Remixing Cinema with Soderbergh, Spielberg, and Me

Today, one of my favorite directors, Steven Soderbergh, posted a really great blog about “staging” in film, which is meant to mean how all the elements of a scene work together to tell a visual story. To illustrate his point, he took ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and remixed it a little: converted to black and white, all music, sound and dialogue removed with a different soundtrack alongside it to help you focus on the staging — the direction, the length of each shot, how the cuts work. It’s pretty much as awesome as you might think, so you should definitely go watch all hour and fifty-five minutes of it. I’ll wait.

When I saw this hit my various feeds today, I felt a particularly affinity for this kind of visual investigation and experimentation. I occasionally watch The Social Network on mute to get this same effect, to absorb the staging and rhythm of the thing, because a great movie works without any sound and that one is especially good for me.

But that’s only tangentially related. The affinity I’m talking about is using a similar technique to investigate staging and rhythm and cuts for my capstone project when I graduated from Indiana University. A capstone is a culmination of everything you learned (in theory) and my professor and I came up with this bananas thesis about how I could take a scene in a film, rip it apart and study the math, and discover some things about editorial that I never knew before. A sort of Gus van Sant/‘Psycho’ approach to appreciating a scene on a deeper level, but maybe more successfully.

One of the scenes I chose was from Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film ‘Traffic’. I chose a druggy overdose scene, of course. I ripped the scene, brought it into Final Cut Pro, and razor bladed on every cut within the movie. And I measured exactly how many frames there were for each shot. I played around with changing the speed or reorganizing the shots for my own experimentation. I saw why the way it was shot and assembled worked, and how I could make it not work.

Then I rounded up some of my friends and reshot the scene myself. The point being I would get some kind of understanding from actually going out and doing it myself, and cutting it myself. It was a little like shooting a music video because my friends/actors had to lip-sync the lines. Extra weirdly, I only had the shot I needed pulled with the audio attached so I could be sure it was the proper shot length, so some of the lip syncing was to random syllables. Extra extra weirdly, I looped it in Quicktime for multiple takes. It was a really weird shooting experience.

Don’t laugh at me, this was a great learning experience. ‘Traffic’ starts a minute into the piece.

Besides learning the limits of the focal length of the camera I was given at school (and the importance of understanding how to use lenses), this ended up being a transformative experience as an editor, appreciating the staging of each shot and just how short or long some shots ended up being. Because on the flip side of this, I also did a scene from Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘Festen’ (‘The Celebration’) and that one let shots play out a whole lot longer than I’d ever considered in my MTV generation upbringing. Another thing I learned about the composition of a shot and the staging of a scene: those big bright colors in the background of a shot? Yeah, they’re not just there for fun. I completely missed that lighting in my shoot and crudely added it in post to get the visual effect. Yikes.

In his post, Soderbergh writes that “this is what I do when I try to learn about staging, and this filmmaker [Spielberg] forgot more about staging by the time he made his first feature than I know to this day (for example, no matter how fast the cuts come, you always know exactly where you are—that’s high level visual math sh-t).” Tell me about it, dude.

I think for the visually inclined among us — the editors and cinematographers and the like — these kinds of exercises are something that can refresh your creativity in just the right way. I highly recommend turning a viewing experience on its side to investigate what makes it work so well for you. What you uncover probably applies to any of the work you do.

So in summary, you should go watch at least parts of Raiders in gorgeous black and white and enjoy how every shot is beautiful and comes at just the right time, and also I’m a massive weirdo.

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