Posted by Susan Doll on October 22, 2012
What’s better than listening to a behind-the-scenes DVD commentary and discovering something new about a favorite film? It’s listening to a live commentary while watching the film on a big screen! Last week, I attended a “sound-down” of the sci-fi blockbuster Inception presented by cinematographer Wally Pfister. A sound-down is exactly what the term implies: The film is screened with the sound so low that it cannot be heard while a person of note—in this case, Pfister—provides an expert commentary. A sound-down offers an opportunity to fully understand the art behind the illusion that is Hollywood movie-making without destroying the magic.
A free event open to all film students and movie-lovers, the sound-down of Inception ended a week of workshops, master classes, and screenings at Ringling College of Art and Design in which Pfister generously gave his time and expertise to the students. Located in my new hometown of Sarasota, Florida, Ringling is the college where I now teach film and art history to a talented student body of future illustrators, fine artists, animators, and filmmakers. I was lucky to squeeze into a class in which Pfister provided an insider’s view of production design by explaining the interrelationship between the director, the production designer, and the cinematographer. Informal yet informative, Pfister painted a clear picture of the process of production, emphasizing that story needs to drive the choice of visual techniques—not the other way around.
And, Wally Pfister knows what he is talking about. An Academy Award winner for Inception, the veteran cinematographer was also nominated for Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Prestige. The common factor in all of these films is director Christopher Nolan. Their working relationship began in 1999 during the production of Memento, and Pfister has lensed all of Nolan’s films up through The Dark Knight Rises. In speaking of his relationship with Nolan, Pfister revealed another common thread to his comments—the importance of collaboration. Nolan may have an overall vision for his films, but Pfister has been instrumental in forging the visual style that has defined Nolan’s work up to this point. Nolan and Pfister describe that style as photographic realism, meaning it is grounded in realistic lighting effects, practical locations, and mechanical effects, with computer-generated imagery (CGI) kept to a minimum. Pfister is convinced that this style helps make Nolan’s Batman series the best of the superhero genre, because they are believable and grounded in a recognizable reality. I am inclined to agree.
Inception tells the story of a team of industrial spies, headed by Leonardo DiCaprio, who infiltrate the dreams of corporate leaders for profit. The lack of CGI is surprising given the film’s subject matter and its signature moments, including the sequence known as “Folding Paris” and the conclusion in the so-called “Limbo World” where Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page walk through the empty, crumbling White City. “Folding Paris,” which represents the stunning work of visual effects man Jack Franklin, became one of the images for the poster and trailer. And, yet, as Pfister discussed the film, I was surprised and then impressed by how many effects were mechanical, not computer generated. A film with a lot of computer-generated effects may seem impressive on the surface, but CGI lacks volume and depth, which renders it unbelievable to me. I enjoyed Pfister’s remarks about the beauty of practical sets and the realism of mechanical effects, because they reminded me of the stories told by old-school movie-studio craftsmen and crew members who figured out how to rig a stunt or achieve an effect by relying on instinct, experience, and ingenuity.
For example, in one segment, which was shot in downtown Los Angeles, a full-sized train hurtles down a busy street crowded with cars. Production designer Guy Dyas tricked out an 18-wheel Sterling semi-truck to look like a locomotive, which could then be driven down the street at high speed. A boxy, plywood casing was constructed on the sides of the truck to look like a train. Molds were taken from actual train parts so that fiberglass duplicates could be made and attached where needed. The biggest challenge for Pfister was to create the illusion of a rainy day for that scene, though it was shot in mid-morning sunlight. One part of the solution was to use negative fill, which are large sheets of black cloth that absorb light to remove its surface effects from a given area.
Much of the film was shot handheld by Pfister, an approach he and Nolan agreed on in the beginning. Pfister prefers to operate the handheld camera himself so he has the freedom to change his mind about a shot and react at any given moment. This choice of style worked particularly well in confined locations such as the chase scene through the tight alleys of Morocco, the investigation of the secret sleep facility, and the exchanges with Marion Cotillard in the hotel rooms. Unlike the “shaky cam” handheld style preferred by some action directors today, Pfister’s handheld work is most often smooth and fluid. Only the intimate framing and heightened mobility unmask the camerawork as being handheld. The skilled camerawork reveals Pfister’s roots as a news cameraman on Capitol Hill back in the day. However, the most astonishing handheld work was not done by Pfister but by Warren Miller’s cinematographer, Chris Patterson. Miller directs those daredevil documentaries on extreme sports that always seem to be showing on cable. Maybe now I will give them a look after seeing the snow-skiing footage in Inception. Near the end of the film, when the characters are in the Arctic-looking dream location atop a mountain, a chase ensues on skies down the treacherous snowy slopes. Constant movement defines the sequence, which subtly pulls us down the mountain along with the action. To capture close coverage of the chase, Patterson hit the slopes on skis wielding a handheld camera. In some shots, an assistant is skiing behind him, pulling focus; in other shots, Patterson was skiing backwards to shoot a frontal view of the action. Knowing how that footage was shot suddenly makes the “Folding Paris” sequence look tame in comparison.
My favorite mechanical effect was the hotel hallway during the scene that exploits the zero-gravity action in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt engages in a fight, rescues his sleeping cohorts, and successfully maneuvers them to safety. The hallway was constructed at a huge airship hangar in Cardington, England, where parts of The Batman Trilogy were also shot. Actually, two hallways were built, with identical interiors. One hallway could vertically rotate 360-degrees, like a rotisserie oven, with the camera looking into one end. This was inspired by the scene in Royal Wedding in which Fred Astaire danced up the walls of his room and on the ceiling as well as the scenes in the zero-gravity rooms in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that served as a major influence on Nolan and Pfister during the making of Inception. The other hallway stood vertically on its end, with the camera on a rig, looking straight up into it. The result is an interesting action sequence that has the suggestion of the surreal without losing an overall sense of realism. The hallway scene, especially the fight, was difficult for the actors who banged into the walls with some force.
Inception was shot in seven different countries. Throughout the commentary, Pfister took delight in revealing the locations of specific shots, because Inception took great advantage of creative geography in which a single scene combined shots taken in several different locations to suggest one setting. In the beginning, in the sequence involving the Japanese fortress, DiCaprio’s character climbs down the side of the building, looking into the windows along the way. The exteriors were shot in California; the close-ups of DiCaprio peering into certain windows were shot in England. Lukas Haas’s character frets and paces in a hotel room, which was constructed in England, and then looks through the curtains of his room to the busy street outside, which was shot in Morocco. In the scene in which DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt meet Ken Watanabe aboard an airplane in Tokyo, the pair walk to the plane, which was really a small airstrip in England, have their conversation inside the plane, which was shot on a set constructed in another part of England, fly over a major city, which was actually Tokyo, and then land again at that small English airstrip. But, the crisp, logical editing in each case makes us believe the entire scene unfolds in its specified locale.
I wonder if Pfister realized that this editing sleight of hand was first explained by the Soviet directors of the 1920s, though the trick itself goes back to D.W. Griffith’s one-reelers. Inception—like other major productions—takes full advantage of an editorial principle first explained by Lev Kuleshov and his workshop at the Moscow Film Institute around 1923. In one of their famous editing experiments, Kuleshov and his students combined five shots of found footage into a segment that told a brief story. In Shot 1, a man walks from right to left; in Shot 2, a woman walks from left to right; in Shot 3, they shake hands, and the man points; in Shot 4, we see a long shot of a white marble building; and, in Shot 5, the pair walk up a flight of marble stairs. Kuleshov showed the makeshift scene to a test audience, which assumed a connection between the shots, turning it into a slight story about a couple meeting each other in order to visit the white building together. In reality, the shot of the man and the shot of the woman were taken in two different parts of Moscow, while the white building is actually the American White House. The stairs the couple ascends are in a third location in Moscow. Kuleshov’s experiment proved that geographical unity in film is a matter of editing and not dependent on actual geography. He called this technique “constructing an artificial landscape,” or “creative geography.”
Wally Pfister’s remarks reveal that, despite the film’s content and state of the art special effects, Inception is steeped in the time-honored traditions of Hollywood storytelling. From the preference for mechanical effects to the use of creative geography, from its emphasis on story to its photographic realism, Inception is an exceptionally crafted contemporary classic that sticks close to its roots.
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