Let us break down the top-class blockbuster cinematography of Oscar winner Wally Pfister.
Talking about the celebrated cameraman Wally Pfister means talking about his longstanding creative partnership with director Christopher Nolan. The two have merged seven films (so far) and frankly it is impressive to see the films listed together. These collaborations read more like a “best of” than a resume: Memento, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Insomnia, Inception and The Prestige.
For many, Pfister is synonymous with giant anamorphic and IMAX glasses and vast expanses that form worlds in one breathtaking setting. Nonetheless, although Pfister's cinematography is certainly at home in mega-budget blockbusters, it is also very personal and audience-oriented. His top-class concepts and visceral action sequences are rooted in the hectic pace of documentary filmmaking and in his work as a humble cameraman.
Let's take a look at what makes a Wally Pfister film a Wally Pfister film and see what lessons its work can offer to anyone who wants to use cinematography as a means to capture chaos and create worlds.
Concentrate on the center with Anamorphic and IMAX
In addition to his collaboration with Nolan, Pfister's work includes well-known films such as The Italian Job, Moneyball and his only direction as Transcendence (2014).
A glance at his achievements quickly catches the eye: Pfister's projects are large. He not only shoots large set pieces that fill the frame with action and scope, but he often photographs for the largest screen and switches scene by scene between anamorphic and IMAX.
As can be heard in the interview above, this poses some challenges. How do you create and, perhaps more importantly, the transitions between anamorphic standard and giant 4: 3 IMAX? How do you first get your audience's attention when switching between formats and then keep it?
Pfister's advice – "focus on the center" – is the key element of his great cinematographic thinking, since both the IMAX action sequences and the anamorphic drama depend on directing the viewer's focus so that he can follow the story.
Take wide-angle glasses
Another compositional business card from Pfister – early and often in a wide angle. This helps him create huge, often exotic environments and create complex, highly designed worlds that immediately attract the audience.
You can certainly see this in all of his Nolan collaborations with the intricate sets for the city of Gotham, as well as in the duo's preference for aerial photography and even aerial action sequences. The wide-angle lenses give his characters scope and size and allow Pfister much more freedom of movement, since he follows everything from back and forth conversations to tough combat sequences.
Catch the chaos of the action
Before establishing himself as Nolan's point of contact, Pfister worked with director Gregory Dark, who is best known for a long line of B-movie action thrillers that Pfister shot at a rapid pace in the early 1990s.
These films helped Pfister define his own sensitivity to action and develop a method to create chaos in the action scene and capture and control it in the camera.
Pfister's camera is rarely stationary, but does not run around the handheld and is not out of control. It is a carefully choreographed composition of wide-angle, multi-angle shots that allow the characters to create the action and editing, the speed and chaos.
Cinematography before visual effects
“My advice to cameramen and young filmmakers is not to delve into technology. Think about the craft of storytelling. Think about the craft and art of cinematography – great composition, beautiful lighting, adequate camera movement – that's what filmmaking is about … "
Even on projects with a large budget, Pfister insists on treating cinematography as cinematography, which means that he doesn't just shoot pre-renderings on which VFX artists can create the real compositions.
Nolan and Pfister are known for doing VFX on the set and in the camera, and using CGI only for elements that are too dangerous to hold in real life.
Pfister preaches this approach in order not to hunt for the latest post-production technology so that you can continue to focus on the basic principles of cinematography. Solid advice for aspiring filmmakers and cameramen.
Respect history at all times
“You have to respect history first and respect actors. And you have to respect what the director needs to put this story on film. You are there to guide and help them … You will only be there to improve the end product. "
It is important to hear how Pfister talks about how he serves as both an extension of the director and a channel to control and shape an actor's performance.
This is more difficult than it sounds because it requires the right technical mindset, the right collaborative spirit, strong communication skills, and a lot of patience and respect – all at the same time, while the director's vision and everyone's interests are paramount.
Ultimately, like all successful filmmakers and filmmakers, Pfister sees itself primarily as a storyteller. You can take a single picture from the dark and chaotic world of The Dark Knight or from the office drama scenes from Moneyball, and each picture tells a story through its lighting, its composition and its sensitive camera movement.
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