Two weeks ago in Las Vegas, Wally Pfister, ASC, and Jess Hall, BSC, discussed their collaboration on Transcendence, which Pfister directed and Hall shot, as part of NAB’s Creative Masters Series. A standing-room-only crowd gathered in the ballroom at the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center to listen and to see some imagery from Wally’s feature-directing debut, which is covered in detail in the May issue of American Cinematographer.
Moderator David Geffner asked the duo how they found each other, whether they agreed on the project’s format from the outset, and how they designed and executed the visuals. Here are a few excerpts from Wally’s responses.
On shooting film:
“I think probably everybody around this movie … knows how I feel about film vs. digital technology. And I think, clearly, [production company] Alcon knew that. It was really up to Alcon, not Warner Bros. I don’t think there was any question about the film capture because, strangely enough, to quote Mark Twain, ‘Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.’ I think that’s the case with motion-picture film. Everybody says that nobody’s shooting it anymore … [yet] you not only have J.J. Abrams doing Star Wars on it, but Steven Spielberg is still shooting it, [and] Paul Thomas Anderson is shooting 65mm. You also have independent filmmakers, like Jeff Nichols, who shot Mud on film. And so, it’s still out there and it’s still being done.
“But the difficult part now is, we’re generally not doing film release prints anymore. The laboratories are closing their doors. FotoKem is the last major Hollywood lab still in business right now. So, the photochemical finish is probably over with now, which I think is a shame. But film capture is still greatly important to a lot of us, and we hope to keep it alive. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to do it. Hopefully, we can keep it for those of us who want to continue doing it. There are even television shows — Breaking Bad was shot on film as well.
“I don’t think the budgetary issues are that large. What I was able to prove to [Alcon] in my calculations was that we could save $300,000 by doing a film finish on this movie. That was sort of the irony of the question of whether it’s cheaper to shoot on digital than film. If you’re doing a digital finish and you’re doing a DI rather than a film finish, it’s a lot more expensive than doing a photochemical finish.
As I said, we don’t have that choice anymore. But that’s an enormous savings.
“And you end up having to do a DCP version, anyway. We did a 4K scan and 4K color session on Transcendence. But the real relevance of 35mm anamorphic is [image quality]. We’re surrounded by cameras here [in this room] that are 4K cameras that look spectacular, but as the screen size increases, the demand on the resolution of those cameras increases.”
On bringing his own camera crew onto Transcendence to work with Hall:
“It was very important. That’s one of the negotiations I had with Jess early on. And, luckily, Jess had done limited work in the States, so I could push my guys kind of hard. Charlie Erlanger … designed all the material that was projected in the walls, in addition to the camera material that’s on there. He did all the research early on and got all the scientific material to put in there. He was part of a kind of crew family for a long time … and I just thought he had terrific eye and was perfect to move into that area.
“But what I pitched to Jess early on was that I, as a director, really wanted to have the comfort factor of having the guys around me. I didn’t want Jess to feel isolated by not having his say, and my guys are pretty easygoing. Jess had worked with a lot of [them] before, and he has worked with them since.”
Regarding the key to success (in response to a question from the audience):
“Perseverance. I cannot even begin to tell you how difficult this movie was to get off the ground. It’s a slow, painful process, and it never would have happened had I ever given up for one minute. I could have moved onto something else very easily. Everybody [would have been] happy to walk away from this. But I had to make this particular movie at this time.”