Contender – Cinematographer Wally Pfister, Moneyball

Wally Pfister accepts the cinematography Oscar for Inception. (Photo by Michael Yada/©A.M.P.A.S.).

Talk about range. One year ago, Wally Pfister won the Oscar for best cinematography for Inception, a photographic spectacle of undulating streets and men in suits floating along the ceilings of hotel corridors.

This year he’s a contender for shooting Brad Pitt in a pickup truck driving through Long Beach.

“I approach all films the same way,” Pfister says. “It’s a breakdown of the story and forming an opinion as to how to best tell that story in pictures.” Pfister and director Bennett Miller agreed, he says, they wanted the film to feel grounded and that nothing, including the photography, should distract from the journey of Pitt’s character, overmatched baseball executive, Billy Beane.

One aspect the director and DP used to give the film a present, real-world feel, was capitalizing on Beane’s isolation and discomfort. Beane is a classic underdog, and Miller and Pfister place him for the majority of the film, literally under ground. The Oakland Athletics’ offices, Beane’s office, a conference room, corridors where key moments occur, the team’s locker room and weight room, are all beneath the club’s stadium. “It was a very intentional concept,” Pfister says, “and Bennett dubbed those underground spaces, ‘the submarine.’” They were all constructed on a stage in Culver City and Pfister’s lighting gives them a subtly dim, subterranean feel that increases the pessimism surrounding the team and underscores Beane’s uphill struggle.

Baseball movies are famously challenged when it comes to scenes on fields and in stadiums. The conundrum is how to create moments of intimacy in spaces that are huge and public. Pfister’s solution, since most of the games took place at night, was to manipulate the stadium lights. “In order to create a mood on the diamond, and a look that is less flat,” he says, “you have to move away from traditional stadium lighting. It was easy to do this by shutting off half the stadium lights at any given time and embracing a more filmic, darker look.

Chris Pratt in Columbia Pictures’ drama Moneyball. (Photo by: Melinda Sue Gordon. © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group).

“At first, Bennett was concerned that we were stepping away from reality too much,” he says, “but he realized the look would convey much more drama if the light was sculpted.”

It’s crucial that the film’s look provide the context for Billy’s discomfort because Pitt plays him without nervous ticks. Indeed, Billy moves gracefully, like the athlete he is, and that redoubles the challenge for the filmmakers to portray him as extremely anxious and perpetually under the gun.

Billy’s dilemmas range beyond baseball. In what may be the film’s most gut-wrenchging scene, he goes to the home of his ex-wife, played by Robin Wright, to pick up his daughter. Pfister says the key to the scene was communicating Billy’s sense that his ex-wife may be “in a better place” than when they were married. “We isolated him with the camera by putting him in a chair by himself out in the middle of the room while Robin and Spike Jonze (who played her husband) were comfortably seated on the couch,” he says. One entire wall is made up of windows and the light bathes the attractive couple on the couch in an aura of affluence and success.

The film’s final scenes conclude a motif in which Billy drives alone in his pickup truck with Oakland’s colorless dockyards as a backdrop. “We very much wanted to separate the land of affluence and architecture of San Francisco, where Billy goes to discuss money with the owner of the team, with the industrial port feel of the areas surrounding Oakland,” Pfister says. “We shot the car interiors in San Pedro… we didn’t use a stabilized rig for the camera, wanting instead to have a more shaky, uncontrolled feel to it. I did slow zooms on Brad’s face and extreme close-ups of his eyes for the dramatic moments at the end of the film.”

There are no vans falling off bridges in Moneyball, and no one ages decades in a single scene, but through Wally Pfister’s lens we see one man’s journey to rewrite the business of America’s Pastime, and change the story of his life in the process.

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