“My policy is to have my name on a movie only once,” says Steven Soderbergh, so quoted by video essayist Nelson Carvajal. “Having your name once increases the impact of that credit because I think every time you put your name up there, you’re actually diluting it.”
That’s why Soderbergh, who isn’t quite a one-man-band auteur but comes close, doesn’t put “Edited by Steven Soderbergh” and “Director of Photography: Steven Soderbergh” on his movies, even though most of the time it’s true. The filmmaker employs pseudonyms: respectively, “Mary Ann Bernard” for his editing credit (his mom’s maiden name) and "Peter Andrews” for his cinematography credit (his dad’s first and middle names).
Nelson’s video essay focuses on Peter Andrews, aka Soderbergh the Cinematographer. Soderbergh caused a minor stir back in 1999 when he announced that he was going to serve as director of photography on his drug drama Traffic, an ensemble story with multiple, parallel subplots. Soderbergh was DP on his mockumentary Schizopolis, and he’d had previously served as his own camera operator on other films, even ones that had separate, credited cinematographers, because he likes the intimacy that results when a director personally covers actors’ performances, adjusting framing as he goes and cutting out the middleman, so to speak. Much of the film was shot handheld, with relatively lightweight, 35mm Panavision XL cameras, often from a slight distance, but zoomed in, to give the actors a bit of space and to contribute to a documentary-like aesthetic, intimate yet respectfully distanced. Soderbergh had been moving in this creative direction for years, and arguably perfected the approach in his two previous movies, The Limey and Erin Brockovich (with cinematographer Ed Lachman). Soderbergh shot the film’s three main storylines in three strikingly different visual styles (discussed in some detail here) to help audiences instantly differentiate them. Although he seemed to bite off more than he could realistically chew—half of the first day’s footage proved unusable—he got a handle on things, and the film’s look was widely analyzed at the time and is still imitated. Breaking Bad even cribbed the brown “tobacco filter” used in Traffic’s Mexican sequences for its own south-of-the-border scenes.
“Peter Andrews” became more comfortable and offhandedly ambitious over the years, working both in film and video throughout the aughts; 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven and 2002’s Solaris were shot on 35mm film, lushly so, while the improvised 2002 Hollywood satire Full Frontal, the 2004 HBO series K Street, and the star-free 2005 neorealist crime drama Bubble were shot with rather modest video equipment. Soderbergh has increasingly gravitated toward video as image quality improved and the equipment became increasingly portable. As he explains in this video, he likes to shoot and edit quickly, the better to see the finished product and then move on to the next thing, whatever that turns out to be.
As you can see in Nelson’s compilation, Soderbergh isn’t interested in forcing his media to be something they aren’t naturally inclined to be. When he worked in celluloid, he tended to work with the properties of particular film stocks rather than pushing against them; he didn’t seem to mind graininess or slight under- or over-exposure as long as the story got told, and for the most part he made the capture of performance and the rhythms of cutting more of a priority than visual gloss or compositional perfection. When he started working extensively in video in the early aughts—by which point he was serving as his own pseudonymous director of photography—he didn’t seem to lose a wink of sleep over whether laypersons could tell that something was shot electronically rather than chemically. He wasn’t afraid of blown-out windows (one of the most recognizable tells of shot-on-video movies) and when he shot handheld, he didn’t try to disguise the fact that he was working with very light, at times seemingly weightless cameras. This isn’t to say that he was an aesthetically sloppy cinematographer (the locked-down, meticulously framed images in 2005’s Bubble prove otherwise)—just that, to use a fine arts metaphor, he didn’t pretend that watercolor was oil paint, or that paper was canvas.
Video is more conducive to Soderbergh’s nimble formalist mindset than film, a medium whose images cannot be accurately judged until the movie is completely edited, color timed, and printed. True, it’s possible to check focus and framing of filmed images on set by way of a video “tap,” which shows an approximation of the image on a monitor; but video (especially high-def video from the last decade or so) removes a lot of the guesswork, because when you’re shooting electronically, what you see in the monitor on set is very close to what the movie will look like when it’s done, give or take some exposure tinkering, color correction, CGI, paint-outs and the like. Video is also much more amenable to available light, and Soderbergh has always hated having to light actors and sets; he believes it saps the momentum of performances and kills immediacy, and anyone who’s ever acted for the camera will tell you that he has a point. Prizing available light and emotional momentum over the minute details of light, shade and texture won’t win a filmmaker too many accolades as a stylist. (“He saves time by not going into all that other unnecessary ‘lighting’ stuff DP's sometimes talk about,” one film buff said in an online forum. “He never seems to let composition, camera movement and, from what I've heard, proper exposure dictate story either,” another countered.) But his post-2000 output is striking, albeit in a rough, Ken Loach-like way. And there's a hell of a lot to nitpick. If “Peter Andrews” had fussed over every frame of a Steven Soderbergh production, Soderbergh would not have directed or co-directed 16 feature films, one cable movie, one cable series, two documentaries and two shorts since 2000.
The last feature film that “Peter Andrews” shot on 35mm film was 2007’s Oceans 13. Every movie after that was shot electronically. After using the high-definition Red video camera to shoot 2008’s Che—a two-part, four hour biopic of Che Guevara, starring Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic collaborator Benecio del Toro—the director abandoned film and never looked back. “This is the camera I've been waiting for my whole career,” he said at the time. “Jaw-dropping imagery, recorded on board a camera light enough to hold with one hand… Red is going to change everything.” And it did. Soderbergh shot most of his subsequent projects with versions of the Red camera, including The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant! The brand has become one of the workhorse photographic systems for cinema and television; Louis C.K. shoots his series Louie on the Red, and Peter Jackson shot all three parts of The Hobbit with the Red, after having shot the original, Oscar-winning trilogy on Super 35mm film.
“Since I act as my own cinematographer, one thing I've had to learn is how to make things look not so good, to be able to go into a space and recognize this is the way this looks, and it's not always my job to make everything look pretty,” Soderbergh told The Chicago Tribune in an interview about his 2012 hit Magic Mike. “It's supposed to look real sometimes. I'm weirdly proud of scenes where I've let things look the way they look. To me it's a sign of maturity."--Matt Zoller Seitz
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.