Home » Essential Viewing

Essential Viewing: The Spielberg Face

A video essay exploring the most singular visual element in the films of Steven Spielberg.

By Kevin B. Lee December 13, 2011

Much maligned on its release, "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" may be Steven Spielberg's most profound meditation on the human face.

With his two new movies War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin being released next week, Steven Spielberg commands our attention once again. We’ve taken the occasion to produce the following video essay exploring what may be the most singular visual element to his films: the face. This video is inspired by the photo essay “The Spielberg Face: A Legacy” written by Matt Patches and published on UGO.

This video is also an unofficial lead-in to a longer series of videos about Spielberg, produced by Matt Zoller Seitz and Ali Arikan with a team of contributors, which will be released on the IndieWire Press Play blog starting Thursday.

The video briefly features two early developers of the movie close-up before Spielberg, director D.W. Griffith and actress Lillian Gish. You can see some of the first “proto-Spielberg Faces” on Fandor by watching their films, free with a one week free pass.

Get a Fandor Free Pass


If there is one recurring image that defines the cinema of Steven Spielberg, it is The Spielberg Face. Eyes open, staring in wordless wonder in a moment where time stands still. But above all, a child-like surrender in the act of watching, both theirs and ours.  It’s as if their total submission to what they are seeing mirrors our own.

The face tells us that a monumental event is happening; in doing so, it also tells us how we should feel. If Spielberg deserves to be called a master of audience manipulation, then this is his signature stroke. You can’t think of the most iconic moments in Spielberg’s cinema without The Spielberg Face.

Expressive close-ups of faces reacting to events offscreen. This is a common device in Hollywood filmmaking, perhaps due in part to Spielberg’s influence. Sometimes these shots even make explicit homage to his movies. This is not to say that Spielberg invented the technique.  The expressive close-up existed as early as the days of D.W. Griffith, and has long been a staple of both international and classical Hollywood filmmaking.

But it’s safe to say that none have come close applying this technique as prolifically throughout their filmmaking career as Spielberg has. He has used it in a variety of genres in any number of situations: sudden shock or creeping dread, the trauma of remembering the past or of confronting the future, discovering humanity in another person, or discovering humanity in oneself.

From the beginning, Spielberg seemed to understand the cinematic power of faces in punctuating key moments. But for the most part, these early attempts are conventional close-ups that fit into established practices for genre filmmaking: horror, suspense, drama, action.

The breakthrough came with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film about humans discovering alien lifeforms, but is really about Spielberg discovering the full power of the face and grounding it in a personal ethos, the perpetual wonder of seeing things new. The film has no less than 30 shots that qualify as “Spielberg Faces” – nearly twice the number of any other Spielberg film. Even one of the alien ambassadors gets one. One could call it a symphony of Spielberg Faces, in which case the orchestra members couldn’t have been better chosen: expressive open-faced, actors like Melinda Dillon, Richard Dreyfuss, and Cary Guffey, a four year old boy who, in this scene gives the face that amounts to a career revelation, a look of childlike awe that would inspire dozens more over the decades. Spielberg is so in love with Guffey’s expression that in one scene he even uses it twice in one minute, coupled with another critical ingredient: the dolly shot. With its kinetic force, the dolly shot underscores the revelatory sensation experienced by those wearing the Spielberg Face. With the dolly, the trademark Spielberg close-up was now complete.

But with accumulated use in film after film, this expression became an all-too familiar cue both for the characters and the audience to feel wonderment. By the time we get to the Jurassic Park movies in the 1990s, the manipulative qualities of the Spielberg Face are fully apparent, utilized nearly every time we are expected to marvel at the film’s computer generated dinosaurs.  Nowadays, it seems you can’t have a spectacular special effects action sequence without a Spielberg face to cue you to be in awe.

The Spielberg Face has become something of a cliché, but there is at least one filmmaker who has dared to critically explore this device, and even subvert its power on the audience. That director is – Steven Spielberg. And I’m not referring to the unintentionally satirical character in Close Encounters, who may have experienced one Spielberg Face too many. In his post 9-11 movies, the Spielberg face is an expression of trauma in a world of perpetual danger. In War of the Worlds, Dakota Fanning wears an anti-Spielberg face of innocence lost witnessing unspeakable horrors. In Munich, Avner Kaufman reunites with his wife after years of hunting terrorists. In the first time a Spielberg face is used in a sex scene, the act of intimacy unleashes memories of historical torments he can’t suppress.

But for his most profound use of the face, we must look at one of Spielberg’s most maligned and misunderstood films. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence has been reviled as a cerebral Stanley Kubrick project ruined by Spielberg sentimentality. But the film can also be seen as an interrogation of the emotional ploys Spielberg has used all through his career, especially the Spielberg Face. The film’s hero is a robot boy whose default expression is a Spielberg Face. But this face is an artificial, mechanical façade, created for the enjoyment of its owner. The same can be said for all Spielberg Faces: they’re nothing more than manipulated images projected on a screen, manipulating us to feel something. Except that this time, these Spielberg Faces are clearly not human.

In an age where we find our reality increasingly mediated, replicated and replaced by the digital, A.I. asks a visionary question: where will the future of our humanity will be found? It projects thousands of years into the future, where the human race is now extinct. What remains of us is a robot boy with a Spielberg Face, frozen in a mechanical expression of wonder. Perhaps it is the ultimate testament to Spielberg’s hubris that he would imagine his signature image as the lasting legacy of the human race, but it is the same hubris that gives the movies life. What are movies but traces of our dreams that stay after the dreamers have gone away? Here, the Spielberg Face is the death mask of our species, projecting us, eyes wide open, in an eternal state of wonder at what lies beyond. In this regard, the Spielberg face is ours.


Written, Produced and Edited by
Kevin B. Lee

Inspired by “The Spielberg Face: A Legacy”
By Matt Patches
Published in UGO, May 23 2011

Films Directed by Steven Spielberg
(In order of appearance)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
(1982, Universal)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
(1977, Columbia)

Raiders of the Lost Ark
(1981, Paramount)

The Color Purple
(1985, Warner Bros.)

The Terminal
(2004, DreamWorks)

Saving Private Ryan
(1998, DreamWorks)

(1989, Universal)

Minority Report
(2002, DreamWorks)

The War of the Worlds
(2005, Paramount)

(1991, TriStar)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2
(1997, Universal)

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
(2001, DreamWorks)

Catch Me If You Can
(2002, DreamWorks)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
(1989, Paramount)

Jurassic Park
(1993, Universal)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
(2008, Paramount)

Empire of the Sun
(1987, Warner Bros.)

War Horse
(2011, DreamWorks)

The Adventures of Tintin
(2011, Paramount)

(1997, DreamWorks)

(1968, Four Star Excelsior)

(1971, Universal)

Something Evil
(1972, Universal)

The Sugarland Express
(1974, Universal)

(1975, Universal)

(2005, Universal)

Additional Sources
(In order of appearance):

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Dir. Rob Marshall
(2011, Walt Disney / Jerry Bruckheimer)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Dir. David Yates
(2011, Warner Brothers)

Super 8
Dir. J.J. Abrams
(2011, Paramount)

Dir. John Ford
(1939, United Artists)

Broken Blossoms
Dir. D.W. Griffith
(1919, Biograph)

The Passion of Joan of Arc
1928, Dir. Carl T. Dreyer

Dir. Michael Curtiz
(1943, Warner Bros.)

Transformers: The Dark of the Moon
Dir. Michael Bay
(2011, Paramount)


Soundtrack from Raiders of the Lost Ark
Composed by John WIliams
DCC Compact Classics

Symphony No. 8 in B minor, d. 759 I. Allegro
Franz Schubert
Performed by The Cleveland Orchestra
Conducted by George Szell
Sony Classical

Soundtrack from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Composed by John Williams
Columbia Pictures

Soundtrack from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Composed by John Williams
Warner Sunset Records / Warner Bros. Records


Ali Arikan
Christianne Benedict
Steven Boone
Will Comerford
John Damer
John Keefer
Kevin Lawrence
William Lee
Peter Mackenzie
Mike McRae
Gary D. Morgan
Matt Patches
Bernard Tong
Matt Zoller Seitz
Keith Uhlich
Yuqian Yan

Kevin B. Lee is Editor of Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.

Related Posts

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


  • Kevin: This is a beautifully-executed critique of how–as they say in theater–a director’s “technique shows.” Well-done. Informative and entertaining.

  • alsolikelife says:

    Thanks so much Michael!

  • Dave Summers says:

    Well engineered and sharply rendered, brilliant Kevin!

  • This is a well integrated argument. You’ve chosen your shot examples really well. I watched A.I. again a last year after arguing with you about it when it came out and I think I’ve come around on it. I think it’s interesting that the Mechas at the end of that movie don’t actually HAVE faces, don’t you? Is that a meta commentary on the audience and to where the audiences for mega blockbuster cinema have evolved? I suspect it might be.

    Good work, in any case.

  • tim says:

    this beautifully written critique has inspired me beyond any blog comment area can allow. thank you. please make more.

  • Jon Kapp says:

    Really enjoyed this video/essay. I would say that this shot was so central to Spielberg’s aesthetics that it even carried over to the films that he Produced but DIDN’T DIRECT. One of the main examples I can think of is the 1982 film Poltergeist. There is a lot of serious “Spielberg Face” usage going on in that film. Of course, later it would be used almost to parody in another 80’s classic produced by Spielberg, “The Goonies”. However, seems clear that the impact of this shot even carried over into films when other directors were in charge (Tobe Hooper, Richard Donner) simply because Speilberg was Producer. Anyways, as a big fan of Spielberg’s films, I really enjoyed your analysis of his films as works of art, and not just what many others have re-treaded- a recanting of Box Office numbers.

  • alsolikelife says:

    Thanks Jon -and excellent point about the Spielberg-produced movies of the 80s – some Marty McFly faces in BACK TO THE FUTURE are playing in my head as I write this now! I now wish I had fit that in, but I was mostly focused on Spielberg’s oeuvre and after going through 28 of his films, plus some 2011 blockbusters for contemporary relevance, I was pretty beat.

  • Jason T Sparks says:

    Incredible essay…stepping back and looking at a director’s entire body of work & then realizing “hey, there’s /x/ there!” is always satisfying.
    I agree that he really discovered his love for the device in CE3K. I wonder, though, what to make of what he does with it in “Raiders”–essentially my favorite of his films–when it plays such a role in the climactic opening of the Ark. Or “roles”, rather, as it does serve some different purposes;
    1. Bellocq and Toht SF while looking into the Ark, and Bellocq even telegraphs what the SF is about by saying, “IT’S BEAUTIFUL!”
    2. “DON’T LOOK AT IT, MARION!”–an SF is denied!
    3. One of the angels(?) shares the distinction awarded the CE3K alien–although not human, she makes an SF at Bellocq…
    4. And then she makes an anti-SF…
    5. And then Bellocq and Toht and (the other administrative Nazi) make their own anti-SFs, the horror SFs we later see on Dakota Fanning, and then…
    6. I think we all remember what becomes of those three faces.
    Great essay.
    You know, Kubrick is renowned for a specific type of face in his pics…

  • Beautiful.

    Well done, Kevin. Well done.

  • time capsule says:

    And in a pessimistic point of view, their stares are
    forms of surrender to their helplessness of being human… as they freeze to those moments of uncertainty… staring and waiting for wherever the future events will take them…… 😛

    … just like the clueless American viewer as he stares helplessly of what is beyond his territory, thinking of what he can do –because they have their ways and means he can’t understand– and end up exploiting what he doesn’t know, like third world countries……. (particularly referring to the 90s and earlier, where Spielberg and other Hollywood movies dominated, you may also check Gerbner’s Cultivation theory) ….

    I still appreciate Spielberg though.

  • pjcamp says:

    It’s the face of a mall person. For all the mall people watching it.

  • Aaron says:

    Thank you for this wonderful visual essay! It’s a delight to see an analysis on Spielberg’s filmmaking. Though he’s the most famous director around, his tactics are never plainly spoken of. He only lets out a secret here and there.

    One thought, though it’s rather obvious. I’d say that “The Spielberg Face” is merely Spielberg’s use and interpretation of Sergei Eisenstein’s THEORY OF MONTAGE. (The actor-the bowl of soup-the actor-the dead child-the actor, etc) Forgive me for simplifying it, but I wonder if Spielberg would agree. Yes, the way that Spielberg implements this tool is uniquely him, but one could argue that BERGMAN exploited this tool as well.

    What I mean is this. All filmmakers are now slaves to Eisenstein.

  • alsolikelife says:

    Thanks for pointing that out Aaron – and all the better to tie it into Fandor’s collection of Eisenstein movies (sorry for the shameless plug, that’s just how they do things around here): http://www.fandor.com/filmmakers/sergei_eisenstein/?campaign=kf&source=9436

  • Joel Bocko says:

    Thought I had caught this years ago, but now I realized I hadn’t actually watched it (I must have bookmarked it for later). Wonderful essay which starts with a clever visual conceit and then expands beyond the montage (and then expands again, when you twist back to show how Spielberg subverted his own technique).

    One question, though: where is Schindler’s List?! Unless I’m mistaken, you cover every other Spielberg film (except, I guess, Temple of Doom & 1941) so possibly his most acclaimed film cuts quite a striking absence!

    Furthermore, now that I think about it (in light of the argumentation you provide in this video), THAT film is almost certainly the one in which the usual purpose of “the Spielberg face” gets flipped on its head (pardon the pun, if it is one). Most notably, this occurs in the infamous scene when Schindler sits atop a hill and looks out over the liquidation of the ghetto, spotting the little girl in the red coat escaping down an alley.

    I’d have to examine the scene again (because it might be too much of a medium shot, and too static to qualify) but I think we see it also when Goerthe practices his “I pardon you” speech in the mirror before deciding to kill the little boy anyway. The film seems rife with examples that both continue (Ben Kingsley), subvert (Ralph Fiennes), or render ambiguous (Liam Neeson) the “Spielberg face”.

    This also makes me think of something written in one of the more unfavorable Spielberg biographies, by John Baxter, which compares the shot of Schindler’s reaction to the ghetto to Lawrence of Arabia’s reaction to the massacre of the Turks (and Zhivago’s reaction to the cossacks putting down a demonstration) and argues that in all three cases, the reaction – supposedly horrified in Zhivago’s and Schindler’s cases, but more consciously ambiguous in Lawrence’s – is in fact orgasmic. Which would certainly have interesting implications for the treatment of violence and spectacle in Spielberg’s work.

    I guess what I’m saying is…give us a “The Spielberg Face II”!

11 Pingbacks »

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.