Watch: Discover Spielberg's Visual Techniques to Introduce Memorable Characters
There's a reason we don't see the face of Indiana Jones until the three-minute and fifteen-second mark of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'.
Steven Spielberg is an enduring pillar of cinema for so many reasons: his knack for creating suspense, his masterful scene transitions, his keen awareness of the audience. One of the most important skills Spielberg possesses as a filmmaker is his outstanding ability to introduce characters in visually memorable ways.
In his video essay below, Adam Tinius takes a deep dive into the character introductions in Spielberg's films, ultimately delineating the director's techniques into "Action" and "Fraction". Tinius explains that Spielberg either focuses deliberately on a character's actions when they first appear in his films, or builds a character in visual pieces ("Fraction") through close-ups on their attire or gestures before revealing their faces.
While Tinius focuses on "Action" and "Fraction" as separate methods to introduce characters, his argument is strongest when he demonstrates that Spielberg's most memorable character introductions are when he uses these techniques in concert. For example, the introduction of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark reveals many key characteristics of the story's protagonist through key actions while not revealing his face. Jones approaches a stone mask and poisonous dart with calm and thoughtfulness while his guides react with fear and panic. The archaeologist trusts his well-worn map to lead the way more than his hired hands. The adventurer uses his instincts and senses to disarm the traitor in his midst with a crack of his soon-to-be trademark whip. Only after revealing his protagonist's key traits in pieces of action, over three minutes into the film, does Spielberg reveal the face of Indiana Jones under the iconic fedora.
Tinius does an excellent job demonstrating how Spielberg builds characters through visuals and action before a single line of dialogue is even uttered. Screenwriters should take note and use these same techniques on the page to create memorable introductions to their key characters.
What are your favorite character introductions in Spielberg's films? Have you used these techniques to introduce characters in your own films and scripts? Share your thoughts in the comments.