As the cinematographer of choice for director Christopher Nolan, Wally Pfister brought darkness and light to nearly all of the filmmaker's features, including "Memento" (2002), "Batman Begins" (2005) and the blockbuster "The Dark Knight" (2008). A former television cameraman for news programs like "Frontline" (PBS, 1983- ), Pfister broke into the movies after serving as a camera operator on Robert Altman's docudrama miniseries "Tanner '88" (HBO, 1988). His keen eye quickly elevated him from low-budget thrillers for Roger Corman to major motion pictures like "Phenomenon" (1996) and "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" (1997). But it was his collaborations with Nolan that truly brought him into the spotlight. From the dark, gritty world of "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," to the visually stunning camerawork on "Inception" (2010), Pfister received a deluge of praise of his efforts and solidified his position as one of the most talented and acclaimed cinematographers working in Hollywood.
Born July 8, 1961 in Chicago, IL, Pfister was raised the grandson of a city editor for a major newspaper in Wisconsin, while his father was a television news producer who began his career at the local CBS affiliate and eventually moved on to cover major national stories for the likes of Peter Jennings and David Brinkley. Pfister had his first taste of the film business when scenes for the Burt Reynolds detective drama "Shamus" (1973) were shot in his neighborhood. Impressed by the equipment required to make a major motion picture, he soon began making his own movies with an 8mm camera. After graduating from high school, he worked as a production assistant at WMDT-TV in Maryland. The job gave Pfister access to cameras, which he borrowed to shoot short films on weekends. One project, a visual essay about a local Victorian house, impressed his bosses enough to earn him a promotion to cameraman. In the early 1980s, he made his way to Washington D.C., where he shot footage of Congressional hearings and White House events for various news programs, including "Frontline" (PBS, 1983- ).
After building a résumé of documentary work, Pfister applied to the American Film Institute, only to be pried away by director Robert Altman, who was looking for a genuine news cameraman to both play the role and shoot actual B-roll footage for his political satire series, "Tanner '88" (HBO, 1988). Having worked as Altman's second unit cameraman, Pfister enrolled at the American Film Institute, where he made his first inroads toward dramatic filmmaking. His work at AFI caught the eye of a recent graduate, Janusz Kaminski, who found him jobs as a camera operator under cinematographer Phedon Papamichael on several low-budget genre films for producer Roger Corman, starting with "The Unborn" (1991). Pfister alternated serving as a director of photography on countless horror films and erotic thrillers while handling cameras for Kaminski and Papamichael on major films like "Phenomenon" (1996), "Mouse Hunt" (1997), "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" (1997) and "Instinct" (1999).
In 1998, Pfister turned down a higher paying job to shoot the indie drama "The Hi-Line" (1999) for director Ron Judkins. The film made its way to the Sundance Film Festival, where it caught the attention of young director Christopher Nolan. The pair soon teamed up for Nolan's breakout feature, the psychological thriller "Memento" (2000), which cemented both as talents on the rise. Pfister soon became Nolan's cinematographer of choice while also working on several other noteworthy indies like "Scotland, PA" (2002) and "Rustin" (2002). Pfister's eye for noir-like detail lent visual luster to "Insomnia" (2002), which was gorgeously shot on location in Alaska. After shooting the well-regarded indie drama "Laurel Canyon" (2002) and the high-profile heist thriller "The Italian Job" (2003), he retuned to Nolan's side for the director's first blockbuster, "Batman Begins" (2005), a franchise reboot that became a huge critical and box office success, while boosting the careers of both director and cinematographer. Dispensing the gothic look of Tim Burton's original two films and the overindulgence of Joel Schumacher's splashy installments, Pfister and Nolan settled on a grittier look that was reminiscent of 1970s crime thrillers, which helped accentuate the dark undercurrent of the Batman character (Christian Bale). The result was widespread praise and an Oscar nomination for Pfister for Best Cinematography.
Pfister went right back to work on Nolan's next project, "The Prestige" (2006), a supernatural thriller about two Victorian-era magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) engaged in a powerful rivalry involving a dangerously escalating tit-for-tat competition. Despite a cold and measured approach, Pfister brought visual razzmatazz to underscore the visual trickery and elaborate showmanship of the two leads. His work delivered a second Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. While finding himself in demand as a commercial director on 30-second spots for Toyota, Anheuser-Busch, and General Electric, Pfister reunited with Nolan for "The Dark Knight" (2008), which he partially shot using IMAX cameras. The film broke box office records its opening weekend, and went on to become one of the most critically and financially successful films of the year. Among its countless award nominations were Oscar, BAFTA and American Society of Cinematographers nods for Pfister's work, as well as trophies from several national and regional critics' societies. Pfister went on to win the Best Cinematography Academy Award for his mind-blowing work on "Inception" (2010), Nolan's ambitious and richly textured heist thriller set in the world of lucid dreaming. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page, the visually stunning film benefited from Pfister's excellent work on its way to becoming one of the biggest movies of the year.