Cinematographer talks about his work on the sci-fier

Inception” is built around a common experience: conscious dreaming, in which a someone on the edge of slumber is able to manipulate and manage what happens in the world of dreams. With the help of cinematographer Wally Pfister, director Christopher Nolan took that idea to cinematic extremes, creating characters who can enter and manipulate the dreams of others.

“For ‘Inception,’ Chris wanted a naturalistic look in the photography to reinforce the notion that dreams can feel incredibly real when we are in them,” says Pfister. “That way, when we do introduce an element of dreamworld surreality, it can be subtle, yet still effective.”

Sometimes, the dream world was set off from the “real” world of the film with the use of slow motion imagery achieved through high speed photography at frames rates as high as 1500 fps using specialized cameras. These high-speed scenes often required incredible amounts of light.

In one layer of a dream, the lack of gravity caused by a van flying off a bridge seeps into another layer, where characters suddenly start floating through a hotel hallway. This effect was achieved in part by building the entire hallway on a rotating gimbal. Pfister says practical solutions were generally preferred over CG.

Often the surreal aspects of a scene came from the environments — an entire set tilts 30 degrees, for instance — than from the photography itself. Pfister’s background in news and documentaries lends itself to a realistic approach. “I’m always fighting to keep things simple and not overlit,” he says. “I rely on my experience and observation of daily life to find the beauty in natural light.”

Oscar pedigree: Four noms, beginning with “Batman Begins” (2005)

2010 awards to date: Broadcast Film Critics, Chicago Film Critics, Florida Film Critics, Houston Film Critics, Las Vegas Film Critics, San Diego Film Critics, Satellite Awards, Washington, D.C., Area Film Critics

Camera and film used: Panaflex Millennium XL, PFX System 65 Studio, PanArri 435ESA, ARRI 235, Photo-Sonics 4ER, 4E Rotary Prism, Beaucam, Vision Research Phantom HD; Kodak Vision 3 500T 5219, 250D 5207

Key scene: In a hallway, a man in a dream suddenly begins to drift as gravity slips away. A fight scene ensues. Several sets were used, including one that spun on its horizontal axis. At times the camera was anchored to the set and at others was moved independently to help sell the illusion.

More from Eye on the Oscar: The Director
Jack Cardiff: Painter’s eye view
The nominees:
Danny Cohen | Jeff Cronenweth | Roger Deakins | Matthew Libatique | Wally Pfister

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