No cinematographer inspires my own filmmaking more than Steven Soderbergh. I have difficulty explaining it, but the simple way Soderbergh pans to reveal an office sign, or colors physical settings differently, or shoots upside down (because why not?), or… well, I could go on and on. When I watch Soderbergh’s films, I refuel my creative drive. The impact his work has had on me is unspeakable.
Haywire makes the cut solely for its fight sequences, which are captured with a still precision that I find utterly fascinating. It’s the anti-Bourne way to photograph a fight – sit back, move the camera very little, let the action tell the story. A great, jarring example of less is more.
This movie just looks cool. The florescent glow of the casino, the harsh primary colors of a control room, the splendid tracking shots, the urgency of a handheld sequence – it’s so stylized and welcoming.
Precision. It’s a word I’ve already used to classify Haywire, but it’s the best word I can think to describe Soderbergh’s post-Che photography. There’s an efficiency to those films that feels oddly alive. In Side Effects, for example, the camera is routinely placed, handled, and exposed in a way that perfectly benefits the scene at hand.
Rarely has a sequel to a successful film so purposefully abandoned the style, pacing, and structure of its predecessor. Ocean’s Twelve has a free-roaming vibe to it that I completely dig. The frenzied hotel room scene, when nearly all of the team debates a potential job, is a career highlight for Soderbergh. It’s as visually cluttered as the story itself, which somehow works to the film’s favor.
Although I usually prefer to discuss Che as one whole film, Soderbergh did intend to distinguish both parts of his epic. Visually, Soderbergh wanted Part One (aka The Argentine) to have an old Hollywood feel to it. Classic compositions, 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and with the camera fixed at all times – handheld was simply not allowed. This gives The Argentine a vast, controlled look that expertly emulates the type of films Soderbergh was trying to pay homage to. It’s so interesting, for example, to watch the film’s extended Battle of Santa Clara sequence executed in such a meticulous fashion. It’s one of the best scenes of Soderbergh’s career, and his photography is a chief reason why.
Che: Part Two (aka Guerrilla) is the visual antithesis of The Argentine. Guerrilla was shot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio (giving it more of a square look, as you can see if you compare the above screencaps from Part One and Part Two), and the camera was placed on Soderbergh’s shoulder, or, on rare occasion, a tripod. When Che was released, Film Comment wrote an excellent piece about the film, appropriately comparing the look of Guerrilla to a horror film. Now, if you’ve seen both parts of Che, you’ll know that Part One is much faster paced than Part Two (despite both clocking in at 135 minutes long). So, essentially, it would make more sense for the rapid pace of Part One to be shot with the energy of Part Two and vice versa. But if there was ever a contemporary director to buck convention, it surely is Steven Soderbergh.
The Girlfriend Experience visually epitomizes the strength of independent digital filmmaking. The film was shot entirely with digital cameras, it starred a porn star, was financed (for $1.3 million) by a controversial billionaire, and had a shooting schedule of just 16 days. On paper, this flick was fast, cheap, and out of control. But Soderbergh’s compositions are anything but. By using a shifting color palette and constantly obstructing his main character, Chelsea (Sasha Grey), with objects in the foreground, Soderbergh imposes a distance between the audience and Chelsea in such a palpable way. Hell, even the footage of the fellas on a private jet to Vegas works because it feels urgent in a way the rest of the film does not. I love everything about the visual construction of this film.
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