Steven Soderbergh’s School of Unconventional Filmmaking

By  · Published on December 8th, 2016

Examining where and how the director bends cinematic storytelling to his will.

Close your eyes. Picture a movie, any movie, real or not, in which a character walks into an office for a meeting with another character. Imagine how that would unfold, cinematically. It would start with an establishing shot, right? A quick frame to show us where the office is, where the meeting is taking place. Then, when the primary character enters the office, there’s a wide shot of the room. As the character sits opposite the other and the meeting begins, the camera flops back and forth between over-the-shoulder medium shots then slowly transitions into close-ups of the characters’ faces as the meeting approaches its crescendo. I’m willing to bet this is pretty much how you imagined the scene, because this is pretty much how every director would shoot such a scene.

Steven Soderbergh, however, is not every director.

Soderbergh has made his career in independent film, regardless of his budget or cast. Even his most commercial projects to date, the Ocean’s trilogy, are made more with more experimentation and non-traditional storytelling elements than one would or possibly should expect from a blockbuster. In the instance of Ocean’s Twelve specifically, the director tackles the above-described cliche of a scene by sending Danny Ocean (George Clooney) into a bank to set up a (bogus) retirement account. Only, we never see an establishing shot of the bank, we never see a wide of the room, the only over-the-shoulder shot comes from the banker’s perspective, and all non-essential aspects of the conversation have been obviously edited out, their cuts not even concealed. Yet there is no confusion in the mind of the viewer as to what’s happening narratively because any gaps are instantly filled by common sense and our previous filmgoing and other narrative experiences. Soderbergh knows this, he expects it, so that’s what gives him the freedom to subvert the expected way of doing things.

In the following essay from Declan Taffe’s Writing with the Camera YouTube channel – “Steven Soderbergh: Don’t Tell Me What I Already Know” – such breaks from traditional means of cinematic storytelling in the work of the director are identified and analyzed, and in a very basic sense his philosophy and the essence of Taffe’s video comes down to, in Soderbergh’s own words:

“A desire to just find a new way to give the audience information about the story and about character. There has to be a better way to lay things out for people, or at least you can be more adventurous and release information in a way that’s less traditional.”

Soderbergh has certainly lived up to this idea, and Taffe’s essay is an excellent primer on how. Use it to inform your appreciation of perhaps the most independent mainstream filmmaker working today.

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