Walter "Wally" Pfister is an Academy Award-winning American cinematographer, who is best known for his work on Christopher Nolan's films, including Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception. Pfister is also known for his work on director F. Gary Gray's The Italian Job and Bennett Miller's Moneyball.
Born in Chicago and raised in New York City, Pfister’s grandfather was the city editor of a newspaper in Wisconsin. His father, also known as Wally, was a TV news producer, who began his career with CBS-TV in Chicago in 1955. Later, as an executive at ABC News, the elder Pfister worked with David Brinkley and Peter Jennings, covering political conventions, space flights and the civil rights movement.
When Pfister was about 11, a film company shot scenes for Shamus (1973), featuring Burt Reynolds, in his neighborhood. The boy was fascinated by the crew setting up lights and cameras. Soon afterwards, he began shooting 8 mm home movies and short films. Pfister also emulated his father by shooting slides on Kodachrome film and assembling them into little shows for family and friends.
After high school, Pfister found a job as a production assistant at a television station, WMDT-TV, in Salisbury, Maryland. Within a couple of months, he borrowed a CP16 news camera and began shooting little films on weekends, including a visual essay about a Victorian house. “I did these slow, little intricate moves around the architecture of the house,” he recalls, “cut it together with music, and showed it to the production manager. They made me a cameraman. I shot very low budget PSAs for $125 a week.”
Within a few months, Pfister found a job as a cameraman for a Washington news service, which provided film for TV stations around the country. He covered the United States Congress, the White House and breaking news from 1982 through 1985. In 1985 Pfister began a freelance career shooting documentaries for the PBS series "Frontline" and industrial videos for various Washington production companies.
In 1988, Robert Altman came to Washington to direct a mini-series for HBO called Tanner '88 (1988). Altman was looking for a real news cameraman to play that role in his show. They hired Pfister and asked him to also shoot some B-roll. When the producers saw his work, they brought Pfister on the show as the second unit cameraman. It was the first time he was exposed to acting and dramatic material.
After that experience, Pfister enrolled at the American Film Institute. During his second year, he collaborated with his fellow classmates on a short film called "Senzeni Na?", which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 1991. The film told the story of a man caught up in the apartheid struggle. Pfister drew on his documentary experience, and lit it darkly and stark, using a single light so the actor could play in and out of that source.
Janusz Kamiński had just graduated from AFI, and met Pfister that year. He saw Pfister’s film and recruited him as a grip and electrician for various projects, including a few with Phedon Papamichael.
Roger Corman gave Pfister an opportunity to shoot pickup shots and inserts for a Papamichael film. It was the first time he shot 35 mm film. After that, Pfister handled second unit for Papamichael on Body Chemistry and also on other Corman films.
Pfister shot The Unborn, his first feature, in 1991. After that, he filmed an array of horror movies, typically on 15-day schedules.
In 1995, Papamichael asked Pfister to operate for him on Diane Keaton’s Unstrung Heroes (1995).
In 1998, Pfister shot The Hi-Line in Montana in the dead of winter on a $300,000 budget. It got into the competition at Sundance Film Festival. There, he met Nolan, who also had a film at Sundance.
Pfister's first collaboration with Nolan was on the neo-noir thriller Memento (2000). The success of this collaboration resulted in Pfister taking over as director of photography for Nolan's subsequent films: Insomnia (2002), Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), which he partially shot with IMAX cameras, and Inception, which was shot partially in 5-perf 65 mm.
Pfister stated that he has "turned down Harry Potter films to work with Chris."
As of 2010, Pfister has served as cinematographer for all of Christopher Nolan's films except for Following (1998), for which Nolan acted as cinematographer himself.
Pfister has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography four times, each time for a film directed by Nolan. He won an Academy Award for his work on Inception at the 83rd Academy Awards.
He also has been nominated three times for the American Society of Cinematographers Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases, for Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception, winning for the latter, in 2011.
Wally is married to Anna Julien (1992–present) and has three children: Nick (18), Claire (16), and Mia (6).