NAB: Wally Pfister on Turning Johnny Depp Into a Hologram For 'Transcendence'

Pfister, the Oscar-winning cinematographer-turned-director, says shooting on film rather than digitally actually saved the production money.
Johnny Depp in "Transcendence"

LAS VEGAS – Oscar winning-cinematographer Wally Pfister was so determined to shoot his directorial debut Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, on film that he agreed to cut his budget to win a green light. Even so, he never considered switching from film to digital. 

“There wouldn’t have been any significant cost savings in shooting on digital,” he said to The Hollywood Reporter, following a standing-room only presentation hosted by the International Cinematographers Guild at the NAB Show, where he appeared with his film's director of photography, Jess Hall. “We found that eliminating the [digital color grading] and doing a photochemical finish saved almost $300,000. That’s an enormous savings.”

Pfister has famously photographed all of Chris Nolan’s movies (with the exception of the upcoming Interstellar) on film. And he again chose celluloid for Transcendence, hiring the like-minded Hall, a cinematographer who also chose film for all of his previous movies, such as The Spectacular Now and Hot Fuzz. They are not alone. Pfister pointed to other Hollywood filmmakers still intent on staying with film, like J.J. Abrams (who is using film on Star Wars Episode VII), Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson.

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Still, digital projection now represents more than 95 percent of all cinema screens in North America, and Pfister admitted that he is uncertain if film will be a viable option when he embarks on his next project. “I have no idea: it’s hard to say,” he said, pointing out that Deluxe is shutting down its Hollywood film lab, leaving Burbank’s Fotokem as the last lab standing in Southern California. “It’s hard to get information because [suppliers] can’t judge either. The best we can do is keep the demand for film up. I hope we can keep it going long enough until digital technology catches up.”

Pfister and Hall were planning to visit the NAB exhibition floor to check out the state of digital tools. “We’re going to go see [high dynamic range] technology,” Pfister told THR. “I’m hopeful that if film starts to disappear as a tool, we are not replacing it with just  anything but something that comes close to film in image quality. I’m also excited to see these laser projectors for theatrical.”

Transcendence, which opens April 17, is a cautionary tale about technology that centers on a scientist, played by Johnny Depp, whose mind is uploaded into a computer. The filmmakers describe it as spanning various genres including sci-fi, adventure and romance. It was filmed largely in New Mexico and additionally in California, with Fotokem providing lab services (they also viewed film dailies during production).

Pfister said that during preproduction the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened 2001: A Space Odyssey for his key crew members “so they could see the spectacular nature of 70 mm projected at the Academy theater.… It’s probably the most influential film in my lifetime. It was the visual aspects, the story, the pacing and the subject matter.”

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While Transcendence contains a large number of visual effects -- led by VFX supervisor Nathan McGuinness of VFX house Double Negative -- the filmmakers aimed to do quite a bit in camera.

That includes scenes where the scientist’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), is communicating in a lab with a hologram-like digital image of Depp’s character. “Rebecca would act on set with an projected image of Johnny, and Johnny was in a dark booth with a camera on him, on the same set,” explained Pfister. “So the actors were able to perform together and we captured that live, in camera.

“The lighting had to be very controlled," added Hall.

Pfister added that in other cases, Depp’s image was replaced with a CG version of his performance. “We wanted him to have dimension, more like a hologram, which is why it became a visual effect.”

In order to make the budget cuts that were required, Pfister said he "made a huge revision in the screenplay. Primarily, the Brightwood Data Center [a key location in the film] was an aboveground city.… I eliminated an expensive build aboveground to create this underground world that was shot on a soundstage with a low ceiling -- we got the space relatively cheaply -- and then we did a VFX set extension."

The biggest challenge was photographing a residence in the underground city. Said Hall: "We used a lot of projections, projections onto glass, rear screen material. I think we had about 12 projectors working with a live feed and other graphic material. And there was a black floor and black ceiling."

In addition to film, a digital master was completed in 4K resolution, and the film will additionally be released in Imax. Transcendence also will get a 3D release in China. “The box-office potential in China is much greater than it is here, so I was open to distributing in 3D in China,” Pfister said. “While I’m not a fan of watching an entire movie in 3D, I did think there were certain effects that looked fantastic in 3D. They showed me about a half an hour of the materials to get my comments on it. I was impressed. They were doing really meticulous work.”

Pfister plans to continue to pursue directing. “I wanted to stretch a little and work with actors,” he said about why he moved into his new role, “and play with performance as a creative too -- not only have images as a creative tool, but performances, sound, editorial, music.”

He and Hall enthusiastically said they would like to work together again -- which could make them the next successful collaborative pairing of a director and cinematographer.

Hall admitted that it was initially daunting to think about stepping in to shoot for Pfister -- one of the world’s best-known cinematographers and an Oscar winner for Nolan's Inception -- but he added that his nerves subsided after they met and started to discuss the film. “I was a little on the fence because of the challenge,” Hall admitted. “But talking with Wally, we got into the really dramatic content of the story. I understood that he really wanted to get into the dramatic structure. I felt like it would be a great collaboration thematically.”

Pfister agreed, saying he trusted Hall with the story, and added that when he reviewed Hall’s past work, he was drawn to his naturalistic photography. “His lighting is not fussy. It reminded me of my aesthetic for light.”

Still, Pfister didn’t completely stray from the camera. “I had to put the camera in a my hand a little bit,” he chuckled, “when the fun hand-held stuff came up, I’d jump in.”