The Reason Christopher Nolan Films Look Like Christopher Nolan Films

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With the The Dark Knight Rises' director's longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister stepping down, his movies' distinctive visual style could change.

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WB

Christopher Nolan values consistency. The Dark Knight Rises is immediately identifiable as a Nolan film due in part to his habit of finding people that he likes to work with and sticking with them. He often writes with his brother Jonathan. Actors like Joseph Gordon Levitt and Marion Cotillard return here after their work in Inception. Christian Bale isn't just Batman, but also in the star of Nolan's 2006 gem The Prestige. Michael Caine has been in five of the director's eight features. Editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer have both been working with Nolan since Batman Begins.

Think of the other great director-cinematographer teams: The distinctive looks of their films are as traceable to cinematographers as the directors.

That consistency also extends to the immediately recognizable look of Nolan's films on the screen. Every one of his movies, with the exception of his low-budget black-and-white debut, Following, look like the work of a singular mind. But it turns out that in this case, that singular mind is shared by two people: Nolan and his longtime cinematographer, Wally Pfister, who has served as Nolan's director of photography on every one of his movies after Following.

Pfister's role in defining the look of Nolan's films—those characteristic rich colors, often present even in the deep shadows he also favors, juxtaposed with big, epic landscapes—really can't be understated. This is a pair of artists who have found complementary visions in each other. Nolan has a man behind the camera who knows exactly how to capture the images he describes, and Pfister has a director just as passionate as he is about very specific ways of making films.

Which is why it's worrisome that The Dark Knight Rises might be Pfister's last time shooting a Nolan film.

Pfister is taking his first turn sitting in a director's chair this year, and in a story earlier this spring that talks about that project, the UK magazine Empire first reported that, "Wally Pfister ... is retiring as a DP and moving on to his directing debut." This past Friday on BBC Radio, Nolan confirmed, with a definite note of regret, that he'd be looking for a new cinematographer for his next film. That could mean that the next phase of Nolan's directorial career could look very different indeed.

Think for a moment some of other great director-cinematographer teams in cinema history, and how the distinctive looks of those teams' films are as traceable to cinematographers as the directors. Ingmar Bergman, for instance, worked almost exclusively with Gunnar Fischer until 1960, when Sven Nykvist took over. While boldly lit, expressionistic black and white remained a constant in Bergman's films for years, it was Nykvist's less fantastical take, and especially his rare ability to focus the attention on the emotions in actors' faces and eyes, that arguably became the most defining element of Bergman's later films. And on the other side of the Atlantic, when Woody Allen wanted to pay homage Bergman, his favorite director, he did so by hiring Nykvist to direct some of his gloomiest, most Bergman-esque features.

Similarly, while the whole notion of the French New Wave was based around the authorial stamp of directors, it was Raoul Coutard who could be found behind the camera for most of the seminal early works from Godard, Truffaut, and Demy. The freedom that's often associated with New Wave camera work—handheld, with documentary-style natural lighting, and a willingness to let the actors dictate camera movements rather than the other way around—is difficult to separate from Coutard's influence.

Elsewhere, there's the lush color and evocative shadows of Powell and Pressburger's three most famous films, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes, all shot by Jack Cardiff (I'd wager a guess that Pfister is a particular fan of the use of color and darkness in these). The golden coloring and deep darkness of The Godfather films—which angered studio executives but are inseparable from what makes those films masterpieces—are thanks to Gordon Willis, one of the great innovators of 1970s American motion picture photography.

Of course, none of these people are household names. There's a common perception that the cinematographer is nothing but a technician, just another in the long list of award recipients who go largely unnoticed during the Oscars. The great cinematography documentary, Visions of Light (one of the best documentaries about the craft of filmmaking ever made), traces that notion to the workmanlike attitude of many of cinema's earliest practitioners of the craft. But great cinematographers blend their role as technicians and engineers with true creative artistry to aid their directors in visual storytelling.

What stands out about the collaboration between Nolan and Pfister is how close the philosophies of these two men are in terms of both the technology and the art of filmmaking. Both men are adamant that film, not digital video, remains the most versatile and responsive medium for motion pictures. They're also both vehemently opposed to 3D. If Warner Brothers had any hopes of squeezing extra money out of The Dark Knight Rises with the surcharge on silly glasses, those hopes were quickly dashed: Neither of these two would submit to making a film in 3D.

IMAX, though, is another story. Both Nolan an Pfister obviously love the crisp image and epic sweep of the large format, as well the challenge of shooting large portions of a movie using the unwieldy equipment necessary for IMAX photography. As a result, The Dark Knight Rises features more than an hour of often breathtaking footage shot in IMAX, more than twice the amount of its predecessor in the series.

That love of IMAX isn't really a shared embrace of something new, though. It's evidence of an abiding love of classical technique. IMAX is the modern equivalent of 70mm filmmaking, a format that had its heyday in the 1960s with visually striking classics like Laurence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. One gets the feeling watching the collaborations between Nolan and Pfister, particularly after their first, more modest work on Memento, that they want everything they do to feel as big as those films.

Now that Pfister is hanging up his light meter and in favor of the director's chair, that means that Nolan will need to find another cinematographer not just of similar talent, but with similar aesthetics and technical passions. He might still issue the same instructions about how he wants a scene to look, but that's no guarantee he'll get the same result. Sit Van Gogh and and Gauguin in front of the same landscape, and you'll get radically different paintings. As it is with the brushes of different painters, light just looks different refracted through the lens of different cinematographers.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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