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Inception (General Cinematography)


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#1 Brian Rose

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Posted 27 July 2010 - 09:48 AM

As the originator of the imax/65mm related discussion, I also wanted to open up talk on the overall cinematography on this film, and thought it warranted a separate thread. If the mods feel otherwise, you are welcome to merge the two, with my apologies.

Having finally been able to see "Inception" late last week, I have waited a few days to let the film sink in, and speaking purely about the cinematography, I have to say I was disappointed. Not in the projection, or the DI, but in the work of Mr. Pfister.

Don't get me wrong: the film was sleek, beautiful, with every key, back, fill, kicker and eye light in place. And that's the problem. To me it was competent and the kind of work many DPs would be capable of doing...but in the hands of a genius like Pfister, it was lacking.

It felt like Mr. Pfister was repeating himself, playing it safe with a style of lighting for which he was comfortable.

The strong amber hues, contrasted with cold blue light....the slow motion cinematography...I felt like had seen it before, not just in a Nolan/Pfister film, but in many films.

What is with this trend, this use of amber and blue light? I see it now so much that it feels like it's becoming a standard. I expected much more from "Inception," and instead it felt much like a lot of other cinematography, which seemed to me to be a wasted opportunity. I mean, you have a film in which you have the real world, and the dream world, and within the dream world, you have dreams, within dreams, within dreams. Imagine the opportunities for creative lighting, to distinguish each world from the other? One reviewer commented that, thanks to the editing, she was able to keep track of the simultaneous goings on of three separate dream levels. For me, that indicates a failure on the part of the DP. Part of that job should have fallen to him, and instead each world felt much the same (lighting wise, I mean). I saw no daring, no urge to try something terribly new. Instead, I got the sense that, "It worked well on 'The Dark Knight," so let's do that again."

And I am reminded by why I like DPs like Cardiff and Deakins...they always seemed to be moving forward and trying new things, and letting the story guide their decisions, instead of shoehorning the story into their luminary comfort zone. Deakins, you will recall, was nominated for two Oscars in 2007, for "No Country For Old Men," and "The Assassination of Jesse James..." Both are masterpieces of the art of cinematography, yet each is quite different from the other. Likewise, Jack Cardiff brought something new to each film he DP'd, and so no two looks alike, apart from the fact that they are SO dissimilar from other work being done that you can tell a real genius lit them.

Wally Pfister is a great DP, and has promise to be one of the greatest. But for me, "Inception" felt like he was coasting on that promise, rather than making good.

What are everyone else's thoughts?

BR
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#2 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 27 July 2010 - 10:21 AM

You know Brian, I both agree and disagree with you. I will admit that the cinematography was rather "comforatable," not only for a DoP to accomplish but also for an audience.. and perhaps this was part of the reason why they took this route.. that with such a complex narrative structure, it might've been a better option to keep some things grounded in a common language (visually) which an audience can easily understand in order to build out from there with the use of FXs (and very good FXs). A choice to let cinematography serve it's base purpose of allowing for the capture of the visual information; and then letting this grounding in reality play counterpoint to the very un-real things which happen. Lest not forget the point of inception, in the film, was to create a world which seemed real to the dreamer in order to steal from their minds. That being said, as things go to hell I do think that the lighting etc should've gone a bit crazier.
I am reminded a bit of 2001-- wherein the lighting was VERY good, of course, but not a revolutionary, I feel, as the use of cinema, camera motion, editing, and narrative structure-- I hope that makes sense. And I do love 2001 and I love the lighting in it, and it does inform on the world you're in, if not the character. I feel the lighting in inception is similar, it builds the world for the characters to exist in but doesn't stack the deck, rather let's the viewer see and make up their own understandings.
At least that's how I see things. That being said, I must add that personally, I don't know how ballsy i'd've been if I knew I had such a FX heavy film to work with. I would want to be, of course, but it takes a lot of fortitude to really push things when you know you're pushing a lot more later on with other layers of FXs and a narrative structure which is, to say the least, not as formulaic as we have become accustomed.
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#3 Matt Read

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Posted 27 July 2010 - 01:02 PM

Brian (and everyone else, for that matter), you should read the American Cinematographer article about "Inception." In it Pfister and Nolan discuss how they wanted the dream worlds to seem the same as the real world, because dreams seem real when you are in them. They specifically steered away from the obvious choice of surrealistic cinematography. As Adrian said, with all the craziness of the plot, equally weird cinematography may have been too much for the audience to handle. I think they made a smart decision and in this case, perhaps unconventional decision, in going the "normal" route with the cinematography.

I felt that Pfister did an excellent job creating unique looks for each dream level. The first level used blue hues and extreme high-speed photography, the second level was very warm and the third level was stark without much color at all and the last level was normal to begin with, but ended looking quite dark. They were very easy to tell apart and seeing a single shot from one you instantly knew what dream level you were seeing.

Also, as a side note, I question the level of media literacy of the reviewer you referenced because I think the cinematography and production design had much more to do with differentiating the dream levels than the editing did. For the lay person, good editing is much easier to see (there's a new shot, there's a new shot, back to that shot, really long shot, etc.), but good cinematography and production design (good in this instance meaning coming organically from the story, not just pretty for its own sake) should become unnoticeable consciously, but still affect the way the audience sees the film.

However, I will agree with you on the amber and blue lighting trend. To some extent, I understand why it is used; blue and orange are at opposite ends of the spectrum and therefore contrast nicely and blue has long been a color used for representing moonlight, while the orange represents tungsten bulbs and the two colors are therefore obvious choices for being used together to light night scenes. However, it has become overused (*cough* Michael Bay movies *cough*) and is now both boring and too distracting when not well used.

Overall, I feel that "Inception" was no great leap forward for Pfister, but it did look great and the cinematography served the story well, and in the end, isn't that what any DP should be trying to do?
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#4 georg lamshöft

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Posted 29 July 2010 - 09:27 AM

I'll watch it tomorrow, so propably it's a bit early to judge, but let's not forget that Nolan's Batman-movies and "Inception" share a similiar "atmosphere". They're dark, near/alternative-future visions - while Prestige was playing in a different time, hence was allowed an entirely different look!?
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#5 georg lamshöft

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Posted 01 August 2010 - 05:34 AM

It was quite obvious to me:

"Normal" scenes were shot in a very natural way, available-light even under boring lighting conditions to give the dreams (those created for the victim for example) a "natural" feeling - only special scenes (like the 4th layer or the train-suicide) stood out.
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