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D.p. solves Nolan’s puzzles

Pfister's color code unlocks pic's dreamscape

When Wally Pfister read the script for “Inception” at director Christopher Nolan’s home in January, 2009, he was blown away by the film’s complexity — and welcomed the chance to work on a picture that wasn’t about superheroes.

The d.p. had already shot five Nolan movies, including “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” and is expected to shoot the helmer’s third Batman opus next year. “You need a film that provides relief between those kinds of pictures,” he said.

Well, maybe. But if Pfister found relief in “Inception,” viewers are more likely to be intellectually challenged as they try to follow its puzzles.

The film’s central premise is that certain dreams can be induced and shared among dreamers; such dreams can be used to extract secrets from a fellow dreamer’s subconscious; and provoking additional dreams within these dreams will enable inception — the planting of a powerful idea in someone’s mind. The movie dares viewers to keep up with its fast-moving action and plot revelations across several levels of reality and illusion.

Part of Pfister’s job was to provide visual guideposts to help auds navigate across the film’s multiple layers. In his early discussions with Nolan the d.p. suggested finding different looks for different locations — or states of mind — “so no matter how fast you intercut among them you’ll still understand where you are.”

For the film’s lengthy central sequence, which stitches together four layers of consciousness — reality (maybe), a shared dream, and two dreams within dreams — Pfister created distinct color palettes: white for ski-slope scenes, warm tones for a hotel hallway, and a bluish tint for a rain-soaked L.A. With that scheme “you’re immediately grounded and know where you are when it cuts to that particular place,” he said.

Since it takes place largely within dreams, “Inception” required the creation of elaborate imaginary landscapes and cityscapes, on which Pfister collaborated with production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and the vfx team, led by Paul Franklin.

“If the vfx people are creating something in CGI from scratch, Chris likes me to look at their early comps and consult them on lighting,” Pfister said. “In this movie, with its very surreal elements, we had to make sure they had a basis in reality and matched the principal photography.”

Dyas noted that Nolan and Pfister don’t use second units. Despite the magnitude of “Inception” — it was filmed in six countries — “they shot the entire film themselves and their style on the set is extremely efficient and methodical.”

Pfister used 35mm film for much of “Inception” but also shot portions on larger-format 65mm, including some city exteriors, wide shots, and scenes “where we wanted to have something really sharp and powerful, jumping off the screen.”

He and Nolan never considered shooting “Inception” in 3D, although they discussed with Warner Bros. the possibility of doing a 2D-to-3D conversion in post-production. “I weighed in that 3D was not appropriate for this film,” said Pfister. “It’s so complex and has so much going on. It doesn’t need enhancement.”

So “Inception” remained in 2D.

Bookings & Signings

Paradigm bookings: D.p.’s Hubert Taczanowski on Renny Harlin’s “Mannerheim” and Paul Maibaum on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy”; production designers Gary Frutkoff on Carl Franklin’s “Bless Me, Ultima” and Gregory Melton on ABC’s “Off the Map”; editors Tia Nolan on Will Gluck’s “Friends With Benefits,” Wayne Wahrman on Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Men in Black 3,” Todd Desrosiers on NBC’s “The Event” and Jonathan Corn on FX’s “The League”; costume designer Roland Sanchez on Syfy pilot “Alphas”; and 2nd unit director/d.p. Mark Vargo on Rupert Wyatt’s “Caesar: Rise of the Apes.”

InnovativeArtists has booked costume designers Tish Monaghan on David Bowers’ “Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2,” Linda Bass on ABC’s “Private Practice,” Alysia Raycraft on NBC’s “The Office,” Victoria Auth on Fox’s “Lie to Me,” Michael Boyd on CBS’ “November Christmas,” Deena Appel on NBC’s “Outlaw,” Luke Reichle on ABC’s “Castle,” Kathryn Morrison on CBS’ “Hawaii 5-O,” Christopher Lawrence on Joel Schumacher’s “Trespass,” Betsy Cox on Daniel Adams’ “The Big Valley,” Katia Stano on CW’s “Life Unexpected,” Mimi Melgaard on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and Marissa Borsetto on CBS’ “Criminal Minds.”

Sheldon Prosnit has booked Jonathan Taylor as 2nd unit director and d.p. on Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” production designers Mark White on Joe Nussbaum’s “Prom,” Inbal Weinberg on Jesse Peretz’s “My Idiot Brother,” Michael Grasley on Sam Levinson’s “Devil In My Shoes,” Marc Fisichella on Daniel Adams “The Big Valley,” Sal Parra on Dean Wright’s “Cristiada” and Michael Whetstone on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”; music supervisor Lynn Fainchtein on Walter Salles’ “On The Road”; and first AD Todd Amateau on Will Gluck’s “Friend’s With Benefits.”

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