The Warner Bros. film is the sixth co-venture for Nolan, Producer Emma Thomas and Cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC. Their successful collaborations began in 2000 with Memento, which was followed by Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight, and Pfister has earned Academy Award nominations for the last three films.
The story behind their partnership could be a script for a feel-good movie. Nolan and Thomas met and were later married while they were English literature students at University College London. Together they produced Following, a short film that played at the Slamdance Film Festival in 1999. That same year, Nolan was impressed with Pfister’s cinematography in The Hi-Line, a film that was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival across town. Nolan contacted the DP and sent him a copy of his script for Memento.
In an interview with Los Angeles Times Journalist Geoff Boucher, Nolan said he had been thinking about the concept for Inception since he was 16 years old. Thomas recalls, “I remember Chris talking about his idea for making a film where important scenes take place in a dream world when I first met him. He spoke about differences between images reflecting dreams and reality. Chris gave me an 80-page script to read after we made Insomnia. It was quite different than the final version.”
Nolan told Pfister about his idea for Inception around the same time. He later gave him the script to read in February 2009. “I was blown away,” Pfister remembers. “The script was a bit of a departure from our superhero Batman movies. The writing reminded me more of Memento. It had a lot of emotion packed into it. Chris said he wanted dreams to feel like reality with an enhanced sense of time. A 10-minute long dream can feel like it’s going on for an entire day.”
Nolan initially considered producing Inception in a 65mm film format to create a richer look and the scope he envisioned. He also wanted to weave the handheld camera aesthetic they used during the production of Memento into the fabric of the story. “Chris and I concluded that it would not be practical to shoot the handheld elements of the story in the runaround fashion that he envisioned with a 65mm camera,” Pfister says.
They eventually agreed to use a blend of 65mm and 35mm anamorphic film formats for most of the live-action cinematography. The exception was a decision to use the VistaVision format for filming aerial scenes. VistaVision was developed by Paramount Pictures during the mid-1950s. Each 35mm frame is eight (rather than four) perforations long and runs horizontally through the camera. “Chris wanted high-resolution aerial shots that leap off the screen and give added clarity to shots with intricate details,” Pfister says.
After Pfister shot some tests, he and Nolan decided to film slow-motion dream sequences with a Photo-Sonics 65mm camera at 1,000 frames per second. Photo-Sonics cameras were used by NASA during the 1960s and ’70s to document the launching of Apollo space vehicles, so their performances could be evaluated in minute detail. Pfister cites an example: “We used the Photo-Sonics camera to film a car driving off the edge of an open drawbridge and falling into the river below in slow motion. It was also used to pull the audience into dreams in other sequences.”
While those decisions were being made, Production Manager Jan Foster orchestrated the around-the-world scouting of locations. Pfister and occasionally Nolan followed Foster so they could begin planning on how they were going to cover scenes at the various practical locations. “I was all over the world during the first few months of preproduction,” Pfister recalls. “Our locations ranged from the interior of a jet plane to a rooftop in Tokyo, city streets in Los Angeles and Paris, the Kasbah in Morocco and a ski slope in Calgary, Canada.”
With the assistance of Location Manager Ilt Jones, the film’s Los Angeles locations ranged from downtown city streets, where rainmaking equipment was installed on some 30 rooftops to create an artificial storm, to LAX airport and a vertical lift bridge on Terminal Island. “It began with breaking the script down into locations and figuring out places that would work for the story,” Jones says. “We would find four or five possible locations for each scene, take pictures and discuss them with [Production Designer] Guy Dyas. He was the filter we went through before moving forward with Chris.”
The scene that calls for a vehicle to plunge off a tall building into a body of water below was initially written for a parking structure. The problem was that Los Angeles doesn’t have any tall parking structures next to rivers or other bodies of water. Jones suggested shooting the scene on Terminal Island’s Schuyler Heim Bridge, the largest vertical lift bridge on the West Coast. The bridge’s deck lifts up horizontally to allow ships to pass beneath it.
Nolan envisioned shooting the bridge scene while the bridge was rising with a van crashing through a barrier and plunging off the edge at the high point while Pfister recorded slow-motion images on film. “That precipitated a long back-and-forth discussion with Caltrans which operates the bridge,” Jones says. “We had to find out what the load-bearing capacity of the bridge was while it was going up, and make certain that the brakes would allow us to put 20,000 pounds of vehicles, crew and equipment on it. My colleague, J.J. Hook, deserves 150 percent of the credit. He literally spent months dealing with Caltrans until they agreed to sit down with us and discuss a plan which enabled the bridge to safely go up and down with everything on it. We built three pillars under the bridge to hold it in position.”
The film crew also installed artificial rainmaking equipment on the bridge, because the scene takes place during a storm. Jones notes that the pipes and cables had to be installed in a way that insured no one would get pinched by the bridge going up and down. “Ilt and his fearless crew pulled off one impossible feat after another in securing locations and permission to film in and around Los Angeles,” Pfister says. “Chris would come up with some incredibly difficult requests, and the location department would make it all work without losing their cool. Their creative contributions are commendable.”
While the bridge might have been the most challenging location to nail down, the most memorable experience was probably the Canadian setting for the ski chase scene. “I scouted the Canadian Rockies with Chris by snowmobile,” says Pfister. “A local scout in the Calgary area showed us a number of potential locations. We rode around looking for a place to build a big set. The location had to fulfill a number of criteria, including accessibility for trucks to haul props, sufficient shelter from the high winds and spectacular mountain views. We honed in on a place called Fortress Mountain which is about an hour west of Calgary.”
The film’s wide variety of locales meant a lot of traveling for the production, and Pfister’s key crew, including Gaffer Cory Geryak and 1st AC Bob Hall, traveled with him to all six countries. “We started production in Tokyo, where we shot for just a few days, and then we went to London for a couple of months,” Pfister says. “From there we went to Paris for a week and on to Morocco for about two weeks. We came back to Los Angeles for a couple of months and finished production with about two weeks in Calgary. My head is still spinning from the jet lag.” In England, most of the film’s production was on sets built at Cardington Studio and in an old Zeppelin hanger, where scenes for Nolan’s Batman movies were filmed. And a key scene was filmed at the architecture school at University College London, where Nolan and Thomas first met.
Panavision provided 35mm Panaflex MXL and ARRI 235 cameras, along with a complete set of anamorphic lenses, and Panaflex 65mm Studio and High-Speed Spinning Mirror cameras with a range of lenses. Pfister recorded interior and night scenes on KODAK VISION3 500T 5219 color negative film and daylight exteriors on KODAK VISION3 250D 5207 and VISION2 50D 5201 stocks. Nolan and Pfister generally covered the action with a single camera, while a second camera was used for big action scenes.
Pfister describes Inception as an existential experience. He estimates that about half of the film, including action scenes, was shot with a handheld 35mm camera. Other scenes were filmed with cameras on a Steadicam and Technocrane. “We used 65mm film for parts of scenes, including wide shots on streets in Paris and Morocco and the opening of the movie,” says the DP. “Then we would follow a character or characters with a handheld camera. But that wasn’t an unbreakable rule. There is a dream sequence where a character is visiting his father. We shot that in 65mm for a heightened look.”
For a scene where Cobb tells a character that they’re inside a dream and things aren’t always what they seem to be, Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould designed a nightclub set that tilted 30 degrees. When Cobb stands up and explains that he can control things happening inside of dreams, the light falling on the characters’ faces from a window shifts from sunset to a dark cloudy day within a couple of seconds –– and as this happens, the room seems to tilt at a 30-degree angle and things start sliding on the set. “It’s a cool way of expressing that you are inside a dream where life is moving along at a much slower pace,” Pfister says. “Chris wanted to shoot several scenes in extremely slow motion. Whenever there was a dream within a dream, we wanted to shoot at 1,000 frames a second or more, so there are specific beats.
“We shot most of these action scenes with a Photo-Sonics camera,” the DP explains. “One of those scenes was a large explosion that takes place in an elevator, where you see a fireball racing up the elevator shaft. Another one was when the van is falling off the bridge as time stands still. There is also a fight scene which seems to be taking place in a zero-gravity environment while a hotel hallway is rotating 360 degrees. We kind of borrowed that idea from what Stanley Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when he created a zero-gravity environment by rotating the sets.”
For these scenes, Pfister says that the actors were suspended by wires and the camera was on a Technocrane that rotated with the set. In addition, there was a camera on a track carefully hidden in the floor. This allowed the camera to dolly with the set as it rotated. Pfister credits Corbould as well as Paul Franklin and his visual effects team at Double Negative in London with making the physical effects transparent.
Inception was truly a global endeavor with four film labs playing important roles: IMAGICA Corp. did the front-end lab work in Japan; LPC in Paris and Technicolor in London processed the negative exposed in England and Morocco; and Technicolor in Los Angeles handled the film shot in Canada. All four laboratories provided film dailies. “Chris and I share a belief that watching dailies projected on film with the cast and crew is an important part of the creative process,” Pfister emphasizes.
The final cut of Inception was converted to IMAX format by DKP 70MM, an IMAX postproduction facility in Santa Monica, Calif.