is about to go wrong.  Notice how in the previous tracking shot, the images are warm, with the faces of the young people glowing from the bonfire, suggesting safety and security.  But in this shot, the kids are dark, almost sillhouetted against a brooding grey background.  It is a subtle bit of foreshadowing that trouble is amiss.  The second tracking shot visually ties the two scenes together so that their differences become more obvious.  Only masters understand these concepts and utilize them.





After a cut, she jumps into the water. And since we've already seen the "presence" moving through the water over the opening credits, we know something terrible is about to go down.







Once again we come to the POV shot employed earlier, this time staring up at the nude girl silhouetted against the pale moon, highlighting her beauty and physique. Still, we have not seen the shark. Whatever is looking at this girl could be anything from a shark to a malevolent ghost to anyone who may not realize what this movie is about.







Suddenly the girl is violently yanked.






And then thrashed back and forth across the water as she screams in terror and agony.






The young man falls and lies on the beach drunk, blissfully unaware of the crisis going on.







This shot is interesting because Spielberg frames the girl starting near the buoy and has her dragged toward the camera and pulled under just before she reaches us... as if we the audience could grab hold of her if she gets close enough to us, but its useless. And still, anything could be causing this. By keeping the shark hidden, the human imagination, which is more powerful than anything you can show, is free to imagine all sorts of horrible things.  Spielberg also employs more rapid cutting in this sequence, to convey the violent, sudden and chaotic nature of what's happening.






Once she is dragged under and it's quiet again, the peaceful, beautiful backdrop and the man lying on the beach, having forgotten all about her, are a powerful counterpoint to the horror that just occurred. It's like the girl never even existed.







And the very next shot is of our main character, Chief Martin Brody, waking up into frame superimposed over the vast ocean in which this horror just happened. It's a direct visual cue of his character's impending journey into fear.







Spielberg blocks the actors to the camera and the camera to the actors.  He uses both as tools to communicate a scene's intention in a playful fashion.  Often utilizing various frame sizes in one continuous take, rather than the normal method of breaking shots up with cuts.  This seamless kind of mise en scene enhances audience participation based on a simple concept.  When we interact with people, we do so seamlessly.  Real life doesn't use cuts.  So by doing long continuous takes with various movement and framing, Spielberg is allowing the audience to get sucked more into what's going on.  Let's examine what is probably of the best examples of this technique in the entire movie.





During the scene where Brody and Hooper are trying to convince the mayor to close the beaches because of the shark attacks, Spielberg utilizes the one continuous take, or "oner".  He edits this entire scene "in camera", on the set. This is a high wire act of filmmaking because you cannot change or fix anything in post production with editing...what you've shot is what you end up with, for better or worse, therefore very few filmmakers have the skill or courage to attempt this.  The shot starts on the three men walking toward the camera from a LONG SHOT(1)....






...and stopping in a MEDIUM THREE SHOT(2), with the mayor placed in between the two men, implying the squeeze he's feeling as the mayor over the recent events...






The two men desperately try to explain how dangerous the shark is. As Hooper starts to explain how big the tooth is he pulled from the boat, he steps camera right of the mayor and alongside Brody, being placed in an OVER THE SHOULDER SHOT(3) with the mayor and Brody off to the side... 






As the mayor asks for the tooth as evidence of the encounter and starts talking about profits, a frustrated Brody steps away into a LONG SHOT(4), while Hooper keeps at the Mayor in a TWO SHOT(5)...  Spielberg utilizes two shots in one in order to convey two different ideas simultaneously.  Brody's tendency to run from the problem, and Hooper's tendency to be assertive.






Brody comes back, circling the Mayor, much like a shark wanting to devour prey...Brody wanting to possibly bite some sense into the man?







Brody's return has given us another MEDIUM THREE SHOT(6). Then the mayor starts to move away from the men, who follow him, and the camera laterally tracks with them...the mayor's movement suggesting he is getting fed up and wanting to escape their pestering.... 






Again, Brody gets fed up and starts to step away...





He steps away out of frame leaving Hooper and Mayor Vaugh in a another TWO SHOT(7), visually implying Brody has given up. Visually, we now have two instances where Brody runs away from his problems, continuing to establish his character as a reluctant hero, while Hooper has never left The Mayor's side, continuing to establish him as a bulldog who won't let go... this dynamic between Brody and Hooper will be reversed at the end of the movie, when Brody cannot escape and has to face his greatest fear, the ocean and the shark, while Hooper is forced out of the action...






Now Hooper and Vaughn remain in the tracking two shot, and as Hooper pleads with the mayor about the shark--






the billboard advertising Amity island beach is revealed in the background, with a graffiti'd shark fin stalking a pretty girl. This is a brilliant visual representation of the very plot point the men are drumming into the mayor and gives the shark an all encompassing presence over the movie, even when we are not near the water...






The camera stops as it reaches Brody, forcibly placing him back into the frame, as if saying "you can't get away, you have to deal with this, you're responsible for these people". But more interestingly, Brody is also superimposed against the billboard, against the water and against the shark... foreshadowing his inevitable confrontation with the creature later, and reinforcing his fear of water, the camera picking him back up and placing him smack dab in the middle of his fears in what is again a MEDIUM THREE SHOT(8), as the mayor points out the vandalism. Not only that, but Brody is very cleverly placed directly on the word "welcome" in the phrase "Amity welcomes you", suggesting he is being welcomed into the ocean to face his fear...






For the first time, Hooper, now fed up steps away from the men and into the background (but more importantly doesn't leave the frame), and Brody goes after him to convince not to give up, showing Brody as a valiant man who is a moral rock, setting them in a TWO SHOT(9)... as the mayor steps closer to frame, the camera tilting up and placing him in a low angle SINGLE MEDIUM SHOT(10), literally and metaphorically making him bigger than the other men trapped now in the lower end of the frame...this distance between the two men and the mayor creates tension in the frame and gives the mayor visual power in this situation. Also the mayor has now turned away from the billboard, implying he is turning his back on his town's real problem...he doesn't care about the shark, or the girl its about to devour, and in effect, the entire town of Amity....while Brody and Hooper have gotten closer to the billboard, suggesting they do care and are more on the side of the people. Visually this is a perfect representation of what's going on.  


And there still hasn't been a single cut... for any filmmaker to maintain this level of visual sophistication for this length of time is extremely difficult, and amazingly there is still more...





Brody and Hooper approach the mayor again, all the men being placed together in a LOW ANGLE THREE SHOT(11). Also notice how the mayor is separately placed over the sky, while Hooper and Brody are placed against the billboard, that visual metaphor still in play.... 







Hooper explains the shark being an eating machine, but now the mayor thinks he just wants to be in national geographic, so walks out of frame--






...breaking the tension and visually implying the matter is finished with him...leaving Brody and Hooper in a TWO SHOT(12)







Brody goes after the mayor, leaving the frame and Hooper by himself...






11101876_492775944208276_1538293054553407453_o.jpg?oh=eddf40444ce58f1565cb780c8a21579e&oe=5A60C50C he steps back to the billboard all alone in a SINGLE LONG SHOT(13), visually implying he's the only one committed to stopping this problem because the mayor doesn't want to do it, and Brody is afraid of water. So in roughly 3 and a half minutes, Spielberg has created 13 camera setups in a single long take without cutting. It is a master class in building tension, developing character, thematics and advancing the narrative in a visually inventive fashion.  And this is just one sequence in JAWS... there are many other examples.


Spielberg cannot really be touched when it comes to using the visual nature of the medium to its maximum potential.


In the coming weeks I will present more examples from his filmography.  

post #2 of 70
Yay! I love Ambler's mise en scene analyses.
post #3 of 70
I dig what you are saying and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.
post #4 of 70
Originally Posted by Ambler View Post

Spielberg cannot really be touched when it comes to using the visual nature of the medium to its maximum potential.

Literally awesome.

I might be wrong but I thought Kurosawa was pretty good at it too.
post #5 of 70
Fantastic analysis! Sign me up for more as well!
post #6 of 70

Great stuff Ambler. Looking forward to more. I love Spielberg's oners exactly because they're all about story and don't call attention to themselves. Unlike so many filmmakers who set out to impress you (distract you) with their impossible shots, I never watch a Spielberg movie and go "hey, have you noticed that he hasn't cut yet??"

post #7 of 70
Originally Posted by Evi View Post

Great stuff Ambler. Looking forward to more. I love Spielberg's oners exactly because they're all about story and don't call attention to themselves. Unlike so many filmmakers who set out to impress you (distract you) with their impossible shots, I never watch a Spielberg movie and go "hey, have you noticed that he hasn't cut yet??"

Exaaaaaaaaaactly. With some filmmakers, even celebrated ones, their shots pop out like elaborate stunts and leave you thinking more about whatever fancypants rigging they needed to set up to make the camera do what it did. But not Spielberg's.
post #8 of 70
The billboard scene is a great oner, but my absolute favorite oner in Jaws is the ferry scene. Spielberg plants the camera on sticks and doesn't so much as move it. All he does is let the characters move toward it. From down stage to up stage and down stage again. It's very purposefully play-like and does a great job taking the audience from a committe debate to a personal negotiation between the Mayor and Brody.
Edited by Carnotaur3 - 9/7/17 at 3:14am
post #9 of 70
You just took me back to the one film analysis class I took in college.

Bravo, sir.
post #10 of 70

Great stuff.

post #11 of 70

Great analysis!



Originally Posted by Ambler View Post

Spielberg cannot really be touched when it comes to using the visual nature of the medium to its maximum potential.

A bit hyperbolic (KurosawaKubrickHitchcockLeanTarkovskyMurnauOphuls), but yes, he's great.


Originally Posted by Carnotaur3 View Post

The billboard scene is a great oner, but my absolute favorite oner in Jaws is the ferry scene. Spielberg plants the camera on sticks and doesn't so much as move it. All he does is let the characters move toward it. From down stage to up stage and down stage again. It's very purposefully play-like and does a great job taking the audience from a committe debate to a personal negotiation between the Mayor and Brody.

I love that shot, too, and I'm almost certain it's cribbed from a similar shot in Bridge on the River Kwai. Can't find it online right now, though.


post #12 of 70
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by Mangy View Post

A bit hyperbolic (KurosawaKubrickHitchcockLeanTarkovskyMurnauOphuls), but yes, he's great.


I'll maintain he's better at it than they are, but it's splitting hairs really.  They're all masters.


I'm glad everyone seems to be enjoying the breakdowns.  They are fun to do.  I was considering going in order through his filmography, but I may jump around a bit, not sure.  I'll try and post the next one in the coming days.

post #13 of 70
Originally Posted by Carnotaur3 View Post

The billboard scene is a great oner, but my absolute favorite oner in Jaws is the ferry scene. Spielberg plants the camera on sticks and doesn't so much as move it. All he does is let the characters move toward it. From down stage to up stage and down stage again. It's very purposefully play-like and does a great job taking the audience from a committe debate to a personal negotiation between the Mayor and Brody.


With the moving ferry providing a changing background that keeps the scene from feeling static.


And I think just as important are the moments when Spielberg knows when to just sit back and let his actors act.  He parks the camera on Shaw for the Indianapolis monologue and lets the master work.

post #14 of 70
Originally Posted by Ambler View Post


I'll maintain he's better at it than they are, but it's splitting hairs really.  They're all masters.


I'm glad everyone seems to be enjoying the breakdowns.  They are fun to do.  I was considering going in order through his filmography, but I may jump around a bit, not sure.  I'll try and post the next one in the coming days.

Yes, please! That was really great.

post #15 of 70
Thread Starter 

This one is quite long, so you may want to grab some popcorn and a beverage... sit back, relax and enjoy the next breakdown.







A technique Spielberg likes to employ in his films is using specific landmarks and objects to represent certain ideas and express thematic elements. 


In the film ALWAYS, let's look at two back to back sequences which utilize this technique to great effect.


These two sequences are the lead up to Pete's untimely and tragic death.  Dorinda wants him to hang up his wings and go teach at a flying school, but Pete resists. These three sequences are specifically about Dorinda's premonition regarding his death.  Spielberg uses several amazing techniques to develop this idea, while keeping things fluid and interesting.


The first sequence is after the dance, when Pete and Dorinda are walking back to her place.






Spielberg starts with a tracking shot, following the two lovers as they walk through the forest.  The moody, blue hue is strongly present and is about to lead into our first landmark which will start the premonition theme.




Continuing the same tracking shot, they arrive in front of Pete's plane, the first landmark.  Pete's plane signifies his destiny, as he is going to die in it.  The eerie blue lighting in the distance which matches the hue of the forest is very haunting and ghost like in nature, which is appropriate given the circumstances.  For Spielberg, it is not just a plane... at this moment it represents Pete's destiny.  And appropriately enough, it sits between the two lovers, visually dividing them.... this division is going to play out in the next scene....





But first, continuing the same shot, Pete wants her to follow him because he knows a shortcut.  But Dorinda is hesitant... she senses something is wrong.  This is where the premonition idea begins to take shape.






Now we have our first cut, which gives this shot greater symbolism, since it was important enough to break the sequence up... It is a slightly quick PUSH IN on Dorinda's worried face as she watches Pete approach the plane.  PUSHING IN on character's faces usually signifies they are thinking or saying something important, but it is usually slow.  The quicker nature of this push in here gives a greater sense of urgency.  Something is wrong and she knows it.





Instead of cutting to the next scene, here Spielberg employs a dissolve, in order to superimpose two images onto each other.  This technique usually means the two images in question are linked somehow.  In this case, it is Dorinda and fire.  If you continue to follow the premonition idea, the fact that fire immediately follows the last image, suggests her premonition is indeed about fire.  And the fire is related to Pete and the plane.  This is clear foreshadowing at work as to what is about to come.  And Dorinda's sixth sense about it.






The dissolve leads to the next scene which begins one continuous shot.  Starting from our second landmark, the fireplace, which represents Pete's impending destruction, where he may end up.   The shot continues, panning down to Dorinda's cat.  Inconsequential as the cat may seem, it is still part of the continuing idea of premonition.  Cats and animals in general, have a heightened sense of awareness that most humans don't possess... it is more instinctual and we've all heard the stories of animals growing restless before an earthquake... so the cat's presence here continues this idea, but also links to the following bit of business...





Continuing the same shot, the camera tracks left and comes to Pete and Dorinda's intertwined hands on our third landmark... the bed.  Beds represent warmth, rest and safety.  In this case, it will come to represent where Dorinda wants her and Pete to be.  Together, safe, happy.  Their intertwined hands show they are very much in love, even though Pete has a hard time expressing it.  





Continuing the same shot, the camera comes to a rest on Pete and Dorinda, lying in bed.  Pete is awake, but she is asleep, and starts talking in her sleep... saying random words that don't make any sense.  In some cultures, sleep/dreams represents the middle ground between reality and the spirit world, being closer to it when you're asleep.  Dorinda talking in her sleep presents this idea that she is communicating from this spirit world, in a way that Pete doesn't understand.  It is a cue that her premonition is going to confuse him as the scene plays out... also notice the fire in the background, representing Pete's future, or what could happen if he doesn't listen to his girl.






Pete gets out of bed, quite literally leaving his girl and the safety and warmth of her ideal future.





And in a REVERSE SHOT from the point of view of the bed and Dorinda, he goes to our fourth and final landmark, the kitchen.  As he opens the fridge, the same ghostly, eerie blue glow from the forest and plane casts itself over his entire body.  A visual representation of what awaits him if he ignores Dorinda's premonition.  Also, as the scene plays out, the kitchen will come to represent the cold reality of where their relationship really is, not the ideal place she wants it to be (represented by the bed).

Spielberg uses landmarks as visual representations of subtext in the narrative.  It is a master's way of utilizing pure visual storytelling.







We cut to an important shot here, Dorinda suddenly waking up as soon as Pete is bathed in the eerie glow.  Remember.... cuts are supposed to call attention to certain things.  It is a visual signal to the brain, that a new idea is being presented.  This is completely lost on modern filmmakers... who use rapid cutting to hide the fact that they're not very good at telling stories... using it as a lazy way to piece together sequences.  They completely misunderstand its use.  Not to say you cannot cut rapidly, but when Spielberg does it, there is a reason for it.  If you're always cutting rapidly, the cut loses its impact.  The last shot, the cut to Pete at the fridge was important because it was presenting a new idea into the sequence.  The cut above does the same.  It ties to this previous shot...





Remember?  The beginning of her premonition in the forest.  The two shots are linked, because they are both close ups and she has virtually the same worried expression. Together they form and build on the same idea.  Giving it importance and utilizing the subconscious memory of the audience to make it stand out.  


You start to see how the master builds his sequences....



Dorinda calls out "Pete", and we cut to--




This closer shot of Pete, a close up.  Linking the three shots together to form a strong idea.  He practically looks ghostly here.  





We cut back to her.  She knows.  Even if she can't articulate it.  She senses it.





Cut back to Pete.  He gets his first hint something is up.





In the next cut, she goes and sits down in front of the second landmark.  From which more of the scene will play out.  A visual representation of the ideas expressed by the characters in the forthcoming dialogue.





Cut to a reverse angle of Pete putting on his house coat and going over to join Belinda....






As he sits down and rubs her, he says "its cold".  Ghosts generally are described as cold, and rooms tend to get colder when there are ghostly presences around.  He is metaphorically becoming ghost like as he gets closer to the second landmark, the fire that will eventually consume him if he doesn't heed her warning.






Eventually Spielberg gets into a couple OTS (over the shoulder) shots, as she expresses a desire to get trained to fly with him.  She wants to be there to protect him.  But he shoots the idea down (pun intended).









In one shot, we follow her (clearly upset) from the second landmark, representing Pete's deadly future, which she wants to get away from since he wont let her help protect him, to the fourth landmark, representing the cold reality of where they are now in their relationship, away from the warmth of the bed (the third landmark)....





Spielberg does a subtle cut here to a slightly closer shot to highlight her, as she tries to reason with him.  She presents an ultimatum, cold hard truth... come with her to Colorado and teach flying, or she'll leave him.





Spielberg cuts back and forth during the dialogue, as they are physically on opposite ends of the room.... they couldn't be further apart.  This visually expresses their distance emotionally.  With the flames of destiny visually engulfing Pete as he stubbornly refuses to listen.






Pete enters the cold hard truth of the kitchen as the camera PUSHES IN, while Dorinda walks in the other direction...




He follows her...





And she keeps trying to get away from him.  The cold hard reality of the fourth landmark inciting strife and pain and causing alot of friction as neither wants to face the truth.




The camera slides over into a closer OTS/TWO SHOT as he starts to present his own truth.  His face more in the light, and her more profile and in shadow.





And she keeps trying to get away from him as they grow further apart... he keeps presenting a reality she doesn't want to hear.





After more back and forth movement, Spielberg cuts to this OTS of Dorinda on a long lens... a long lens compresses the images of a shot so they appear closer together.  There is a reason for this choice of lens, which you'll understand in a second....




She walks over, the camera following her, until she ends up here... the long focal length of the lens causing her to become compressed against the warmth and safety of the bed as she delivers the line... "Pete... your number's up."  She is forced to reveal her premonition about his death, and the bed is a visual representation of her desire for his safety.  As the third landmark represents warmth, and security.




This idea is further reinforced as Spielberg then cuts to this shot, a point of view shot from the bed itself, which will become obvious in a moment, as....






...Dorinda turns and comes back toward the bed to get back to its warmth and safety and leave the cold truth of reality in the kitchen, the camera pulling back along with her as Pete goes and sits in the chair, which creates another OTS shot.




From here, Spielberg cuts back and forth between a single of her....





And an OTS of Pete.  Placing the importance on the bed, since it is in both shots.





Pete gets up from the same OTS shot, moving closer to her, creating a new, closer OTS, with him now joining her on the bed.  Visually signifying that he is coming around to her point of view, back to warmth and safety.







From the OTS, Spielberg employs a slow PUSH IN DOLLY SHOT toward Dorinda as she pours her heart out about the pain she feels knowing his life is at risk all the time.


Also, you can't really tell from still images, but you can see the blazing fire reflected on the side of Pete's face, but not Dorinda's.  This is more visual reinforcement of the ideas we've been going over.




55.png He is so moved that he relents, and tells her about a school he could teach at.





And to signify this moment of release, Spielberg cuts to a WIDE SHOT as they fall onto the bed in joy... visually allowing the audience to breathe after this tumultuous sequence.  




But there is little time to celebrate, as the phone rings and Pete goes to answer it, leaving Dorinda alone again.  This shot not only signified a release, it also allows Spielberg to create several new ideas at once.  For the first time since the beginning, we see the cat, which represented a heightened sense of awareness.  We also see the fire again the background representing Pete's doom, and Spielberg SLOWLY DOLLYS THE CAMERA IN to Dorinda, who knows the phone call isn't good.  She even tells him not to answer it and he ignores her.  The premonition theme is rearing its ugly head again.







The camera glides toward and around Dorinda, landing in a close profile shot, with the window in the background.  The base wants Pete to help with a fire, but he tries to get out of it.  Spielberg does a couple interesting things here...  first, he has Pete's voice in the background become fainter and more echoed and more ghost like.  It's very subtle but noticeable.  He is heading toward his fate.  




Then, after a slight push in, he casts an amber glow on her eyes as the day and fire become apparent in the background.  It is unclear if its fire or the sun rising, but metaphorically it doesn't matter.  The point has been made.  She is seeing the future now and her worried expression says it all as Pete is forced to go deal with the fire.




A lesser director would've shot these sequences very differently.  Spielberg is able to take advantage of all the subtext, thematic material and metaphor, using the camera to express these concepts in very creative ways that visually elevates the material above the substandard garbage Hollywood regularly churns out.  It is such a visually arresting and dazzling sequence in a movie full of them.  I feel like some of Spielberg's so called "lesser" works are underrated, and could use a rewatch, keeping in mind all the techniques he employs.  This movie has a ton of other sequences that utilize these techniques....


I hope you enjoyed.

Edited by Ambler - 9/7/17 at 4:00pm
post #16 of 70
Nothing's showing up for me from that last post. Too long for the board structure to handle?
post #17 of 70

I don't see anything either

post #18 of 70
Edited by Bucho - 9/7/17 at 4:31pm
post #19 of 70
Edited by Bucho - 9/7/17 at 4:31pm
post #20 of 70

huh, I can see those


but not ambler's own post, neither on mobile nor desktop

post #21 of 70
Thread Starter 

That's really weird.  When I posted it, it seemed to be fine.  When I came back from dinner, it was totally blank.


I hit the edit button to see if it was still there and it was, so I re-submitted it.  


Can you guys see it now?

post #22 of 70

This showed up on my laptop just fine earlier. I must have seen it right after Ambler posted it. It's showing up for me now as well.

post #23 of 70
Yeah, visible now, I'll go back and chop the quotes out of my posts so it's not duplicated.

Always is pretty underrated. By teenage me mostly.
post #24 of 70
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by Bucho View Post

Yeah, visible now, I'll go back and chop the quotes out of my posts so it's not duplicated.

Always is pretty underrated. By teenage me mostly.


Thanks.  And thanks for reposting it earlier.

post #25 of 70
Thread Starter 

I also encourage people to, after they've read through it, to go back and just scroll through the images and witness how the scene progresses visually moment by moment... it really shows the visual progression of the ideas.

post #26 of 70

Not enough rep in the world for this, Ambler. Just outstanding.

post #27 of 70
Thread Starter 

Tomorrow, Jurassic Park....

post #28 of 70
Originally Posted by Ambler View Post

I also encourage people to, after they've read through it, to go back and just scroll through the images and witness how the scene progresses visually moment by moment... it really shows the visual progression of the ideas.

To be honest I cheated and watched the film of the scenes after I went through the breakdowns. I'm a scallywag like that.
post #29 of 70

Always is one of my few Spielberg blind spots and I was still enthralled by that breakdown. Looks like I'm checking that out this weekend.

post #30 of 70
Thread Starter 

Strap yourselves in, because we're going to.....








For a long time I've had the opinion that Jurassic Park is Spielberg's best directed movie on a technical level.  I have been perfectly open to having this opinion changed by going over all his films again and again, and his new ones, but it remains unchallenged for me, with the possible exception of Saving Private Ryan, but I'm torn.  IMO, JP is the best example of all his skills as a filmmaker rolled into one movie.  Not just from an action perspective but from camera blocking of dramatic scenes and such.  As well pushing visual FX to their maximum potential.  


I wanted to focus on an action sequence finally because Spielberg is by far one of the best action directors we've ever had, if not the best to ever do action.  James Cameron and George Miller are probably the only others who can manage to stay in the same league.  There are lots of action directors and many of them can be considered very good at doing it, but what separates Spielberg from the pack is his ability to truly utilize the visual language of the medium to deliver maximum suspense and thrills.  Other action directors tend to just throw things at the camera in a random fashion, since they seem to think action is just lots of things happening very fast.  This is a simplistic way of doing it.  


Other directors, like the Wachowskis or Zack Snyder, fetishize action to the point where it becomes more of a passive experience rather than an interactive one with the audience's emotions.  Spielberg is able to tap into the primal nature of the lizard brain and use archetypal elements to create action sequences that are incredibly effective on a visceral level.  You really feel them in the gut, rather than the intellect.  Even movies like John Wick become technical to the point of sterility.  It is amazing watching Keanu perform those feats, but it is almost like watching a documentary of a stunt performer rather than anything that feels emotionally involving.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I feel like Spielberg's methods have become a lost art.


So let's take a close look at a simple example of his actions skills at work in the opening sequence of Jurassic Park....





The first thing we see in the movie is a calm shot of trees, with misty lighting highlighting them.    In a lizard brain sense, it is a primal image that immediately starts working us on a visceral level.




The calm stillness is immediately punctured by movement... the trees swaying back and forth in a wild manner, as if something HUGE is traversing them.  On an intellectual level we know the movie is about dinosaurs, so duh.... but on a primal level these kinds of things tend to have greater effect because they are working on a part of the brain we're not really aware of.  The part that makes you sweat, get chills, or makes your heat beat faster.  This wild movement suggests something dangerous is coming.





And to confirm this, Spielberg cuts to a close up of a worried face.  Simple but effective.  It communicates that we should worry too.





And cut back to what he's looking at, the tree line, which is still being violently disturbed.  And with even more mystical light pouring from it.  Spielberg uses light very effectively in his movies.  The jungle is usually devoid of technology, so the fact that intense light is pouring from it combined with the wild swaying of the trees suggests something supernatural, almost god like.  For a movie about dinosaurs, this seems to be the opposite of what a director should be doing, no?  But Spielberg is no ordinary director.





This time we cut to more worried faces.  Building on the idea of the single face from before, but adding men to suggest alot of people are witnessing this and they are all concerned.  It is adding urgency to the situation.





We cut back to the chaos in the trees, but here Spielberg does something very clever and very effective.  It is actually easy to miss when watching the film.  He cuts away from this shot just as some large dark shape reveals itself.  You can kind of see it here.  And it looks nothing like a dinosaur.  But it's huge.  Here Spielberg is building on the supernatural idea to give whatever is there a god like presence.  







Here Spielberg employs his first DOLLY SHOT, as he pushes in on this man, which is a signal that he is more important than everyone else.  And his style of dress reinforces that.  Not only that, the dolly shot is slightly rising from a low position to a higher one, to accentuate this importance and give him a bit of power... not as much as whatever is coming at them, but enough for the audience to know he's formidable in his own right.  And now you see they all have weapons.  At this point it's obvious they are very afraid of what's coming at them.





Now you can see that it is a large container coming out of the jungle.  But it seems to be floating here.  This continues with the god like motif I mentioned before, but starts to build on that by having it appear to be levitating.  This is a subtle trick to reinforce these god like attributes.  Spielberg has extracted every ounce of tension out of this scene as possible at this point... by delaying the reveal, showing its effect on these men, and providing the object with so much visual power and supernatural elements.  Again, this is supposed to be a movie about mere dinosaurs.




This is the most interesting shot in the entire sequence to me.  It is pretty amazing because of how weird it is.  It is a long continuous shot that starts below the men, looking up at the container as it's being hauled in, bright lights shining into the lens of the camera.  This low angle from the men to the container combined with the blinding light really hammers home the god-like idea.  It is hovering over them.  But then the camera slowly starts to DOLLY FORWARD--


And past the men...

Focusing on the container as it pivots...

And comes to a rest in front of a base of some kind.  But this time we are above everything in a god like POV, especially the men.  Why didn't we see the transition of the men on camera?  Almost every crane shot you've ever seen in a movie shows the change in perspective on whatever is on the ground to highlight the shot.  But here Spielberg deliberately hides what the purpose of a crane shot is supposed to suggest.  Why did he do this?  That is extremely unusual.  The reason is, he used the container as a transition device to suggest it is the one that caused the shift in perspective and not the camera.  This gives the container itself almost supernatural abilities, and really hammers home the idea that there is no mere dinosaur in this container.  It is one of the most effective trick shots I've ever seen in one of his films. Intellectually it doesn't make any sense, but Spielberg is not working that part of your brain here.  Remember, he's a master.




Now we cut to a POV shot from inside the container.  And on the soundtrack we hear a horrible breathing sound.  Both being pretty standard monster movie techniques, but it works, so Spielberg uses it.  This starts to establish a relationship though.  Between whatever is in the container, and Muldoon, since it is watching him in particular.  This also continues to separate him from the pack and make him important.  The relationship will play itself out as the movie goes on, and pay off in a later scene.




Here Spielberg employs a lateral tracking shot, following the loading team as Muldoon orders them to the container.  It begins a series of side angles that suggest an adversarial relationship between Muldoon and whatever is in the container.  Side angles, especially when cutting back and forth tend to suggest things at odds with each other, since directionally they are at odds.  The lateral tracking shot here allows Spielberg to hint at this relationship, using the men as a transition device between Muldoon and the container, to suggest it is Muldoon vs. the container, since he is obviously more important than the men.




One of the men is spooked.  Another thing suggesting Muldoon is superior, since in the previous POV shot, Muldoon was unaffected by creature.




A low angle shot of the man backing away.  Muldoon orders them to be steady.  This low angle is from the side, continuing the versus motif.  Which becomes even more obvious here....




As Spielberg cuts to a side angle of Muldoon, staring at the container.  He is slightly obscured in shadow, with blinding light accenting his figure.  This is a kind of mythical visual representation to add mystique to Muldoon's character.  Pretty clever.




More of the men get into position.  




And start sliding the container forward.  We are behind Muldoon as this happens, with the container in the background, compressing the two adversaries together.  With the flat image suggesting the container is being slid into Muldoon, forcing the two together.   Everyone has their weapons drawn, on edge.  







Spielberg employs this second POV shot from the creature as Muldoon methodically orders the loading team to step away.  This is important because the raptor is one of the more intelligent dinosaurs, but we don't necessarily know it at this point.  The fact that Muldoon's orders are given from this shot suggest the animal is studying his methods in order to figure out how to escape.




Muldoon orders the other men away and the gatekeeper in.  Spielberg employs another lateral tracking shot to follow him to the top of the container.  Again to highlight Muldoon vs. the creature.  Notice all the misty light pouring from the container, again giving the creature a supernatural presence.




Gatekeeper is being watched by the creature, which suggests a plan is afoot.




Muldoon orders him to raise the gate.  But this time calls him Jophery.  This is important because it means Muldoon knows the man personally, and this personal connection will become important in a moment.




Jophery raises the gate.




And the animal, which we can barely see, charges forward, the camera tracking with it to give it a sense of speed and power.




Jolted by the hit, Jophery falls off the container.




Smacks the ground hard.




Some of the men are knocked back by the container's movement.





And here begins one of my favorite tools in Spielberg's tool box and is another thing that makes this sequence so successful.  The ability to suggest action or ideas, rather than show them directly, to let the audience's mind fill in the gaps.  This is again tapping into the primal nature of the brain, and allowing the audience's imagination to give the scene more power.  The mind is more powerful than anything a filmmaker can show.   And the audience is free to imagine all sorts of horrible things inside the container dragging Jophery around like a rag doll.... it can also save alot of money on visual  FX or puppets.  This is completely lost on Hollywood who throws everything they can at the screen, cheapening the very spectacle they lavishly spend on and try to impress with.




All hell breaks loose and now Muldoon gets involved, the camera laterally tracking with him as he rushes to Jophery's aid in the background, while tracking with the armed men in the foreground as they try to subdue the creature.




He grabs onto Jophery who is desperately flailing about.




And his hand reaches and grabs hold of a rung.  The hand thing becomes very important.  Spielberg likes to use different body parts (eyes, hands, etc) as visual representations of ideas.  In the ALWAYS breakdown, their intertwined hands represented love, a bond.  In this scene, highlighting Jophery's hand visually suggests his predicament while humanizing him at the same time.  Since we don't know Jophery, it is a quick effective method to get us to care.  A hand is our connection to this world.  When we touch things to experience them, we don't use our head or feet, we use our hands.  Therefore, the hand represents our connection to this world.  Visually, and quite literally, Jophery is losing his connection to this world.





There is a quick shot of his hand slipping from the rung, further demonstrating his impending loss of life.  He is slipping away from this world.





Suddenly Jophery is pulled from Muldoon's grasp, and incredibly, lifted in the air.  This suggests the creature is freakishly strong.  Remember, we have still seen virtually none of the creature at this point, so the mind if free to imagine all sort of horrible things.




Spielberg uses a fast DOLLY IN as Muldoon tries to regain hold of Jophery.  This fast DOLLY IN suggests the urgency Muldoon feels to save his man from the creature.  It is very important to him.  It also creates a sense of momentum for the sequence.




Spielberg takes us next from the high god like angle to a low position in one shot, while the men desperately try and taze the creature into submission.  Notice the deliberate, intense nature of the smoke filled lighting around and inside the container.  This shot is used not only to continue to provide a sense of geography and space (something desperately lacking in modern action sequences), but to create a continual sense of momentum and movement, while playing with the supernatural god-like motif.  Like any good Spielberg shot it accomplishes several things simultaneously.  




After another quick shot of Muldoon struggling to hold onto Jophery...





Spielberg uses another lateral tracking shot to show the sheer number of men needed to contain the situation, while continuing to develop momentum and movement around the sequence (notice the men leaping from the stairs on the right).





Here we start with a series of extreme closeups (ECU) to close out the sequence.  First of the end of the zapper gun desperately being used on the creature, but having no effect.



Then the eyes of the raptor.




Then the wild, panicked eyes of Muldoon.



And then back to the raptor.  This even more strongly suggests a connection between the two, which will play out later. 





Spielberg does a slow DOLLY IN past the legs of the men zapping away, toward Muldoon desperately holding onto Jophery.  This allows him to continue staging the action of the men, while highlighting Jophery being slowly tortured to death and Muldoon's helplessness in the situation.




Another ECU on Muldoon, this time his mouth giving the order to shoot the raptor.  This ECU of his mouth gives more importance to the words, and how desperate the situation is.





And then we have Jophery's hand, slowly slipping through Muldoon's grasp... a visual representation of life being slowly pulled away.  This is much more effective and elegant than something say, Eli Roth would do, like slowly and methodically showing the man's legs being eaten off in a bloody fashion.  Spielberg's method retains the human element... this is a life we're talking about, not a meat puppet.  It also humanizes Muldoon, by linking him with the hand and showing how desperate he is to hold on to it.




Once again the order to shoot, even more desperate since the hand is slipping.




But it's no use, as the flailing hand slips through his grasp.  Is there any simpler an image that portrays the passing of human life?  Spielberg excels at suggesting things using relatable human elements.  Suggesting things give them more power, as it allows the audience to participate directly in what's going on using their imaginations, instead of just observing in a passive manner, which is something sorely lacking in today's blockbusters.



Here is the sequence in full:





And there you have it.  It's a helluva opening sequence.  It really shows Spielberg's special touch when it comes to building suspense, effectively filming thrilling action, taking advantage of audience imagination while never forgetting the human element.  The supernatural element puts it over the top in making the sequence leave an indelible mark on the mind's of the audience.  

Edited by Ambler - 9/8/17 at 12:22pm
post #31 of 70
Fantastic analysis of JP, Ambler. Compare it the lame ass opening of Jurassic World, the only film to not open with an elaborate action sequence. A dinosaur hatches, why should we care?
post #32 of 70

Now it's my turn not to be able to see the post.  Can see the Always one just fine, but the JP one is blank.

post #33 of 70
Thread Starter 

I just came back and saw it was missing!  


I edited and reposted, check it again.

post #34 of 70
Thread Starter 

It seems to post fine, then I leave for a few minutes and come back to the thread and its blank.  I'm not sure what's causing that.  I'll be sure to keep checking after I post from now on.

post #35 of 70
My suggestion is to not have it all in one post.
post #36 of 70
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by Evi View Post

My suggestion is to not have it all in one post.


Good idea.

post #37 of 70
Love it. Almost got the damn chills up my spine just reading through the breakdown.

Originally Posted by Ambler View Post

Here is the sequence in full:

Watch this with sound muted to see it totally backs up Ambler's earlier point about how Spielberg's best scenes tell the story effectively even while silent.
post #38 of 70
Thread Starter 

Thanks Bucho.  I kind of feel like Spielberg has been dominant for so long, his films kind of get taken for granted when it comes to how good they actually are.  That's why I like breaking them down because you get to see the mechanics of it rather than just "yeah, he's great."  I mean, there's a reason this guy's been like king filmmaker for the past 5 decades.

post #39 of 70
The other brilliant thing about that opening scene is that it's literally the theme of the movie. We're expecting a dinosaur but we get a piece of technology. It's science replacing the natural world. But in the end, nature wins. Whole damn movie in about five minutes.
post #40 of 70
Thread Starter 

Totally.  Another thematic piece of the puzzle I didn't think of.

post #41 of 70
This is a way better analysis than that clickbait article from the AV Club that's circulating which is supposed to be about how there are no dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.


Please give us more, Ambler!
post #42 of 70
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by Bradito View Post

This is a way better analysis than that clickbait article from the AV Club that's circulating which is supposed to be about how there are no dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.



post #43 of 70

There's a fan theory that posits that Hammond didn't actually clone dinosaurs but genetically engineered animals that looked like the popular conception of dinosaurs.  It's his flea circus writ large.  And it's a prime example of people just being completely unable to let movies just be movies.

post #44 of 70
Thread Starter 

They need hits for their website.

post #45 of 70
There's a book called "Shoot Like Spielberg" that has a bunch of breakdowns from his various films. I totally ripped off one of his shots in my short film.

post #46 of 70
Thread Starter 

I hate books like that.  I don't think anybody should be shooting like Spielberg like tracing paper, but I think it's very helpful to know what works with other directors and adapt it to your own way of working.  But it's okay to rip off individual shots.


Sorry to talk shit about your book, Brad.

post #47 of 70
Well, I think the book's supposed to give you ideas for how to think visually rather than just completely ape another guy.

I got ideas reading your thread!
post #48 of 70
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by Bradito View Post

Well, I think the book's supposed to give you ideas for how to think visually rather than just completely ape another guy.

I got ideas reading your thread!


In that case, nevermind!

post #49 of 70
Thread Starter 

I'm trying to get this thread to get a second page so it's not as hard to load for the next break down....

post #50 of 70
Thread Starter 

Somebody say something!

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