A Cinematographer’s Guide to Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of Spielberg’s most visually striking movies. From the colourful yet terrifying attack on the Guiler household to the majesty of Devil’s Tower, it’s a film that grasps exactly how to make use of the cinema screen for maximum effect. This success isn’t entirely down to Spielberg. Marking the second collaboration between the director and his Sugarland Express cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Close Encounters is a masterpiece of light that owes much to its legendary DOP. 

FROM DIRECTOR STEVEN SPIELBERG asked cinematographer Ken Stachnik for insight into how cinematography and the genius of Zsimond helps shape Close Encounters and make it the masterpiece it is.

Getting ready to revisit Close Encounters of the Third Kind for this article, I realized it had been at least five years since I’d seen it last. And while I’ve liked it ever since I first saw it as a kid, I’ll be honest, I’ve always been more of a fan of Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. So I found myself struggling to come up with something to say other than, “holy crap this film is gorgeous.”

And how could it not be? This is Steven-freaking-Spielberg and Vilmos-Mother-F-ing-Zsigmond! In their primes! At the absolute height of their collective powers. This is a well known and well loved movie that won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography! You certainly don’t need me to tell you so, to know that the cinematography in the film is “really good.” So what was I going to write about?

And then I watched the movie. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is cinematography.

What we do has often been referred to as “painting with light.” And I would say that is a very accurate description of the craft of cinematography. Much like a painter, a cinematographer uses tools of the trade to manipulate light and dark in order to create a desired image. Their work is captured on canvas, ours with a camera.

So what is it that transforms pigment and celluloid into something more? What separates the person who paints your house from the person whose work is hung in a gallery? What makes one of them a craftsman and the other an artist? Story.

Is the work silent, or does it say something? The art of cinematography is storytelling. And this is where Close Encounters of the Third Kind really shines (pun intended!). Not only do Spielberg and Zsigmond use light to tell the story, they use it as the centerpiece of the story. Almost every time the aliens are present, we don’t see them or their ship. We only see their light.

Think of the scene where Roy has first contact. Headlights pull up behind Roy Neary. He waves them on. A second pair of headlights appears behind him. He waves them on too. But these unexpectedly rise up and fly over the car. Think about that for a second, that’s a character introduction, AND A JOKE, told entirely with light. And they’re just getting started.

How are we clued in that something is about to happen to Roy? When Roy illuminates the shaking mailboxes with his flashlight. When do we know something weird is about to happen? When all the lights in Roy’s truck turn off. How do we know these are aliens and powerful ones at that? When they turn on what looks like it could be the literal “light of god” itself and use it to manipulate the gravity around Roy’s truck. And when do we know they’re gone? When the light goes out. A scene and a story being told, and propelled, almost exclusively with light.

Let’s look at another scene.

Here again, Zsigmond and Spielberg use light not only to lure Barry from his bed, but also as the adversary for the entire scene. Again we don’t see the aliens, only the lights trying to break into the house and kidnap the child— This time using more orange and red hues possibly to make them seem more menacing or perhaps just to denote a different kind of machine. The white light sees and scans. The red light interacts.

I could list countless more examples of how this film tells its story through light. This extraordinary work by Steven Spielberg and Vilmos Zsigmond deserves all the praise it received when it was released and still holds up to this day. I hope this 4k restoration gives you what it gave me: a reason to revisit Close Encounters of the Third Kind and fall in love with a masterpiece of filmmaking and cinematography. ?

Ken is a director and cinematographer. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter at @KenStachnik and on his website at www.KenStachnik.com.

As a cinematographer, Ken won a lighting award for his work on Clowntown, available to stream for free on Amazon Prime.

Check out the official trailer for the 40th anniversary re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind below, and find a screening close to you in the UK here.

Learn More…

Find out more about the films mentioned in this essay by visiting From Director Steven Spielberg’s Filmography section. A list of the books and sources referenced can be seen below, alongside other recommended reading.