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December 08, 2010

‘Inception’ cinematographer got down and dirty: ‘That ain’t no CGI dust’

Posted in: Movies

This story will run Sunday in The Envelope, the Los Angeles Times special section dedicated to Hollywood’s awards season.

pfister Inception cinematographer got down and dirty: That aint no CGI dust

Wally Pfister and Leonardo DiCaprio on location for "Inception." (Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros.)

It’s been 25 years since cameraman Wally Pfister left television news and followed a cinematic path, but last year on the set of “Inception” —  as he filmed a gun battle with a camouflage camping blanket over his head to protect him from flying shards of glass — he looked a lot like a battle-zone journalist.

“Yeah, I’m in war-torn mode today, with my knee brace and a face mask on, but that’s sort of how we do it – put the camera on your shoulder and get as close to the action as possible,” the 49-year-old said with a proud grin. “In this scene, we drop some logs on people and they’re fake logs that we drop from a big box. They’re not CGI logs. That makes it more real for us and for the audience.”

Pfister has been at Christopher Nolan’s side since the director’s breakthrough film, “Memento,” which was released in 2000, and they will begin filming their seventh collaboration, “The Dark Knight Rises,” next year. Pfister also shot “The Italian Job” and “Laurel Canyon” but he said he views the partnership with Nolan as the centerpiece of his career. Pfister has been nominated for three Oscars since 2005 (“Batman Begins,” “The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight”) for his work on Nolan films.

darkknight Inception cinematographer got down and dirty: That aint no CGI dust

Christian Bale as Batman in "The Dark Knight." (Warner Bros.)

The two met in 1998 at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah at a filmmaker breakfast; Nolan had brought his black-and-white stalker tale “Following” to the Sundance-adjacent festival while Pfister had a small rugged movie called “The Hi-Line” that had been shot in Montana’s bleak winter. A year later, when Nolan was ramping up for “Memento,” he remembered the Utah conversation. Pfister says he was surprised to get the call and even more surprised at the career path it opened up.

“His first four or five choices weren’t available and a lot of the people that read the script didn’t get it — I had to read it three times — and there I was,” Pfister said. “What has happened is our philosophies have meshed. The approach I’ve had is to go into an environment and find what is natural and organic in it and then sculpt it to something pleasing and effective for the story we’re putting on the screen.”

Pfister found that style through negative early experiences in low-budget films where smoke and blue-back-lights for night shots were the popular approach. “I was shooting horror films and erotic thrillers and there were these cliches at every turn that just never felt right,” Pfister said.

wally Inception cinematographer got down and dirty: That aint no CGI dust

Wally Pfister on the set of "Inception." (Melissa Moseley/Warner Bros.)

The Chicago native had journalism in his heritage (his father was an ABC producer who had worked side-by-side with David Brinkley and Peter Jennings while his grandfather was newspaperman in Wisconsin) and he spent time working with news crews in Maryland and Washington. He also veered into documentaries and did work for the celebrated PBS series “Frontline.”

That gritty background — and filming car wreckage on wintry nights on East Coast bridges and highways — certainly helped Pfister with his work in Nolan’s version of Gotham City. As director of photography he brought Nolan the idea of emphasizing the amber-glow of sodium vapor city-street lights to create warmth but also deep shadows to visually downplay the fact that the hero was “still a guy with pointy rubber ears.”

As Nolan’s third (and likely last) Batman film prepares to begin shooting next year, the announcement has been made that it won’t be in 3-D. That’s a relief to Pfister who, like his director boss, is no fan of stereoscopic technology as it stands now with unwieldy gear and dimness issues. Instead, the pair is pushing into IMAX and high-definition cameras in a big way.

Nolan said the fact that his director of photography is the one crouching down in the debris to film shootouts and alley fights makes all the difference in the world. Now that Nolan has the clout to call his own shots, he has let Pfister do more and more hand-held camera work and it’s become a signature approach.

“Wally’s skill as a camera operator is part of his strength as DP as well,” Nolan said. “He understands the art of seeing something with that artist’s eye and being able to move the story forward. He’s very driven by narrative and driven by the script. That’s a massive strength — he’s not thinking in terms of the prettiness of the image, the superficial appearance, he’s trying to find the look of things through characterization.”

lights Inception cinematographer got down and dirty: That aint no CGI dust

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, Ken Watanabe as Saito and Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb in "Inception." (Warner Bros.)

In October 2009, on the “Inception” set, Pfister said the rise of 3-D glasses and overwhelming CG effects lead to films that people watch but don’t always feel. “We try to minimize the artificial, the synthetic. People are getting trained by all the digital images they see now and they are getting used to them but if you show them something real I think there’s a greater impact, just on a visceral level.”

At that moment, some nearby crew members dropped fake logs and the impact kicked up a thick powdery cloud of dust that covered Pfister on one side from his ear to his elbow. “Thanks guys,” he shouted after the oblivious workers.

Then the cinematographer smiled: “There’s the reality — that ain’t no CGI dust.”

– Geoff Boucher

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