Work of Cinematographer Wally Pfister

Cinematographer (or Director of Photography) is a person, responsible for the technical and visual aspect of a film. He is the one to cooperate with the film director and to make the motion picture look as the director imagines it. The collaboration of film director and director of photography is as important as the one with the actors. Viewers may watch such a collaboration in Christopher Nolan’s and Wally Pfister’s work. The task of this paper is to investigate the work of Wally Pfister, his growth started from the ordinary horrors and thrillers to his Oscar winning film through the cooperation with different film directors and development of the cinematography. The paper explores technical base of each film, visual style of pictures, evolution of the cinematographer’s own style in the discourse of the audience demands and contemporary tendencies for each period of film making.

As it was mentioned before, Wally Pfister started his career in the early 1990s with the horrors and thrillers. He also acted as a cinematographer in TV series and documentaries. His motion picture “Amityville: A New Generation” directed by John Murlowski in 1993 was the seventh horror film of this franchise. The plot about the cursed issues from the Amityville house was popular at those times. This one tells a story about a photographer Case, who bought a cursed mirror and a policeman Clark, who was trying to solve the mystery. 


This film was outstanding comparing to its predecessors in the series, because it depicted the characters broader. Wally Pfister was in the number of those who put effort into discovering the main characters. For his work, he used the Panavision cameras and lenses. Shot format required the 35mm stock. The play of light and shadow created the horror atmosphere and was often symbolic. For instance, the shadows of gratings and treillages supplied the closed and even claustrophobic interior of the film; most pictures are shot in the house. This is also the reason why Pfister uses the medium close-up and close-up shots. These kinds of shots focus the viewer on the character, his feelings and changes of the moods. These kinds of shots figurate in depicting home appliances and especially, the mirror, which is the main detail and is put in the centre of the shot. 

During the dialogues, Wally Pfister uses over-the-shoulder shots to concentrate not on the subject of the dialogue, but on the manners and moods of the speakers. The point-of-view shots appear in the nightmares of the main character and discover some allusions of what happens in the end. The viewers discover, that the killer is the main character in his dreams only when he looks in the mirror. Wally Pfister mostly uses the eye-level angle of the camera during the dialogues and showing events, but there are some low-angle wide shots, when the camera looks up on the houses. 

The lights are always dark with poor palette of dilute colours, which makes an impression of anxiety and fear. There are some levels of the film demanding different colours, for instance, the dreams and memories have the golden or red light, so the filters for lenses were used. In the end, there are two levels of the main character’s consciousness compared with the help of changing grey, white and black palette of the present reality and ochre palette of the memories and nightmares.

There is one interesting method of shooting, when the subject or events appear in the lens of the camera in the hands of another character. The viewer can see a homeless man through the objective of the main character’s camera. This method helps the viewer see the events with the photographer’s eyes and creates a mystery around the subject.

“Amityville: A New Generation” is one of the first and ordinary films of Wally Pfister, but one can notice, that the cinematographer has his own style in shooting portraits, manipulating colours and camera movements. Some tendencies stay with Pfister until now. In his interview, he once said, that there is no compromise between the digital and stock cameras ( During his work on “The Italian Job”, he used the same shot format – 35mm. He finds the stock more reliable and time-proved, than the digital cameras. The images become alive and help the actors discover their character better. 

“The Italian Job” requires more special effects of different studios such as the OOOii, Flash Film Works, Digital Graphics S.r.l., Digital Domain and five more. This is the demand of digital evolution and publicity need of action films. Wally Pfister does not betray his way of shooting portraits and dialogues, but adds more techniques. Pfister uses different cameras from different angles; some of them focus on the characters, some – on their actions and other – on the venue. 

In the episodes, where the location is important, camera moves from the bird’s eye angle. The film starts with the bird-eye view shots of Venice. The colour palette is rich and shows the beauty of the city. The focus is the venue, where the burglary happens. Soon, it moves to the high angle and the focus relocates on the events – boat chase, for instance. When the characters appear, the camera tilts up and makes an effect, as if the viewer pays attention on the way the person walks and what he/she wears and then, the camera is tracking parallel to the characters while they are walking and changes to the over-the-shoulder shots during the dialogues. 

In this film, the cinematographer often uses the cut-in shots to emphasize on the accurate moves of the burglars and the issues they use for their job. This type is used in the episodes of the safe effraction. The picture is mostly static and silent. At the beginning of the film, it takes place under the water and is often interrupted by the picture of dynamic chase with loud music. In the end of the film, the manner is the same, but the location changes, however, stays similar. The safe effraction takes place in the underground and the case – in the air and on the roads of Los Angeles. This equal way of shifting dynamic and static shots with similar locations cause the equal pressure on the viewer and makes the story cyclically locked.

In “The Italian Job”, Wally Pfister uses the same method of shooting through the objective of a camera or binoculars-like filters with the same aim – to show the picture with the eyes of the character, which makes an effect, when a viewer is a copartner of the burglary and is feels as thrilled as the characters. This method appears partly in the film “Memento…”, where the main character needs to make photos of people to memorize them this way, because of his disease. 

“Memento…” is the first Pfister’s work with Christopher Nolan. In addition, this film is the first, where the work of the film director and the director of photography seems to be the work of one person. “This is a pair of artists who have found complementary visions in each other” – notes Ian Buckwalter. The film starts with the black and white image, which interrupts with the colour throughout the film. One may even not notice the moments of this interruption. Christopher Nolan’s vision of the images is completely shared by Pfister’s passion for deep colours and original puzzle plots, where he can practice and develop his way of demonstrating human’s consciousness and different levels of spaces.

As it was mentioned before, the image is half black and white and half in colour. This effect helps the viewer understand that the main character lives in different realities. The images interrupt each other and it is hard to follow the story chronologically, but supplies the idea of the film. It consists of the different fragments and details, which gather into an integral picture only in the end. The cut-in shots of Guy Pierse character’s memories of his wife’s body and close-up shots of objects that belonged to her appear in the luminant smooth light, which means warm and devoted memories. The present everyday reality appears in pure blue colours – the colour of calmness. This technique supports the words of Leonard Shelby about his devotion to the habits and systematic way of life, but the black and white images alarm about something different and more real, revealing only in the end. 

After this film, Wally Pfister became the only cinematographer to work with Christopher Nolan. Their cooperation brought Pfister to the Oscar award for the film “Inception”. Pfister said in his interview, that the thing, he appreciates in Nolan the most, is that he is always eager to learn something new and use it immediately. “Inception” consists of all the best and up-to-date issues of cinematography. Despite Pfister is still devoted to the stock shooting, so the format was 35mm and 65mm with different kinds of lenses and cameras (Arriflex 235, Panavision Primo and G-Series Lenses, Arriflex 435 ES, Panavision Primo and G-Series Lenses, Beaumont VistaVision Camera, Panavision Primo Lenses, Panavision 65 HR Camera, Panavision System 65 Lenses, Panavision Panaflex Millennium X), they also used digital cameras.

“Inception” is a film of different layers for each level of a dream. Each layer has its own colour and light and camera movement: Layer 1. The color palette is gun-metal grey and a tint of metallic blue with heavy rain and soaked street. Camera follows the bus from the high angle. Layer 2. The lighting of the hallway gave the layer its warm-orange tungsten palette. The hallway was a rotating 360-degree building with the camera fixed on the floor, so that made an effect of zero-gravity. Layer 3. This one is monochromatic – white and gray. Maaz Khan notes that the episodes of the third layer were inspired by the James Bond series while choosing the location and the way of shooting (

The Limbo gathers earth-like and natural, warm, metallic, and cool colours. In addition, these episodes were those to contain the biggest amount of visual effects among 500 visual effects shots used in entire motion picture. The opening and the closing scenes were shot in the room with Pfister’s powerful play of radiant light and shadows of the colourful walls reflecting on the table. The room stays unchangeable, but the characters have completely another consciousness. 

To conclude, Wally Pfister notes that the “Inception” is the top of his career, as a cinematographer and lately he debuted as a film director. This paper investigated some points of his career since 1993 to 2010. Many things changed in cinematography during this period, so digital evolution, new technologies entered into the work of Wally Pfister. However, the most important point was his collaboration with Christopher Nolan. This was the time; he improved and developed his own well-recognized photography style. Wally Pfister influenced much on the cinematography, inventing his way of depicting inner world and consciousness with the help of image, colour, light and shadow. He is the one to combine the time-proved movie-making traditions with the up-to-date technologies.

Nov 1, 2019 in Research
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