Steven Soderbergh, Self Assignment, May 2013

Are You Thinking About Your Transitions?

As we prepare to transition to 2015, I thought I’d post about transitions in storytelling. A few months ago I saw Jeff Garlin interview Steven Soderbergh live on stage at Largo. Steven was asked, “What is the most important part of the filmmaking process?”

My wife is a film editor and much to her delight, he said, “editing.” Some in the audience challenged him on this, asserting that he was dismissing the writing. After noting that he has more single-credit writers on his movies than anyone else and has never fired a writer, he explained why editing is so important. He said that from the beginning, he works with the writer to nail down the screenplay’s transitions from scene to scene, making sure they either connect or collide in interesting ways. And the reason he sees editing as the most important facet of moviemaking is that every other part of the process needs to be filtered through the question of “how will this assemble once we have it in the cutting room?”

I think a key facet of the director’s job is to look at everything from this point of view, letting it guide creative choices — from something an actor improvises in the moment, to choices made in composition. There are two primary ways to direct a movie (and the truly skilled tend to blend the two). These are the Hunters who know exactly what they want and have a vision for how it will fit together and that’s what they shoot. These directors typically design their movies with shots specific to the content. The two are unified, inseparable. Hunters don’t shoot coverage. In fact, this word is a bit of a pet peeve of mine that makes me want to eat my face for some dumb reason.

Then there are the Gatherers who create an atmosphere on set where they can shoot options to be mined through in the cutting room. Generally you see more conventional shooting here: Master, 2-shot, Close-ups and Over the Shoulders. The options are intended to provide a safety net, or better yet to discover moments that transcend what’s on the page, but I have a hard time seeing a bunch of “maybes” as an effective way to shoot an entire movie. This may be obvious, but the gathering approach, I think, benefits greatly from being supported by a more defined and purposeful structure. Many are able to strike an elegant balance. Their movies are constructed in a very deliberate way, with touches of improvisation throughout.

Both approaches, or a combination of the two, are guided by a few things: intention, emotional continuity, rules of the storyworld, and of course, how it will fit when the movie is actually being built by your editor.

My wife Jamie Cobb and I attended this Soderbergh event with Gordon Burkell from Art of the Guillotine. Recently, Gordon did a show about transitions that brought me back around to this topic and I think it’s worth a listen by anyone interested in, what I think, is one of the most crucial and fundamental elements to telling a story well.

  • Lauralee

    This was lovely. I’m definitely more of a “gatherer” but I dislike the visual results sometimes – the setups feel less deliberate, more hodge-podgy. I’d like to shoot more deliberately as I go, find ways of getting at the subtext in the story with camera and sound while still being able to keep that sense of on-set looseness and discovery. Finding that middle ground is a challenge, for sure.

    I am working on increasing my technical skills and developing more patience during script and prepro stages – I’m thinking the ability to combine both approaches lies there, in planning.

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