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The Pfister Factor

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Mark Kermode | 17:11 UK time, Friday, 18 February 2011

Besides a magical rapport with a camera, what else do Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Joe Dante, Curtis Hanson, Ron Howard, Nicolas Roeg and even Timur Bekmambetov have in common with Academy Award nominee Wally Pfister, the brilliant cinematographer who makes Christopher Nolan's epic movies look so fine. (The clue is in the picture)

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  • Comment number 1.

    I'm getting a sense of Déjà vu... looks like somebody uploaded the wrong video unless the Bafta one was so good you want us to watch it again :P

  • Comment number 2.

    I've been wondering whether I should comment or not to highlight the mistake - I thought it would have been reported and fixed by now! Alas, like Tweek, I shall have to raise the alarm also.

    Still a great watch though ;-)

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm getting a sense of Déjà vu... looks like somebody uploaded the wrong video unless the Bafta one was so good you want us to watch it again :P

  • Comment number 4.

    Very, very good indeed, Cadwern!

  • Comment number 5.

    Perhaps the repeat is the clue? Wally Pfister shot the "Bafta" video blog? (and Mr K was the man on the grassy knoll!)

  • Comment number 6.

    Sorry everyone, we had a technical glitch. All working now, please refresh the page.
    From The Kermode Team

  • Comment number 7.

    It's nice to see cinematographers getting some recognition for their contribution to film. I've long thought that they, along with editors are the unsung heroes of what makes cinema great.

    Last week, after winning a BAFTA for the beautifully shot True Grit, Roger Deakins started trending on twitter. I was both surprised and impressed with this as I've long been an admirer of his work with the Coens, Sam Mendes and on numerous other great films. It was nice to see that many other people are aware of his work. Just seeing his name in the opening credits of a film is a reassurance.(incidentally, if, like me, you're a cinematography nerd, I wholeheartedly recommend Deakins' commentary on the DVD of Fargo. It's a shame we don't get more DP commentaries because it's fascinating stuff)

    On the subject of Pfister, one aspect of his work that I've always liked is his use of helicopter shots. I would happily watch a montage of the spectacular soaring landscape and cityscape footage deployed in Nolan's films.

  • Comment number 8.

    Inception best film of the year? Rubbish. Will Self nailed it in The Guardian last week:

    "Inception wasn't the last word in sci-fi meta-sophistication, but rather a stupid person's idea of what an intelligent film is like."

  • Comment number 9.

    I think Wally Pfister deserves an award for the name alone.

  • Comment number 10.


    Regardless of our opinions on Inception (and I love it), I wonder what precisely Will Self would consider an intelligent film of recent date?

  • Comment number 11.

    The confusion I've always had about the film-making process is this interface between the Director and the DP - who is responsible for the look of the film? If it's all the DP, what is the director doing?

    Is it just a case of the director says, roughly, "I want suchandsuch a scene to look thusly" to the DP, who goes away and implements the request or does the DP come to the director and say "I think we should be shooting it like this"?

    Is the DP just concerned with the quality of light through the lense and the shape of the frame, or does it go deeper than that?

  • Comment number 12.

    The cinematography in Inception is indeed superb, but I expect Roger Deakins to repeat his BAFTA success. How has that man not won an Oscar yet?

  • Comment number 13.

    I find Chris Nolan and Wally Pfister so admirable not only because their films look wonderful - particularly The Dark Knight, which was staggeringly good-looking at the IMAX and remains so on Blu-Ray. What I respect more is their general refusal to pander to the usual "as an artist" balls which hamstrings my respect for so many actors/directors/writers. There are numerous interviews in which, in the fashion of Hitchcock, they display real intelligence concerning a workmanlike attitude towards film-making: film stocks, 3D, digital/celluloid/IMAX, whatever it may be. They have no problem being this obtuse in interviews. Some might find it (as with Inception) smarmy and self-aggrandising, but I'd much rather have this than a painfully awkward Friday Night with Jonathan Ross brown-nosing session.

    If there's one thing which can be guaranteed of The Dark Knight, it's that it will look sharp, boldly colourful and spectacular.

    In a way which Avatar never will.

  • Comment number 14.

    Yeah '13' - Avatar really wasn't very colourful and certainly not spectacular, was it?

    OOh, but it does make me look really intelligent and serious about 'proper' film if I give it a good old bashing to impress Doc Marky.

  • Comment number 15.

    You're right Mark

    "Inception" was the best - and most cinematic - film of 2010 and Chris Nolan/Wally Pfister is a superb team.

  • Comment number 16.

    Is it not the case that Cinematography can only be as good as the relationship with the director? I mean Pfister and Nolan have been working together for over a decade now and you can see the continued rise in the standard of work from Memento to Inception. Another and somewhat underrated example is Tom Tykwer and Frank Griebe starting with Run Lola Run through to The International producing some stunning work in those films and the ones in between.

  • Comment number 17.

    Unfortunately trickle up doesn't always happen, a high school friend of my brother's had great expectations, had won short film competitions and a scholarship to the AFI. Ended up working for Corman, but didn't stick around long enough to snag a directing gig, ended up working as a projectionist in a grindhouse in the 70's, which resulted in his best known project (and a footnote in the history of grindhouse), a compilation of exploitation trailers with links done by the Carradine family. His last film was produced by schlockmeister Charles Band, and was so rubbish that Band, not usually sniffy about quality, had his name taken off the film.

  • Comment number 18.

    Mark, you could have opened this post with "What do Martin Scorsese (Kundun), The Cohen Brothers (most of their films since Barton Fink), Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) and Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road) have in common? The brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins."

    Roger Deakins deserves to win this year; if he doesn't they should hand him a Lifetime Achievement award. (They should do anyway.)

    Deakins has been nominate nine times, never yet won. I'm hoping this is his year. I'm sure Pfister will win one (or at least be nominated again) sometime in the future.

    There's a short film about Deakins work on True Grit here.

    #11. 'Is the DP just concerned with the quality of light through the lense and the shape of the frame, or does it go deeper than that?'

    It can and often does go deeper than that. There's a culture show feature on DP Christopher Doyle (best known for his work on Zhang's Hero with Jet Li) below.

  • Comment number 19.

    @ Joel_Cooney

    Yup that's an interesting question. I remember Terry Gilliam saying that he worked as a "trinity" with his DP and camera operator on 12 Monkeys where they tried to come up with the best possible shot together. And then he (Gilliam) functioned as a "filter" where he had the final word. But I get the idea that it seems to differ from movie to movie who does what to which degree which really makes you (i.e. me) wonder to what degree it is truly "A film by [insert name of director]" at the end of the day. I mean I also remember Gilliam saying that he felt most movies don't need a director at all. That there was only a minority of the movies being made where you really had a visionary at the helm of things.

  • Comment number 20.

    Mark, I really wish you would stop saying certain films are the ‘best’ or ‘worst’, since all experience is wholly subjective, the most a person can say about a film is how much they favour it.

  • Comment number 21.

    Hello Mark:
    Not sure if this is exactly the appropriate place but I wanted to throw a question at you. I have just recently bought a dvd of The Messenger featuring Woody Harrelson. I really enjoyed it, despite it being quite a difficult film to watch. As I am an avid listener of your show I am curious to know if you have seen the movie, and if so what are your thoughts on it?

  • Comment number 22.

    @trevor - Avatar may be colourful and look pretty but it still has a quality about it that I found hard to look at, namely the way that even in the live action scenes the actors looked as if they've CGI'd.

    Oh, and the story, acting and screenplay were dreadful. None of which could be said of the Dark Knight.

  • Comment number 23.

    The cinematographer.DP is the person who has the wonderful perspective of making the scene/movie look the way it does. DP's like Wally Pfister, Roger Deakins, Dean Semler and many others make it all worth while in seeing the amazing vistas we do on the big screen.

    They have the "eye" IMHO. They can make or break a movie for me.

  • Comment number 24.

    I agree with Carole above; a good DP can set the tone of the film as well (or better) than the director on some occasions. Robert Surtees work on Summer of 42 comes to mind as does Oswald Morris's photography of Moby Dick, Tonino Delli Colli's photography on Leone's The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Freddie Young's work on Lawrence of Arabia, Gordon Willis's work on The Godfather and Gregg Toland's work on Citizen Cane.

    Tolland is the neglected hero of Citizen Cane; he approached director Orson Welle's (known to be a maverick) with his ideas to "test and prove several ideas generally being accepted as radical in Hollywood" and was given a free hand.

    Tolland's ideas dictated how Welles had to shoot some scenes, whilst Tolland's abilities helped to make some of Welles's ideas filmable. Citizen Cane is famous for being ground breaking in how it told a story and its visual style (even today few films are really that adventurous); Tolland played a major role in that.

    A good DP helps the director bring the film to the screen; in many cases the DP also scouts locations for their visual appeal and appropriateness and makes suggestions as to how scenes could work most effectively.

    By it's nature film is a collaborative and - above all - a visual medium. I'm sure many first time directors have relied heavily on the experience of their DP and quite a few so-so movies have been lifted (or even made unforgettable) by the DP's contribution. As with photography, different DPs also are also noted for their own styles, lighting and areas of expertise and are hired to give a film a certain 'look' and style.

    First division directors (Spielberg, Scorsese, Nolan etc) have the budgets to work with the best DPs; they do so (rather than choose unknowns) because they know how important the DPs contribution will be; the choice of DP can be more important (IMO) than the casting of the lead actors.

    A few directors (having moved up from being DPs to directing) also act as their own cinematographers; Nick Roeg's visual style is a striking example of such ability.

    As Carole Crawford puts well above 'They have the "eye" IMHO. They can make or break a movie for me.'

  • Comment number 25.

    More Inception talk? Well, at least you're consistent.

    For my part all I can do is close my eyes, cross my fingers and ohhhhh I hope Roger Deakins wins!

  • Comment number 26.

    @Trevor - I stand corrected. With that unnecessarily forceful and oddly personal response to me bashing Avatar, you've proved me wrong. It was colourful. It featured many colours. As many as the rainbow!

    And yes, it was spectacular. Its many wonderful reviews proved that. I must be completely on the wrong track. In fact, as a technological achievement, I'm sure it was astonishing. I know next to nothing about the evolution of CGI and have a little more than a passing interest in 3D, thanks to my brother studying it for a few months, but yes, it was spectacular.

    The unfortunate thing was that I was held back from viscerally enjoying its visual brilliance by the unbelievably lazy script, which led to several other problems; the interminable length, embarrassing acting, and to be honest, the constant critiques telling me "yes, it's badly written, but it's certainly spectacular". I know I'm not the first to say it, but there's not point in lying about my opinion of a film. Even if it can make me super-smart and impressive in front of Doctor Mark!

    But wait, didn't Mark say that Avatar was too long but undeniably spectacular? And didn't he have big reservations about The Dark Knight?

    I don't know. I could be on completely the wrong track.

    But I'm not.

    And let's not forget that a $1billion box-office return as opposed to $2.7billion hardly makes a film what most consider "proper" filmmaking. It's not as if I crow-barred in a comparison between Avatar and Of Gods and Men to curry favour.

  • Comment number 27.

    @Stephen - we're all friends here. No really :-)
    I enjoyed Avatar immensely. And the 3D was fantastic. I'm often disappointed with movies in general, and 3D, but here I wasn't.
    Avatar-bashing seems all too easy - so I take pleasure in standing up in a group of cinephiles and loudly proclaiming "I saw and ignored its faults for the sheer colour, spectacle and visual magic & technical majesty on offer"

  • Comment number 28.

    I still think Inception is fairly unremarkable in certain ways. It's basically well made, though and in that sense it may very well be a masterpiece if that makes sense. But as far as e.g. Nolan's imagination is concerned, he can't hold a candle to e.g. Hayao Miyazaki. Now THERE is someone who makes stuff that I can see people being truly surprised by. But Inception? I still don't see it. And it may be a masterpiece if you define that word a certain way. But it's certainly not a flawless masterpiece. That joke comes to mind where that one guy sort of tricked Ellen Page's character into kissing her. If I remember correctly it has no purpose whatsoever than to be just that: a joke. It's not part of anything concerned with the basic story being told or any subplot or character arc or whatever... Nolan might as well have hired a stand up comedian to come in during the screening who would say "Ok, people we will continue with the movie in a second. But first, here's a cute joke I came up with today." I mean I understand that a movie should be a balanced experience but to achieve that this way is just a fairly cheap way of doing it. No offense, Christopher.

  • Comment number 29.

    I'm going to take a step back on the Inception talk in this one. Spent far too much time discussing it a few threads back.

    However it's great to have a conversation about Cinematographers, often a person who's role gets over looked in favour of actors and directors. I wasn't aware of Pfister until this video blog but I'm glad I am now. I re-watched Insomnia last night (for me, still Nolan's best film) and it's a fantastic looking film, all bleached whites and colourless fog; a perfect example of a character's mind state being visually represented by excellent cinematography.

    The other film I watched last night was Brief Encounter and that is also a beautifully photographed film. The station at night, with the steam trains running through it, is a brilliant insight to a world that no longer exists. Robert Krasker - the DOP on the film - also worked on The Third Man, a film with some of the most dramatically impressive contrasts between light and dark ever put on film. The shadowy nature of Lime's work is perfectly reflected in the dark corridors of Vienna's dark underworld. Superb stuff.

    From now on, I'm going to pay more attention to cinematographers.

  • Comment number 30.

    I now look like I got into a tizzy over nothing. But it's always fun to get into the bloggers' state of mind and get agitated and self-righteous.

    In certain ways I wish I'd been able to ignore everything besides the special effects. Unfortunately (or not?) I wasn't. I found something similar occurred when I studied early silent cinema recently. What narrative there is is negligible, and infrequently do I ignore this and enjoy the attraction of the films themselves.

    But this is hijacking the thread. Cinematography. Yeah. Wally Pfister's a reason to celebrate. As is Robert Elswit, who I have endless respect for for having shot P.T.Anderson's films, particularly There Will Be Blood. I read a really interesting article ( concerning the technicalities of shooting TWBB and nothing has made me want to understand the minutiae of cinematography more. Were I able to direct a film, not knowing about how it'll be shot would be like having no control over the editing or script.

  • Comment number 31.


    Citizen Kane.


    Completely agree with you re: Avatar. I feel that the criticism of Avatar (all style, no soul) can be levelled at Inception (it's just that Inception requires a higher reading level to comprehend).

  • Comment number 32.

    Corman was the master of finding talent Robert Towne,Peter Bogdanovich,Dennis Hopper,Lazlo Kovacs,Ron Howard,John Sayles,Joe Dante,Scorsese,Coppola,Jack Nicholson,Paul Bartel,Curtis Hanson,Jonathan Demme and His DP Tak Fujimoto.

    He really is a giant of film


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