Understanding the Cinematography of Wally Pfister

Wally Pfister has had a tremendous career in cinematography, and has recently transitioned to being a director. I go through some of his cinematography lighting and camera techniques to help you understand his unique style.

Just to be clear: Wally Pfister changes his style to suit the movies he shoots. The goal of this video and article is to drum up enthusiasm and a yearning to learn more.

Warning: I do not claim this knowledge is 100% accurate. Just think of it as an endorsement of his work. If you want accuracy, look someplace else.

Here’s the video illuminating the cinematography style of Wally Pfister:

How he lights faces

Wally Pfister prefers to call his style naturalistic. I don’t agree with the terminology, because even though his shots look unlit to the general audience (any good cinematographer should be able to do so), they don’t look unlit to the trained cinematographer’s eye. There are other cinematographers with more naturalistic styles, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it was lit at all.

In any case, the bottom line is both Nolan and Pfister did try to achieve as natural a look as possible, so it’s not important to get bogged down in semantics.

When he lights faces, he tends to the three-fourth lighting style and side light. When his actors are in silhouette, he also occasionally uses an edge light that’s about a stop or two higher than key.

Nolan prefers to have the freedom to move around on set, so this allows Pfister the choice of any lighting fixture, and he always tries to light a scene as if there’s only one major source.

Cameras, formats and lenses

He is a staunch supporter of film, and shoots most of his work on 35mm anamorphic, specifically Panavision. He uses Panavision C, E or G lenses.

Recently he has also shot a lot of IMAX work, and has had rehoused Hasselblad and Mamiya lenses for the same.

When not shooting for Nolan, he has also shot on 1.85:1, so he’s a flexible cinematographer who works hard to adhere to the director’s vision.

Terms and equipment mentioned in the video

For high-speed work, he shot on Photo-sonics cameras, probably the 4ER and/or 4C. The former goes up to 360 fps, while the latter goes up to 2,500 fps. Most of the shots in Inception were shot at 1,000 fps.

Color timing is the process of ‘grading’ film without undergoing a DI. The changes made by the timer are sent to the lab and the film is processed to get the look decided.

He uses Kino flos, Rifas and LED panels to get fill and catchlights.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. If I’ve stoked your interest in Wally Pfister’s work, please watch the movies he shot, read the articles about his movies in American Cinematographer, and read and watch his numerous interviews online.


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