T o create a particularly hair-raising action sequence in snowy mountains for Inception, director Christopher Nolan wanted to capture spectacular shots on the slopes and from the air in the Canadian Rockies. Aerial cinematographer Hans Bjerno worked with a Beaucam VistaVision camera for helicopter shots, and action-sports cinematographer Chris Patterson hit the slopes with a PanArri 235 to capture the close coverage.
“Fundamentally, I wanted every shot to be moving,” says Nolan. “I wanted to base the photography in these scenes on what we’d done with vehicles in The Dark Knight. I wanted to always have a point of view for the camera, to always be moving with the action and putting the audience into the experience. Chris was able to pull off some really extraordinary shots. He was very receptive to putting more and more movement into shots, even little storytelling shots. That footage all cut together with what I like to call a ‘tumbling forward’ quality, where you’re being pulled along with the action.”
Patterson’s PanArri 235 was equipped with 200' 2-C magazines. The lens was usually a 28mm, 35mm or 75mm Panavision G-Series anamorphic prime. Primo 48-550mm and 270-840mm zoom lenses were used to capture some shots from a distance. “I approach it like bike racing — shaving ounces keeps me shooting longer and helps me maintain better control,” says Patterson. “I have the camera supported for handheld with a lightweight rig made by Red Rock Micro that includes a [Preston wireless] FIZ remote follow focus. My first AC, Scott DaHarb, is familiar with my high-energy shooting, and he skis along behind me, pulling focus. I had a small Transvideo monitor to glance at as I skied.
“Our ski unit comprised Canadian Local 669 members with strong backgrounds in skiing and mountain travel,” he adds. “It’s key to approach this kind of shooting with safe, capable people who are comfortable in the mountains.”
Overall, Patterson continues, “I worked to mate what Chris and Wally [Pfister, ASC] envisioned with what I thought would really take the action to the next level. They were totally open to my ideas and really encouraged me to contribute to the creative approach. Each morning, I’d meet with stunt coordinators Sy Hollands and Tom Struthers to discuss the stunts and the beats the scene required. At lunch, we’d review the footage with Chris and Wally.”
The main unit took to the slopes with a snowmobile tracking vehicle put together by key grip Ray Garcia and his crew. A Scorpio gyrostabilized head was mounted to the front of the vehicle, and Pfister was able to operate the camera from the passenger seat. This rig was used to capture some high-speed work and tracking shots in deep snow.
Nolan and Pfister agree, however, that Patterson’s handheld coverage is the star of the sequence. “Chris’ skill at wielding a handheld camera on skis became absolutely essential, and I don’t think there’s any other way we could have gotten the kinds of shots we have in the finished film,” says Nolan. Adds Pfister, “We knew that by going with Chris, we’d get the best out of Calgary. Everybody is talking about his footage.”