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Smooth Operators: Ocean's Eleven
Smooth Operators by Douglas
Bankston Steven Soderbergh doubles down as both director and
cinematographer on Warner Bros.' high-stakes remake of "Ocean's Eleven."
Occasionally awkward in the acting department and implausibly plotted to
boot, the 1960 film "Ocean's Eleven" could have disappeared into the
annals of undistinguished cinematic history. But the heavyweight cast
alone lifted this lightweight film above mediocrity and into the upper
echelons of coolness. And frankly, it didn't hurt that the film trumpeted
the fact that, for the first time, those charismatic crooners and
consummate entertainers known as the Rat Pack were on the big screen
The new "Ocean's Eleven" stars George Clooney
as career thief Danny Ocean, who has just been paroled. Terry Benedict
(Andy Garcia), owner of the Bellagio, Mirage and MGM Grand hotel/casinos
in Las Vegas, possesses two things Danny really wants: $160 million and
Danny's ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts). Naturally, the first thing Danny
does once he's out of prison is to violate parole by traveling around the
country recruiting 10 of his con-artist and grifter friends for an
audacious mission to stick it to the hotel-and-casino magnate. The gang
includes cool and collected details man Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt); master
pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon); bankroller and Benedict-hater
Reuben Tishkkoff (Elliott Gould); Cockney munitions expert Basher (Don
Cheadle); uptight surveillance expert Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison); ace
card dealer Frank Catton (Bernie Mac); retired flimflam man Saul Bloom
(Carl Reiner); the bickering Malloy brothers, Virgil (Casey Affleck) and
Turk (Scott Caan); and the acrobatic grease man Yen (Shaobo Qin). With
careful planning and misdirection, the con artists conspire to clean out
the central vault during the Lennox Lewis-Wladimir Klitschko heavyweight
boxing match. And Danny will make every attempt to win back Tess during
the ensuing chaos.
"I feel I've closed the gap between myself and what I want to accomplish to the greatest degree possible," Soderbergh says. "For me, it's a good way to work, and I think it helps the work, even though it adds a level of performance anxiety to do all of those jobs."
This method has allowed Soderbergh to be more intimately involved with the material -- an ironic twist for someone who has relaxed what he calls his "death grip" on his films. "At this point in my career, I have a really difficult time sitting through the first four films I made," he says. "I find them too controlled, too formal, too thought out. They don't have any energy to me. I think I was being too precious about the wrong stuff. It took me a while to find my equilibrium. I feel more comfortable now than I did 11 or 12 years ago, and I have a different set of priorities.
"It's become a very organic process for me," he says of directing and shooting. "It's really about creating the canvas piece by piece, and I'm willing to reconcile the fact that I'm not a world-class cinematographer for the momentum. Working this way is as close to writing with a camera as I can get, literally. I think now it would be difficult for me to insert another person into that process."
Having a combo director-cinematographer on a project is very common in the commercial and documentary realms, but rare in the world of features. A few cinematographers have lit a scene and then taken a seat in a director's chair. Luciano Tovoli, ASC, AIC did so in 1982 for "Il Generale dell'armata morte" (The General of the Dead Army). John Alonzo, ASC directed and shot three telefilms, "Champions: A Love Story" and "Portrait of a Stripper" in 1979 and "Belle Starr" in 1980. Even Gregg Toland, ASC pulled double duty once for the feature-length documentary "December 7th" (1943), which he co-directed with John Ford. However, one would be hard-pressed to find a feature director who has added cinematographic duties to his responsibilities. One is director Peter Hyams, who has been shooting his own movies for many years.
"I don't think this should be a trend,"
Soderbergh concedes. "I was trained as a still photographer. I've been
shooting since I was 13, and I've worked with really terrific
cinematographers whom I've bombarded with questions and watched very
closely in order to learn [the craft]. When I decided that I was going
to try it, I thought about it at length. It's not something I take
lightly. I've just found a way of working that feels very comfortable
for me; it has more to do with getting to what I consider to be the
right set of solutions for a given problem as quickly as possible, and
increasing the intimacy [I have] with both the actors and the film
Soderbergh, who did some camera operating on both "The Limey" and "Erin Brockovich," joined the Local 600 union as a director of photography to shoot "Traffic." The pseudonym came into play because the Writers Guild wouldn't allow him to take the credit of "Directed and Photographed by" for the film, and he didn't feel comfortable having his name in the billing block twice. Local 600 granted him permission to use the pseudonym Peter Andrews, a moniker that combined his father's first and middle names. "It was a great way to pay tribute to my dad, who's not around anymore and is the person who gave me the film bug," he says. "Ironically, the Writers Guild was willing to allow me to combine the [director-photographer] credit on "Ocean's." But I thought it was good karma to leave it the way it was."
For a while following the release of "Traffic," Soderbergh was rather mum about the cinematographic aspects of his work. "I wanted to be very careful not to make it seem like this was something I took lightly, or make it out to seem like anything that unusual. I wasn't interested in waving a flag about, and I'm still not. But at the same time, I want to share information. That's what this magazine is about. I'm somebody who believes in giving anyone who cares to listen the benefit of whatever experience I've had."
For "Ocean's Eleven," Soderbergh reteamed with his ace gaffer from "Traffic," James Plannette, a 29-year lighting veteran who's gaffed such films such as "E.T.," "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Braveheart," among many others. "He's the perfect combination of experience, enthusiasm and flexibility," Soderbergh declares. "I need somebody who has ideas when I don't have any, and who also doesn't get bent out of shape when I have very specific ideas. He'll try anything and knows what the effect will be because he's so grounded in all the photographic technical skills you accrue when you've been doing this for decades. Anybody watching us work would see very quickly that we're linked at the hip."
Plannette quips, "Because he's the cinematographer as well, he does the director's part, and then he never leaves the set. If we're headed in the right direction, that's great. And if we're not, he'll say, 'Maybe this isn't quite what we want,' and we'll change it. It's a very collaborative effort and a pleasurable experience. He doesn't have a tremendous amount of experience as a cinematographer, but he has a great eye and great taste. Together we end up in the right place."
"I spent more time as a cinematographer waiting for the director to figure out what he wanted to do than the other way around," jokes Soderbergh. "There were days when I was stumped directorially. For the first time on any movie I've made, there were elaborate setups that I'd spend an hour and a half or two hours on, only to tear them down before we even shot them. But I was able to figure out the right approach by doing the wrong thing. Once that was done, deciding how to light was usually a quick conversation between Jim and me. Luckily, the crew I work with is so efficient that I had the luxury of starting over and knowing that I'd still make my day."
"Ocean's Eleven" is composed in a very
slick style that complements the cool characters and their hip hangouts.
The filmmakers received their lighting cues, or vibe, if you will, from
the natural aesthetics of the locations. Soderbergh explains, "When we
went on the tech scouts, which are my least favorite part of filmmaking,
we'd show up, and it was either great and we didn't want to, as Jim puts
it, 'put our foot through a Rembrandt,' meaning we'd shoot it pretty
much as was, or it was not terrific and we'd discuss how to make it feel
a little more organic to our film and what we were trying to do without
violating it. Sometimes it was as simple as adding some color
The results are tight grain control,
inky blacks, deep shadow detail and bold colors. For the film's few day
sequences, the 5246 was pushed only one stop and had its own set of
printer lights. CFI handled all the developing and printing, and
Technicolor was responsible for the release prints.
Because the film was actually
picking up a little more detail than was apparent to the eye on set, a
trusty Polaroid was used as a reference to gauge the lighting parameters.
"We used an old, modified Polaroid 195 that has shutter speeds and f-stops,"explains
Plannette. "We used 3,000 ASA black-and-white film but rated it at 2,400
ASA. Then we just figured the Polaroid was a stop faster than what we were
doing [with motion-picture film]. The Polaroids were amazingly accurate.
Compared to the Polaroid film, the highlights would hold a little better
and it would dig into the shadows a little bit better on the
motion-picture film, but we took that into consideration."
"For instance, we shot at Musso and Frank's
[restaurant in Los Angeles], where Danny and Rusty Ryan meet. We played up
the contrast of colors a little more than you might normally. That
reflects our taste in acknowledging that in life, there is a clash of
color temperatures. All of the cinematographers I love have always
embraced color and used it as a way to enhance mood and drama. We're
always looking for ways to use color to put you inside the world a little
The film opens with an unshaven Ocean seated
in front of some windows at his parole hearing with 3/4 backlight over
both shoulders -- one of the scenes with which Soderbergh wasn't happy.
"It's the first shot in the movie, and it makes me wince," he admits. "The
edge lights wrapped around too much. I didn't want them to hit his nose. I
wanted to draw a line around George, but because of the shape of the room
I was having difficulty placing the light where I wanted and keeping the
lamps out of frame. I wasn't very pleased with it, but I thought George
was very good in the scene, and I didn't want to risk redoing it. Like I
said, I'm probably willing to compromise more than most. I know we did
knock down the windows and the fan vent with either ND3 or ND6. I think
that was one of those days where Jim said, 'Does it really need to be nine
stops over?' -- like it was on 'Traffic.'"
"When we got into tighter shots," Plannette details, "we had a white card or a Kino Micro Flo on the table to provide a little bit of fill."
"I love the Mini Flos and Micro Flos," Soderbergh notes. "We'd lay those on the table if we felt somebody's eyes were going down too much -- put some, as we say, 'schmutz' in front of them, put them on a rheostat and just dial them to taste. I mount them on top of lenses all the time, too."
The crew gathers in Las Vegas and begins
carrying out the caper. Whereas all sequences that take place outside of
Vegas were shot cleanly, everything in Vegas, both indoors and out, was
photographed using Tiffen Black Pro-Mist filters -- 1/4 for the
interiors and 1/2 for the exteriors.
While everyone surveys the targeted
establishment, Ocean inevitably meets up with Tess at a Bellagio
restaurant. Lighting in the casino principally has a very warm, wrapping
quality. "In a normal key situation, I'm always bouncing or using a
lightbox that Jim designed, something to make the actors more
appealing," Soderbergh says. "I might not do that on every movie, but I
did it on this because it's that kind of movie, a movie-star movie. For
instance, when Ocean and Tess meet in the restaurant, I was trying to
adopt a very classical Hollywood approach to their close-ups to make
them warm and appealing."
Meanwhile, electronics expert Livingston
Dell weasels his way into the casino's machine room to tap into security
camera feeds, a room that seems as if it was constructed inside an
electric-blue light fixture. "I wanted to go for that super-saturated
monochromatic blue,"Soderbergh explains. "I was tearing pictures out of
a magazine for a film that I'm supposed to do this spring, and in
putting the pile together I'd accidentally inverted this machine-room
picture. It looked so much more interesting upside-down that I talked to
production designer Phil Messina and said, 'Can you make the floor the
ceiling so that all the lights are coming out of the floor?' He replied,
'I don't see why not.' They're really heavy blue fluorescents that Jim
had told me about."
Soderbergh adds, "Then we had these little MR-16 can lights up top that we let go tungsten just to add a tiny bit of flavor whenever [Dell] was directly under them."
In stark contrast to the warm, plush
comforts of the casino is the cold, underground vault set, which is
rendered in shades of white, black and brushed aluminum. Variances in
the light create the scene's contrast. The vault ceiling was tiled with
opaque plastic squares that are typical of business fixtures, and above
those were space lights. "The space light is a very versatile light
because it has six fixtures in each light, and you can control them by
the number of globes that are turned on," says Plannette. "We were able
to use those in different amounts depending on the sequence. Once the
vault explosion takes place, we used fewer of them. The hallway was lit
with fluorescents in the ceiling and Lowel sockets along the floor."
The opening of the automatic garage door allowed the shaft of light to shine more and more into the pitch-black warehouse to backlight the van. Soderbergh tilted the camera up from the blackness to frame the van as it rolled in. "If Warners were actually aware of how much was being determined moment to moment on this movie, they'd probably be horrified, but that's the way I work,"he says with a chuckle. "By accident, we came up with these shots that look like they go together."
Says Plannette, "We had a 20K on a Condor with a GAM #382 Brass in front of it. It's as close to sodium as there is, I think, which is what I like about it. Sometimes we added a little bit of green to it, but in this case we didn't. But it does cut quite a bit of intensity, so you need a pretty big unit to go through it. We were shooting at about a T2/2.8 split so that we held the background."
"Dramatically," Soderbergh reflects,
"one of my favorite shots in the movie is a long tracking shot of Tess
where she's left Terry Benedict and realizes Danny is still around
somewhere. You see all that play out on her face. It was 200 feet or
more of track. What we ended up doing was mounting a light on the camera
as an eyelight. We had that on a Variac. We hooked a second dolly to my
dolly, and on the back of it we mounted an edge light that was also on a
Variac. So both lights were moving with us, but they were dimming up and
down in a random way." Though it's shot during the day but plays as
night in the film, the dimming variances make it appear as though Tess
is walking in and out of pools of brighter light, maintaining the
natural quality prevalent throughout the film.
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