Wally Pfister, ASC, and Christopher Nolan implode cinematic boundaries again for their dreamy new thriller, Inception

“My fate cannot be mastered; it can only be collaborated with and thereby, to some extent, directed. Nor am I the captain of my soul; I am only its noisiest passenger.” — Aldous Huxley

Somewhere in movie heaven Robert Altman has a big smile on his face. When the legendary director arrived in Washington, D.C., during production of the HBO miniseries Tanner ’88 some 22 years ago, he saw a young man in the crowd, Betacam in hand, waiting for his turn at a casting call. That would be the last callback for Wally Pfister, ASC, but the camera never left his hands. Altman recruited the shooter for a nonspeaking role as a news cameraman, and said he might as well roll his camera while playing the part. Altman clearly knew talent when he saw it, and later encouraged the would-be film student (who had already applied to the American Film Institute), to shift his focus to narrative filmmaking. Buoyed by that chance meeting with a film icon, Pfister opted to make cinematography his focus at AFI, later launching his feature film career working on crews for Janusz Kaminski and Phedon Papamichael, ASC on Roger Corman films. Was meeting Altman a random meeting or destiny’s unassailable plan?

Either way, if the story were part of a Christopher Nolan film, then all that preceded Pfister’s sparkling career would unfold as if by an intricate design, told, perhaps, in backwards chronological order, or with a magician’s sleight of hand. It might pour forth from an insomniac’s altered perceptions or from deep within the dark and troubled soul of a man intent on avenging his murdered parents. Even more likely is that it would come on in the form of dreams, controlled from outside the dreamer’s own subconscious.

All of which, of course, are themes from past Nolan/Pfister collaborations, with the last being the premise of their newest and sixth partnership, Inception, a sci-fi thriller of sorts that continues the filmmakers’ remarkable investigation into the darkest recesses of how human beings perceive the world. Written by Nolan from an idea he had gestating for more than a decade, Inception revolves around a scheme by a criminal mastermind named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who invents a way to invade people’s dreams and steal their valuable secrets. The international ensemble includes Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Cillian Murphy. The movie was produced in six different countries, including city streets in Tokyo and Paris, the Moroccan Kasbah, the Canadian Rockies, on stages at Cardington Studios in England, and at a diverse range of practical locations in Los Angeles.

Birth of a Big Screener

Warner Bros. is releasing Inception in both IMAX and 35 mm film formats, and there were early talks about producing Inception in 65 mm IMAX. But since Nolan also envisioned covering dialogue and other intimate scenes with a handheld camera, he and Pfister agreed on using a blend of production formats – about half of Inception was shot with a handheld 35 mm camera, with the occasional addition of Steadicam and a Technocrane. Action and other scenes where backgrounds with scope were important were produced in 65 mm. [All conversions to IMAX were completed at DKP 70 MM, an IMAX facility located in Santa Monica, California.]

“We would shoot an establishing street scene in Los Angeles or another urban location in 65 mm format, and then follow the main characters with a handheld 35 mm camera,” Pfister recaps. “We used a Panaflex Millennium XL camera with anamorphic lenses for most handheld shots, and an ARRI 235 in noisier environments.”

The 65 mm package included a Panaflex 65mm (PFX System 65) Studio Camera and a 65mm HR Spinning Mirror Reflex Camera that can record up to 72 frames per second. The DP had Kodak 500T 5219 and 250D 5207, and Kodak 50D 5201 color negative films on his palette. “The latitude of those films gave us the flexibility we needed to cover scenes in the naturalistic lighting that looks and feels right for the story,” Pfister adds.

As typical, the cinematographer brought along key members of his team to the many global locations, including gaffer Cory Geryak and 1st AC Bob Hall.

Scenes were generally covered with one camera, with the exception of action sequences when a second camera was used to provide perspectives from two or more angles.

Pfister and Nolan lensed aerial shots in VistaVision, the same format Paramount Pictures developed and used to produce The Rose Tattoo, North by Northwest and a long list of other popular movies during the 1950s. Each 35 mm frame is eight sprocket holes long instead of four, and the film runs horizontally through the camera.

“The higher resolution images jump off the screen, and give added clarity to shots that have intricate detail,” Pfister observes.

They also explored new territory by shooting slow motion dream sequences and some action scenes at 1,000 frames per second with a Photo-Sonics 65 mm camera.

“There’s a slow motion shot of a fireball racing up an elevator shaft after an explosion that takes place in a dream,” Pfister explains. “Another slow motion scene was filmed while a van was falling off the edge of a draw bridge in the Los Angeles harbor!”

Trains, Planes, and (Drowning) Automobiles

Ilt Jones was the location manager in Los Angeles and scouted for the skiing chase scene shot in the Canadian Rockies. It was his first collaboration with Nolan and Pfister.

“After I read the script and spoke with Chris and Wally, the scouts and I found possibilities for each location,” Jones says. “Guy Dyas (production designer) was the filter we went through before moving forward with Chris and Wally.”

One location was at the corner of 7th and Spring Streets in downtown Los Angeles, where a big gun battle was filmed during an artificial rainstorm.

“We had to deal with residents and merchants as well as the city,” Jones says. “That involved talking to people about the impact we would have on their businesses and compensating them accordingly. We also had to get permission to use about 30 rooftops, where rainmaking equipment was installed. And a train is part of that scene.”

There were no railroad tracks running through downtown, so the production built a locomotive with a few cars behind it on a semi-tractor and drove it down the street.

“You can’t tell the difference,” Jones laughs. “It looks like a train coming at you.”

Another important scene was to be shot at LAX airport on a Monday. Arrangements were made to have a 747 airplane parked at one of the gates at Terminal 2. But the day before shooting, the Inception team was informed that the jet was stuck in Malta.

“We started making frantic calls to line up another one,” Jones relates. “The scene called for someone to look outside of a terminal window at a plane being loaded. Wally started shooting inside the terminal with the camera pointed in the other direction while the lawyers were dealing with risk management people at the airport! When we got the green light to bring the jet to the terminal, I ran down the ramp and got on my knees praying for it to arrive.

“The pilot knew the degree of urgency. Normally, you see planes taxiing at about 10 miles an hour. This one was moving much faster. The pilot swung the plane around like he was parking a minivan.”

Jones says that his biggest task was finding a location and getting permission to shoot the scene where the van falls off a raised drawbridge.

“The car was supposed to fall off the top of a big parking structure into a river,” he adds. “There are hardly any rivers in Los Angeles. I suggested that they film that scene on the Schuyler Heim vertical lift bridge on Terminal Island instead.

“The deck lifts horizontally to allow shipping traffic to pass beneath it. Chris decided the van would be on the bridge as it was going up and plunge off and into the water. That precipitated a long discussion with Caltrans, the entity that operates the bridge.

“We had to find out what the load bearing capacity of the bridge was while it was being raised, and make sure that the brakes holding it up would allow us to safely put 20,000 pounds of vehicles, equipment and crew members on it.”

In fact, it took several months to develop a structural engineering plan, including building and putting pillars beneath the bridge, which made it practical and safe for the bridge to go up and down with the weight of equipment and people.

“That was probably one of the most complicated locations I’ve ever dealt with,” Jones states. “Film L.A. oversees granting permits in the city. They have a fantastic group of people who were very helpful. Jody Strong is the person who made it happen for us. They were a film-friendly buffer between the community and us. They trusted us to do our work properly and keep everyone happy.”

Dreaming in Circles

Inception was no walk in the park for Pfister and his crew either. Some of the most complex challenges were filming dream sequences at Cardington Studios.

“Chris felt the dreams had to feel real,” Pfister says. “He also envisioned segments of dreams with surrealistic images that happen in ultra-slow motion.”

One of the dreams was a fight scene that begins with Arthur, played by Gordon-Levitt, walking down a hotel hallway. After the fight begins, the hallway starts rotating in a 360-degree circle. Arthur and the stunt men who portray his attackers are walking on the walls and ceiling as though gravity has been suspended. The scene then continues in a hotel room that is also rotating 360 degrees.

“The inspiration for this scene came to Chris from 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Pfister explains. “We built a hallway set that was about 160 feet long which rotated 360 degrees. You don’t see the rotation at times, because the camera was rotating with them.”

Pfister applauds special effects supervisor Chris Corbould for his contributions to the design of the rotating sets. The actors were suspended by wires, which helped to create a zero gravity illusion. The camera was on a Technocrane that rotated with the set. The visual effects work done by Paul Franklin and his team at Double Negative in London complemented and enhanced the practical effects.

“We had a few small LED lights built into the floor and ceiling that were used to augment moods,” the DP adds. “We had to keep the lights cool, so an actor wouldn’t be burned if they accidently stepped on one. It looks like the fight is happening in zero gravity.”

It takes more than mastering the art and craft of cinematography to shoot a picture as large and complex as Inception. It also requires forming collaborative relationships with those in front of the camera. “Wally and I started to really hit it off once we got to talking about music,” Inception’s co-star Gordon-Levitt remembers. “Wally’s a great guitarist. In fact, he brought me to a blues bar in England where he played the guitar and I backed him up on drums. I bring that up because you can see his musicianship in his camera work. His use of the handheld camera was almost like having another character in the scene … you can feel the movement link with the scene’s timing and rhythm.”

Another dream sequence filmed on a stage in Cardington takes place in a bar. Cobb is telling Fischer (played by Murphy) that they are inside a dream.

As he says that things aren’t always what they seem to be, the bar visually punctuates that comment by tipping 30 degrees to one side. Everything on the bar, tables and floor starts sliding in that direction! The light starts shifting as Cobb says he can control what happens in dreams.

“Chris and I discussed having a dramatic lighting effect going from one extreme look to another to create the shift that he wanted,” Pfister remarks. “We created a late sunset look that shifts into a dark cloudy day within a matter of seconds. We used a 20K with double CTS filters to create a very grey-orange hued light coming through the window and falling on the faces of characters in the bar. We dimmed the light with soft diffusion creating a sunset look as the set suddenly tipped 30 degrees.”

He explains that Nolan used that visual effect as a nonverbal way of telling the audience they are inside a dream while Cobb is deciding what secrets he wants to steal.

“We were all pleasantly surprised when they saw how unbelievably dramatic those scenes were while watching dailies,” Pfister says. “Chris and I share a belief that watching projected film dailies together with members of the cast and crew is an important part of the creative process.”

Technicolor did front-end lab work for Inception for scenes shot in England, Morocco, Los Angeles, and Calgary. LPC, in France, and Imagica, in Japan, processed the negative and provided film dailies for scenes produced in those countries.

By Bob Fisher / photos by Melissa Moseley & Stephen Vaughan