Collaborating again with director Christopher Nolan on The Prestige has garnered director of photography Wally Pfister, ASC his second consecutive Oscar nomination for best cinematography, following last year’s nod for Batman Begins, which Nolan also directed. For The Prestige, a twisty mystery about two magicians in the early 1900s engaged in a high-stakes duel for audience popularity—with elements of history and science fiction thrown into the mix—Nolan sought a somewhat spontaneous look and feel, in contrast to most period films. “After Batman Begins, Chris wanted a more free-form, handheld style,” says the DP. “We didn’t set a lot of marks for the actors. We shot it wide open. I did the lighting in a very naturalistic way, and I shot handheld for 90 percent of the film. Given the camera weighed 60 pounds, my shoulder was in dire pain by the end. But it was an exciting way to shoot, and gave the actors and me more freedom to move.” Only the set pieces in the film where the magicians perform their tricks on stage before an audience were shot utilizing a dolly and tripod.Pfister, for the most part, operates the main camera. “Chris likes it like that because it makes for a very intimate relationship on the set,” he notes. “He stands right next to the camera when he’s directing, so it’s me, him and the actors when we get going. It takes what might be a very large production and shrinks it down a bit to more manageable terms.” The Prestige is actually the fourth time Nolan and Pfister have teamed, They first collaborated on Memento. All their films were shot using Panavision anamorphic lenses, chosen for the richly detailed, grain-free image they produce.”On this film, Panasonic tweaked out some special high-speed lenses for me, so I was able to shoot wide open,” says the DP. “That way I got to take maximum advantage of the scenes lit with candles or firelight.” The scenes of a dirty, grungy turn-of-the-century London shot at night added to the film’s mysteriousness. “Chris and I have shied away from smoke on previous films, but it’s another visual tool we used to make this picture different in tone and atmosphere,” he says.The Prestige is also notable for having been processed traditionally, without going through a digital intermediate stage, which converts a film into a computer file that can be digitally altered for color and other changes. “It was all done photochemically,” says Pfister. “Chris thinks a DI makes film look overmanipulated on the screen, as if it’s been through some video process. So our philosophy on that is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”Pfister started out as a video news photographer in Washington, D.C. in the early 1980s. After a move into making documentaries, he got a break when was hired by director Robert Altman to be the second-unit camera operator on Tanner ’88, a miniseries tracing a fictional politician’s campaign for office. “That’s how I got my Hollywood bug, and I enrolled at the American Film Institute and studied cinematography,” Pfister recalls. The DP has just started work on another Batman sequel, The Dark Knight, in yet another encore with Nolan.2007: Nominated, Academy Award for best achievement in cinematography, The Prestige. 2006: Nominated, Academy Award for best achievement in cinematography, Batman Begins; nominated, American Society of Cinematographers for best feature, Batman Begins. 2002: Nominated, Independent Spirit Award, best cinematography, Memento.
Written by Jack Egan