April 24, 2014 by Sankha Wanigasekara
I had the opportunity to partake in a conference call with first-time director and longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister to discuss his debut directorial effort in “Transcendence.” Though I unfortunately did not receive the chance to ask a question, as other college students barraged the director head-on for almost 40 minutes, the discussion was primarily centered on the technological basis of the movie and Pfister’s experiences being a first-time director.
A key point of issue was the concept’s originality, and most of the other student reporters asked the director about the factors that set his science fiction feature apart from the other entries in the genre. He spoke at length about how “Transcendence” is about uploading a human conscience to a computer, creating a sentient machine. While other movies would focus on artificial intelligence in isolation, “Transcendence” has that human perspective embedded in a computer in the form of Johnny Depp’s character, which gives the film a unique selling point.
Before anyone could settle with this answer, a similar question popped up yet again, comparing “Transcendence” to Spike Jonze’s “Her.” In Pfister’s defense, he had already shot his movie by the time “Her” was released. Both movies deal with artificial intelligence and the idea of humans forming emotional bonds with machines, but are distinct from one another in both tone and mood. Jonze’s movie is somewhat light-hearted, unlike “Transcendence,” in which an AI basically attempts world domination. Pfister even quipped that a journalist had called his movie “the dark side of ‘Her.’”
Dissecting the science fiction elements of the movie further, students asked how far the movie is from reality and since its emphasis is on fiction, whether there was a need to have a tremendous amount of research done. Pfister had done his homework for the movie, having visited several Ivy League universities as well as Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Of paramount importance to him were two professors at Berkeley, one in the field of nanotechnology and the other in neurobiology, who grew with the passage of time to become consultants for the movie. Using the input from these two scholars, most of the nanotechnology aspects of the film were indeed created, not from thin air, but from scientific theories that would seem plausible down the line. (The student who directed the question didn’t care to ask for the names of these professors.)
The other dominant feature of the conference was, as mentioned previously, Pfister’s experiences as director given that this was his debut in the position. He decided to jump into the role after being a cinematographer for most of his career, collaborating with Christopher Nolan on eight films, which include the epic “Batman” trilogy. He spoke about how his time as a director of photography aided his first time directing. In his words, Nolan’s on-set discipline was impeccable, not letting a single minute of production go to waste, since he understood that someone else’s money was being invested. These ethics were then naturally practiced by Pfister to good effect, evident through the lack of news on production delays.
His most significant challenge on set was directing actors. As a cinematographer, he had to tell the story with images, but with this movie, he had to have the story told through the actors as well. Interestingly, he described the director’s role as being a psychologist sometimes, since one has to elicit the correct response for a given scene, and that requires the correct instructions. Pfister’s position as director also meant that he had to meddle in other areas of film production, such as sound design. He mentioned spending months getting the final sound mix sorted out, and that his new job title gave him the chance to play around with new tools — an added perk despite the increase in labor hours.
During the discussion, some interesting trivia popped up here and there. If given the chance to lecture a university course, Pfister would choose cinematography (surprise!). To top that one off, he said that he still shoots in anamorphic film instead of shooting digitally because the resolution is much higher and allows for a better contrast and color saturation.
Since the conference call was held, “Transcendence” has gone on to be critically derided and it has fizzled at the box office. My mind is drawn to the challenges that Pfister detailed, and perhaps this new woe can be included on that list. It’s unsure if he’ll go back to the job at which he excelled or continue to direct in the years to come. He could get it right the next time.