About The Production
On Traffic, the pre-production process (essential to any and every movie) was shortened considerably when Steven Soderbergh decided to serve as the film's cinematographer, a.k.a. the director of photography. (When Soderbergh's request to take the credit "Directed and Photographed by" was rejected by the Writers Guild of America, he opted to take the pseudonym "Peter Andrews" as cinematographer.)
"When I started making short films, I shot my own," notes Soderbergh. "Cinematography has always been an area that I've been interested in. I feel very comfortable with photography. More recently, I shot 'Schizopolis,' and I had worked with some very good cinematographers. Because of the style of
Traffic, I felt ready to take on the job.
"To make Traffic, I wanted as lean a unit around the camera as possible, to strip the camera crew down as much as I could. Another reason was that I thought I would have a hard time talking a cinematographer into doing what I had in mind. I wanted three distinct looks for each of the stories. I used a combination of color, filtration, saturation, and contrast so that as soon as we cut to the first image of the next story, you would know that you were in a different place. Then we took the Mexico sequence through an Ektachrome step, which gave it a very gritty, contrasty look."
Soderbergh also operated the camera, which he had also done on several of his other films. The difference on Traffic was that nearly the whole film was shot with the camera hand- held. He comments, "From the beginning, I wanted this film to feel like it was happening in front of you, which demands a certain aesthetic that doesn't feel slick and doesn't feel polished. There is a difference between something that looks caught and something that looks staged. I didn't want it to be self-consciously sloppy or unkempt, but I wanted it to feel like I was chasing it, that I was finding it as it happened. On the other hand, I didn't want to give people a headache.
"One of the things I like about operating the camera is that you have a stronger sense of what you're getting. The disquieting thing about some of the techniques we were employing on this film was that sometimes what I was seeing through the camera lens bore no relation to what I was going to see on the print — and that was a little scary. Essentially I was flying on instruments, like a pilot. I'd know what my back light was and my front light and that there was a filter and that I was 'flashing' the film. I knew that based on the numbers, it should be fine. But I'd look through the lens and not see anything. I just had to hold my breath and believe. Then the next day the dailies would come in, and the image would be there. It was a little disorienting."
Soderbergh also made the choice to film using only available light — whenever possible. But, he remembers that was not always the case: "When we were prepping and going on tech scouts, we had lots of conversations about using natural light. So it was a pretty funny moment the first day of production, when we showed up at the first location and the light was not great. Sure enough, we had to haul the 18-K light off the truck. I thought, 'Oh-oh, here we go.
"It's really about creating the feel that you just showed up and shot. There is an art to creating that feeling artificially. For example, in the Mexico sequences, we manipulated the film with filters and shutter angles which resulted in our shooting at a much slower speed than would normally be the case. And that meant hauling out some lights."
He laughs, "There were days when, if the DP were not me and had been doing what I was doing, he would have had a heart attack. It didn't happen often, but sometimes I'd get two- thirds of the way through a lighting setup and it wasn't what I had in my mind's eye. I'd tu
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