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Catching up with Wally Pfister, the Oscar-winning DP and director who got his start as a news cameraman

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and OnStar. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Some of the most insightful conversations come in the most casual settings. On The Ride we catch up with today's top personalities in technology and entertainment on their way to work, running errands, or checking out a new show. Along the way, we field questions sent live from The Verge readers via a tablet connected to the OnStar 4G LTE built-in Wi-Fi® hotspot.

Wally Pfister has been behind the camera on some of the most talked about and visually stunning films of the past two decades. Working largely alongside director Christopher Nolan, Pfister's credits include the "Dark Knight" series, "Inception," and "Memento" just to name a few. He's racked up a slew of awards and is regarded in Hollywood as a premier cinematographer and is now transitioning into the director's chair. We caught up with Pfister to talk about how he got his start in motion pictures, weight in on the merits of film-versus-digital, and impart a bit of wisdom for aspiring filmmakers.

How's it going, Wally? Where are we going today?

Wally Pfister: Good, Alex. We're going to Marina del Rey, where I'm working at a production office on a television show that I'm doing.

What was the first thing you ever shot?

WP: I know exactly what it was. The first thing I ever shot professionally was in 1980, so it was 35 years ago now; which is insane. I was 18 years old and I was working as a production assistant in a television station and I really wanted to get behind the camera. I learned the camera and I went out and I shot this little architectural study of a Victorian house. I cut it together myself to music. The production manager ended up hiring me on a trial period as cameraman and that led to a full-time job.

Did I read that you ran around with an 8mm camera?

WP: Yeah, it was literally the first thing I shot. I would have been about 11 years old. My father got a Super 8 camera for taking home movies of the family. He never really touched it but I grabbed it right away. I guess I was about 11 when I shot my first Super 8 film and the incredible joy of shooting something on Super 8, taking it down to the local drug store where they'd send it out to Rochester and have it processed. You'd be waiting with bated breath for it to come back then project it on your Super 8 projector. Then find out that everything was out of focus, but it was an incredible experience. Those were my first days behind the camera; so some 43 years ago.

Why do you like hand-held so much? I should say, you often use it, right?

WP: I enjoyed hand-held quite a bit as a director of photography (DP) because I love the flexibility I have with the camera on my shoulder. I was able to move my body to correct a frame to find a perfect frame. Since I've been doing hand-held for over 30 years, I know the tricks to make it look good and I'm quite good at it, I think. I've shot entire movies hand-held. "The Prestige," I would say was shot 85% hand-held. Really, it's a language that I understand. Now, it's not something that I always use as a director. I think I'm a little more judicious with my use as a director of hand-held; it has to really be right for what I'm doing, I use it a lot in commercials.

Do you ever operate hand-held as a director?

WP: I do sometimes. Not to sound egotistical, but, I only know a handful of guys that can do a hand-held as well as I can do it. Again, I've been doing it 30 years so it's a really tricky thing. I started out as news cameraman, documentary cameraman, so it's what I did for a living for a long time. Great, natural, hand-held that is actually stable in a natural way, or is not trying to be shaky, is very hard to come by. There are only a handful of people that I know that are able to do that. Occasionally, I'll find myself picking up the camera myself and certainly sometimes in a commercial I will. I often use an operator on a commercial because I need to focus on performance or other elements, but I still love putting the camera on my shoulder. It's an appendage.

You've obviously accomplished so much with cinematography that you've moved on to directing. What is the direct connection there, and has this technology allowed you, also, to now finally be the director that you want to be?

WP: Yeah, I think it has. I think the technology has allowed me to be able to look at a monitor and get a pretty clear idea of what the DP's photographing. I think that is a liberation for me because I don't have to be second-guessing the DP in the same way. I can focus more on what a director should be focusing on which is performance, and camera movement, and other aspects. I think that in that regard, digital works well for me, as can detach myself from photography a little bit.

Since you started as a newsman and a documentary DP, I'm curious how that beginning of your career formed later on, the choices that you've made, in much bigger cinematic situations.

WP: Well, definitely, having started with nothing but natural light, I think the first thing that you learned as a cameraman and a photographer is how to embrace what's already there, how to embrace where the beauty lies naturally both in terms of lighting and composition. It just happened to be an aesthetic that I took to and then I appreciated and felt comfortable with as I move forward and was able to put up lights, was able to get into it. For me, it became more about augmenting or riffing off of existing light and embracing the beauty of that rather than trying to block it and get rid of it and create something from scratch.

You learn both. You learn how to create something completely from scratch. You learn how to deal with visual effects and matching. I think that there's a simplicity that you can go back to after you learn a lot about lighting and after you learn the complicated lighting setups, and sort of relearn how to shoot and embrace natural light photography. It was always something that Chris Nolan and I had in common. We both love naturalistic look and feel, and the speed associated with it.

In the case of being a news cameraman, I learned to be a prolific handheld cameraman in documentaries and then as a camera operator in feature films. All that experience passed on and it translated as I moved into different areas. I have had a lot of careers behind the camera going back now over 30 years which is really painful to live. I started out behind the studio camera on the six o'clock and 11 o'clock news and then I became a news cameraman and then I did documentaries. Then came to LA and went to AFI to learn cinematography, and then became a grip and a gaffer and an electrician and then became a camera operator, then a DP and then more recently stopped shooting and started directing.

There's not one bit of experience — whether it's being electrician or whether it's being a grip and having done rigs like this before and having pushed the dolly before — that doesn't fall into play. You talk about shooting a movie in 15 days. That's enormously important right now because I'm shooting a television pilot and directing a television pilot and it's seven, eight pages a day. I couldn't even remember the last time I did that much.

What are you guys doing like four pages a day on larger films?

WP: It varies. I think on my movie, the movie I directed was about four pages a day average. It can vary quite a bit on a big blockbuster like Nolan's pictures where if you have a stunt day or effects day, it can be a couple of eight's or it could be one page which he cringed at. It can be up to five pages as well if it's dialog. It generally wouldn't go over five pages a day on a feature of that length and that's a big dialog scene. I would say average would be four pages.

We're getting questions in from Verge readers that are actually coming in through the Wi-Fi right now and people are actually asking them live. First one I got here is: What was the most difficult sequence you've worked on with Nolan? What's the biggest challenge that you guys tackled together?

WP: Wow. You know, challenges come in different forms. You know there's a creative challenge and there's also technical challenges. I guess, you know, I did seven films with Chris Nolan and some of them vary in scope and scale from "Memento" — which is simple in terms of what we're filming but perhaps not so simple in keeping continuity straight and in shooting in 25 days. We shot the whole film in 25 days. That has its own set of challenges and [was] a bit of a brain twist.

Of course on something like "Dark Knight Rises" — which is the last film that I shot for Chris Nolan and the last thing I did as a DP — the real challenge was keeping a consistent look of winter throughout the four locations that we shot this action sequence in. It was all kind of throughout the year to a degree. We shot Pittsburgh in the summer, exterior for winter so a lot of the scenes that you see in that film was snow and with everybody with winter jackets on. It was actually 80 degrees out and humid.

The challenge there as a DP is keeping that high noon sun, that I think is a real dead giveaway that it's summertime, off of the scenes that you're shooting. That was a lot of planning, a lot of light study work, a lot of finding the best time of day to shoot and then negotiating with Chris and his assistant director (AD) as to whether we could do that.

Tell us how you feel about film versus digital now in 2015.

WP: Look, I think that there's still no question in my mind and for those of us who love film and would love film forever that digital, at least where we are now, will never look exactly the same on the big screen. I've used the top digital cameras and they're quite impressive. I think there is some great value to the instantaneous nature of them and sometimes being able to roll longer. It's not the same capturing of something on digital as it is on film. I don't know that it ever will be or for a long time, will be. Film is still higher resolution. It still got a greater curve and its physical layers. You're never going to really get that in a digital format. We don't now.

Having said that, again, one of the things that I do sort of like in digital is if I'm directing, still being able to see the look on a monitor. You know what you're getting instantly and you're not thinking about what's going to happen when you print. Which I didn't for a long time but, at the same time, I am always pushing the envelope. That, with film, there was a little bit of finger crossing and nail biting, not knowing what you're going to come back when you're really taking a risk when you're going super, super dark or super bright or super contrast-y. These cameras can't handle contrast. I have a really hard time with one digital camera, being able to see a sunset in the camera. It's so easy on film.

Are you continuing to adapt your shooting method as camera technology advances?

WP: Yes, I am. Again, with some of these newer cameras being able to shoot in moonlight, I think that's something that makes me think and see if there's some way to utilize that extraordinary new advance in technology. Certain things like drones, that's an incredible technology. I'm really all for drones because I've flown in helicopters so many times and taken so many risks that I think it's going to make things a lot safer in times to come. That kind of technology really excites me, and I haven't done much with drones, but that's what the kids are doing these days so I want to play more with that.

Then the lighting technology's gotten pretty extraordinary too, and while I'm not really shooting that much, I think some of the smaller LED lighting is all you need for a digital camera. There's a simplicity and a speed that makes that technology really useful.

What five essential movies would you recommend to budding cinematographers?

WP: Wonderful. I love that question. For budding cinematographers, there's no question. The two "Godfather" movies and — out of those two — absolutely "Godfather II." Gordon Willis was my absolute hero, god, influence. There's no cinematographer that I can point to, no single cinematographer whose work I adored as much as his, so I would absolutely say "Godfather II." I would say, again, another master, Conrad Hall. I would say "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

I would throw in a few of guys that are more of my contemporaries. Bob Richardson did a movie called "Eight Men Out" and he also did another picture called "Snow Falling on Cedars," which is just spectacular. It was a directed by a guy named Scott Hicks, who I used to shoot commercials for. It's so beautiful; I would definitely seek that one out. It didn't do any business and it's not that well known, but Bob's work on that is just phenomenal.

Do you ever watch anything over again to get the creative juices flowing, anything like that?

WP: Not for cinematography, no. I mean, I really just watch it for narrative now. My favorite era for filmmaking is 1967 to 1975, which saw all the indie stuff in that period. Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Milos Forman, Arthur Penn. Those are my favorite films, so I'll go back and watch those often for inspiration.

I'll also watch older Spielberg movies. I'll watch "Jaws" and I watched recently "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." If you watch those films, you see one of the things that everybody thinks of Spielberg in those days as being a master of suspense and whatever else, but his performances are fantastic. Having watched "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" recently, if you watch Teri Garr and everybody in that film — and it's the same in Jaws — the performance in his films are spectacular. You don't think of him in that way, but he was, in every way, the equal of the indie directors in the '70s. I'll go back and watch anything that sort of inspires me.

We watched "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" the other week and that holds up so well, and you really realize what a genius Steven Soderbergh is, especially since he later on started shooting his own material. I think he's done some really beautiful work with natural light and in lighting as well, but he's a fantastic director as well. I would highly recommend anybody go back and look at "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," not for the photography in particular, but for the narrative and the character study that it is. An extraordinary film.

If you can give an aspiring cinematographer three essential tips on how to perfect their craft, what would it be?

WP: Three essential tips. I would say, number one, shoot as much as you can of anything. Number two — and these aren't in any particular order — study natural light. See what exists, going all the way back to the beginning of our conversation, and really, really understand what exists naturally before you start putting up lights. Can I say four of them?

Why not?

WP: Because I would say number three is only put up as much light as you need to put up. Why put up six lights if you can do it with one? I can prove to you, you can light almost anything with one light or none.

Number four is don't be lazy. Just bust your ass to work towards perfectionism, and give up perfectionism when you know you're not going to be able to get there. Don't give up on anything. Don't go home early. Don't not get up early. Don't pass on watching a film or doing your homework. That applies tenfold for directing, but it's just don't be complacent in any way.

Be relentless about doing everything you can to make sure that, whatever project you're working on, that no stone has been left unturned and [you're] doing the best you can. Because you're going to sit back afterwards; that piece of work is going to remain someplace forever, and anything that you do, if you have a regret because you could've done something, you could've made it better, that regret will never go away.

If you feel you did your best and you're still not happy, you know you tried as hard as you could, but I cannot stand complacency. I don't think there's any part in it and I don't think I would've gotten four Oscar nominations and won an Oscar if I'd been lazy working for Chris Nolan. Probably wouldn't have been working for him.

It doesn't work in this business.

WP: It doesn't work in this business, and the competition's too tough. The results are worth it. Do the best you can.

That's great. All right, Wally, so we're here at the office. It was so good to talk to you today.

WP: A pleasure talking to you, as well.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and OnStar. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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