The American Society of Cinematographers

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Another Cardington set, a hotel hallway, comes into play during a scene that features some zero-gravity action. The hallway was built twice, with identical interiors seen by the camera. In one case, the entire hallway vertically rotates 360 degrees, like a rotisserie, with the camera looking into one end and moving either independently (via a Technocrane) or mounted to the set on a specially designed rail system that moved the gyroscopically stabilized camera back-and-forth along a hidden groove. (Think Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling, or some of the zero-gravity interiors in 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The second hallway stands vertically on its end, with the camera on a telescopic Towercam rig, looking straight up. Actors were raised or lowered on wires to perform in the space. A third method of shooting in the hallway sequence involved moving the actors on a trolley rig that was later removed in post.   

Nolan wanted the corridor set to rotate freely without having to be reset. Geryak explains, “We found a company that designed a slip-ring brush system to supply power to the hotel hallway, we told them what our power needs would be, and they built a carousel-like system that enabled electricity to flow from land power to the rig. Our dimmer pack was actually onboard, which was a streamlined way to do it. We had to balance our cables and dimmers around the entire rig so it wouldn’t make the load uneven.” Because of the high-speed work, a lot of light was required, and the lighting was designed to be extra sturdy because the actors would have to fall on it. Practical fixtures designed by the art department each held six 150-watt Photofloods. There were also sconces and a soffit built around the existing practicals and fitted with nook lights with 1,000-watt globes behind milk glass. The stop was usually T2.81⁄2.  

The hallway sequence required particular beats of action, and stunt coordinator Tom Struthers worked closely with the actors to determine what would be possible and also safe. “A couple of key rigs we used to achieve effects in camera were very specifically inspired by 2001 [AC June ’68] and the way in which Stanley Kubrick portrayed the lack of gravity,” says Nolan. “I was interested in taking those ideas, techniques and philosophies and applying them to an action scenario. I challenged Tom Struthers, Chris Corbould, and Wally and his team to put all the energy of an action scene into a setup that we could shoot with these extraordinary rigs. I think the result is an interesting hybrid; it’s surreal and quirky, but it’s got a pounding action rhythm.”  

“Safety was a huge concern, and it was very painful for the actors because they had to bounce off the walls,” says Pfister. “They had to learn to jump at just the right moment. We had a crewmember with a hand poised over the kill switch at all times.”  

Another elaborate set is a hotel bar where gravity suddenly shifts and the weather outside undergoes a sudden, dramatic change. Corbould and his crew built the entire set to tilt 30 degrees. The set windows looked out on greenscreens that would be replaced with vistas in post. To effect the lighting change, Pfister’s crew wired all fixtures to a dimmer board. The scene’s initial lighting required a sunset feel, so Molebeams were gelled with 21⁄2 CTS. As that light dimmed, 60'-long softboxes filled with Maxi-Brutes and covered with Grid Cloth were brought up to create overcast light. “That’s one scene where the camerawork and lighting become surreal, but it’s all part of the storyline,” says Pfister. “It’s still a naturalistic approach in that every source is motivated. What’s very unusual is the way it changes. Combined with the set tilting, it creates a very unsettling sensation.”   

Laying out the setting’s elevator shaft horizontally was Nolan’s idea, and Pfister notes that doing so “allowed us to give the scene scope that could not have been achieved any other way. In your average Hollywood movie, that would be a visual-effects-heavy scene, but in keeping with our policy of doing as much in-camera as possible, we got it for real, and it was wonderfully successful.”  

After wrapping up in England, the production spent a week in Paris and then two weeks in Morocco. The shoot then brought the filmmakers to Los Angeles, where they spent three weeks shooting an action sequence downtown in the rain. The biggest challenge there, according to Pfister, was blocking the sun with Condors and huge flags. “Ray Garcia did a phenomenal job blocking light in resourceful ways and helping to make the rain look credible,” says the cinematographer. “When I was fretting about harsh sunlight that occasionally sneaked into a shot, Chris, who is always happy to speed things along, would remind me, ‘Well, it is a dream.’”  

One segment of the downtown shoot called for a full-sized train to hurtle down a city street without actual rails. To achieve this, production designer Guy Dyas built a mock locomotive onto the chassis of an 18-wheeler. “It was fantastically detailed,” says Pfister. “We shot that, along with many of our downtown L.A. action sequences, in 65mm using an Ultimate Arm.” As the train approached, Pfister, working handheld, tried a number of things to make the frame shake, and in the end he simply shook the camera. “The simple solution is often the right one,” he observes with a laugh.   

For high-speed work, the filmmakers were constantly reaching for the highest possible frame rates. Many such scenes were filmed in daylight, but several were done in artificial light. In one scene, shot on the third floor of a hotel in downtown L.A., Cobb’s dream is interrupted when he falls backward into a bathtub full of water. To heighten the effect, and to communicate Cobb’s passage from a dream state to consciousness, Nolan asked for a speed ramp. The goal was 1,000 fps, necessitating the faster Photo-Sonics camera and a 7-stop light loss. “We knew we needed a lot of punch to shoot at 1,000 frames with that camera,” says Geryak. “The lenses it requires only go to a stop of 4.5. I believe I was getting the equivalent of f/90 on the edgelight, measuring the light at 24 fps. We achieved that by setting two Condors outside the windows that each held two Arrimax 18K Pars with spot reflectors; they were less than 15 feet from Leo. We also had two 12K Pars banging into the ceiling for ‘a bit of fill’ — the stand-in actually started steaming!” Pfister notes, “The shot looks great. You can see individual beads of water, which gives the scene an otherworldly feeling.”  

Another complicated shot involved rotating a van on its horizontal axis 360 degrees. The target frame rate was 1,000 fps, leading Geryak to construct what Nolan jokingly dubbed the “tunnel of expense.” Geryak explains, “We essentially built a tunnel out of truss. We had six rows of five 18K Fresnels lined up around the van, aiming straight in. The van spun within that tunnel. The result was basically a wraparound blanket of daylight. We didn’t have any lights on the ground, so as the van spins, the intermittent darkness communicates that they are spinning and flipping over.” 

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