‘Inception’ Hallway Fight Scene Is Old-School Filmmaking At Its Finest

Green screen is all the rage these days. And that’s fine. “Avatar” wouldn’t have been the same without it. Frankly, “Avatar” wouldn’t have been without it… along with 90% of the other blockbuster film that audiences flock to theaters for.

That said, there’s something about doing things the old-fashioned way. Makeup, costumes and models instead of CG fabrications. Practical sets instead of digital backdrops. “Inception” is great on that front. Director Christopher Nolan certainly makes ample use of green screen, but the moments that count, such as the incredible hallway fight scene glimpsed in all of the trailers, are done the old-fashioned way. Star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for one, appreciated that about shooting the movie.

“We weren’t in one of those zero-gravity machines but we weren’t in front of a green screen either,” he explained. “The mode, the fashion in Hollywood nowadays is to do it all with computers later, but Christopher Nolan likes things to feel real.”

“It would’ve been different if he had put me in front of a green screen and said, ’Pretend you’re floating. Pretend you’re off-balance.’ Instead he put me in the middle of this set that spun around 360 degrees where he hung me on wires or put me on this see-saw contraption,” Gordon-Levitt continued. “So all of those moments where it looks like I’m off-balance, that’s because I was off-balance, doing my best to keep my balance and fight this guy while the floor would be becoming the wall and the wall and ceiling would be becoming the floor.”

Director of Photography Wally Pfister echoed the actor’s words in an interview last week. The scene demanded a 500-person crew and took three weeks to capture. A series of hallway sets were built in a World War I-era air force hangar: a horizontal one that rotated 360 degrees, a vertical one that allowed actors to wear wires and another in which the actors were strapped to trolleys, erased during the post-production process.

“When I was reading those rotating hallway scenes, I was blown away and also scratching my head,” Pfister said. “We begin with a camera that’s not fixed to the set and shows a bit of the rotation, and then you quickly jump to where you’re rotating with the set. It creates this bizarre, strange movement. It’s an exhausting process for the actors. Having rotated on that set myself, it’s really quite challenging and a very strange thing to get used to. If you jump at the wrong time, you could be falling 12 feet through the air.”

The three week process involved painstaking work on small moments, shots that last only two or three seconds apiece when you see them in the finished movie. “We kept coming back to it,” Pfister continued. “We’d shoot out a part of a sequence and then the riggers would have to adjust something. We’d duck out and shoot something else and come back a few hours later and shoot more. The whole thing was spread out over about three weeks. You’ve never seen anything like this before.”