Collaboration is king, Wally Pfister ASC and Christopher Nolan.
Collaboration is king.
Inception marks the sixth collaboration for Wally Pfister ASC and Christopher Nolan. The script is a product of Nolan’s fertile imagination. The story will take audiences from England to France, Japan, Canada and the United States following a clever group in a journey through the architecture of the mind.
The history of their collaborations reads like a script for a feel good movie. It began with Memento, which premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2000. Insomnia was their second co-venture. Pfister subsequently earned three Oscar nominations in four years for Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight.
Pfister met Nolan in 1999 while they were both in the dawn of their careers. Pfister had shot The Hi-Line, which was in competition at Sundance. Nolan was at the neighbouring Slamdance Festival with Following, which was based on a short story authored by his brother Jonathan. Nolan wrote the script, directed and shot the film, but he wasn’t interested in becoming an auteur filmmaker.
“When I saw The Hi-Line, I thought it was a beautifully executed film that was clearly produced with limited resources,” Nolan says. “I had to meet the guy who shot it.”
Around a year later, while Pfister was working on a film in Alabama, he received the script for Memento in the mail. After reading it, he caught a Sunday morning flight to Los Angeles to meet with Nolan. The rest is history.
“Memento was a dark story about man who was losing his short term memory. He was determined to avenge his murdered wife,” Pfister says. “Chris brings a lot of soul to his work and that inspired me. We used colours, darkness and light to help set the tone as the story evolved, and shot about a quarter of the film in black and white.” He and Nolan referenced books featuring black and while pictures taken by Gordon Parks and other still photographers for inspiration.
“There was a synergy that affected our ability to translate ideas into images,” Nolan says. “The sum of those images rather than individual shots told the story.”
Insomnia was their next co-venture. Al Pacino played a New York City detective who came to Alaska with his partner to help solve a puzzling murder mystery. After accidently shooting and killing his partner, the detective tried to cover it up. The film was produced during the summer months when the sun set at midnight.
Nolan and Pfister agreed on a natural look to help transport the audience to the land of the midnight sun, while using subtle nuances of light, darkness, contrast and colors to seamlessly augment the emotional tone and flow of the story.
“Most people think of artful cinematography as a beautiful sunset or spectacular vista,” Pfister observes. “Chris and I agree that it should be more subtle. We told the production designer where we wanted the bed in the detective’s hotel room in relation to the window. There were times when we wanted to mask his face in shadows, and other times when we used artificial sunlight as a visual metaphor for the guilt he was feeling.”
There is a scene where the detective is hiding in the bathroom when a few local policemen come to his hotel room looking for him.
“I wasn’t going to tell Al Pacino how to do his job, but I was hoping he might embrace the light of the environment in his performance. I told him that the light I was bringing through the window was eight stops over-exposed,” Pfister says. “I said, when you’re in the shadows, you’ll be catching the ambient bounce. If you move forward, you’ll be in this nuclear, bright melting light. He knew exactly how to play it.”
Their collaboration on Batman Begins began with a phone call from Nolan, who told Pfister he was going direct the film, and that Christian Bale was in the leading role. Nolan and Pfister delved deep into the history of the franchise, including popular radio shows, comic books and the five previous Batman movies produced since 1989.
“Chris wanted to shoot Batman Begins without relying on visual effects or digital intermediate technologies,” Pfister says. “He wanted it to look and feel natural. Chris wanted Batman’s car and costume to be non-reflective, matte-black so they could be concealed in the shadows. He frequently used the word stealthy.
“When we filmed Batman against a dark background or sky, sometimes we used a very small thin layer of smoke to help separate his matte black costume from the background,” Pfister says. “Other times, we used backlight or had city lights in the background. Bruce Wayne and Batman share the same soul, which is reflected by the light in their eyes. I found a comfortable way to light their eyes using a ring light at very low exposure. This gave me the eye light without adding too much fill.” The Prestige was based on a book about magic and human nature. The story opens in London in 1896 where two magicians are engaged in a friendly rivalry that becomes increasingly more intense with deadly consequences. The story takes place before the transition from lighting with candles and carbon arc lamps to electric bulbs.
Despite the many dark night exterior and interior scenes, they decided to produce The Prestige in 35mm anamorphic format, frequently “pushing” Kodak Vision 2 5218 500T film one or two stops. They also filmed several action scenes in IMAX format.
During an early meeting about The Dark Knight, their second Batman film, Nolan told Pfister that he wanted to produce the opening six-minute sequence, where the audience meets The Joker during a daring bank robbery, in IMAX format. An IMAX 65mm frame is ten times larger that a 35 mm anamorphic frame.
The film was going to be released in both traditional 35mm and IMAX formats. DKP 70MM, an IMAX subsidiary, was brought onboard to provide guidance about use of the format, and also to provide postproduction services for the IMAX release prints. During preproduction they decided to film all big action sequences, aerial cinematography, car chases and physical effects scenes in IMAX format. That accounted for 38 of the 152-minute film.
In an article that he wrote about The Dark Knight, New York Times journalist David Halbfinger quoted Pfister referring to his camera crew as, “My jazz ensemble… I played the guitar in a rock-and-roll band in high school. It is still one of my passions. When I look at a shot through a lens, I hear music in my mind. Films, like music, need a sense of rhythm that affects everything from composition to editing… I use the same parts of my brain to play a melody that I use to make a decision about how to pan or tilt the camera…it’s about a beat or a rhythm. It’s a collaborative effort with Chris, the actors, my crew and everyone else who is part of the team.”
Inception features Leonardo DiCaprio as the criminal who has mastered the science of invading people’s minds. After a while, he loses track of the difference between dreams and reality.
“The film is based on an original story that Chris dreamed up 15 years ago,” Pfister says. “It’s fascinating imagining what the world looks and feels like in dreams.”
They covered dramatic scenes in 35mm anamorphic format mainly with handheld cameras, action and visual effects sequences in 65mm format and aerial sequences were recorded in Vista Vision format. They also shot a number of sequences with Photosonics cameras in 65mm format at 1,000 frames per second.
“Our collaborations and relationship have evolved in a phenomenal way,” Pfister says. “We enjoy a cinema verité style of shooting. Chris loves the freedom it gives him and the actors, and I love the look and the feeling.”
Their collaborative spirit extends to the cast and crew. “We believe it’s important for cast and crew members to watch film dailies together and discuss how we are progressing,” Pfister says.
Warner Bros. plans to release Inception in IMAX and 35mm formats in July, and British Cinematographer Magazine will feature an in-depth report about the production. Stay tuned.
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