Wally Pfister
Photo courtesy of Wally Pfister

Wally Pfister: “I had to shift to storytelling”

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Short Profile

Name: Walter C. Pfister
DOB: 8 July 1961
Place of birth: Chicago, Illinois, United States
Occupation: Cinematographer, director

Mr. Pfister, in your opinion as an Oscar winning cinematographer, what makes for an iconic film scene?

It's marriage of all the elements: something that works photographically, that tells a story perfectly, that has lighting elements that contribute to the story, the color palette, the metaphorical imagery, the musical cues… If you look back at what we call the iconic images in the Batman movies that I made — one which is a silhouette of Batman standing on top of a building in Gotham city with our helicopter circling around in him at dawn, for instance, or another where he is standing on top of a pile of rubble in a burning building — what's interesting is there’s really very little performance in those scenes, but they are iconic images, and all the information, and mood is within the frame.

So it’s really a collaborative effort between every player in the film’s making, more than just a visual impact.

Right, it’s a great collaboration of all these forces: Chris Nolan, in his storytelling best, finding these moments of reflection. It's the performer, in this case Christian Bale, having that moment of reflection, and it's myself and unseen collaborators creating the mood with the images and the music. So those iconic shots that we did, I can't speak for anybody else, but they all fit together in a perfect way, and they come in a perfect place in the narrative, where you need that moment of reflection, amidst all the action.

“What contributes to the storytelling that you're not aware of is the magic that happens spontaneously on the set.”

Obviously things like color palette and lighting come into play, but what other factors contributes to storytelling that we might not consider?

Well, if you're looking at a large scale action film, like Inception or Batman, you assume everything is meticulously planned, and in some ways it is, you know, you break it down piece by piece. What contributes to the storytelling that you're not aware of is the magic that happens spontaneously on the set. An overused expression is the happy accident; those are the things that you can’t predict or anticipate, and you don't really know how that's going to affect it until you get there.

What kind of things?

Things like the nuance of an actor's performance or something the actor says, it could be a change in the weather, it could be something that's presented to you at the time. So that spontaneity; it's something that Chris was always very adept at seeing and understanding. It brings something to the film, and also to the cinematography of the film, that you hadn't necessarily anticipated and it's generally a positive thing.

What about where camera work is concerned? How does that influence the storytelling?

Chris was never a big steadicam fan in the early days we were working together, so we depended more on capturing with the camera on my shoulder. It was a skill that I was particularly good at — I'd been doing it since I was 18 years old while working on documentaries and television news. I love the maneuverability: with a simple lean to the right or the left you create this shift in the framing and you were able to come around somebody's shoulder or gently lean in and create a movement similar to a slow dolly move. Or you could keep a high energy level going in an action scene, or you can maneuver around and run with the camera any way that you want to.

Handheld shooting has fallen somewhat out of fashion these days, but the technique is sometimes described as being “from the camera man’s perspective.” Does that resonate with you?

It's interesting. I never really looked at it that way. I mean, it certainly makes sense. I think in some of the work that Chris and I did together, I know that that style was important to him when we were doing Insomnia, for instance. And then The Prestige we shot bulk of that movie handheld, I would say probably 75% of that film is handheld and even shots that are on a crane, I'm handholding the camera. It can be more representative of the audience's point of view, I think. It's certainly an interactive perspective. I guess maybe it is somewhat my point of view or my perspective because you certainly use an enormous amount of your intuition when the camera's on your shoulder.

Did that intuition help you when you eventually transitioned to directing films yourself?

Well, when I did Transcendence, the visual elements were important, but far less important to me than the storytelling was. I felt that I had to shift much more into storytelling and performance and look at it in a different way because there was an interesting moral story to be told and a psychology to be explored and frankly, that was the job at hand. The magic as the director is you suddenly have all the responsibility. I'm collaborating with myself as a cinematographer and with myself as a storyteller. It is important for the director to be involved in visual aspects of the film, but I do think I had a bit of a hard time detaching from what I'd spent the past 15 years doing. On commercials, I work as both director and cinematographer so, in essence I'm more collaborating with myself in the marriage of story and imagery. It’s a very different process than it was in the past. The crew next to me is of greater importance. My producer, my production designer, my camera operator, all close collaborators.

“I interpret the words and the intention and followed his story path, while also offering my own visual interpretation of my own ideas. And that's how that collaboration works best.”

Did directing feel like more of an artistic fulfillment to you than cinematography?

I was looking for a change in my life; I had been working as a cinematographer and more specifically with Christopher Nolan for 15 years. And I just wanted to try different things... Not just artistically, but in my personal life as well, and that’s how I ended up making Transcendence. I think my greatest expression as a cinematographer, though, was taking a director or writer's material and interpreting that. Chris Nolan and I developed an incredible collaboration over the seven films that we did together: I interpret the words and the intention and followed his story path, while also offering my own visual interpretation of my own ideas. And that's how that collaboration works best.

Apparently when Nolan approached you about doing Batman Begins, you were a bit shocked. Was it your trust in him that made you agree to do the film?

Look, no matter what there was an incredible loyalty. I was very loyal to Chris and really, I would say, had blind trust for whatever he wanted to do. I wasn't the biggest superhero fan, so you’re right that I was surprised because at the time, we had made basically what amounted to be two detective movies. And intuitively, I think that Chris saw Batman Begins as a detective movie too —  I didn't understand it to be that way until I read the screenplay and I immediately sort of got where he was going with it. But yeah, I mean, I would have followed him with blind faith wherever he was headed at that point because we had made films that I was very proud of at that time.

That level of mutual respect must be really essential to the success of a partnership that lasted over a decade.

Absolutely. We had a great relationship. We challenged each other. Since we started out on what amounted to be his second film and my first film of any level of quality, we were both entering into this brave new world together. There was a certain amount of kind of growing up together. There's no question that he was the authority in this, but I think that he learned from me as I was learning from him and then we built things together. There was a great effortless communication that we had on the last few films where we were able to really create on a large scale. And that the kind of collaboration is absolutely born of respect. It's an incredibly important thing and you know it when it's not — you recognize when it's not there.