The Auteur Cinematography of “Peter Andrews” a.k.a. Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh has found an under-the-radar way to hone his cinematography while cementing his auteur filmmaker status.
For many outside of Hollywood (which, let’s face it, is most of us in this industry), the concepts of pseudonyms and guild regulations don’t make a lot of sense. If you wrote, directed, or edited a movie, you should get credit for it. If you shot the movie yourself, you should be credited as the cinematographer. Seems pretty simple.
However, as a young Steven Soderbergh found out when he was breaking into the industry — first with the indie hit Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and later with the critically and commercially acclaimed Traffic — you don’t always get all the recognition you might want or deserve.
Due to issues with the Writer’s Guild early on in his career, Soderbergh was forced to come up with a pseudonym to receive credit for his cinematography work on his films. He chose the name “Peter Andrews” as a tribute to his father’s first and middle names. (And, interestingly enough, he was also forced to come up with a pseudonym credit for his editing work, for which he chose “Mary Ann Bernard” to honor his mother.)
Since this early decision, “Peter Andrews” has gone on to shoot almost all of Soderbergh’s films, making him one of the most prolific working DPs out there, with blockbuster titles like Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovich, Magic Mike, Logan Lucky, and many more.
But, what’s going on behind the lens of this acclaimed cinematographer/director, and how do these dual personalities work together to create such a fully-formed auteur filmmaker, entertaining audiences so visually over the years? Let’s take a closer look.
I have to admit, digging into the filmography of Steven Soderbergh was an absolute delight. Not only does he create enjoyable and memorable films, he’s also a classic example of how tight, fast, and controlled a story can be presented when you have a true auteur filmmaker behind the camera.
Since Soderbergh both directs and shoots (and often edits) his own projects, you really get the feeling that you’re seeing a fully-realized vision that takes into account every moment and frame. Soderbergh leans in to his auteur abilities early and often throughout his career, as he relies on smart, tight shots rather than comprehensive scene coverage. For example, one of his first big hits, Out of Sight, features an opening scene that takes place entirely between two characters in the trunk of a car. Try being a director and pitching lighting and shooting that scene to your cinematographer, and see how they react!
As opposed to typical cinematography, where the goal is to get as much powerful footage as possible for the next step of the filmmaking process, Soderbergh works fast and makes heavy use of close-ups and quick shots. He also frequently favors non-traditional establishing shots in favor of more experimental ways to introduce audiences to a scene, which allows for faster work on set without needing the biggest and largest setups.
The Hyperlink Cinema Style
While we go a bit further into how Soderbergh uses color in his cinematography below, this supercut video of his work behind the lens on the Ocean’s Trilogy is a great way to talk about his hyperlink cinema style and how he uses a variety of shot angles and looks to help connect scattered perspectives. For many of his films, Soderbergh employs what’s called a “multi-narrative” or “hyperlink cinema” style.
This cinema style begets complex narratives full of diverse perspectives, complicated plot twists, and intertwined storylines that jump both backward and forward in time. And, for many cinematographers, shooting scenes in this style can get very confusing and hard to navigate if you don’t have a very strong relationship with your director.
However, since Soderbergh is his own DP, he’s able to fully embrace the chaotic nature of hyperlink cinema as he constructs these elaborate — and often extremely creative and unorthodox — shot structures that are out-of-the-box, visually stunning, and very rich in color. You can see it for yourself in the clip above that explores the rich tapestry of colors, shot angles, and experimental techniques of the Ocean’s franchise.
Washed Color Palettes
Soderbergh really shines in how he uses color to bring audiences further into his cinema world, as well as provide visual cues as to where the narrative might go and how audiences should feel about certain characters and events.
Soderbergh has perfected his own washed-out color profile that feels real, yet is still sensational enough to entice audiences with some of the more outlandish elements of the many underworlds his films often inhabit. Examples like the Ocean’s films come to mind, as well as the gritty textures of Traffic and the brightly-washed stage lights of Magic Mike.
As you can see in the video above (put together by Fandor), Soderbergh likes to create color casts by saturating characters in scenes in one recognizable hue, which he creates comprehensively through on-set lighting, in-camera settings, and often his own post-production coloring. These cues help audiences to better connect with scenes, characters, and emotions, which he can then play with later as the colors become in more direct contrast with each other.
The Soderbergh Montage
For those who are familiar with the filmmaking term “montage,” I’d argue that Soderbergh has become one of the most influential figures in reshaping the technique from its early French New Wave roots into a much more practical modern filmmaking tool. Unlike the highly jarring montage styles of the ’60s and ’70s, Soderbergh’s crisp, smooth use of this technique has revolutionized how filmmakers can quickly transition into, out of, and between scenes without the audience losing a bit of comprehension.
As a cinematographer, Soderbergh demonstrates this perfectly in his more recent films — like The Laundromat — where he’s able to jump between scenes that span time, space, and location across the globe to help interconnect the complex, structured narratives. You can see this controlled chaos on overdrive in the trailer above.
This “Soderbergh Montage” requires a keen eye for cinematography, where the framing for each shot needs to be perfectly composed to match up and ease the viewer into the next shot, regardless of if it’s on the same set or utilizes the same actors. And, Soderbergh has to do this in his quick shooting style — often for almost every scene of the film.
A Smartphone Cinematography Future
Finally, while Soderbergh has enjoyed acclaim for both his early work and his Oscar-winning big-budget endeavors, lately the director/cinematographer is getting attention for returning to his roots and working as a DIY indie filmmaker who’s been one of the first to embrace the possibilities of smartphone cinematography.
In fact, with two recent iPhone-shot features under his belt, Soderbergh appears to be locked in on making smartphone filmmaking a cost-efficient indie alternative as well as a real option for big name directors and stars alike.
His work behind the camera-phone (so to speak) on both Unsane (which you can read more about here) and High Flying Bird have been praised for their creative and stylized cinematography, embracing the smartphone camera’s limitations and possibilities.
If you’re interested in a future-friendly cinematography career, consider following Soderbergh’s lead. His static, wide-angle approach to smartphone features is perhaps the best example out there for where the industry might be headed in the next few years and decades to come.
For more cinematographer profiles and filmmaking breakdowns, check out these articles below.
- Lighting Comedy and Creating Kitsch with Robert Yeoman
- Take Back the Power: Cinematography with Charlotte Christensen
- The Large-Format, Wide-Angle Cinematography of Wally Pfister
- How Reed Morano’s Cinematography Turns the Camera into a Character
- A Look into the Cinematography Stylings of Bradford Young
Cover image of Steven Soderbergh on set of Magic Mike via Warner Bros.