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How would you describe Mr Pfister's photography.


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#1 Luc Allein

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 07:42 PM

One time, I was working with a very esteemed cinematographer who I've had the good fortune to camera pa/load for a bunch of times. We were sitting on the set of a commercial, and I asked him what his favorite films of that year were, photography wise. (This was in Dec of 06, I believe) He asked mine, and I had said the Prestige was in my top 3 or 4. He absolutely hated it (he really had a knack for hating any movie I seemed to admire, ha ha) and asked "Well what did you like about it?" I said the scene with the lightbulbs in the field really got me, and that I just loved the look of his films, that they were dark and really fit with the themes and tones Chris Nolan rocks in his movies. That was the best I could do. (At least we both agreed the photography on the Departed was terrible)

So needless to say, I felt like kind of an inarticulate ass around this guy who's kind of one of my heros and it's always bothered me. I cant seem to put what I like about a particular cinematographer into any kind of eloquent or technical description. Cinematography is so subtle and so sublime most of the time, it's hard to pick up on the little nuances and things. (Its the same as when people ask me 'why does cinematography even matter in a movie')

We went to see Dark Knight a couple of weeks ago, and I was so impressed as I always am with Wally's work, and we all went out afterward and were talking about it. I mentioned the cinematography was great, and someone asked me to elaborate, and damn it, there I was again.

From what I can tell, he uses a lot of source light, right? He uses a lot of shadow, doesnt over-light things and makes his light look like it's coming from someplace practical in the room an it adds a real natural yet very aesthetic and dark look. (That's Mr Elswit's biggest trick too, right?)

Ive read a lot of stuff from Wally like in American Cinematographer, and I remember reading about the Prestige and him mentioning it was ALL hand held and tons of natural light, very little studio light or anything. But how would someone with a more trained eye describe Wally's style? Am I close or do I just sound like some dumb chick at a bar trying to sound like she knows what a "good" movie is? ("Did you ever see Face/Off?? OH MY GAWD! SO good....")
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#2 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 11:34 PM

I think part of the look he tends to go for is sharp, very fine grain, rich blacks, medium color saturation with naturalistic colors (or occasionally a 1/2 blue color cast on some day exteriors). This is basically what you get when you expose for a dense negative, shoot on a large format like 35mm anamorphic, and make photochemical prints instead of going thru a 2K DI. Basically, I get the sense that he likes to maintain very high technical image quality standards on his films, much like David Mullen. There are other DPs like Chris Doyle and Lance Accord who are more into creating impressionistic moods by distressing the images thru underexposure, pushing, using old lenses, mixing stocks and smaller formats, etc.

Another Pfister characteristic is that he counters this rather conservative approach by using bold lighting and camera techniques. His lighting is usually very source-y and contrasty, without much fill. He's not afraid to use "nuclear" hard light for rims and such, but his key is usually soft and always motivated. He also uses a lot of handheld camera and shallow depth of field. At least, that's my impression.
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#3 Jon Rosenbloom

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Posted 29 July 2008 - 09:31 AM

Style? He's a good Hollywood DP. His work is very handsome, but not overbearing. Check out "Laurel Canyon."
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#4 John Holland

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Posted 29 July 2008 - 11:52 AM

I would go along with Satsuki plus this guy has not been suckered into the 2K DI crap route , where you end up with very bad images when it hits the cinema screen.
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#5 Chris Keth

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Posted 29 July 2008 - 05:38 PM

One small thing I notice about his work in particular (yes, a lot of other DPs do this, too.) is that his characters always have this really nice life in their eyes. Even in very dark conditions when a whole side of someone face might be black, there's always a nice sparkle in the eyes. I appreciate that consistency and care in giving a nice eyelight.
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#6 Jorge Espinosa

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Posted 29 July 2008 - 11:57 PM

One small thing I notice about his work in particular (yes, a lot of other DPs do this, too.) is that his characters always have this really nice life in their eyes. Even in very dark conditions when a whole side of someone face might be black, there's always a nice sparkle in the eyes. I appreciate that consistency and care in giving a nice eyelight.


I think any good DP should do that, unless the character really asks for lifeless eyes.
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#7 Luc Allein

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 11:19 PM

I think part of the look he tends to go for is sharp, very fine grain, rich blacks, medium color saturation with naturalistic colors (or occasionally a 1/2 blue color cast on some day exteriors). This is basically what you get when you expose for a dense negative, shoot on a large format like 35mm anamorphic, and make photochemical prints instead of going thru a 2K DI. Basically, I get the sense that he likes to maintain very high technical image quality standards on his films, much like David Mullen. There are other DPs like Chris Doyle and Lance Accord who are more into creating impressionistic moods by distressing the images thru underexposure, pushing, using old lenses, mixing stocks and smaller formats, etc.

Another Pfister characteristic is that he counters this rather conservative approach by using bold lighting and camera techniques. His lighting is usually very source-y and contrasty, without much fill. He's not afraid to use "nuclear" hard light for rims and such, but his key is usually soft and always motivated. He also uses a lot of handheld camera and shallow depth of field. At least, that's my impression.


I read in this month's copy of AC he actually doesnt like to mix stocks, he sticks with just one. On Batman he used 5202 I guess for everything.

Thanks for the detailed description(s). I was on the right track, Im just behind on a lot of the technical specifics of cinematography, seeing how Im just a camera assistant that's interested in the process as opposed to a working or aspiring dp. Theres so much you can do in post and everything I cant even follow the process.
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#8 Felipe Perez-Burchard

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 11:29 PM

On his last three films (the Dark Knight, The Prestige, Batman Begins) at least (according to AC mag) he shoots primarily one stock for day (250ASA 5205) one for night (500T 5218) usually pushed one stop to 1000 ASA -- Regarding this, it was my impression that The Prestige was the one with the nicest print, with deep blacks... Both the Batman films I felt had a softer toe (not necessarily a bad thing at all).
Does anybody agree?
I also wonder if its been the projection, which definitely contributes to assessing the quality of the print; I saw the earlier films at the arclight (with "the prestige" having one of the best prints I've ever seen), while TDK I've yet to see it in a better theatre (the focus was a bit off and I bet the bulb was a little dim), let alone in IMAX... hopefully this week get around to it.
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#9 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 31 July 2008 - 01:02 AM

... it was my impression that The Prestige was the one with the nicest print, with deep blacks... Both the Batman films I felt had a softer toe (not necessarily a bad thing at all).

When I went to Pfister's seminar at Cinegear, he mentioned that he is usually very careful to make sure his exposures are consistent, but that on "The Dark Knight" he got a little sloppy on some of the big night exteriors because they had to move very fast. So some of the shots ended up being more underexposed than he wanted, which resulted in a variation in black levels in those scenes.

It's possible that the lenses used for the IMAX cameras may have been slower than he would have liked for those scenes - I recall reading in the AC article on "The Prestige" that Pfister had Panavision make some new T1.3 'scope lenses for use on some night scenes. I doubt the IMAX lenses open that wide, which would have been a problem on those big night exteriors. I'm going to see the film in IMAX on Friday, so I guess I'll see what you're describing then.

I thought "Batman Begins" had very rich blacks but I saw the IMAX DMR version which may have been different from the print you saw.
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#10 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 31 July 2008 - 05:00 AM

Saw Dark Knight in IMAX the other day. There was really only one sequence of shots, taking place in the underground car chase, where the blacks were noticeably light. I didn't notice anything else that called too much attention to itself, though.

Enjoy the IMAX showing, it's pretty sweet :)
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#11 Luc Allein

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Posted 03 August 2008 - 10:08 AM

I went to go see it here in Buffalo in Imax as my second viewing, and the Imax theater was sold out AGAIN for the third week in a row.

I was curious to hear more about his color pallette and choice of colors for this in the AC article, but he didnt really touch on it. I noticed he used the color of blue or a pale, greyish blue a LOT. From the very opening of the titles, they have that explosion-y effect and the fire is blue. A lot of the scenes have very strong blue hues in them. Like after the Joker robs the bank and Batman drops in to talk to Gordon in the vault, it's all blue. A whole bunch of scenes. I was wondering why he did that specifically. I mean I get the mental association of how blue would work in the film and the tones it would bring out, but I just want to make sure and see why he chose to use it quite strikingly in some scenes.

Wally rules, Im gonna make it my life's work to try to camera pa on Batman 3. (If they do it, of course)
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#12 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 04 August 2008 - 02:18 AM

Jon, I see what you mean about that underground tunnel sequence. Overall, I agree with Felipe about the "softer toe." I guess it could have been an artifact of the perforated IMAX screen, I really don't know. Didn't look bad though. The IMAX aerial footage was very impressive.

Luc, I think you'll find that Pfister uses cool/warm color tones a lot in his work. He won't usually use them for a whole film but only for select scenes to suggest a character's emotional state. Cool (bluish) tones generally represent depression, sadness, bleakness, hopelessness - in "Insomnia", the scene where Al Pacino's character shoots a dead dog in a garbage-strewn alley and uses the bullet to frame a suspect shows the main character at his lowest point. Think also of the scene in "The Dark Knight" where Bruce Wayne sits by the windows of his high-rise apartment after the death of a loved one (hope I'm not giving anything away for those who haven't seen the film yet). It's actually a very common use color (read David Mullen's production diary of "Akeela and the Bee", for example) but I think Pfister's use is effective because he's so restrained. He establishes a neutral color balance for most of the film, so when the "blue" scene comes along, it registers with the audience.

Other DPs will use a strong color bias for whole sequences or even the whole film, I'm sure you can think of several examples. One of my favorites is "Narc," shot by Alex Nepomniaschy, ASC. Almost every scene has a cool tone except for the domestic scenes with Jason Patrick's family. The film is about corruption, and how the only way to survive in such a world without going mad is to preserve your own humanity. The brief warm-toned domestic scenes remind us of that.
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#13 georg lamshöft

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Posted 04 August 2008 - 04:16 PM

I really liked the look of "the Prestige" but he isn't one of my favourite cinematographers, I can't remember a certain "style" or scenes.

Have you seen his comment (imdb->trivia) on "good is not good enough"? So true...

I hope they use the success of the dark knight to finally switch to bigger formats entirely!
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#14 Mathew Rudenberg

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Posted 06 August 2008 - 06:12 PM

One small thing I notice about his work in particular (yes, a lot of other DPs do this, too.) is that his characters always have this really nice life in their eyes. Even in very dark conditions when a whole side of someone face might be black, there's always a nice sparkle in the eyes. I appreciate that consistency and care in giving a nice eyelight.


Does anyone know what Mister Pfister uses for his eyelight? It looks to me like a very sharp point source, yet doesn't seem to cast any hard shadows or fill in the face as far as I can tell.

I also had the impression that rather than right over the camera it was placed in the character's eyeline...

This question was particularly vexing to me during the dinner scene with Wayne and Dent and their respective ladies early in the film.
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#15 John Hoffler

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 12:24 PM

i saw in some behind the scenes photos of the dinner sequence between Bruce, Rachel and Harvey and Pfister was using a small fluorescent ring light next to the camera for eyelight. When watching the film, it does add a nice perfect dot of light in the eyes.
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#16 John Hoffler

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 06:49 PM

Posted Image
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#17 Mathew Rudenberg

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 11:25 PM

Thank you John,

My vexation is resolved...
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#18 John Hoffler

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Posted 08 August 2008 - 12:12 AM

no problem. :D

for further specification, I believe the light being used is the Kino Flo Kamio 6 Ring Light.

i like the light and the effect Pfister gets with it, but I don't have $1800 to drop on one. :(
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#19 Luc Allein

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Posted 19 August 2008 - 07:25 PM

Satsuki: good call. That makes sense, and I totally feel you on Narc.

John, you got a link to any more of those behind the scenes pics?
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#20 John Hoffler

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Posted 22 August 2008 - 04:10 AM

Satsuki: good call. That makes sense, and I totally feel you on Narc.

John, you got a link to any more of those behind the scenes pics?



that was the only one in the batch that showed anything substantial. I can't find them now, but there is one with Nolan and Aaron Eckhart discussing a scene, another with Nolan next to the batsignal, one of Nolan holding a portable monitor, etc... nothing showing any lighting or camera setups, which is why that one above stood out in my mind.
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