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" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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For a guy who filmed one of the biggest successes in Hollywood history, Wally Pfister is really easygoing. There’s no air of pretension, no self-important attitude. At times he can be self-deprecating and, yeah, even a bit of a joker. Pretty fitting, considering the aforementioned blockbuster is The Dark Knight.

Pfister recently made back-to-back visits to Colorado. The first was to shoot a Nike commercial in Broomfield’s new Event Center. Only a week later, he was back for his first visit to the Mile High City itself, as a tribute guest of the Starz Denver Film Festival. As such, he was on hand for Q&A sessions following screenings of two of his movies, Insomnia and Laurel Canyon.

In the festival’s filmmakers’ lounge, things started off on a fairly unlikely, table-turning note. My defense of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a great piece of entertainment became a topic of conversation while I set up my Canon G9 on a little gorillapod. I had commented that the G9 was the “official camera” of my Egyptian adventure in the spring, which itself was inspired by the then-impending return of Dr. Jones.

The idea was to make a video recording of the interview as a sort of fly-on-the-wall experiment. Pfister got to play with the huge-format IMAX system while filming The Dark Knight. The G9 is scaled down in comparison, to say the least, but it served as a worthy tool for the experiment at hand.

While getting set up, Pfister was a little concerned about too much “nostril action” from the camera’s tabletop vantage point, so he recommended I place the camera on the box holding his festival tribute award. And so it was that the world-famous “Tiffany Blue” box became a makeshift pedestal for recording the interview.

Yeah. He’s that easygoing.

And Here We Go...

The Dark Knight is one of those movies that seem to chalk up another record or notable achievement at every turn. It’s raked in just shy of $1 billion at the global box office. It’s also the first release on the fledgling Blu-ray format to sell-through 600,000 copies in its first day, more than doubling the previous record set by Iron Man back in October.

Pfister got noticed at Sundance and honored at the Denver Film Festival
Pfister got noticed at Sundance and honored at the Denver Film Festival

And it was also the first feature production to actually film some sequences in the IMAX super-sized format. The Blu-ray release recreates that format shift, presenting the pristine IMAX footage in 1.78:1 and the remainder of the film in its original 2.4:1 aspect ratio.

“The decision came from Chris Nolan,” Pfister said. “Chris has always loved IMAX, loved large format. I think in his heart he always felt that somebody should be doing feature films on IMAX.”

At the turn of the millennium, IMAX started picking up steam in mainstream releases with Disney offering up Fantasia 2000and a “repurposed” version of Beauty and the Beast. Warner Bros. also got in on the act by enlarging some of its new theatrical releases, including Catwoman and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for IMAX presentation.

“I think Chris was very excited when he found out that Batman Begins was going to go to IMAX,” Pfister said. “But we were both very nervous because we shot the whole movie on 35 millimeter and they scan it in and then output it to 70 millimeter.

“I was really worried that the resolution would go all to hell when blown up to that size. When Chris and I saw the first tests of Batman Begins on IMAX we were blown away. The film structure held up so well, the grain was intact. I started seeing stuff into the shadows that I had never seen on a 35 millimeter print. So, in a nutshell, we were stunned. I think that was where the seed was planted, you know, in Chris’ mind, to maybe do a little more work in IMAX.”

With that first taste of the IMAX experience, Nolan upped the ante by making a couple test shots in the format while filming The Prestige, his “little movie” follow up to Batman Begins that reunited Nolan, Pfister, Christian Bale, and Michael Caine.

Are You Watching Closely?

Encouraged by the Prestige results, Nolan wanted take things much further with The Dark Knight.

“Chris came to me early on and said, ‘I’ve got a wild notion and I don’t know whether Warner Bros. is going to let me do this or not yet, but I’d really love to shoot an action sequence on IMAX for The Dark Knight.’ And I said, ‘That’s fantastic! What a blast.’

“Chris decided that it was to be the opening sequence of the film, so that in the IMAX theatres you’d have the beginning of the film in native IMAX and then we would go back to 35 millimeter for the narrative. So it would be pretty much the same in a normal 35 millimeter projection in your multiplex, but when you went to IMAX you’d see this greatly enhanced image, from a negative that’s 10 times the size of 35 millimeter.

“As it evolved, Chris started getting more into the notion of it. I started doing my homework as to what it meant to shoot IMAX, ‘cause I had really only done that one test before and was pretty unfamiliar with the format. Chris then approached me and said, ‘Well, here’s my real thing: I want to shoot every action sequence in the picture on IMAX.’ I was like, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!’”

All technical considerations aside, a bigger issue than the IMAX format itself was finding the extra funding.

Doing the numbers, they figured the IMAX work would add about $10 million to the budget. The pitch was to have the Warner Bros. marketing team pick up the tab since they’d be able to use it as a publicity item during production and use the IMAX angle again upon the movie’s release.

“Our goal was to put the action sequences on the screen in a way that nobody had ever seen them before, by shooting them on 65 millimeter negative, blowing it up to 70 millimeter,” Pfister said. “The clarity, the visceral impact of having your images eight stories high in that native format. It’s just mind-blowing. It’s the whole experience of the IMAX theatre; it’s the images, it’s the sound.”

Of course, not everything’s perfect, as Pfister noted, “They just have to make the seats a little more comfortable now that they’re showing (feature-length) movies.”

A Taste for the Theatrical

Even with Nolan’s growing reputation as a solid, reliable and responsible filmmaker, things didn’t fall into place without question.

“By the time we got going, literally in pre-production we still didn’t have permission from the studio. So Chris mapped out the whole post process because the studio was concerned that we would not be able to do all the post work necessary, particularly in visual effects. Because, remember, if you’re going to IMAX, the visual effects have got to be done in 8K. Unheard of.”

Nolan and Pfister started to do their homework and put together a presentation for the studio, explaining everything from how much the film costs to how long it takes to reload the IMAX camera. Nolan then put together the post-production pipeline in a very logical way.

“Nobody else could seem to figure it out,” Pfister said. “The editors didn’t really know how it would work. The post-production people at Warners didn’t. And Chris said, ‘Look, it’s very simple.’ Like the mathematician genius that he is, he mapped it all out. I took a picture of it with my digital camera, he put it on little index cards and mapped it out.”

All that homework paid off. The marketing department picked up $8 million and the production absorbed the remainder.

Then history began — once again. Finally given the green light, the team started shooting and the very first Dark Knight scenes filmed were filmed in IMAX.

A Better Class of Criminal

With production underway, casting of the Joker, a character every bit as iconic in Gotham lore as the Batman himself, generated considerable speculation. Of course, anyone who tackled the role would have to fight his way out from under Jack Nicholson’s shadow. The casting of Heath Ledger at first blush seemed like an odd choice, particularly given it’s one of those roles any actor would relish and would leap at the chance to play.

The marketing team at Warner Bros. put those first IMAX scenes, involving the Joker’s bank robbery, to work early by attaching The Dark Knight Prologue to the IMAX release of I am Legend late last year. Those first six minutes served as an introduction to the Joker and calmed many nerves. The ensuing hoopla with additional trailer footage further built up the anticipation.

Unfortunately, Ledger never got to enjoy the rewards of his efforts. Ledger’s death in January spotlighted the actor’s immersive approach to acting. He had previously commented in interviews that the Joker was a tough character to shake; that coupled with an intercontinental lifestyle as he traveled between New York and London while working on Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, led to an untimely death due to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.

As Pfister observed Ledger on set, he saw a young talent who was a natural-born artist.

“Heath was a lovely guy,” Pfister said. “He was not only a brilliant actor and great artist, but was just a lovely kid, too. And I call him ‘a kid,’ he was 28 years old, compared to me — you know - he was still 20 years younger than me so I guess I’ve ‘earned the right’ to say that. But Heath had phenomenal creative energy, and he brought it to the set and his fast, quick, quick mind and quick way of processing things. And I think the real sad thing about it is, you know, Heath maybe in 10 years could’ve won the Academy Award as a director. He was heading toward directing.”

Ledger showed Pfister and Nolan some of his directorial work, which took the form of a couple short films, some commercials, music videos, and even a piece of animation.

“We were really blown away by how good the work was, and how creative and interesting,” Pfister said. “I know he would’ve made a phenomenal commercial director. He had it, man, he was an artist. He was a consummate artist across the board and I think he was capable of anything artistically.”

As Nolan recalled in a memorial he wrote for Newsweek , he made Ledger an offer he didn’t expect him to accept: To drop by the set on one of his nights off to see what they were up to. When Ledger did stop by, on his skateboard, Pfister could see Ledger gathering quite a bit of value from such a visit.

“The reason, I think, that Heath was showing up on set with a skateboard is because he knew that Chris Nolan was a master and I think he wanted to observe and I think he wanted to watch him work,” Pfister said. “I think it was more than just kind of wanting to hang out, I think he wanted to watch the master at work when he’s not behind the camera and concentrating on his performance. He wanted to sit back and observe, because Chris Nolan is a master.

“For my money, and I know I’m biased, I think this man is the next Orson Welles, the next Stanley Kubrick. I really believe if you look at the body of work, if you look at Memento, Insomnia, Prestige, Batman Begins, and Dark Knight, and Following, you look at this body of six films from a man who’s 37 years old, I think you’re looking at a genius. And I think it’s time that people recognize that. We just screened Insomnia and I forgot how phenomenally crafted that movie is.

“I was so blown away by that film again, it was shocking. Once again, as Nolan will do, it’s got so much depth to it. There’s layers beneath the layers.”

It’s What You Do That Defines You

That “layered” storytelling approach enriched The Dark Knight as well, leaving the story open to interpretation as a metaphor for today’s global war against terrorism while also allowing itself to play out as a good, old-fashioned comic book fantasy.

And, of course, it also has that choice cast of Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Heath Ledger. Put in the IMAX setting, and things were set to explode following the Prologue tease.

“You could probably equate that a little bit to the phenomenal box office success,” Pfister said. “A six-minute teaser for a movie, you know, that doesn’t give away anything else about the movie but is a wonderful, fun, visceral... sets the stage, establishes the character of the film. Everybody had an early look at Heath Ledger in makeup, albeit brief. It was a snowball.”

Nobody could foresee how large that snowball would grow.

“We knew it was a great screenplay,” Pfister said, “we knew that Chris and his brother really cracked it by the time we started rolling film and that they had really come up with something. The cast, I think, went to the next level, even from the first film.

“Did we know we were making a great film? Yes. Did we know that the movie was going to be successful? Yes. Just based on the success of Batman Begins we knew there was even a greater audience for this film than there had been.

“Did anybody think it was going to make a billion dollars? No fucking way! No way.”

That global response is all the more impressive given American comic book hero movies historically don’t translate into huge business abroad. Dark Knight raked in $200 million more than Iron Man internationally and a whopping $300 million more than Batman Begins, almost tripling the gross of its predecessor.

Potential for Aggressive Expansion

Following the unprecedented box office receipts of The Dark Knight in IMAX, others naturally now want to get in on the action.

Already in production, the crew on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen decided they needed to “do the thing that Nolan did” and their late-in-the-game decision to shoot some sequences in IMAX led to a conversation between Transformers ’ cinematographer, Ben Seresin, and Pfister.

“Ben Seresin was very hesitant to want to do it because they were already in production, and I was like, ‘Well look, Ben, here’s my experience with it, you know, and I think it’s phenomenal, but, yeah, it takes a little bit of work and you’ve got to figure it out a little bit.’”

Another production is also interested in the format and they’ve taken the IMAX cameras to Panavision in an effort to delve into making a more integrated system.

“IMAX is its own system, the guys who use it know it, but it’s not really compatible with the system that we use for 35 millimeter cameras,” Pfister explained. “It’s not as sophisticated as what we use in a Panavision system, for instance. So I think they’re exploring the possibilities of making it a quieter camera, making it more friendly for focus pulling, and those things because it is a little trickier than shooting 35 millimeter. They’re looking into that stuff.”

At some point, a feature-length IMAX production is fairly inevitable, but there are plenty of kinks to work out — as well as all the financial considerations.

“The conversation did come up on Dark Knight, ‘How ‘bout we shoot the whole film in IMAX?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, but I don’t think we’ve got $300 million!’”

A World Without Rules

There’s another benefit from The Dark Knight ’s IMAX experiment: It’s proven that film is far from dead and the selling of digital as a superior format is still a bunch of market hype.

“I’m pretty militant on that,” Pfister said. “I think the digital technology is coming and it’s getting better and better, but it’s far inferior to 35 millimeter negative right now and I think it’s really a shame to see people forcing — and the market trying to force us — to use the digital medium when 35 millimeter film is still so much advanced. This is a technology we’ve been using for 100 years and to replace it with digital technology that’s four or five years old is ludicrous because it’s not capable of capturing the images in the same way.

“And I think that if you argue, ‘Well does the public really see the difference between something shot on film?’ I think The Dark Knight is a great example of how they do. People flocked to the IMAX theatres to see this film. It made nearly $70 million in IMAX theatres, broke all records in IMAX. So people really do; the movie-going public is interested in seeing those images in the best quality imaginable.

“That’s the problem with those digital cameras. Those image capture systems are not capable of capturing dynamic range and a 10-stop latitude in exposure from brightest of brights to darkest of darks. You can’t shoot something on a digital camera that’s five stops overexposed and still within the same frame have something that’s three stops underexposed. It doesn’t work.

“Frankly, I see it as organic versus synthetic — and I’m always going to wear cotton. You know what I mean? I think there’s a reason that this is still hanging in there. When you get filmmakers saying ‘film is dead and we love shooting digital ‘cause you can roll and roll and roll and you never have to reload, ’ well maybe there’s something to being able to take a pause after several takes and take a breather before you go back shooting more takes, before you move on to the next thing. Maybe there’s something about that that sort of has worked in our system.”

Further bearing out Pfister’s staunch support of film, Tony Scott’s forthcoming remake of The Taking of Pelham 123was planned to go all-digital, but the production team did a 180 and decided to stick with film.

The Bat, the Cat, and the Penguin... Again?

In the wake of The Dark Knight ’s enormous success, the rumor mill was quick to start cranking out speculation and misinformation about the next installment. Cher as the Catwoman (a cougar Catwoman)? Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Penguin? Johnny Depp as the Riddler?

Well, even those close to the “Batcamp” are awaiting the real scoop.

“Chris is one of my closest friends,” Pfister said, “but he won’t tell me any of this stuff as it’s evolving.

“He’s writing right now. Honestly, as close friends as we are, I don’t know what he’s writing; I don’t know if he’s writing a Batman movie or if he’s writing a smaller film.

But I know he’s locked away writing again. So the master’s back at work, back at his desk, thank God for all of us!”

When it comes to rumors and the World Wide Web, it’s oftentimes a matter of reader beware. In this case, it’s safe to consider all the batty rumors to date as uninformed and inaccurate.

“In terms of all those other things, I think that the rumors are very tricky because anybody can jump on the Internet; anybody can start a rumor and then 5,000 people can confirm that rumor on the Internet. We’re into a time where information, you have to be very, very skeptical about where it comes from. And that’s what scares me about journalism right now. You know, when The New York Times is starting to get so-called facts from the Internet, how are you able to fact check? How are you able to verify any of this stuff? So the rumors, I think, are even more suspicious.”

And that observation comes from a former journalist; Pfister got his start as a news cameraman.

Pfister Begins

Pfister’s grandfather was a city editor of a small town newspaper in Wisconsin and his dad was a well-regarded TV news executive for all three major networks, leaving ABC as Vice President of News. Pfister segued into the field with the help of his father, starting out as a cameraman for a TV station then working as a stringer cameraman in Washington, D.C. Pfister also worked on some documentaries, including the PBS Frontline series.

While working in D.C., Robert Altman came to town for filming on Tanner ‘88. A friend working on the production encouraged Pfister to audition for a part as, of all things, a cameraman. But, in a nod to the Cassavetes school of cinema verité, he actually became a second-unit director of photography on the production and spent six months working on the film. Watch the movie closely and you’ll be able to spot him in a cameo, sporting a Betacam on his shoulder.

That experience gave Pfister the movie bug and he then went to the American Film Institute for film school.

So how exactly did Pfister find himself in the enviable position as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer on the string of Nolan’s five most renowned movies?

“The origin of our meeting goes back to a little film that I had done called The Hi-Line, which was a little, tiny film we did for $300,000 and it was fortunate enough to get into Sundance,” Pfister explained. “So I went to Sundance with the director (Ron Judkins) and that film that year and I was very proud of my work.

“The work was actually immediately recognized. People loved the photography and, although I didn’t win the award for cinematography that year, I got a lot of new fans out of that, one of which was Steven Spielberg. He saw the film — not at Sundance, but he saw a private print at his house — and immediately sort of sent a note across saying, you know, I love your work and love to have you do some work at Dreamworks and this and that, so it was very thrilling. And another one was Chris Nolan, who had his film Following at Slamdance, which was at the same time as Sundance.”

As it happens, both The Hi-Line and Following were distributed by the same company and the distributor introduced Pfister to Nolan. About a year later, Chris was gearing up to do Memento.

“The way I like to tell the story, his first five choices of cameramen weren’t available,” Pfister teased. “The big guys; I mean, they went out to the big guys, they knew they had a special script; they went out to some cameramen with much more credits, much more history.

“Thank God for me, it didn’t work out with any of them and Chris met me and decided to hire me over a lot of these other guys, which was lovely. So that was the origin of us meeting and he hired me for Memento and the rest is cinema history. That’s my history.”

Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own

Collaboration is a key ingredient in Nolan’s movies and it’s an approach that has no doubt helped foster strong relationships.

“Chris Nolan gets up on that stage and the first words out of his mouth — to accept an award or whatever else — are about Emma, his wife and producer, or Nathan, his production designer, or me, or Lee Smith. It’s about his team, he talks about it as being a collaborative medium. A New York Times journalist said, ‘You guys are kinda like a little jazz ensemble.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we are.’

Pfister sees two great metaphors about Nolan’s collaborative style. There’s the jazz ensemble, wherein Nolan is the group’s Dave Brubeck. “He’s a better musician than the rest of us,” Pfister said of Nolan. “We follow, we augment, we jump in.”

The other goes in a different direction, comparing the moviemaking team to an army, with Nolan as commander in chief and Pfister as something like a field general.

“That’s a man who acknowledges collaboration and whose ego can handle it and whose humility is in a place where he’s comfortable,” Pfister sums it up. “That’s the mark of a consummate artist and a brilliant artist.”

“33” Snitch

With 2008 coming to a close, Pfister can look back on a year of incredible accomplishments, a year in which The Dark Knight took center stage while other projects kept things humming along at home.

The commercial opportunities, including work for Verizon, Toyota, Subaru and Rolling Rock, have helped him stay close to home and his wife and three children - as well as a large house undergoing renovations. And those opportunities have also helped continue his working relationships with the likes of Nolan and Rupert Sanders, who directed the Nike commercial they shot up in Broomfield and who’s tapped to direct a remake of The Wild Geese.

For now, Pfister is exploring possibilities and checking out projects that might be of interest, while also keeping the door open for more work with Nolan (“if he’s kind enough to hire me back again”) and Sanders.

Like any great artist, Pfister himself draws from a number of sources for inspiration.

“I think a great script inspires me, when I read a narrative that I’m really drawn to and I think the material is engaging and I think the characters are real. I’m inspired by music as well; I play music, I play guitar and sing so music gets me interested and motivated.”

His guitar playing focuses on hardcore electric blues and, at the other extreme, acoustic music such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

“I’m motivated by painting and still photography as well. I think that is really inspirational to me. Every time I go to a gallery and see some great still photography, I can’t help myself and I’m out in the street the next day with my camera taking pictures.”

That still photography interest spilled over to the professional life, with his photographs appearing in some Rolling Rock print ads.

And there’s still one more career avenue, one that’s a lot more obscure. In the Batman Begins videogame, Pfister was immortalized as a “snitch” within the game.

“My son loved the idea because he got to kick my ass in a videogame,” Pfister said with a chuckle. “He managed to make it to the level where you get to me then he beat me up.”