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Side By Side: Transcendence Director Wally Pfister And DP Jess Hall At NAB 2014

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Wally Pfister felt cinematographer Jess Hall was the perfect candidate to shoot “Transcendence” – his feature directorial debut.  Before hiring Hall, the two men met to discuss shooting the film.  Through the course of their conversation, shooting was never discussed.

“When Jess came in, we didn’t talk about photography at all, but we discussed the narrative them and the symbols, and the visual arc of the film.  He really understood what I was going for, and I knew I had the right person.”

Pfister and Hall shared highlights about their collaborative process at the 2014 NAB Show Spotlight panel entitled “Side by Side:  A Conversation with ‘Transcendence’ Director Wally Pfister and Cinematographer Jess Hall, BSC.”  Moderated by ICG Magazine Executive Editor David Geffner, the panel explored what Pfister; the Oscar-winning cinematographer behind “Inception” and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” films, was looking for in a DP.  Likewise, Hall shared his perspective on collaborating with a DP turned director who’s known for a strong visual style.

Geffner began the panel by presenting a brief synopsis of each man’s professional background.  Pfister began his career as a news photographer covering the White House.  He was brought onto the set of “Tanner 88,” a Robert Altman television special that followed a fictitious senator’s political campaign, when a casting agency requested authentic newsmen to portray campaign journalists.  Pfister actually shot footage that, once reviewed, made such an impression he was promoted to the position of second unit photographer.  He cut his director of photography teeth working with Roger Coreman, and honed his directing skills on commercials.

Hall, a native of Birmingham, England, spent the last fifteen years shooting anamorphic film on small, independent films.  His work on the cult classic “Son of Rambow” earned the attention of director Edgar Wright, who he collaborated with on “Hot Fuzz” and “Grindhouse.”   It was Hall’s work in director Julian Jarrold’s “Brideshead Revisted” that particularly attracted Pfister.

“It had a beautiful, naturalistic style and lighting,” said Pfister.  “There’s also a Paul Bentley movie called ‘Creation’ that Jess shot, and that work just synched the deal.”

Pfister explained he and Hall shared a mutual admiration of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and wanted to use the film as both a creative and thematic inspiration for “Transcendence.” Pfister arranged a cast and crew screening of a 70mm print of the film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to enlighten everyone on Kubrick’s handline of common themes found in “Transcendence,”

Geffner asked Pfister and Hall if they were both in agreement on shooting “Transcendence” on film.   Pfister and Hall mutually agreed film was the best format, and proved to the studio the film would save $300,000 by eliminating the DI process required by digital shooting.  Hall noted the nature of the film’s subject matter would provide great technical challenges regardless of the format.  The storyline deals with a scientist (Johnny Depp) whose consciousness gets uploaded into a computer.  Throughout the film projected images and screenshots would be captured in camera to ensure authenticity.  The only way Hall could capture these shots was through experimentation.

“It’s your job as a cinematographer to make the shots work. It required a lot of testing,” said Hall.  “What we captured in ‘Transcendence‘  is a testament to the process of testing and refinement. There were shots we just couldn’t do with CGI; I was locked away with some pretty complex diagrams for days figuring it out.   It was all captured in camera, and it was very exciting.”

In addition to camera tests, Hall worked closely with the production designer to find the best angles for shooting and blocking the actors.  Holes were punched in the ceiling for lighting that helped minimize glare.  Additionally, the crew wore black to avoid being caught in the reflective surfaces.  While the monitors were caught in camera, there are portions of the film that required CGI.  Hall enjoyed the collaborative experience of working with the visual effects supervisor from the start of production that allowed the cinematography and visual effects to be completely cohesive.

Pfister also discussed the value of viewing dailies throughout production.  He discovered the benefit of this practice while working on “Moneyball,” and brought the practice of viewing dailies with the crew to the set of “Transcendence.”  Sandwiched between Hall and editor David Rosenbloom, everyone was able to review and understand exactly what they “have and what needed to be enhanced.”

“While we were shooting ‘Son of Rambow’ we watched projected dailies and you can respond to things very quickly.  It’s a fantastic process,” said Hall.  “There’s a very quick conversation that happens and you work within a very set round of parameters.   I got to see everything about the setting. and could make very easy adjustments.  It’s also provides a great feeling of solidarity, watching dailies with the crew.”

Geffen asked Pfister if it was difficult for him, having spent so many years as a DP, to let another DP take over the reins.  Pfister admitted it was a challenge to completely walk away from the position, and while he put trust in Hall’s ability, he found he occasionally “did have to put the camera on my shoulder.”     Responded Hall, “I have more of a fine arts background, but Wally comes from news.   We had a quick, 62 day shoot, and we were shooting on film.  We needed a fast camera, and I was happy to learn from the best teacher.”

Pfister explained his decision to direct a film was informed by his desire to spend more time with the actors and utilizing other cinematic tools, such as sound and music, to help create a story.  He also explained his reliance in Hall wasn’t built solely on his ability to handle the work, but his personal admiration of Hall’s character.

“It’s important to get to know the individual as a person, said Pfister.  “I got to know Jess long before we started shooting.   He’s a great person, and that was important to me.”