Oscar®-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC, BSC recently brought his sharp eye for narrative to one of the most well-known ad campaigns in recent history: the National Milk Mustache “got milk?®” Campaign.
Pfister is known for his arresting images in the feature film arena, on hits like The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Inception, Moneyball, and the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises. His insistence on the highest possible image quality — and the support of director Christopher Nolan — has led him to shoot critical sequences in 65mm and IMAX film formats. The results speak for themselves — The Dark Knight, for example, was widely praised while raking in more than $1 billion for Warner Bros.
Pfister is now embarking on a new chapter in his career, making the leap from director of photography to director. Currently in the early stages of preproduction on a major, high-budget feature film that Nolan is executive producing, Pfister says that his focus is now on character and story — but that doesn’t mean he’s leaving behind everything he’s learned about telling stories with images.
“Of course images are always going to be important to me,” he says. “But the new component is storytelling through performance. The broader aspects of storytelling are really where my head is at these days.”
Pfister is not exactly a first-time director. He’s been working as a director-cinematographer on commercials for six years, and he logged time in the editing room when he was a news and documentary cameraman in the early years of his career. But the “got milk?” campaign presented his first opportunity to dabble in comedy. He had a willing accomplice — Salma Hayek was onboard as the talent.
“Shooting film was an easy choice for me. It allowed me to shoot quickly, and it brought about the natural look and mood I was after.”
“When I first saw the boards for ‘got milk? — Midnight Run,’ I wasn’t sure how funny we could make it,” Pfister recalls. “Then I had a conversation with Salma, and she really helped take it in a more deeply comic, at times even slapstick, direction. She wanted to show off her comic chops, which I thought was a great way to go. We worked the boards over to incorporate broader humor, while keeping the narrative extremely abbreviated and efficient, which is what’s needed for a commercial.”
In the spot, Hayek returns home late, dressed to the nines and looking glamorous. She takes a milk container from the fridge and discovers it’s empty. Needing milk for her child’s breakfast in the morning, she ventures out to a convenience store, which is out of milk, and another that is closed. It begins to rain and she breaks a heel. While desperately driving past a cow pasture at dawn, Hayek attempts to crawl through a fence, only to be chased off by the cow. Eventually, desperation drives her to flag down a milk delivery van, and the driver hands her a gallon of milk. Comically disheveled, she makes it home in time to provide breakfast for her daughter, and to enjoy a glass of milk herself. The kicker is that unfortunately, the cereal box is discovered to be empty.
The spot was filmed over two days on a variety of locations north of Los Angeles. “As a director-cinematographer, I knew when and how I wanted to shoot,” says Pfister. “I obviously had strong feelings about how I wanted to present it and what format I wanted to use, and it was very important to have the exposure latitude of film. I firmly believe the spot required all the gloss of a feature film. I wanted to catch the beauty of the early morning light on film, and I wanted the latitude to let the sun blow out a touch once we did get to morning. Shooting film was an easy choice for me. It allowed me to shoot quickly, and it brought about the natural look and mood I was after.”
The “got milk? — Midnight Run” spot was filmed in 4-perf format using the full 35mm negative. The stock was KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219. The initial timing was handled by Sparkle at Technicolor in Los Angeles. The agency was Deutsch, New York. “The agency was very happy that we took it in a more comedic direction,” says Pfister. “I think it’s smart, because it helps the spot stand out. Going a little bit over the top, and seeing Salma in those humanizing situations makes it memorable, something that people talk about. And of course if it catches the attention of the audience, and makes them smile, they are much more likely to be paying attention when the ‘button’ identifies the product at the end.”
Pfister also turned to 35mm film for a completely different type of spot, this one filmed at a track in Spain. In it, two cars are lined up as if to race. The engines rev, and the helmet visors are flipped down. Cut to a close-up of the key — counterintuitively, turning the engine off. Car doors open, and a foot emerges to push each car slowly forward. Slowly, the viewer realizes that the “race” is just two cars coasting. Eventually, one pulls away. The idea is to demonstrate that Michelin tires are designed to be more efficient with less resistance than their competitors’ tires.
The spot, titled “Hills,” was one of four for Michelin that Pfister shot and directed over four days at the track. Again, he shot full frame 4-perf 35mm in spherical format. This time, the stock was KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207.
“It was a terrific idea and a great, interesting way to illustrate the point,” says Pfister. “The producers suggested that I shoot digital, saying that it would be cheaper, but I didn’t believe it. There are circumstances when shooting film is actually cheaper. In this case, I found a way to minimize the costs, because I felt it was important. I was traveling to a foreign country, and using an almost entirely Spanish-speaking crew, with the exception of my key grip Ray Garcia and first AD Peter Jackson.
“Once again, I had a very tight schedule and I wanted the best light of the day. The final shot looks right into the sun and I needed the latitude. I needed to be able to shoot fast — to grab the camera and run.”
Pfister laid an ARRI 235 directly on the track to get a low angle. He had an ARRI 435 mounted on an Ultimate arm, which he operated while Dean Bailey, a colleague from the Dark Knight shoots, drove the vehicle. An old friend from film school at AFI, cinematographer Flavio Labiano, operated another camera and grabbed additional unit shots.
“It was fun and exciting to do all four of these spots in comfortable fashion, without having to worry about the blazing sun in the shot,” says Pfister. “The ability to shoot fast without compromise, and its simplicity are my main reasons for shooting film.”
Not surprisingly, Pfister plans to originate on celluloid for his upcoming feature directorial debut as well. “I’ll be shooting film,” he says. “As a director, I’m thinking in a new way, but I’m going to apply every lesson I’ve learned as a cinematographer. I’m not going to compromise or leave behind the visual integrity that I applied in the features I shot.”