Most cinematographers labor behind the camera with little more recognition than their names rolling by, largely unnoticed, in the final credits.
But with his 2010 Academy Award for "Inception" and three other Oscar nominations — for "Batman Begins," "The Prestige" and "The Dark Knight" — cinematographer Wally Pfister has become enough of a Hollywood legend to have earned an opportunity for his directorial debut, which will begin filming early next year.
Pfister, 51, whose parents have lived on Longboat Key since 1999, is sharing his expertise, an abundance of insider stories and several screenings of his work with students in the Ringling College of Art and Design's digital filmmaking program this week. (A free screening of "Inception" at Riverview High is open to the public Thursday evening at 7:15 p.m.)
On Tuesday, dressed in jeans, and a black polo shirt with several silver rings on each hand (the two on the right are skulls), he addressed everything from his many projects with award-winning director Christopher Nolan to how cinematography affects storytelling.
Q: How has your background as a news reporter and documentarian influenced your work on feature films?
A: Enormously. On every level. Working with reality helps reduce the amount of artifice in your work and that is the style of film I appreciate. As a news cameraman on Capitol Hill in the '80s, I had to learn to fight for space, hold the camera steady, know when the President is giving a bunch of carp so you can pull out and get a wide shot; kind of editing in the camera. It teaches you to have your instincts and your peripheral vision on alert at all times.
Q: Anything else?
A: The other important thing is that it really and truly teaches you a respect for natural light. Before you can know how to place a light, you have to understand natural light. You don't need technology to have a good eye and an appreciation of the beauty of natural light. Go buy a book on Carvaggio or any of the Dutch Masters. To me, that's beautiful lighting and it's all natural and from 500 years ago.
Q: You worked on the Batman franchise with Nolan, and also some very different projects like the "The Prestige" and "Inception." Which do you prefer?
A: I'm not a big super hero fan. In terms of the movie-going experience for me, I love the realistic stuff because it's just that much less formulaic. When I was first approached by Christopher for "Batman Begins" I was like, really? A guy in a rubber suit?
Q: So you wouldn't do a "Batman 4"?
A: Never say never. But I'm fortunate enough to have been successful enough that now I want to fulfill myself artistically. I guess I might do it right at the point where I had to sell my house.
Q: Who was your cinematographic role models?
A: The one person who was my greatest inspiration and who influenced me most is Gordon Willis, one of the great cinematographers that never got an Oscar, which is criminal. An incredible body and breadth of work with a lot of different filmmakers. I still believe it's possible that, from a cinematographic standpoint, "Godfather II" is the best filmed movie of all time.
Q: How do you feel about today's technology and the switch to digital?
A: "Moneyball" was the last outpost of my battle for shooting on Kodak film. I said, "That's no problem for me, you'll just have to find another guy." They finally said OK, but added "We need you to cut your salary." I said, "If you didn't get the (expletive) on the last call, get it now."
What's troubling to me is that digital has eclipsed film before it has eclipsed it artistically. I will be accepting of digital when it is the equal of film; there's something wrong with technology that moves you backward rather than forward.
Q: What has been your favorite film you've shot?
A: I think probably the most artistically fulfilling was "The Prestige." It was fun to shoot a period piece, to create a world. But I also enjoyed the scope of "Inception." I was able to capture things the way I saw them in my head and I felt like I'd matured as a cinematographer. Of the "Batman" films I liked my work best in the last one, of course, because anything I felt I'd done wrong on each one, I'd right on the next one.
Q: What's most important in shooting a film?
A: What's really important is storytelling. None of it matters if it doesn't support the story.
Q: Why are you trying your hand at directing now?
A: I think it's really just about wanting to find a new kind of artistic expression. I wouldn't deny that it's about control. I'd like to make audiences laugh and cry and you have to be in the director's chair to manipulate people's perception of the world and their emotional responses. That is a level of power I'd like to feel.
Q: What can you tell us about the new project (currently in the casting process and set to begin filming in early 2013)?
A: I can't talk too much about it. It's a present-day science fiction film, a fairly big concept. It's bigger budget — not as big as "Batman," but not independent.