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Oscar Video: Inception ASC-winner Pfister Talks Working with Nolan in 35 mm, Tech Panel Q & A

by Anne Thompson
February 14, 2011 9:19 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

In a surprise win, American director of photography Wally Pfister, who has been working with Chris Nolan for twelve years, ever since Memento, collected his first American Society of Cinematographers' award for Inception Sunday. He beat out Oscar favorite Roger Deakins, who collected the BAFTA for True Grit on Sunday. Check out my flip cam interview with Pfister (below), who talks about working with Nolan; Pfister has received Oscar nominations for Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight and now, Inception, one of eight noms for the film.

I also covered a panel of Inception tech contributors, including from left in the photo above: sound mixers Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick, sound editor Richard King, visual effects masters Paul Franklin and Chris Corbould, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, composer Hans Zimmer and Pfister. The movie won BAFTAs Sunday for visual effects, production design and sound, and looks likely to take home some tech Oscars on February 27.

Thompson on Hollywood

The main reason Inception is so effective, gorgeous and believable is that it's shot in anamorphic 35 mm (with some IMAX 65 mm sequences) on old-fashioned grainy color stock. They used no digital intermediate. That's rare these days. This preserves brightness, contrast and clarity. That meant that the visual effects team had to use a photographic pipeline.

Pfister talks about how Nolan struggled to do as much as possible on set with live practical effects, using some of the same technology as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. They built huge twisting gimbles to shake, rattle and roll the cast, who were indeed bruised after climbing the rubber-clad walls and light-fixtures in wire rigs. According to Corbould, one of the revolving sets was 100-feet long and could whiz by at 10 rpm, but they settled for four--otherwise the cast lost focus. "There was a noticeable difference in the level of their performance," he said. "Survival kicked in." Joseph Gordon-Levitt rehearsed his stunts for three weeks: "He put everything into it."

At the panel it was amusing to see Zimmer, who has a magnetic star presence and can't help promoting himself--trying to share credit for the film's masterful sound with the more phlegmatic Richard King. (I interviewed Zimmer here.) He and King collaborated closely on slowing down the two chords from Edith Piaf's "Je Ne Regrette Rien" (cited in the script) using a French master recording and a vintage tape recorder to isolate the voice and achieve whale-like deep undulated tones. They also recorded brass players blowing into an old piano in a big church. With the score, Zimmer was trying to find the "perfect balance between acoustic and electronic, to take electronics and send them into the real world, into the filter of real air, to have a sense of time and place."

It all started with reading the script kept in a locked drawer, Pfister recalled. It's important for him not to think technically, he said--there's plenty of time to crack the script later--admitting that he had to read the first fifteen pages three times before moving on. "It was hard to find a way--as Chris was cutting back and forth between dream levels--to make them distinct and delineate one environment from the other." The evolution of that discussion yielded rainy L.A., the hotel hallway set, luxurious Japan, and the ski slopes of Calgary.

When Zimmer reads a script he's not thinking visually, but aurally. He said that music has an "unfair advantage" in being "not linear: you can do cross-rhythms that sub-divide time." The core of the movie is a "tragic love story" that keeps haunting the dreams. "We're telling a love story with a modern music vocabulary. I try to find new language to be as dark, moody and tragic as only a German can be."

The sound design, too, needed to enhance as well as differentiate the reality of the dreamscapes, said King, and required a lot of experimentation and tweaking when they'd gone too far. "It was a lot of trial and error," he said, "trying whatever we could think of. When I read the script I came away with more questions than answers." King and his team recorded many of their sounds in real spaces so that they would have a "natural signature."

Guy Hendrix Dyas, who worked with Nolan for the first time on Inception, agreed that he too was trying to differentiate the dream levels by creating distinct color palettes for each one. Dyas told me before the panel that he was citing the history of modern architecture during the stunning deep dream level inhabited for so long by Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). These characters were impressed by modern design, so they incorporated it into their world, which is dramatically disintegrating off the edge of the cliff thanks to complex VFX software. The characters lacked the bandwidth to make each building unique, so they repeat them off into the distance, which helps to explain the huge scale of these miniatures.

VFX supervisor Franklin said photorealism was the key to making the dreams feel real, "as if Wally shot it, even Paris folding up into a cube and exploding. The physical and digital effects always start with something real. You film it, and then start to manipulate the elements. It's based on something photographic."

For the Paris sequence Nolan asked that there be no flash-of-smoke explosions--and that DiCaprio and Page sit unaffected in the middle. Corbould deployed high-pressure nitrogen air cannons and confetti. They did 20 tests with real cars and bikes. Everything shot past the camera in the fore and background.

Seeing Inception on the big screen is crucial. It just doesn't play as well on video. I've seen it three times now, twice at the theater and once on Blu-ray. No comparison.

Here's a special behind-the-scenes promo:

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