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How Spielberg creates movie magic

  • Story Highlights
  • He doesn't always please critics, but when Spielberg makes a film audiences watch
  • Spielberg describes what he does on screen as "super-intensity"
  • But how exactly does the director achieve his particular brand of celluloid magic
  • We try to define what makes a Spielberg movie, well, a 'Spielberg movie'
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By Mairi Mackay
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Love him or hate him, it is impossible to deny Spielberg is one of the most significant directors in Hollywood history. From the summer blockbuster to the resurgence of historical dramas, his influence can be felt across the film industry.

He's one of the most successful directors ever -- loved by audiences around the world -- but what what is it that makes a Spielberg movie special?

Spielberg made his name in family entertainment with hits like "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, " and received an Oscar for Holocaust drama "Schindler's List."

But despite his obvious storytelling skill, critics have been largely dismissive of his work -- perhaps put off by the easy redemptions and schmaltzy endings in many of his films.

But his populist approach is a winner with audiences. Take a look at the box office: he directed four of the 50 all time top-grossing films in the U.S. -- "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial", "Jurassic Park", "Jaws" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

But what is it that defines classic Spielberg? "Super-intensity" is the director's own word for what he comes up with on screen but that doesn't really get to the bottom of his particular brand of celluloid magic.

The Screening Room takes a peek into the director's bag of tricks and tries to identify what it is that makes a Spielberg movie, well, a 'Spielberg movie.'

1. Ordinary people, extraordinary moments

Dangerous, exciting and downright weird things happen to everyday folks in Spielberg's world. In "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982) a kid from the suburbs makes friends with a creature from another planet and has a series of adventures. Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "Temple of Doom" (1984) and "The Last Crusade" (1989), is a bookish archaeology professor, who fate conspires to involve in fighting Nazis for ancient treasures.

The action in "Schindler's List" (1993) may take place in Poland but Oscar the eponymous hero is a pretty ordinary guy who faced with an appalling reality transcends his former self to try to protect Jews' from Nazi persecution. It's a recurring theme and the messages blasting through multiplex screens are especially intense because it is so easy to identify with the protagonists.

2. Chase scenes

As Spielberg's first film, "Duel" shows he was already a master of this stylistic tool -- the whole film is an extended but unflaggingly suspenseful chase scene. But he really shows off his flair for pacing and detail in the runaway mine-cart sequence near the end of "The Temple of Doom." He starts big and keeps cranking up the tension. The tiny cart holding Indy, Short Round and love interest Willie Scott careens around corners on two wheels, sparks flying in tunnels that weave and loop like an amusement park ride.

Bullets zing past shot by the evil Indian Thugees hot in pursuit. With an instinctive understanding of how to keep the audience interested, Spielberg splits the track into two which run parallel and Indy to fights hand-to-hand with the Thugees. A river of molten lava running below the tracks spells out the fiery end of whoever loses this fight.

3. He makes films he would like to see himself

Spielberg doesn't follow anyone else's lead -- he doesn't jump on bandwagons or try to make a buck from a 'sequel' to a successful film made by someone else. He can also be an innovator -- in the 90s "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" played a crucial role in re-launching the historical epic.

Spielberg isn't a movie intellectual. As a child he loved the emotional highs and visceral thrills that cinema could deliver, although they were never enough for him. When he became a director he realized it was possible to crank up the adrenalin even higher. He tried it with "Jaws" and the film jump-started the blockbuster revolution. Later, in the 80s when the U.S. film industry was at a low ebb, he turned to friend and collaborator, George Lucas and asked: 'What kind of movie would we like to see?' The answer they came up with was "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

4. A collaborative effort

Spielberg is notable for gathering together the finest craftsmen in their field and pushing them to the state of the art. He often forms long-term relationships with collaborators, like composer John Williams who likens their alliance to a 'marriage.' Williams won an Oscar for the spine-tingling "Jaws" score and also composed the Indiana Jones theme tune.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski started working with Spielberg on "Schindler's List" and has directed photography of many of his films since. His most notable achievement to date is the ferocious 25-minute D-Day invasion sequence that opens "Saving Private Ryan." The shaky, handheld cameras which gives the sequence a documentary feel allowed Spielberg raise the bar for fictional depictions of war and earned Kaminski an Oscar for best cinematography.

5. Suspense and satisfaction

It was a props disaster which led Spielberg to keep the audience's first sighting of the shark in "Jaws" until an hour into the film. The first mechanical shark they put into the water sank. A desperate young Spielberg had to think of something -- and quick. What he did created tension that wouldn't have existed if he had showed the creature in the first scene as he had originally planned.

It's a trick he has used successfully since. Notably in one of his other creature features, "Jurassic Park." First sight of the T-Rex comes quite late on, after Spielberg has primed us to see the dinosaur much earlier by putting a goat in the dinosaur's pen.

But -- and this is a rule Spielberg follows rigorously -- when we do finally get the payoff scene it's good. A severed goat leg falls on the roof of the jeep with a gory thump and we see the huge dinosaur tossing the goat into it's mouth like a dainty morsel.

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6. A little extra

Spielberg always has some little flourish going on in the background beyond the rudimentary milling extras: a sailor tying a knot, tourists taking pictures, a character backing into view. In the foreground he keeps the thrills high and the images detailed. Soup that when stirred turns out to be made of eyeballs in "Temple of Doom," and Jews frantically eating jewels in chunks of bread before the Nazis liquidize the ghetto in "Schindler's List." He is always moving the camera to reveal new visual information and the little details studded in the canvas lend a hand at keeping the greater spectacle awe-inspiring.

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