Worth a Thousand Words: Facial Expressions and the Storytelling of Steven Spielberg

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When dialogue alone isn’t enough.

There’s no doubt that Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest storytellers film has ever known. This is owed in part to him knowing when to tell his story, and when to show it. Spielberg, besides being capable of grandiose visual spectacles with many moving parts, is also adept at more subtle, simple shots that can convey as much power and have even larger emotional impacts than his set pieces. One such subset of these latter shots are slow dolly zooms that focus on the faces of his actors, their silent expressions speaking in place of words that could never do justice, no matter how well-written, to the moments unfurling on screen.

[watch] A Simple Touch: Hands in Steven Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST

There are no words to convey the amalgam of wonder and fear Elliott feels the first time he sees E.T.; there are no words that can capture the shock and awe of landing on Normandy Beach in the midst of one of the most tumultuous and deadly battles of the 20th Century; and there are no words to describe the sickening realization Chief Brody has when watching young Alex Kintner thrashing in the sea as it quickly goes red with his blood.

But facial expressions can do all these things in seconds, while the impression they leave can last forever in our memories.

In the following video from Film in the Making¸ the facial zooms of Spielberg’s films are analyzed to reveal the variety of their impacts and significance to story. While he by no means invented the technique, it can be argued he perfected it. Check out the video and see if you agree.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist