‘Inception’ Paris Cafe Scene: Cinematographer Reveals All

Christopher Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister tells MTV News how they pulled off the mind-bending sequence.

What’s your favorite mind-bending [movie id="419756"]“Inception”[/movie] moment? Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s zero-gravity fight scene , which has him twisting and punching while the world spins about him in every direction? The white van that falls achingly slow as Leonardo DiCaprio and his fellow dream bandits hang in near-suspended animation? The Paris café scene where Leo and Ellen Page stroll the streets as the city folds in on them?

Can we just choose them all? Yes, yes we can. But what makes the Paris sequence different from the other two is that it was created by employing a serious combination of visual and practical effects, whereas the hallway and van scenes are largely free of heady CG work. So how did director Christopher Nolan and his team craft the Paris scene? Cinematographer Wally Pfister, a longtime Nolan collaborator on films like “Memento” and “The Dark Knight,” walked MTV News through the process.

“That particular material is where we really dive into the surreal and things go a little wacko,” Pfister explained. “In this case, Chris really wanted to ramp up the visual effects and do something that would have people sit back and go, ‘Wow, what the f— is going on?’ ”

Mission accomplished. DiCaprio and Page sit at a café, which is actually a figment of Page’s dream. As they talk, huge, fireless explosions pop all around them in slow motion. Then, as the pair begins to walk, Page starts to experiment with the elastic physical world of her dream. She raises up entire streets — buildings, people, cars and all — until everything folds up into a fantastical cube of Parisian life. It is nothing short of staggering.

To generate those explosions, the film’s special-effects supervisor, Chris Corbould, rigged up a series of air cannons that launched debris into the air. To achieve the right slow-motion effect, Pfister made use of a specialized camera.

“We shot it with super-high-speed Photo-Sonics cameras to get that material floating in the air,” Pfister said of equipment that can capture 1,500 frames a second, in contrast to regular film’s 24 frames a second. The extra frames allowed the filmmakers to slow the frame rate to a virtual crawl.

Then in came Paul Franklin, the film’s visual-effects supervisor, who employed computer graphics to extend the debris and create more of a floating effect. Franklin and his team also hit the city streets with still cameras to record what would become the basis for the folding effects’ photo-realistic feel. The folding streets were built entirely through CGI, a process so complex that the effort was begun a full eight months before the movie’s release.

“The whole thing had a very naturalistic style to the photography, to the lighting, to the camera movement, so that it would feel very real and very grounded,” Pfister said. “And on top of all that, we pulled off a very intricate bit of effects trickery.”

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