We often attribute the hard work of a hundred people to the vision of a single director, so it’s easy to forget the person on the other side of the camera—the cinematographer. Ultimately, it is his or her eye through which we view our favorite films. Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, will be leaving the director’s side to work on his own project, according to The Atlantic.
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.
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.
This tight kinship between art and engineering is not unique to cinema; it simply started there. Then again, much of art history is populated by engineers and scientists—it is only now that we view their technical prowess retroactively as ‘art.’
Architects like Brunelleschi and polymaths like da Vinci were artists, technically, but they were very technical artists—not unlike a cinematographer or even today’s artist-programmers. The work we see, like the façade of some ancient duomo, always belies a deeper and more beautiful structure hidden underneath, constructed tirelessly, thanklessly, by hundreds of hands.