Films by great directors are basically a free master class in filmmaking. Spielberg is one of my all time favorites, and I really wanted to get in and study his work in detail. So I decided to pick sequences from his films, starting with Saving Private Ryan, and reverse storyboard from them, studying the cinematography of each shot, and the sequence as a whole.
I've broken the shots out into a slideshow below, along with individual shot analysis. It should be a bit easier to read what is going on:
This shot could be considered part of the previous sequence, but it’s important for context. It is a huge 24 second shot that starts wide, panning left, then dollys/cranes left to an extreme wide shot.
The shot pans past the squad, showing them leaving, but they aren’t really the focus of the shot; the main purpose is to show the vast scale of the invasion, and reinforce the difficulty to the mission to save Private Ryan. It also serves as the resolution of the previous sequence showing the chaotic beaches of Normandy now fully secured by the massive US fleet.
One of the most iconic shots in the film, with the very distinct WWII silhouettes. This shot, along with the previous shot, serve to transition us from the invasion to the search for Ryan.
The lighting is incredible, starting dark and overcast, then lightening with the reveal of the soldiers. It is visually transitioning us from the grim D Day sequence to a lighter sequence where we learn about the squad.
Camera stationary, 18 seconds long, slight reframe on squad.
Smooth pan right, 11 seconds long. These two long shots help establish the passage of time and show the tranquil/idyllic country side. The entrance of the sheep from screen right reinforces this tranquility, strongly contrasting with the brutality D-Day sequence. Life goes on, the audience is put at ease.
An epic 52 second steadiCam shot, in amongst the Rangers. This is the first in group of very long shots that Spielberg uses to help bond the audience with the squad. We are meant to feel like we are part of the group, just walking along listening to the banter. Excessive cutting would ruin the effect.
Additionally, these shots highlight Upham’s struggle to fit in. His (social) struggle is shown visually, as he moves through the group trying to find someone to talk to.
We start in a two shot, walking alongside Fish and Upham, with Caparzo's back in frame. Upham's movement motivates the camera to move with him.
The camera moves backwards and right with Upham, swinging around in front of Caparzo to frame them all in a 3 shot. Caparzo initially blocks Fish from view, but that's totally ok in this organic, documentary style of cinematography.
The camera subtly pans right to anticipate Wade's entrance and frames the 3 in perspective.
The camera slows, letting the characters move past. There is so much variety in composition, all in one shot! Caparzo and Wade then disengage with Upham, making him less of a focus. Caparzo turns back towards to Fish, motivating the cut.
Nice cut-on-action with Caparzo's look back. Camera is stationary, panning right to follow, and lets the characters move past. This creates a sense of progression and passage of time, helping ease the cut to the front of the squad , a big move.
Spielberg loves to move characters in space, going from MG to FG, from CU to wide, he is always making use of depth.
A wide SteadiCam shot, staged so the squad can pivot past camera. The camera moves with the soldiers, again immersing the audience as part of the squad.
Also, the change in direction adds to the sense of progression.
The camera movement has been linear, but the pivot of the squad has moved the composition from a wide perspective shot to a medium profile two shot. Awesome!
Wade's line to Rieben motivates the cut.
Rieben and Wade's dialog voices the concern of the audience: "Why risk many for one?"
Rieben's dialog is funny, along with Capt. Miller's expression, helps endear the squad. The camera is staged to include Rieben, the Captain, and Wade (even though he's mostly hidden.)
A a3/4 medium shot, moving with Upham. He is in the middle of the group, but still not part of it.
It's awesome how Fish is staged behind Upham, so when he taunts him, Upham has to whirl around off guard. It's like a sneak attack.
Cut on dialog.
Camera cuts closer to Fish for his dialog.
Note how Caparzo and Fish are almost always staged together in order to cement them as friends. Right now, that friendship is being contrasted against Upham.
Same-as Shot 007. In fact, the 3 main camera positions for the rest of the sequence have now been established.
This structure is super important for this type of organic moving sequence, especially with so many characters. The audience has to understand where everyone is.
Also notice how they do not cut back to Upham, his dialog happens off screen.
Cut back to Upham for his reaction. Camera is same as Shot 008.
FG/BG characters are allowed to overlap, staging is not kept pristine.
Cut back to the front 2 shot (Same-as 007 and 010) for Rieben and Miller's dialog.
Structure. Structure. Structure.
Back to Upham for the what's FUBAR joke. This line is important, because it isolates Upham as the odd one out. He's the only one who doesn't get it.
And the camera isolates him too! Unlike before, there are no BG characters around him. He is all alone on screen.
Same as shot 009. It is kept as a two shot (instead of a one shot of Fish) to include Caparzo's reaction. This signals the audience to the joke, and also reinforces the duo of Fish and Caparzo, / group vs Upham.
Also, a one shot of Fish would have probably been to direct a confrontation. The banter is meant to be light.
Back to Upham for his response. His not understanding FUBAR is important because it is referenced later.
Again, he is isolated on screen.
The camera cuts back to the same two shot position in front of Capt. Miller, but it has repositioned right and closer, moving Rieben out of frame and bringing in Jackson and his dialog.
Also, Jackson's line here is amazing.
"This is how to gripe!" The joke triggers the camera to move in from a 2 shot to a med. shot. Check out how the Capt. moves to the edge of screen, preparing to exit, then strongly gestures back, throwing the audience's attention fully on Jackson. Awesome staging!
Instead of cutting, the camera just slows down, letting the Jackson move up into a medium shot. Throughout the shot the camera slowly transitions into a 3/4 shot, framing the squad beautifully.
Dialog further reinforces Jackson's role in the group (which is about to become important) and adds to the banter.
The camera cuts in closer for the "Pack your bags boys!" punchline. I'm not sure the reason why. It might be to mimic the phrasing of what he is saying, adding a little bit of emphasis with the cut.
We get a little bit of the squad's reaction in the BG, but mostly that is saved for shot 018.
Back to the original structure, two shot of Rieben and Capt Miller. We get their reaction to Jackson's joke, and they continue their dialog. Notice how Jackson is barely in the shot! He isn't needed anymore, and the shot's have to be kept efficient.
Rieben steps out of frame on his question, looking back to direct the audience. It's a very similar move to how the Capt. moved out of frame in shot 16.
The camera slows, sliding back for the Captain's response in Med. CU.
A long reaction shot of Horvath. He's been absent from the whole sequence so far, so it's important to include him here. The silent smirk he gives is great acting: He's an old friend, experienced soldier, and doesn't need to banter as much as the young guys.
Back to the Captain for his monologue. Even though it's upbeat, it is important plot wise as it establishes there is no going back, they are committed to the mission.
It's also important character development for Captain Miller. He is the ideal CO. He's devoted to his men but even more to his duty. These two commitments tear at him and his strength is shown by how he quietly bears that burden while light heartedly leading his men.
These last 3 close ups are a nice piece of texture for a sequence that has mostly been group shots.
At the end of Miller's monologue, the camera slows (to a stop?) and lets the squad move past. The lack camera attention, and the characters moving to obstruct the view, motivates the cut.
Back to a two shot of Fish and Caparzo. Notice how their screen position has swapped. I'm not 100% sure why. This might be for visual variety, or just wanting the camera more in front of them to get a clear read on their banter.
Fish is still behind Caparzo, so their positions are fairly consistent. With the rest of the sequence. Also, if there is any question about their friendship, the smooch seals it.
SteadiCam CU of Upham smiling. Despite the rough start, he likes and trusts these guys. The audience experiences the same thing. As he walks off to join the group, the camera swings around to follow him.
As the camera swings around to follow Upham, he transitions visually from alone, to part of the group. That. Is. Awesome. Great use of camera to reinforce story.
We get the sense that this is normal, and Upham will be accepted if he keeps at it.
Camera pans with Upham, but slows, letting him and the squad pull away into a wide shot. Upham's relaxed attitude is a great mirror for the audience, and the final order of "Line!" snaps him and us both back to attention. This is a war zone.
Great series of four shots that use the weather to transition the tone (just like the start of the sequence) back to danger. This builds on the end of the last shot.
A brilliant use of sound design, tying together the sound of rising storm/rain with the rising sounds of battle. Large distant booms are even tied to the raindrops!
Sounds and rain continue to build: machine gun fire mixed with the patter on the leaves.
The sound effects crescendo until a series of boots enter in the FG. We are now fully transitioned. These last 4 shots have also allowed for a large passage of time.
Back to war. The many boots running signals the audience to an emergency, and the start of a new sequence.