The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Inception Sidebar
I Am Love
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

Onstage at Warner Bros., a portion of a Japanese fortress interior was built and destroyed for the production; this footage was melded with exteriors shot at Abalone Cove in Palos Verdes, Calif. For another sequence, the interior of a wintry mountain redoubt was built onstage at Universal Studios. In the scene, pieces of the floor fall away as the fortress crumbles. To achieve the effect practically, the production built the main level of the set higher than normal, so chunks of the floor could collapse and fall away on cue. The set was surrounded by large greenscreens, which were later replaced by snowy Rocky Mountain vistas.   

“In order to have enough green outside and still give the feel of daylight coming through the windows, the lights and the greenscreen needed to be positioned a considerable distance back, which, of course, meant that the greenscreens had to be bigger,” says Geryak. “We knew the actual location, near Calgary, would have soft ambient light, and that the sun would be behind the mountain, so we built about a dozen 20-foot-long softboxes that we could raise and lower. They could be configured to follow the path of the windows, which had an irregular triangular shape.” The crew hung space lights just outside and above the windows to create the feel of natural skylight that could stream in more strongly when the floor fell away.   

The exteriors for this sequence were filmed in Kaninaskis Country, in the mountains west of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Two versions of the mountain fortress were built, one full-sized and the other a miniature that was eventually blown up. Extraordinary ski footage was shot by ski-unit director of photography Chris Patterson, whose work “simply blew us away,” says Pfister. (See sidebar on page 30.)   

Because Nolan intended to intercut a lot of material in the edit, he asked Pfister to give each location and dream level a distinctive feel. “We wanted to have the color palette change quite a bit when we go from one location to another,” says Pfister. “Calgary has a sterile, cool look; the hallways have warm hues; and the van scenes are neutral. You immediately know where you are, even if we cut to a tighter shot or to something that is slightly out of context. It’s a choice that helps tell the story.”  

“This film relies heavily on crosscutting,” notes Nolan. “Editorially, you are very liberated if the different locations each have a distinct look, but Wally and I were loath to do any artificial processing to the image. Instead, we wanted to find the natural hues of each location. In the script, I tried to place the different strands of action in locations that would naturally be different in terms of their design and feel. We asked everyone to observe that, including the design and sound departments, and Wally carried that very elegantly into the photography.”  

“I consider myself a naturalist in terms of lighting,” says Pfister. “I don’t often light in a stylized way. In certain situations, due to creative choices or natural beauty, things do end up looking stylized, but that happens naturally. It’s fun that Chris and I are able to make big studio films using this approach.  

“I’m always fighting to keep things from becoming overly complicated,” continues the cinematographer. “I never want things to look overlit —or lit, for that matter. The trick is to work quickly and simply while getting results that don’t look as though they were rushed. I think it goes back to my training as a news and documentary cameraman. In those situations, you learn to find the beauty in natural light. You start with the simplest terms: which direction to look, the time of day, single or multiple sources. You take note of what works in real life, and you form an opinion according to your taste. I take that with me not only to practical locations but also to the stage, even though we have the advantage of being able to design the stage situations.”   

Pfister maintains that operating the camera is integral to his approach. “In good photography, I can’t distinguish between good lighting and good composition; they work in conjunction. When it comes to handheld work, I always want to operate myself because I can change my mind and react at any given moment. Chris and I have a general formula for covering action —from behind, from the front, and then bridging things together with different sizes. Operating allows me to adapt within this formula as the material, the drama, the lighting and the environment change.”  

Inception’s post phase involved multiple facilities. According to post supervisor David Hall, the two Phantom HD shots that made it into the final cut were sent to Double Negative in London and finished as visual-effects shots. The 65mm negative was scanned at 6K at DKP 70mm Inc. under the watchful eye of company president David Keighley. Those 6K files were then turned over to Technicolor in Hollywood, where a team extracted from the 6K data to generate 4K 35mm filmouts that could be combined with the native 35mm footage. Pfister did all of the color timing photochemically at Technicolor, working with longtime collaborator David Orr. In addition to 35mm and digital-cinema presentations, Inception will be released on 70mm Imax in select markets, and DKP 70mm Inc. scanned the 35mm color-timed interpositives to create those prints.  

“The photochemical process is quite simple and works well for us,” notes Pfister. “I put a lot of care into the color balance and exposure during filming, and that limits the manipulation required in post. If we want a scene to have more contrast, we accomplish that with lighting, wardrobe and set design. We were able to time this entire film in just three check prints. That’s about half the time of the average digital intermediate.”  



35mm, 65mm and High-Definition Video

Panaflex Millennium XL, PFX Sytem 65 Studio; PanArri 435ESA, 235; Photo-Sonics 4ER, 4E Rotary Prism; Beaucam; Vision Research Phantom HD

Panavision Primo, Super High Speed, C-Series, E-Series, G-Series, System 65 lenses

Kodak Vision 3 500T 5219, 250D 5207

Specialized Digital Intermediate (for 65mm material)

Printed on Kodak Vision 2383

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