Steven Spielberg: the secret of crafting wow shots

Steven Spielberg is tensed. He is standing at the back of the movie theatre in Dallas, Texas. Not knowing whether the audience will like Jaws or not. Suddenly, during the scene where the boy on the raft is killed by the shark, an audience member gets up from his seat and runs outside – and throws up in the lobby. After cleaning up a little, he goes back in and sits in his seat. That’s when Spielberg smiles. All the tension releases from his shoulders. It’s the moment Spielberg knows he has a hit on his hand!

It wasn’t long since Spielberg was on the verge of puking his guts out himself. He was on the sets of Jaws. The studio had gotten 3 animatronic sharks made for the film: each costing $250,000 (in 1974 – that’s a lot)! And Spielberg found that the sharks were unusable! They looked fake. The movie would terrify no one. It would just become a b-grade comedy! 

What’s worse is that the sharks were not tested in the water before they were delivered on set. They were quite heavy and sank to the bottom! There was no way Spielberg could create terror using them! How was Spielberg to go back to the studio and tell them that their $750,000 expense was a complete and colossal waste?

That’s when Spielberg asked the magic question to himself: what would Hitchcock do?

“I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark.” – Steven Spielberg

That stroke of bad luck was most fortunate for Spielberg. He was forced to not show the full view of the shark till the final climax! 

The movie making secret that Spielberg learnt from deconstructing Alfred Hitchcock

If Spielberg could not show the shark, what was he to do? He picked up the technique that Alfred Hitchcock had perfected. Hitchcock called it “POV cutting”. 

The idea is to place the viewer in the shoes of the protagonist on screen. To make us see what they see. So each scene is shown from 3 angles:

  • Establish the scene and show the protagonist
  • Change frame and show us what the protagonist sees, his point of view
  • Change frame and show us his reaction, what he does

By cutting the scenes rapidly, you can create an immersive feeling and make the viewer more involved.

This can be quite a messy process. But Spielberg kept it focused. He took it a step forward. How? Instead of merely showing us what the protagonist sees, Spielberg made us feel what the protagonist felt! 

How did he do that? He used storyboards.

Elevating POV cutting with storyboards

Spielberg would create a storyboard of how the scene should look, the various point of views he wanted. But before he started the storyboard for a particular scene, he would decide what emotion he wanted to elicit from the audience. If the protagonist felt tensed, he wanted the audience to feel tensed. If the protagonist felt awe, he wanted the audience to feel awe. Anchoring on one emotion per scene made his movies wow!

He then used visual techniques like zooming and panning out to deepen that emotion. And just like Hitchcock, he added sound appropriate for the emotion.

When he was shooting the first scene in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg wanted to show people what real war felt like. Chaotic and confusing. And thats why, he let the camera be bumpy, and alternated between perspective of various soldiers while they stormed the beaches of Normandy.

How can you use Spielberg’s technique to elevate your work?

If you’re not creating movies, it’s Spielberg’s process that can be more helpful to you. Start your communication with a storyboard. Anchor on one emotion you want to elicit. Then follow the framing technique:

  • Set the context. Where your audience is, his surroundings.
  • See things from your audience’s point of view. His problems and his frustrations.
  • Help him visualize what he needs to do.

Take folks on an emotional journey. Because people will do the things they have already done in their minds.

It’s powerful. So powerful that people will come back even after puking their hearts out!

Spielberg’s Jaws became the first movie in the whole world to earn over a 100 million dollars from theatres! In fact, it went on to earn over 400 million dollars! And thats because, Spielberg could elicit the emotion he had anchored. Fear and tension. Spielberg succeeded in portraying those emotions like no one else ever had. And all because he was forced to not show the shark for the first 80 minutes of the movie.

In the end, it’s what we don’t see that is truly frightening to us, isn’t it?

Action Summary:

Logic follows emotion. So put in the effort and prepare on what emotion you want to elicit. And then craft your audience’s journey keeping that emotion in mind.

Link Love:

Alfred Hitchcock and his POV cutting in North by Northwest (4mins):

Scene from Jaws (2mins):

Saving Private Ryan: storming Normandy scene (6 mins):