Steven Spielberg's Filmography: Catch Me If You Can, Saving Private Ryan

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Steven Spielberg is the top grossing film director of all time, and many people wonder how he continues his legacy of directing films for years on. It’s simple. Spielberg is an auteur and his individualistic style approach to directing is what draws in continuous viewers for all of his films. An auteur can be described as a filmmaker whose personal influence and style of directing is so great that he can be considered the author of the film like a novel. An auteur has a distinctive style that differentiates themselves from everyone else in the field of filmmaking. Many people argue that this theory does not exist and that filmmakers shoot with no meaning behind their shots, besides to just create a film, however Steven Spielberg is most definitely an auteur and just about every shot in his films have a significant meaning or bigger picture behind it. This paper will focus on an investigation that proves Steven Spielberg is an auteur with specific references to Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, and Catch Me If You Can. Through the use of his recurring themes, lighting, shot composition, framing, and non-diegetic sound, it is through these examples of filmic expertise that Steven Spielberg can be considered an auteur.

This question is worthy enough for investigation because Steven Spielberg has made a huge impact on the film industry and society as a whole. His film Saving Private Ryan helps us remember and preserve the memory of War World II through his use of filming and editing techniques. Another film, Jaws which is still surviving through today’s pop culture through merchandise being sold (Jaws t-shirts, posters, etc.) to John Williams’ iconic two note score, this film continues to grow, even in the lives of people who haven't even seen it. An investigation is needed to help explain how Spielberg effectively uses Williams’s simple but distinctive score to create a symbol for impending doom in today’s world. Lastly an investigation is needed to help explain how Spielberg successfully creates a film [Catch Me If You Can] that makes the viewers sympathize with a criminal by utilizing his individualistic style of directing and editing. Proving that Steven Spielberg is auteur is worthy because his individualistic style has influenced the film industry as a whole, whether it be the audience, other directors, or film making in general.

Framing in film is defined as the visual presentation of components in an image. The purpose of framing is to focus the audience’s attention on a subject, by handling the viewpoint of an image, instead of using the subject within. In Saving Private Ryan, the camera starts off by following an old man’s shoes as he walks with his family and this foreshadows that we are going to be following the story of this man. Seconds later the old man walks ahead of his family and Spielberg utilizes a long shot to include just the old man and the hundreds of crosses in the frame to symbolize that this is the old man’s journey and that he was not with his family during this time, hence why they are out of frame. Not only does Spielberg exploit long shots, but he also utilizes long takes. Steven Spielberg is very distinctive when it comes to long takes as his are usually very natural and almost invisible as he tries to use everything he can, whether it be his actors, special fx, or objects to hide his takes. An example of this can be seen in Jaws when Brody boards the ferry with the mayor, and it is hard to notice the long take because of the blocking of the actors and with the background action always moving. Again in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg resorts to explosives, squibs, smoke, etc. to help make his long takes look more natural, as this further enhances the film as it aids in accurately depicting World War II. An example of this is the 24 minute-long D-day scene in Saving Private Ryan and in this scene we get to see that the camera is moving vertically in a belligerent way. The purpose of this is to show the strengths of the tides and how rigorous this battle will become. The framing of the entire beach scene is also very shaky which is notable because it helps to create this sense of reality for the viewer because there were gunshots, explosions, and smoke flying around everywhere. Throughout Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg shot explosions at a 45 degree angle with the camera shutter so that the viewer can see every grain of sand drop from the sky as they fall down to create a definite sense of actuality. His filmmaking tactics are uncomplicated and easy to grasp but masterfully applied as the film tells us how to feel.

When it comes to lighting, Spielberg is very unique. While most filmmakers use darkness to represent the unknown or mystery, Spielberg uses light. An excellent example for this can be seen in Jaws when Brody is on the Orca, hundreds of miles from shore, in the unknown seas, and a shooting star flies by in the background to underline the mysteries in the water. Another instance of this can be seen when Hooper is coming out of the water, and behind him is this bright yellow light underwater showing the mysterious water filled with light. When Speilberg uses dark lighting however, or silhouettes, it usually means that there is no mystery or the character has identified something. An example of this can be seen in Catch Me If You Can, when Frank meets his dad for the first time after escaping his home when he was little. During the scene where they meet, both Frank and his father have a dark silhouette meaning that Frank has identified his father. Spielberg also likes to use lighting to create a more natural feeling to the movie. This can be seen in Saving Private Ryan when he decided to desaturate the color of the film to show the reality of war. Not only did he desaturate the color but he also used low-key lighting to make it look darker and enhance the shadows to create a sense of misery in every scene of the film.

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Steven Spielberg has a numerous amount of themes that he incorporates into all of his films. These themes range from Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstance, broken family, trying to survive, and middle-class value. Starting off with the theme of ordinary people stuck in extraordinary circumstances, in Saving Private Ryan we follow nine regular soldiers going on a menacing and dangerous mission to save one man. This theme helps us feel more attached to the film because the people involved are not used to this kind of danger so we feel as we ourselves could also experience it too. The nine men in the film were most likely drafted and that they were regular men before the war so we more attached to them because we are them. Spielberg also likes to put us through the characters emotional shoes. He does this by showing that in Saving Private Ryan that ordinary people can be tremendously courageous and creative when they need to be. This theme is also present in Jaws as we follow a new islander named Brody who has to venture out into the sea to hunt a 25 foot-long shark. We sympathize for Brody because we could just as be in the same situation as he is in. The next theme present in just about every Spielberg film is that of a broken family. In Saving Private Ryan, the film has a surrogate family, which is obviously the nine boys. Highlighted in the film with the diegetic sound of Ryan saying “I am with the only brothers I have left,” metaphorically speaking about his fellow soldiers standing next to him. We follow this proxy family as they embark on their journey filled with challenges and defeats throughout the film. We also see this theme in Catch Me If You Can, as Frank’s parents divorced during his early life. Faced with the decision of which parent to live with, Frank instead runs away from the problem entirely and lives on his own. During the film, Frank tries to fix the broken family by trying to convince his father to go back to his mother years after the divorce and too see if they can work things out. This essentially does not work out and the theme continues on.

Furthermore, Carl, who is an FBI agent that chases down Frank has a broken family as well. His wife left him and he only gets to see his daughter once a week in Chicago. The next theme is the theme of trying to survive, which is used to express hope and say that all life is worth fighting for in his films. Saving Private Ryan, is the perfect example of this theme as we see nine men trying to save the life of one. The theme is specifically highlighted with the diegetic sound of Captain Miller saying to James Ryan, “earn this,” as he is about to die, telling him that he earned his life and he deserves it. In Jaws, the final half of the movie, we follow Brody on the Orca as he tries to hunt the shark that has been terrorizing the small island for weeks now. Halfway through the trip, Brody realizes that he is in trouble, when half the crew is dead due to the shark. In the last few scenes he tries to survive by working with everything he can to survive from the shark. This theme is also present in Catch Me If You Can, as we follow Frank trying to avoid prison and survive on his own. Forging checks and trying to make a living off of pretending to be three separate people at the same time, he doesn’t stop until he is caught towards the end of the film. Lastly the theme of middle-class value which is exceptionally highlighted in the film Jaws. The film displays three classes. Hooper being the wealthy college boy with all of the expensive equipment. Quint being the poor fisherman bargaining against the mayor to get as much money as possible to hunt for the shark. And lastly Brody, the meek middle class family man. Through the roles given through these characters, in the end, the middle class family man comes through and actually kills the shark whereas the other characters either almost die or die. Spielberg does this to further sympathize with the average American and to try to create a stronger bond between the viewer and the main protagonist in the film.

Shot composition is another way to set yourself from other directors as having a unique set of them can be detrimental to having a different style from others. Spielberg has a wide range of shots that he likes to use to convey meaning in his films. These shots include but are not limited to, canted angles, sideways tracking, extreme close ups, and reflection. Beginning with the canted angle, which is when the camera is tilted to foreshadow something disorientated is about to happen. In the opening sequence to the d-day scene there is an alluring canted angle on the hedgehogs (defensive obstacles on the beach) to convey that nothing is going to go well here. This is exactly proven at the end of the sequence when there is a montage of shots showing the dead bodies piled on the beach and the ocean turning into a blood red color from all of the blood of the soldiers that died in the battle. Another example of the canted angle is in Jaws, when it is utilized to focus on Brody’s face to convey his uneasy feeling when he sees the shark for the first time on the boat. Spielberg also loves to use extreme close ups on someone’s face through the use of a dolly zoom or by just simply tracking in. He uses this shot to control our emotions and direct it to the character that is on the screen. An Example of this is when Spielberg utilizes a tracking shot, zooming into Captain Miller’s face in Saving Private Ryan, after they have conquered the beach in the first sequence to show that he is reflecting on what he has just experienced. Another is during the first scene of the same film when there is an extreme close up on the old man, which is used by Spielberg to direct the viewer to him and express the same emotion he is. Spielberg also likes to utilize dolly zooms for this technique which is achieved by zooming a zoom lens to adjust the angle of view while the camera dollies toward or away from the subject in such a way as to keep the subject the same size in the frame throughout. An instance of this can be seen in Jaws when one of the kids falls under the water and camera shifts to Brody on the beach and does a dolly zoom to create a sense of bewilderment. Another shot that Spielberg likes to deploy in his films are sideways tracking shots. Plenty of examples can be seen in Saving Private Ryan, where he mixes it with his long takes to help make the film feel more real. This is also combined with the cameraman also not cleaning off the dirt or blood off of the camera during this shot because they would not have time to do so in real combat which aids in creating a more natural feel to it. What makes Spielberg’s distinctive is that his sideways tracking shots usually end with the characters coming closer towards the camera. A specific example of this type of shot can be seen in Jaws when Ellen and Brody say their final goodbyes before Brody board the Orca to hunt for the shark. Lastly, Spielberg like to employ reflection shots into his films. Spielberg uses these shots to show that the character is focusing on something or that the subject has multiple meanings or purposes. In Jaws, there is a reflection shot of Brody looking at the yellow barrel in the water that is hooked onto the shark. Brody is fixated on the barrel to see where the shark is taking it so they can capture it. Another instance of this shot is in Catch Me If You Can, when Frank is getting his suit tailored there is a triple dressing mirror in front of him, allowing for a shot where there are three of Franks. The meaning behind this is that Frank has had three purposes in his life currently. He has masterfully decieted others by mimicking the life of a pilot, doctor, and a prosecutor. The use of the triple mirror shows that Frank is essentially playing three different characters at the same time.

Steven Spielberg’s music composer in just about every film he has made is John Williams. Famously credited for the Jaws theme song, a symbol of impending doom, Williams composes all three scores in the films discussed here. Spielberg’s scores are usually very simple and uncomplicated which adds to its uniqueness. Steven Spielberg likes to use his score for his films to help guide the viewers feel a certain way. For instance, the Jaws theme song only consists of two notes alternating (E and F) yet makes us feel like we are in danger. This sets Spielberg outside of the other directors as many of them will try to recreate or improve on this iconic original score. Another example of this is the opening to Saving Private Ryan, and how it begins with the non-diegetic sound of trumpets blaring and drums banging, creating a military theme to help set the viewer into position for the rest of the film. Spielberg not only uses sound for emotional manipulation but to also make the viewing experience more pleasurable as he uses sound bridges by pulling us into the next scene. This can be seen in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, when the camera is focused on the old man’s eyes and we can hear the non-diegetic sound of the waves crashing, and then the camera transitions to Omaha Beach; beginning the next sequence, and the sound is now diegetic. This helps the viewer understand the transition and also guides all of the emotion experienced from the old man to the next scene.

The auteur theory also includes the director’s personal influence on the film and how they came to make it the way they did. Steven Spielberg’s personal influence on Saving Private Ryan is what drove this film, as it was created for his father and his generation of war heroes. The 24 minute-long sequence in the beginning had no storyboard, and Spielberg used his knowledge from what he read and heard from veterans. The whole sequence was improvised, even Steven Spielberg did not even know what was going to happen next just like the soldiers out on the field in real combat. Steven Spielberg’s influence on Jaws wasn’t that significant except for two things. He added the scene where Brody and his son are at the dinner table and his son mimics the same hand gestures his dad does. The purpose of this is that Spielberg did not have a great relationship with his father and he wanted to show the world that fathers and their kids are supposed to have a loving, friendly bond. Another noteworthy influence he had was that, he had trouble filming the shark for the movie as the mechanical shark would never work. However he used it for his advantage as avoiding the shark only made the movie scarier and helped build more suspense. It aided in manipulating the viewers emotions as they had no idea when the shark would actually appear just like in real life, we would never know when we would get attacked by a shark. Continuing, Catch Me If You Can is probably one of Spielberg’s most personal films. Spielberg’s dad left him when he was little and it hurt him a lot growing up. During this time though, Spielberg thought that his dad left his family for someone else however this was not the case. Spielberg’s mother was actually cheating on his dad with his dad’s best friend. So instead of making his kids hate their mom, Spielberg’s father left and took the blame for himself. Once realizing this he decided to change the way he depicted father figures in his films. This is best shown in this film since Frank went under the same situation as his mother cheated on and married his father's best friend in the film. His filmmaking tactics are uncomplicated and easy to grasp but masterfully applied as the film tells us how to feel.

Some film critics believe however that the term “auteur theory” does not exist or even acknowledge it. They believe that giving one person, the director, all of the credit for the making of the film is absolutely nonsense. These critics think that the screenwriter have more of an influence than the director and that they guide the film since they are the ones who create and write the story for the film. This however is not entirely true. Steven Spielberg for example has a lot of personal influence over every single one of his films. As mentioned above, in Catch Me If You Can and Jaws his theme of broken family resembles his family almost exactly. In Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg bases many scenes purely on stories he heard from war veterans and his father. If it wasn’t for his personal influence the storyline and use of filmic expertise would have been completely different and for this reason, this is why Steven Spielberg can be considered auteur because his and only his influence is what drives the film; and this personal drive is what sets himself from other filmmakers. With this knowledge, we can conclude that Steven Spielberg is in fact an auteur.

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