This year we will see, quite possibly, the final two films from one of the most fascinating and innovative filmmakers of our time: Steven Soderbergh. The director first burst onto the scene in 1989 with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and in the following years he became a pioneer of independent cinema. His filmography is one of joyous variety, and he’s proven skilled at everything from big commercial hits (the Ocean’s trilogy), to serious dramas (Traffic), to comedies (The Informant!), and even small-budget experimental films (Bubble).
Steve recently sat down with Soderbergh for a 45-minute interview in anticipation of his upcoming psychological thriller Side Effects. As the conversation is both lengthy and absorbing, we’ll be sharing a small portion of the interview each day this week before unveiling the full thing on Friday. Appropriately, we’re kicking things off with the filmmaker’s thoughts on his preferred digital camera, his thoughts on 48 frames-per-second, whether digital can ever match IMAX quality, what Kickstarter means for today’s burgeoning filmmakers, and more. Hit the jump to read on.
Steve: I’m just curious about your take on the whole Kickstarter thing right now. I mean it’s a very exciting time for everything.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Yeah. Look, what’s great about all this technology and things like Kickstarter is that it enables me, finally, and without any bad feeling at all, when people come up to me now saying, “I want to do this.” I can just go, “There are no excuses anymore.”
I’m waiting for the person, say a big filmmaker, who has a problem with the studio and needs $50 million, do you think it’s possible for someone to really put together this mega budget thing that the studios would never approve and actually get it going on Kickstarter? Do you think that will ever happen?
SODERBERGH: I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that happen at some point on a scale that’s significant. I’m not even clear- now how does this work exactly? I put money into a Kickstarter thing, do I get it back?
Basically when someone creates a Kickstarter, say it’s for 30 days, I believe that’s what it is, so say they want to target $100,000, everyone puts in money, until they reach the target you are committing to something that is not going to be taken, like a credit card will not be charged anything until they reach the target. Once they reach that target then the money gets funneled into the account they set up and I guess it’s like the honor system, like you’re just believing that they’re going to do what they say. From what I understand most people, most people, are pretty honest about this.
SODERBERGH: Don’t they explain to you like, “Oh, if you put in this money, you’re going to get a shirt?”
There are levels. It could be like $10, you get this, $50 you get this, and ultimately there will be a few that are very expensive that really give you a lot of VIP perks and that’s where they can really get ahead.
SODERBERGH: But it’s mostly not designed to pay people back their money.
I put in money for a really cool thing this British inventor made to help deactivate landmines; it’s like a plastic device, a big ball that can really save a lot of lives and for me that was worth my money. So I’m hoping it works out.
SODERBERGH: Interesting. Look, like I said what I used to say to people all the time was, “Don’t wait for permission.” Now it’s shocking what you can make for nothing, you can make incredible looking shit now.
SODERBERGH: It’s great. That’s the good news, anybody can make something. The bad news is everybody is.
I’m curious about digital cameras. Right now every director and cinematographer I talk to uses either the ARRI Alexa, the RED Epic, or recently the Sony F65, I’m curious your take on the digital cameras that are available right now.
SODERBERGH: I have a long history with RED so I’m partial to RED. I like the way it looks, I like the way it works, I like its size. The Sony camera that’s a nice image, but the thing is a boat anchor. When I first saw the Panavision Genesis I knew that wasn’t going to work because it was bigger than a Panaflex. The whole point is we want it smaller. The thing about the Epic, which can record full resolution without being connected to anything, you know, we have that shot in Side Effects where Rooney puts her foot on the gas, I just stripped everything off the body and stuck the camera behind the gas pedal. Normally you’d have to saw a hole in the car to get that shot. That’s the shit I want. I want to be able to put it wherever I want. That combined with the sort of ethos of that company, which is that they are constantly upgrading. They’ve got a new sensor coming out, the Dragon, that’s fucking insane, like it’s a whole other level in terms of dynamic range, resolution, it’s crazy. I’ve seen the tests on it, it’s nuts. These guys just stay up really late and they’re just never satisfied and they’re constantly pushing it. So I look at it as…if you’re conservative you should probably use something other than the RED, if you’re someone who likes to live dangerously and push stuff then you should be using the RED because that’s where it’s at its best.
A lot of these cameras, you use them and they have text there saying, “Don’t do that. Don’t do that.” Whereas with RED we’ll shoot stuff that will come back, Jim Jannard will look at it and go, “Wow, I didn’t know somebody was going to do that with our camera. Great, lets figure out how to turn what most people would look at as a problem into our next firmware upgrade.” They’re just constantly tweaking. And it’s a great story too because its him, he’s like Howard Hughes; he had the idea, he had the money, he put the super group together, they went and did it and that’s the way innovation happens, you know what I mean? And he’s a gearhead, he’s a camera guy. A lot of these things you look at and you go, “Clearly the people who designed this have never had to use one of these.” Because if you knew you were going to put that on your shoulder you wouldn’t design it that way. Jim was a photographer. He really canvased a lot of people and said, “What do you want? What do you want in this?” And literally talked about how big should it be? How much should it weigh? What should it look like? What should the weight distribution be? What kind of lens masks do you want? He was trying to make something that you could use with your hands that felt intuitive. So I’m really happy that I ended up being a part of that narrative of the development of that camera because it was exciting to watch and the product itself has completely changed the way that I’ve been able to work. My only regret is I wish I had it ten years ago.
When do you think digital cameras are going to hit the resolution or the ability that anyone using film is going to say, “It’s time to switch?”
Okay, let me ask you this question, when do you think digital cameras will get to doing what IMAX can do, if ever?
SODERBERGH: Oh, they will. I mean the new Dragon 6k is crazy. Take the new Dragon sensor, put a Master Prime on it, shoot it at a decent F-stop, and do a line pairs test where you have this chart that has a series of lines on it…and let’s see.
Because I don’t know the resolution of the Dragon sensor versus what the RED Epic is doing right now, is it like 50% better? Is it 20%? Is it 100%?
SODERBERGH: I don’t know, it’s a lot. It’s noticeable.
I’m wonder if Mr. Jackson is going to shoot with that when he does the additional photography on The Hobbit.
SODERBERGH: I don’t know, if you were going to blend, I don’t think he would want to blend it with the Epic. I don’t know. I mean, Peter’s off on a frolic of his own.
While we’re talking about this, I definitely want to know your take, if you don’t mind talking about it, on the high frame rate that Peter’s doing.
SODERBERGH: There’s a technical reason why I think that frame rate is weird and it has to with your brain’s ability to scan beyond a certain rate. The point is I find it looks weird. There was an article written a couple months ago by a neuroscientist explaining why it is always going to look weird. Your brain is never going to rewire to have this look “normal” because beyond a certain frame rate you lose the ability to take it all in. So it’s always going to look like video, it’s never not. And I find that weird.
I saw it twice, once at Warner Brothers and once in IMAX and I found the IMAX presentation to be much better, but I’m curious if the high frame rate might be more applicable towards documentaries, because it really is taking the glass out of the window. I’m not sold on it, but I’m also not against it. I think its maybe more applicable for certain genres.
SODERBERGH: Yeah, maybe. It interferes with my suspension of disbelief is my personal issue.
Look for more with Soderbergh tomorrow.