Exclusive: Wally Pfister, Inception's Cinematographer, On Designing Dreamworlds

Tomorrow, Inception is out on DVD, finally giving you a change to really drink in all the gorgeously detailed set design and cinematography. The latter was the work of Wally Pfister, who has also shot most of Christopher Nolan's astonishing oeuvre, including Dark Knight and The Prestige. Just understanding Inception was tricky enough. But what about visualizing and shooting it in the first place? As the cinematographer of Christopher Nolan’s last six films, Wally Pfister is used to dealing with mindbending scenarios (like the reverse chronology of their first collaboration, Memento) and technical curveballs (like shooting The Dark Knight’s action scenes in IMAX). But after reading the script for Inception’s hotel scene—where dream-thieves fistfight in zero-G as the walls twist and tumble around them—Pfister jokes even he “had to have an immediate meeting with Chris to figure out what the fuck was going on.” Nolan’s concept: build a 360-degree rotating hallway, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s sets for 2001, complete with hidden tracks in the carpet for upside-down camera moves and lighting fixtures strong enough to withstand actors falling and running over them. (The crew also built a duplicate of the hallway oriented vertically, so actors could "fall" down into it on wires.) "When he described how we're going to physically execute the rotating set, I got very excited in trying to figure out how to light and shoot it," Pfister recalls. "I wanted to create a specific warm orange color palette, but Chris also wanted to have 'normal' camera movement in there even though the whole set was rotating around. Normally in that kind of set, we'd just dolly in and out down the hallway, so we fixed the camera to a grooved track in the floor that would push back and forth even as the room was spinning. And rather than use CGI to paint out the track, our production designer created a striped pattern in the carpet that hid it perfectly." Pfister cites his background shooting run-and-gun documentaries as key to his decade-long visual partnership with Nolan. "We both like naturalism, avoiding CGI and getting it done very simply in-camera whenever possible," he says. "Even when we're trying to figure out something as surreal as that anti-gravity fight scene, I start by thinking, 'how would I shoot this if I were just there with a camera on my shoulder?'" From the beginning, Nolan wanted Inception’s dreams-within-dreams to feel as real as any earthly environment. "Our mantra was, 'dreams feel real,'" Pfister says. To that end, he spent months in preproduction shooting still photographs of real locations in England, Paris, Japan, Canada, and Morocco, then manipulated them in Photoshop to create otherworldly-yet-believable looks — from metallic blue for the rainy van chase to stark whiteout for the ski battle. “Each dream has a different color scheme so Chris could cut back and forth without confusing the audience,” Pfister explains.

Pfister designed a gun-metal gray/blue tint for Inception's rainy car chase sequence.

Pfister's monochrome color scheme for the winter fortress was inspired by a James Bond film.

Even the haunting setting of “limbo” is based on Pfister’s photographs of an actual half-built housing project in Morocco: “We wanted the surreality of the dreams to come from these strange but credible settings, rather than from any weird lighting or camera movement. Limbo is right outside of Tangiers where Chris discovered these wild white buildings where streets hadn't been paved yet. We shot those buildings there, and it was enhanced by the crumbling CGI structures in the shoreline."

The CG-augmented landscape of Limbo, based on Pfister's photographs.

A bit tougher to achieve were Nolan’s conflicting requests for loose, documentary style camerawork and IMAX-level image quality. After testing several experimental techniques, Pfister shot key scenes of Inception in Vistavision, a high-resolution film format famously used for special-effects scenes in the original Star Wars trilogy. “We love shooting film and we’re both obsessed with resolution,” says Pfister. “It’s all part of building a credible world for the audience, so you can sell them on higher concepts.” Pfister sees himself in a designer-like role on all the films he shoots, Inception included. "What I do is creative and logistical problem solving," he says. “Every time we wrap a picture, Chris says he wants the next one to be nice and simple — and I always say, ‘yeah, right.’” [Inception is available on DVD and Blu-Ray Disc tomorrow.]

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