Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Breaking Down Steven Soderbergh’s Three-Shot Rule

I began my review for Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, the genre thriller, Unsane, by describing the three-shot rule Soderbergh holds himself (and all filmmakers) accountable for. “After the first three shots, I know whether this person knows what they’re doing or they don’t,” Soderbergh has explained. That’s an interesting idea. In a film’s three opening shots, can the filmmaker use composition, blocking, music, font and other elements to establish the story we’re about to see? That’s what I want to find out in this post.

Below, I look at the first three shots of every Steven Soderbergh film and assess their worth based on the three-shot rule standard. Note that I am only examining feature films Soderbergh has directed, which means no shorts, no TV shows, and no sole cinematography credits are listed below. Enjoy!

Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)
Shot 1: After two brief credits, the first image pops onto the screen. It appears to be a close-up shot of asphalt zooming by. The shot is held for a curiously long 24 seconds and accompanied by a twangy, up-tempo score.  

Shot 2: We cut to James Spader driving a convertible. He’s cruising right along, determined and focused. The shot is only held for 2 seconds, which is jarring, given how long the first shot was.

Shot 3: Back to the road. What’s cool about this shot is that it stops, and begins to reverse (suggesting that the car has stopped and is backing up). The shot lasts 15 seconds, toward the end of which, Andie MacDowell begins speaking in voiceover. Her first word is, “Garbage.” I’m intrigued.

Conclusion: What I get from these shots is that we’re in for a fast-paced flick, probably one set on the road, led by a man of convincing determination. The quick melody of the score helps sell this. Yet, upon watching the entire film, that isn’t the tone I would use to describe Sex, Lies and Videotape. It’s a fun and fast intro, one that would convince me to stick around, but it’s a little too quick to help set and sell the story we’re about to see. C+

Kafka (1991)
(Credits): Should opening credits that feature visual elements be included as opening shots? Kafka begins with 90 seconds of credits, which includes a groovy title card, and a tone-appropriate score by Cliff Martinez that clues us into to the type of film we’re about to watch. Under these credits are obscure images of European architecture, but given that the images are intentionally muddled, I do not include these credits as the opening shots of Kafka.

Shot 1: The first real shot starts as the credits are ending. We see lavish, European structures in the distance, and slowly pan left to reveal a horse and carriage strolling down the street. It’s an intriguing shot, and the stark black and white imagery helps establish setting and tone rather well.

Shot 2: We’re on the street, the carriage blocks the camera, and once it clears the frame, we see a man crouched down, seemingly terrified by what (or whom) he saw in the carriage. He stands and begins to run in the opposite direction, looking behind him to make sure he’s safe.

Shot 3: Nice Dutch angle shot of the man running down a cobbled European street.

Conclusion: I’m interested, certainly. The man’s face in Shot 2 sells it. I want to know what he’s running from, and why. From these opening shots, I assume the movie will be set in Europe, have a slow pace, but feature a hint of danger, which is exactly what Kafka is. The film itself is one of Soderbergh’s lesser efforts, but he opened the movie appropriately. B

King of the Hill (1993)
Shot 1: After two minutes of standard credits, we open on a tight shot of boy (Jesse Bradford) reading a report in school. The camera slowly pulls away, giving us a better idea of the space we’re in.

Shot 2: We cut to a brief insert shot of a student listening to the boy.

Shot 3: And then yet another brief insert shot of a student listening.

Conclusion: I’m not getting much out of these shots. It’s nice to start so close to our eventual protagonist, but nothing about these shots tells me what kind of movie I’m about to see. To be clear: The shots are serviceable, but they don’t adhere to Soderbergh’s three-shot rule standard. D+

The Underneath (1995)
Shot 1: After some lengthy opening credits, we open on Peter Gallagher’s focused face. The most noticeable thing about this shot is the stark green color; an interesting, bold choice. Soderbergh loves experimenting with lens filters to give his images a certain look, and it appears that concept started with this film. Gallagher’s character seems to be driving a truck, but because the shot only lasts six seconds, it’s difficult to figure anything else out.

Shot 2: A very brief POV shot of a white van that Gallagher is apparently following.

Shot 3: Back on Gallagher, but slightly farther back from the first shot. This shot only last three seconds.

Conclusion: Well, first off, it should be noted that Soderbergh hates The Underneath. He appreciates the cinematography and the score, but he still apologizes for the film to this day. (For the record, I kind of dig it, as an alt-heist flick.) Soderbergh’s distaste for the film is evident in these opening shots, as very little thought (at least by Soderbergh’s standards) seems to have gone into them. In fact, these are undoubtedly the weakest three opening shots in Soderbergh’s catalog. D

Schizopolis (1996)
Shot 1: We hear film running through a camera, someone yells, “Action,” and we open on a shot of a dimly-lit, empty theater. A man (Steven Soderbergh) awkwardly climbs on stage and approaches the mic. We immediately notice the unusual frame rate. Soderbergh’s movements are skipping and blotchy. Something is very, very off here.

Then Soderbergh begins to speak, and the audio is as muddled as the image. “Ladies and gentleman, young and old, this may seem an unusual procedure, speaking to you before the picture begins, but we have an unusual subject. Turn.” The image flips up (or “turns)”…

Shot 2: …and we land again on Soderbergh, now in a medium shot. His very odd introduction continues: “When I say that this is the most important motion picture you will ever attend, my motivation is not financial gain, but a firm belief that the delicate fabric that holds all of us together will be ripped apart unless every man, woman, and child in this country sees this film and pays full ticket price, not some bargain, matinee cut-rate deal. Turn.”

Shot 3: The camera flips again, and we land on an even closer shot of Soderbergh. He continues, “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything. Turn.”

Conclusion: Schizopolis is absurd, confounding, and makes no logical sense, but that is all done by design. Whether you like the film or not is entirely subjective. What is inarguable, though, is how perfectly these shots service the movie we’re about to see. A

Out of Sight (1998)
Shot 1: A parred down version of The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” plays over the Universal logo. The first shot begins harshly out of focus (as the film’s title may suggest). We’re on a busy street, and when the first credit appears, the image stops in freeze frame. The camera finds focus, zooms out, pans left, zooms in, and finds focus on George Clooney, who walks angrily out of a building and throws his tie on the ground. As he does this, the title card appears, and the image freezes. This is the definition of a perfect opening movie shot.

Shot 2: We cut in closer to Clooney as his tie hits the ground. He adjusts his clothes.

Shot 3: We sneakily cut in even closer to Clooney as he calms himself down, and notices something across the street.

Conclusion: Opening shots don’t get much better than this. I could talk about it for pages. First off, all the technical elements of the shot (dipping focus, zooms, pans, freeze frames) are things Soderbergh will use throughout the film, meaning none of this is random, it’s quite literally telling us the kind of technical movie we’re about to watch. The humorous physicality of Clooney’s movements indicate the type of character we’re about to spend two hours with, and the movie even opens with the same song it concludes with. The first shot of Out of Sight is masterful, and the subsequent two help sell it dutifully. A+

The Limey (1999)
Shot 1: “Tell me. Tell me about Jenny!” Terence Stamp barks in voiceover while the screen is still black. Similar to Out of Sight, the first shot of The Limey is harshly out of focus. The Who’s “The Seeker” blares away, Stamp walks toward the camera, and the focus finds him right as the title card appears on the screen. This is a perfect opening shot for this movie.

Shot 2: From Stamp’s POV, he slowly canvases an arrival terminal at LAX. The pan shot ends on two young cops.

Shot 3: This shot jumps in closer to the two cops, who have just finished talking with a woman, and are now speaking to each other.

Conclusion: Shot 1 sells it here. The focus, the song, the font choice of the credits – we know Stamp’s character means serious fucking business. The Limey is a character study, so it makes sense that Soderbergh is waiting to find his character (hence soft focus), and when Stamp and the camera find each other, everything clicks into place. A

Erin Brockovich (2000)
Shot 1: While the screen is still black, we hear a man ask a question, and quickly cut to a close up of our title character, answering the question in a job interview. She’s bullshitting, and she isn’t doing it successfully.  She’s charming and charismatic, but a bit condescending. In short, we’re watching the biggest movie star in the world (at the time) looking as we’ve never seen her, making us laugh at her character’s nonsense.

Shot 2: We cut to a medium shot of Shot 1. The failing interview continues. We still can’t see the interviewer, but I like that he holds up a piece of paper in the bottom of the frame.

Shot 3: Back to the framing of Shot 1. Erin Brockovich finally finishes her rambling answer.

Conclusion: These shots are entirely character based. Erin Brockovich intends to show us who Erin Brockovich is, and how she changed things. These aren’t compelling shots technically, nor do they suggest the overall story of the film, but they do indeed accurately introduce us to Erin’s charm. B-

Traffic (2000)
Shot 1: After a very brief company logo and a refreshingly simple title card, we open on this harsh shot of the desert. A game device can be heard, but the most startling thing about this shot is the color. Harsh and depleted; yellow, hot, new. A car is off in the distance, which is likely where we’re headed. A setting card pops up. We hear two men talking.

Shot 2: We cut into the car, to the two men talking. I like the framing of this shot, with Benicio Del Toro’s character slightly more in focus, even though he’s technically in the background of the frame.

Shot 3: And then the reverse shot, of the other man not paying attention to Del Toro’s story.

Conclusion: This is a tough one because Traffic is so ingrained in my heart. The film is largely responsible for me wanting to pursue filmmaking as a career. It means the world to me, but if I’m breaking these three opening shots down, I have to admit that they don’t inherently clue us into where the story is going. However, the first time I saw this movie, I knew by it’s opening shot that I was in for something harsh, and different, which is what Traffic is. I can’t think of a different way to open the film, but judging by Soderbergh’s standards, I feel like there should be more. B

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Shot 1: Ambient prison sounds play over the studio logos. The image fades in, and George Clooney walks into frame. But this isn’t a Clooney we’re not used to seeing. This is prison Clooney – unshaven, a little tired, but also somewhat eager. Throughout this long shot, Danny Ocean (Clooney) sits before a parole board. The off-screen parole officers fill us in on a lot of amusing backstory, as does Ocean himself. This is an information shot, certainly. We’re getting to know the character before we know him. Aesthetically, the shot is intentionally different from any other in the movie. It’s gritty and cold by design. I love that this shot bucks convention.

Shot 2: Pushes in tighter on Clooney as David Holmes’ music begins to play, signaling that Ocean is about to be released.

Shot 3: A brief shot of Ocean walking with a guard through the prison. I like the framing of this shot a lot. It traps Ocean in. 

Conclusion: Based on character, these shots get the job done. We understand what kind of guy Danny Ocean is, and how Clooney is going to play him. And I really like how Shot 1 looks so much different from every other shot in the movie. That is intentional, and it works well, especially with repeat viewings. We’re invested, we’re intrigued, we’re in. A-

Full Frontal (2002)
Shot 1: Of course, in one of Soderbergh’s most experimental films, I have trouble identifying what the first three shots of the film actually are. Ultimately, I have to go with the first thing we see (and hear) which are a series of title cards introducing us to Full Frontal’s main characters. The first is Blair Underwood’s character, Calvin, who tells us in voiceover about an “invisible man” known as Gus. Calvin’s narration isn’t nearly as amusing as his text character description.

Shot 2: Card two is Julia Roberts (Soderbergh is wise to hold the reveal of his star, as opposed to opening directly with her). Her character talks about how she doesn’t mind that she’s been mean in the past.

Shot 3: Catherine Keener talks about the harsh realities of how judgment is a part of life. We’re also told her character’s birthday is tomorrow, indicating a potential plot element.

Conclusion: Full Frontal is a weird fuckin’ movie. But, alas, I adore it. It’s a Steven Soderbergh Experience, as opposed to a Steven Soderbergh Film. I can’t recall a movie starting this way, and I can’t recall a movie playing out quite as Full Frontal does. In that regard, I think these opening cards are successful in establishing the film we’re about to see. B

Solaris (2002)
Shot 1: We hear the gentle sound of rain falling as the first image fades in. It’s of a rain-covered window, the background deeply out of focus. In my world, this is a perfect shot. You open a film with an image like this, and I’m all in. Show me more.

Shot 2: We cut to George Clooney, sitting on his bed, despondent, removed. “Chris, what it is?” a woman’s voice asks in narration.

Shot 3: A reverse shot of Clooney’s back. He’s hunched forward, he’s thinking, he’s in pain. What the hell has he gone through?

Conclusion: Like Traffic, it is increasingly difficult to separate the opening shots of Solaris from the overall film. What I mean is, Solaris is a very important film to me. It touches on many of the themes I’ve tried to convey in my own work. But, the question remains, do these shots help establish the story we’re about to see? Yes, I believe they do. And I’m not just saying that because I love the film. The shots are brief (Shot 1: 7 seconds, Shots 2 & 3: 5 seconds) but they help sell the world we’re in. The color is brown, muddled, off. Yet the room is sterile and clean. Is this present day? I’m not sure, but you can bet I’m going to wait and find out. A-

Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
Shot 1: European bells and the sound of rain play over the fantastically colored studio logos. This is going to be different. The shot opens tight on some antique decorative items and immediately begins zooming back. Brad Pitt (soaking wet from the rain) walks into an apartment and heads toward the bedroom. The camera glides with him gracefully as he enters the kitchen (Note: there could be a hidden cut here as Pitt walks from one room to the other). A title card appears, we’re in Rome, three and half years ago. Now we wonder if this is before the events of Ocean’s Eleven. Pitt enters the bedroom, and we quickly push into Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is half-sleeping. The camera zooms in very close as the lovers kiss. The shot lasts for a full minute and is a perfect ode to European cinema.

Shot 2: Pitt gets up from the bed and walks to the other side of the room.

Shot 3: Pitt sits in a chair and begins talking off his shoes, all while talking to Zeta-Jones.

Conclusion: Shot 1 is one of my favorite opening shots of Soderbergh’s filmography. It’s long, technically masterful, and wholly intriguing. As mentioned, the first time I saw Ocean’s Twelve, I instantly wondered if “three and a half years ago” meant before or after the Bellagio robbery in Ocean’s Eleven. So already, my mind is racing with thoughts, which is good. I also like how this shot doesn’t open with Clooney’s character, instead hinting that Pitt’s character will have a bigger role in the sequel. And introducing a new character (Zeta-Jones) to us in Shot 1 is intriguing as well. A

Bubble (2006)
Shot 1: Upbeat, twangy music blares away the instant this first image appears. At first, we see unkempt grass, but a bulldozer claw comes into frame and begins digging away at the dirt.

Shot 2: Now we’re given an extremely wide view of the bulldozer. Given the cemetery setting, it’s safe to assume that a fresh grave is being dug. The title card appears over this shot as well.

Shot 3: We slowly crossfade to a woman laying despondently in bed. I love the blue hue of this shot; it’s pure Soderbergh.

Conclusion: Bubble is another Steven Soderbergh Experiment, one that I appreciate very much. The first time you watch the film, these shots may not suggest anything too telling, but once you finish the movie, Soderbergh’s intentions of the shots are clear. This is a slow paced film that takes an unexpected, dark turn late in its running time. A turn that would require a fresh grave to be dug. It’s also telling to see our main character this way in Shot 3. Throughout the film, she routinely presents herself as kind and endearing. But how well can you really know someone unless you see them alone? B

The Good German (2006)
Shot 1: Big, orchestral music and an old-school Warner Bros. logo are the first things we see and hear. From there, Soderbergh drops his titles on a series of real-life war-time footage. And because this footage isn’t obscured in any way, it must be counted as the first shots of the movie. Shot 1 is the main cast card. In the background, we see buildings that have been blown to hell. People walk by, going about their day.

Shot 2: The brief title card (the shot is 5 seconds long). More war-time footage is shown. 

Shot 3: The third shot is just two seconds long, and includes no credit.

Conclusion: If you don’t know anything about The Good German going in (that it is a ‘40s-set war picture that relied largely on practical film instruments that were available in the ‘40s), Soderbergh helps sell the idea with this intro. I can’t say the images are terribly compelling, nor do they hint at the specific story we’re about to see. But they are intriguing. And Thomas Newman’s score is indeed the highlight. C+

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
Shot 1: Soderbergh has more fun with colors over the studio logos, as David Holmes’ signature music blares away. The tune stops as we open on a beautifully cold-looking shot of a… toy store? Do our Ocean’s Heroes have it so bad that they’ve started knocking off toy stores? A masked man drops in from the ceiling and begins walking as soon as he touches the ground. We track him through the store, through a hole in the wall, to a bank vault on the other side. Two other masked men wait for our guy, who quickly gets to work on the vault. His cell phone rings, it’s bad news. He takes off his ski mask to reveal himself as Brad Pitt, he hangs up the phone, announces his exit, and the music comes back into play. This is such an amusing opening shot.

Shot 2: Pitt, now dressed in one of his character’s trademark flashy suits, walks on a runway toward a private jet. Love the color of the sky in this shot. Such primary wonder.

Shot 3: Pitt enters the plane and sits down. We notice a figure in the seat in front of him. Wonder who it could be?

Conclusion: I love these opening shots. The first one is so sneakily funny (the toy store, the ski mask, Pitt’s line deliveries and exit), and it perfectly sets the tone of the movie. This is going to be the fun Ocean’s movie. It isn’t going to take itself too seriously, and you shouldn’t either. Story wise, I appreciate that there’s some inherent danger going on from the film’s first shot. Why is Pitt rushing away so quickly? Who’s in trouble, and why? A-

Che, Part 1: The Argentine (2008)
Shot 1: Soderbergh begins his massive, two-part epic film, Che, with a graphic of Cuba. Soderbergh takes his time highlighting the different portions of the country, and the major cities of each. Alberto Iglesias’ music is the real star here; it’s a character of true bombast. Honestly, I wasn’t planning on including this graphic as the first shot of the film, but Soderbergh’s holds the shot for more than two and a half minutes, so it is appropriate that the shot is indeed listed first.

Shot 2: After the graphic, we spend 30 seconds in black, as an English-speaking interviewer prepares to talk with Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro). Our first real film shot of the movie flashes on. It’s a grainy, handheld, black and white shot of a soldier’s boot. A setting card informs us when and where we are.

Shot 3: This shot is the real doozy. The handheld camera is tight on a man’s body. We notice his military uniform. The camera finds the man’s cigar, then gracefully lands on the man’s face, revealing Del Toro’s Che to us for the first time. This shot last for 30 seconds and nearly every second is telling us something. 

Conclusion: These three shots are a perfect encapsulation of Soderbergh’s three-shot rule. Each shot tells us something different about setting, story, and character. And the fact that Soderbergh holds the opening graphic for so long suggests that he is going to demand our full attention for the entirety of the movie. This is a perfect opening for this film. A+

Che, Part 2: Guerrilla (2008) 
Shot 1: Part 2 of Che is a little trickier to break down, because, yet again, we have to decide what the real first shots are. Guerrilla opens with three still frames (each lasting about 6 seconds) of men who appear to be hiding in a tunnel system. This is frame one.

Shot 2: Here is the second still frame.

Shot 3: And the third still frame.

Conclusion: Again, this is a tough call. If I’m fair, it only seems right that I include these three stills as the opening shots of the movie. Soderbergh made the very conscious choice to open his movie with these photographs, so they must be included here. (For the record, after the three stills, Bolivia and then all of South America are given the same graphical treatment that Cuba was in the opening of The Argentine.) So, using these three stills as the basis of Soderbergh’s three-shot rule, I must admit that they aren’t effective. There’s nothing provocative about the images, and I can’t say they help sell the overall film. I’m frankly surprised Soderbergh didn’t begin Guerrilla with the map (as he did in The Argentine), but Soderbergh certainly isn’t a man who adheres to the rules. D

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
Shot 1: Soderbergh’s Experiment, The Girlfriend Experience, opens with a shot that I still can’t place. It’s some sort of metal rolling by (or perhaps the camera is gliding past it). The obscure shot lasts for nearly 10 seconds.

Shot 2: After a brief production title card (in a perfect font), shot two appears, and it is a quick, handheld shot of night traffic, harshly out of focus.

Shot 3: Shot three is a brief shot of the film’s star, Sasha Grey, out of focus in the foreground. 

Conclusion: The first time I saw this film, these opening shots indicated to me that I was about to watch something different. Something quick, dirty, and potentially all over the place, which the movie is. I can’t say the three shots are highly effective, but they do fit the tone of the film. I’m particularly drawn to the third shot; as if Soderbergh is telling us Grey’s character will never be fully understood. C-

The Informant! (2009)
Shot 1: After opening with one of the best “This film is based on a true story,” cards ever, we’re given our first shot. It’s a brief, close-up shot of a man opening a briefcase. The first thing I notice about this shot is that the opening credits play out over it, which is not something Soderbergh does a lot. He’ll have an opening scene and then include credits later, but rarely do the very first shots of the film contain credits.

Shot 2: Shot 2 reveals the contents of the briefcase, which appear to be surveillance equipment.

Shot 3: A hand gets a clunky recorder ready, just as the title card appears.

Conclusion: As noted, these are unusual opening shots for Soderbergh. But that opening “True story” card, matched with the fun font, the breezy musical score, and the yellow tone of the film, indicate that we’re about to see something that doesn’t want you to take it too seriously. The tone comes across clearly, but I’m left feeling like there should be more here. B-

Contagion (2011)
Shot 1: The opening shot of Contagion is one of the best opening shots of Soderbergh’s career. While the screen is still black, we hear an airport announcement in the distance, and then the sound of a woman coughing. The shot, which runs longer than one minute, opens on a somewhat sick-looking Gwyneth Paltrow. A sleek title card informs us that this is “Day 2.” Day 2 of what? Paltrow accepts a call, and we gather quickly that she’s just had an impromptu fling with a flame (voiced by Steven Soderbergh himself). Her wedding ring tells us she’s married, but this fella on the phone ain’t her husband. They engage in playful banter; she coughs more. Then she goes to close her bar tab.

Shot 2: She passes off her credit card to the bartender, and because Soderbergh holds this shot for longer than expected (with the focus constantly on the card), we can assume that gems are spreading, and spreading fast.

Shot 3: A brief shot (with some rad focus) that helps establish place and population. Will this card be a reoccurring theme in the film?

Conclusion: Shots 1 and 2 immediately put us in the film. Paltrow’s subtle but convincing make-up (and laid back performance), the insistence on framing the credit card, Cliff Martinez’s pulsating score, they all help us get fully immersed in Contagion. A+

Haywire (2012)
Shot 1: We open harshly out of focus, one of Soderbergh’s favorite opening shot techniques. A simple title card establishes the setting, and as the camera pans down, it reveals a distressed and slightly bruised Gina Carano. She’s stewing, but why?

Shot 2: A POV shot shows that Carano is staring at a diner across the street. But why is she hiding? Is she waiting for someone inside, or debating going in herself?

Shot 3: Carano does indeed enter the diner, cautiously at first, then, when she deems it safe, she rushes over to a booth and takes a seat.

Conclusion: These shots are meant to sell the intrigue of the film. David Holmes’ mysterious music helps too. Any movie that begins so harshly out of focus, but ultimately reveals a main character, is a good indicator that we’re meant to root for the person, even if we won’t fully agree with their choices. We’ve seen this in Out of Sight and The Limey, and while it works more effectively in those films, I give Soderbergh credit for maintaining one of his crucial visual themes. B

Magic Mike (2012)
Shot 1: A glorious, old-school Warner Bros. logo appears, we hear sounds of idle chatter, and then the man himself speaks. “Let’s fuckin’ get it on right now – let’s go! Come on. Come on!” Matthew McConaughey shouts. When the first frame appears, we’re privy to one of the finest opening frames of Soderbergh’s career. We’re focused on McConaughey’s back, as bright stage lights flood the camera. We notice McConaughey’s leather outfit and listen to the hilarious rules he’s establishing for the crowd. “Can you touch this?”

Shot 2: Cut to a profile master. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” McConaughey says, playfully teasing the crowd.

Shot 3: Back to a close shot of McConaughey as he grabs his ass, which drives the crowd insane. 

Conclusion: If you somehow missed the trailers and marketing campaign for Magic Mike (and, really, how could you?) then these opening shots tell you what kind of movie you’re about to watch. The shots don’t fully reveal the film to us (because Magic Mike does get surprisingly dark), but it capitalizes on the fact that many viewers came to see men shake their asses, and these opening shots do not disappoint. The framing of Shot 1, and McConaughey’s performance throughout, makes this one of Soderbergh’s most entertaining intros. A

Side Effects (2013)
Shot 1: Shot 1 is unusual for Soderbergh. It’s an extended, exterior zoom shot in which the entirety of the credits play out. The shot begins by overlooking a street (either during sunrise or sunset), then panning right and steadily zooming in on an apartment window. The shot lasts for nearly 90 seconds and is scored to an ominous track by Thomas Newman. It’s clear that something is wrong here.

Shot 2: Shot 2 confirms this, as we cut into the apartment and focus on blood splatter on the ground. Oh dear.

Shot 3: The next shot follows bloody footprints down the hallway, before resting on a gift and small wooden boat. This used to be a friendly place, but gone is its innocence. 

Conclusion: Something awful has happened, and the film is going to spend much of its duration figuring out what. Given that there are only these three shots before a “Three Months Ago” title card appears, it’s clear that Soderbergh was relying heavily on his three-shot standard for Side Effects. No cutaways, no insert shots, just three carefully paced shots that fully immerse us in the story. A-

Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Shot 1: Oh my. First, we begin with a glorious retro HBO logo, then we’re given a date setting, all while a disco track plays. Once the image cuts in, the music amplifies and crowd noise becomes apparent. The image is harshly out of focus, but it moves in toward a man at a bar. The camera lands on the man’s back and catches focus on another man (Scott Bakula) across the bar. Bakula smiles and walks to the man close to the camera. As Bakula reaches him, the man turns, revealing himself to be a very ‘70s-looking Matt Damon. They say hello, they exchange names. They’re bathed in red and ready to party. The shot lasts for well over a minute and, as the disco song in the background suggests, “I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love.” 

Shot 2: We cut to a completely different setting. Outdoors in the mountains. Is that a film crew on the ground?

Shot 3: Scott (Matt Damon) is happily cleaning a dog’s mouth, suggesting that this is what he does for a living.

Conclusion: It’s all about Shot 1, which is one of my favorite opening shots Soderbergh has ever captured. It’s alive with energy, fun to look at, staged gracefully, and performed well by the actors. The first time I saw this movie, I remember smiling during this shot and thinking, “Yeah, I know what I’m in for, and I cannot wait.” A 

Logan Lucky (2017)
Shot 1: Logan Lucky begins with one of the longest opening shots Soderbergh has captured yet. In the 82-second long shot, we begin close on a girl’s face and slowly push back to reveal her father, played by Channing Tatum, working on a truck. Tatum is telling an amusing story about John Denver, all while routinely asking his daughter for new tools. Their playful banter, along with the girl’s knowledge of tools, makes it clear that these two have a great relationship. Technically, I love the style of the shot – both how it starts close and eases out, and how saturated and natural the colors are (which is rare for Soderbergh).

Shot 2: Cut to a profile of the pair, as Tatum finishes working on the truck.

Shot 3: Cut to a reverse profile shot. Shots like this are a huge cinematography faux pas, as they are considered jumping the 180-degree line previously established (in Shot 2). One of the reasons I love Soderbergh so much is that he gives zero fucks about rules of composition. There are no rules. Watch, and learn.

Conclusion: Logan Lucky was the film that clued me into Soderbergh’s three-shot rule. As that first shot was happening, I realized, “Soderbergh really invests thought in how to open his films.” Then I did some research and discovered this three-shot rule he sets for himself and other filmmakers. The shots that open Logan Lucky are perfect character encapsulations of who we’re about to see. Like Side Effects, these shots standalone, but are also deeply ingrained into the story. A-

Unsane (2018)
Unsane is still in theaters, so I don’t have more screenshots of it, but I urge everyone to see it while you still can. The three shots that open the film absolutely adhere to Soderbergh’s three-shot rule. I honestly had no idea what Unsane was about when I saw it. I avoided all marketing materials, including trailers. I knew Steven Soderbergh shot it with an iPhone, and I assumed (based on the title) that the film would have something to do with deteriorating mental health. The opening shots of the movie are so well constructed, that they helped me put plot elements of the movie together before those elements were even introduced. I loved those shots, and I loved this film. A

Final Thoughts
I’m not sure when Soderbergh started holding himself accountable for the three-shot rule, but from Contagion on, it’s very clear that Soderbergh has put a considerable amount of thought into how he begins his films. 

Overall, my favorites were Schizopolis, The Limey, Ocean’s Twelve, Che: Part 1, Contagion, Magic Mike and Behind the Candelabra, with Out of Sight being the best of the bunch.

It’s also clear that for films Soderbergh wasn’t particularly invested in, the opening shots seemed to have little importance. I’m referring to Kafka, King of the Hill, The Underneath, and The Good German in particular.

Most curiously, there are a handful of great films that Soderbergh didn’t seem to hold accountable for the three-shot rule, such as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Che: Part 2, and The Girlfriend Experience. But, as mentioned, who knows when Soderbergh started using the three-shot rule as a measure of how to open a film.

All told, this was a damn fun exercise, and a wildly informative one. If you’d made it this far in the post, I hope you got as much enjoyment out of reading it as I did making it!

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  1. Wow, the evolution of the three-shot rule according to Steven Soderbergh. This is something every aspiring filmmaker needs to learn. Yet, I often go to Breaking the Waves as an idea to introduce a film's protagonist as the way Lars opened the film was something that felt new when I first saw the film when I was 19/20 when I saw it on IFC.

    This is a lesson that needs to be honed as it is definitely a device that filmmakers need.

    1. I always love your comments. This is all so true. First off, his three-shot rule has been an evolution. It's very clear that he didn't start off thinking that way, but he honed it with experience. It's also been fun to go back through my own work and dissect the opening three shots of my stuff. Kind of scary, actually. But you can be goddamn sure that the next time I make something, I'm putting more thought than I normally would into those opening shots.

      I also absolutely love that intro to Breaking the Waves. I still remember that first time I saw it too. It was so new and alive.

  2. This was fascinating stuff! I have a question, though. Since he seems to get better at applying the rule as he's gone on (as you note, from Contagion on), could it be that the rule is just something he put a name to after the fact, as in after he noticed how much emphasis he himself was putting on those opening shots? In any event, this was a very informative read. Great job!

    1. Thanks Dell! I think Soderbergh honed this "rule" as his career evolved. I do not think he started his career with the three-shot rule in mind, but as he kept making more films (and seeing what worked and what didn't) he realized that the first, second, and third shot of his movies are absolutely essential.

      So, I don't think it was on accident; that he put a name to it after the fact. I think he realized it around Out of Sight and The Limey, and by Ocean's Eleven he said, "Yeah, I have to begin every film as strong as possible."

      From Contagion on, he hasn't made a massive studio film, or a "Steven Soderbergh Experience" film, which seems deliberate. Basically, I think since Contagion, he's gained full and complete control of his films, and that's why his openers have been so strong since.

  3. Great post! I've never even considered paying attention to this until before. I'm glad he seems to have gotten better at it too.

    Sex, Lies, and Videotape is my Blind Spot for this month ,but I need to see Solaris too. Now I just want to watch Side Effects again.

    1. Thanks so much! It's so cool to examine movies this way. How much does the start of a film suggest what we're about to see?

      Sex, Lies is a good one. Very different from the kind of stuff he makes today. Solaris is one of my all-time favorite films, but it is slow, so be warned haha.

      And honestly, Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike and Side Effects are four of the most deliberately entertaining, compulsively rewatchable films from any director I've ever seen. I can watch any or all of them any time, any day.

  4. Alex! I love this! This is fantastic! This is why movie blogging exists! I had no idea about this. What a breakdown. I will never look at the first three shots of a movie the same way again...

    1. Dude! You're the man. Thanks so much for this comment. I'm so happy you dug the post!

  5. Oh wow this is amazing! You must have worked so long on this post. Out of Sight opening composition of shots is so memorable and that freeze frame definitely catches the eye and sets the tone for the film. I also really like how Ocean's 12 begins. Solaris has great beginning too in terms of showing what the film is about. It's an interesting rule but Soderbergh clearly himself is not always following it, in terms of how effective and representative these shots are, so it'd be silly for him to judge other films based on it.

    1. Thanks so much! It definitely took a while but holy shit, what fun. And you bring up an interesting point - is it fair for someone to judge someone else, given that they don't hold themselves to the same standard? (I suppose that's the basis of American politics, but that's another story.) So, to be fair, I've never heard Soderbergh call out another filmmaker for the three-shot rule, only himself. He started bringing it up recently in interviews, both in times where he thinks he succeeded, and failed. What an interesting guy.

  6. No wonder you like Soderbergh so much, he's directed so many films that you respect! Seeing them listed this way, he has had quite a career!

    I'm glad you wrote some personal history with Logan Lucky, as by that time, I started wondering when did Soderbergh make it known that he has such a philosophy, as that is something, once you say it aloud, people are going to look back and see how much you follow the concept.

    Another excellent essay, thank you!

    I really need to watch more of his films.

    1. Thank you! I do love Mr. Soderbergh, indeed. Just making this list, I knew I was in for a month-long Soderbergh binge. Rarely did I stop watching these movies after their first three shots; gotta let them play all the way through!

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

  7. Great post, Alex. Very informative as to how an artist hooks an audience, and also how he evolves.

    Soderbergh is one of those filmmakers who I can just listen to talk about film and filmmaking for hours. Scorsese and Fincher are up there too. You always walk away from an interview with so much insight, the feeling that, yes, maybe I can do this.

    By curiosity, have you heard about the Q&A he did with Criterion for the sex,lies, and videotape release? I wanted to submit a question, but I felt a little intimidated. Did you submit a question for him?

    1. Thanks so much! I agree, Soderbergh, Fincher, Scorsese (I'll add Michael Mann and Ridley Scott), are some of my favorite cinema speakers. When they do director's commentaries, I always learn so much from them.

      And holy shit, I had no idea about being able to submit questions to him! Never even heard about that, but I'm so happy that film is being rereleased.

  8. Never thought about this, much more about openings in an overall sense... but recently I saw Enemy on TV and I remember it starts with an image of the city and then another thing and the pregnant wife, I think Soderbergh would like that. Now I'm wondering what Fincher does with this... as he seems to overanalyze every shot.

    My favorites are Out of Sight, Che Part I and Magic Mike. And the Solaris one is not too bad I kinda feel like that shot of the bed makes you feel like someone should be lying on that bed next to him. I'm so glad to read what you've said about Solaris. I went to see that film on cinema with my mother and I remember that despite there was a lot of criticism towards it (at least in Spain) we both loved it. Those Dylan Thomas quotes and the Cliff Martinez soundtrack still gives me chills. A few years ago I watched the Tarkovsky one : masterpiece, but I still love the Soderbergh one because it's a different interpretation of the same thing... And I'm just talking a lot about it because I'm reading the novel at the moment, for the first time, and reading it just makes me more convinced that both films are totally valid. Tarkovsky captured the imagery and the otherwordly and surreal part and Soderbergh the intimate part. To anyone reading the novel I'd recommend both films as a combined vision of the novel.

    Really interesting post as always!

    1. I completely agree with your assessment of both films. And Soderbergh has often acknowledged that as well. And believe me, Solaris was panned here, at least with audiences. Soderbergh had just won an Oscar for Traffic, and then delivered a massive hit with Ocean's Eleven, so to follow that up with a quiet, patient film like Solaris... that did not sit well with people at all. But I have always adored it.

      I need to rewatch Enemy now, and Fincher's work!