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Lighting the Knight:
Wally Pfister
Interviewed by Matthew Anderson

Wally Pfister
Wally Pfister, Director of Photography

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.

Sitting down for a one-on-one chat 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.

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.

Once we got situated in the lounge, those shifting aspect ratios became the starting point for our chat.

"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 2000 and 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.

On the Prestige test

"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."


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