The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Inception Sidebar
I Am Love
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Wally Pfister, ASC and Christopher Nolan offer AC an inside view of the sci-fi thriller Inception.

Unit photography by Stephen Vaughan and Melissa Mosely, SMPSP, courtesy of Warner Bros.
Tight security is in place on Universal Studios’ Stage 12 as a film crew readies for a take on a surreal-looking set: a large, high-ceilinged vault with black walls divided into blocks by a grid-like pattern of thin, white lines. More than 100 space lights are positioned overhead, above a layer of Full Grid and another layer of muslin; the light they cast is neutral, sterile and shadowless. Actor Cillian Murphy kneels on the floor. At the call of “Action!” two cameras roll, one capturing the scene in anamorphic 35mm, the other recording the action in 65mm. Suddenly, a crack appears in the floor, and an irregular chunk of the set collapses and falls away, sending Murphy and some set pieces plummeting through a hole. Dust rises into the set as director Christopher Nolan yells, “Cut!” A moment later, hydraulic pistons lift the collapsed floor back into position for take 2.  

It’s an attention-grabbing moment on the set of Inception, Nolan’s latest collaboration with director of photography Wally Pfister, ASC. The film, also written by Nolan, presents the experience of dreaming and takes it to dramatic extremes: a character can invade the dreams of others, multiple characters can be linked and experience the same dream world simultaneously, and dreams can be manufactured and altered in order to manipulate the dreamer. The main character, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), infiltrates dreams for profit, and his accomplishments in the field of corporate espionage have made him an international fugitive.  

As with so many of their ventures, the touchstone for Nolan and Pfister was photographic realism. “The underlying idea is that dreams feel real while we’re in them, which is actually a line in the film,” says Nolan, speaking to AC after the production wrapped. “That was important to the photography and to every aspect of the film. We didn’t want to have dream sequences with any superfluous surrealism. We didn’t want them to have any less validity than what is specified as being the real world. So we took the approach of trying to make them feel real.”  

“There are times when the characters don’t know what they’re seeing is a dream, so the visual difference between reality and dreams had to be seamless, except in specific places where we wanted to communicate that difference to the audience,” notes Pfister. “Often, the surrealism in the movie comes from the environment rather than the camerawork or photography. By maintaining a realistic feel, we believed we could introduce a bizarre or unsettling feel very subtly when we wanted to, without taking the viewer out of the story.”  

Pleased with what they were able to achieve by mixing anamorphic 35mm cinematography with 15-perf 65mm on The Dark Knight (AC July ’08), Nolan and Pfister decided to test large formats for some sequences in Inception. “We’ve always been interested in exploring the highest resolutions and highest-quality imaging formats,” says Nolan. “We decided to use 35mm anamorphic as our main format on this film because it’s the most controllable, the cameras are reasonably lightweight and very efficient, and we’ve got a lot of experience with it. But we also decided we could get some value out of mixing large-format photography into some of our biggest set pieces and some of the more formally constructed scenes.”   

Imax was ruled out because the filmmakers decided that extensive handheld camerawork would be a cornerstone of their visual approach. “We wanted to do a lot of handheld in many very confined locations to get a documentary feel,” says Nolan. “And there was a lot of physically challenging work planned.”  

Shooting film, however, was always a given. “Film has an enormous amount of exposure latitude and dynamic range, which gives us infinite creative flexibility in creating images,” says Pfister. “I can underexpose it by 3 stops and overexpose it by 5 stops within the same frame and see the entire spectrum on the screen. That’s simply not possible in any digital format I’ve seen. Every digital camera is trying hard to emulate 35mm film, and there’s a reason for that.”   

In their quest to find the most suitable large format for Inception, the filmmakers met with industry legend Douglas Trumbull and took a look at Showscan’s latest iteration. They also examined Super Dimension 70, a system devised by Robert Weisgerber that allows shooting and projecting at 48 fps. “Strangely, Super Dimension 70 images have an almost hyper-HD quality, despite the phenomenal resolution,” says Pfister. “We just couldn’t get around that.” They also screened a presentation created by ASC members Bill Bennett and Kees van Oostrum that mixed wide shots captured on 65mm with closer shots made on 35mm. “We saw that the 35mm and 65mm footage cut together well,” says Pfister. “They got great detail and resolution on the wide shots, where objects in the frame appear smaller. Seeing that encouraged us to use that model.” The filmmakers eventually decided to add both 65mm and VistaVision 8-perf 35mm to the mix for Inception. (VistaVision was used for aerial cinematography, shot by Hans Bjerno.)  

In a bit of a departure from their previous work, they also decided to do extensive high-speed photography, which Pfister accomplished mainly with the Photo-Sonics 4ER, which works with Panavision lenses and allows frame rates of up to 360 fps, and the Photo-Sonics 4E Rotary Prism, which goes as high as 1,500 fps. (A PanArri 435ESA and a Vision Research Phantom HD camera were also used for some high-speed work.) “There are very few high-speed shots in anything I’ve done because I feel it is inherently unreal,” says Nolan, “but it’s an essential component of Inception because there is a very specific temporal relationship between the dream world and the waking world. We wanted to use high-speed photography and speed ramps for narrative effect as opposed to aesthetic effect.”  

Knowing that he would be contending with an array of cameras, formats and the stop loss associated with high-speed cinematography, Pfister decided to limit his film stocks to two: Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 and 250D 5207. “I don’t change stocks to create different looks,” he notes. “I know that works for some cinematographers, but I prefer to change the lighting or exposure, for example. I like the simplicity of using the same stocks. In day-exterior situations, we’d start out with an ND.6 or .9 and pull the filters out as the light waned.”  

The production filmed in six countries, beginning in Japan, and Pfister depended on his regular crew throughout the 92-day shoot: camera assistants Bob Hall and Dan McFadden, gaffer Cory Geryak, and key grip Ray Garcia. (In the United Kingdom, key grip Ryan Monro was an important collaborator.) Imagica in Tokyo, LTC in Paris, and Technicolor facilities in London and North Hollywood were tapped for processing the 35mm footage; throughout the shoot, Technicolor’s North Hollywood lab processed the 65mm. (Iwerks in Burbank created 35mm anamorphic reduction prints from the 65mm negative for dailies.)  

After two days in Japan, where the schedule included aerials and some bullet-train exteriors, the filmmakers moved into the airship hangar in Cardington, England, where they had shot major portions of The Dark Knight and Batman Begins (AC June ’05). This became home base for prepping the rest of the shoot. The hangar housed some spectacular sets, including a hotel bar that could be tilted 30 degrees and a massive elevator shaft laid out horizontally. Special-effects supervisor Chris Corbould oversaw their construction. “Chris has been working with us since Batman Begins, and he’s an absolutely brilliant engineer and artist,” notes Pfister. “It’s hard to imagine doing a film of this scale without him.” 

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