I value the ability to stage something well because when it’s done well its pleasures are huge, and most people don’t do it well, which indicates it must not be easy to master (it’s frightening how many opportunities there are to do something wrong in a sequence or a group of scenes. Minefields EVERYWHERE. Fincher said it: there’s potentially a hundred different ways to shoot something but at the end of the day there’s really only two, and one of them is wrong). Of course understanding story, character, and performance are crucial to directing well, but I operate under the theory a movie should work with the sound off, and under that theory, staging becomes paramount (the adjective, not the studio. although their logo DOES appear on the front of this…).
So I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order? Sounds like fun, right? It actually is. To me. Oh, and I’ve removed all sound and color from the film, apart from a score designed to aid you in your quest to just study the visual staging aspect. Wait, WHAT? HOW COULD YOU DO THIS? Well, I’m not saying I’m like, ALLOWED to do this, I’m just saying this is what I do when I try to learn about staging, and this filmmaker forgot more about staging by the time he made his first feature than I know to this day (for example, no matter how fast the cuts come, you always know exactly where you are—that’s high level visual math shit).
To help us understand the virtues of staging in movies, Steven Soderbergh offers a desaturated version of Raiders of the Lost Ark with all the audio, dialogue and soundtrack, replaced by the score to The Social Network. I guess those kids who remade Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot chose well.
Whatever you think of Steven Spielberg's movies, it's hard to deny he is a virtuoso when it comes to blocking and staging. The camera moves and shot selection and sequencing in his movies is always lyrical, and even in a scene like the opening assault on Normandy in Saving Private Ryan, he induces the feeling of chaos while still preserving spatial clarity. Just the other weekend, I found Munich playing on cable and I stopped to watch one of the assassination scenes play out just to admire the camera in motion. A master class.
Incidentally, Soderbergh's website is as fun as his career. I first discovered it a while back when he posted a mashup of Hitchcock's Psycho with Gus Van Sant's remake, with all of the Van Sant scenes desaturated except the shower scene.