John Toll, ASC was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He moved to Los Angeles at the age of 19, where he worked part-time for David Wolper Productions while pursuing a liberal arts degree. He initially worked as a production assistant, then began working on documentary camera crews and subsequently low budget feature film crews.
Toll became a member of the camera Guild very early in his career after working as an assistant on a television movie filmed in the Bahamas. His first mainstream job was on an early 1970s TV series called The Rookies. Later, he crewed with John Alonzo, ASC on a number of films beginning with Black Sunday. Toll moved up to camera operator with Alonzo, and subsequently worked with Allen Daviau, ASC, Jordan Cronenweth, ASC, Robbie Greenberg, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC and cutting edge TV commercial director-shooters Mel Sokolsky and Steve Horn. He began shooting commercials during the late 1980s. Toll earned his first narrative film credit for the TV pilot for The Young Riders, with Rob Lieberman, a director he met through his commercial work. The telefilm earned a 1989 Outstanding Achievement Award nomination from his peers in the American Society of Cinematographers. Toll earned his first feature credit for Wind in 1992. His second and third features were Legends of the Fall and Braveheart. Toll received consecutive Oscars in 1994 and 1995 for his work on those two films. It was a remarkable milestone. Only one other cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, ASC has earned consecutive Oscars. Toll was also nominated for ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards for both films, taking top honors for Braveheart. He earned a third Oscar nomination and his second ASC Outstanding Achievement Award in 1998 for The Thin Red Line. His other narrative credits include Jack, The Rainmaker, Simpatico, and Almost Famous. Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Vanilla Sky are both slated for release later this year.
(Published August 11 , 2001)
by Bob Fisher
John Toll, ASC was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He moved to Los Angeles at the age of 19, where he worked part-time for David Wolper Productions while pursuing a liberal arts degree. He initially worked as a production assistant, then began working on documentary camera crews and subsequently low budget feature film crews.
He became a member of the camera Guild very early in his career after working as an assistant on a television movie filmed in the Bahamas. His first mainstream job was on an early 1970s TV series called The Rookies. Later, he crewed with John Alonzo, ASC on a number of films beginning with Black Sunday. Toll moved up to camera operator with Alonzo, and subsequently worked with Allen Daviau, ASC, Jordan Cronenweth, ASC, Robbie Greenberg, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC and cutting edge TV commercial director-shooters Mel Sokolsky and Steve Horn. He began shooting commercials during the late 1980s. Toll earned his first narrative film credit for the TV pilot for The Young Riders, with Rob Lieberman, a director he met through his commercial work. The telefilm earned a 1989 Outstanding Achievement Award nomination from his peers in the American Society of Cinematographers. Toll earned his first feature credit for Wind in 1992. His second and third features were Legends of the Fall and Braveheart. Toll received consecutive Oscars in 1994 and 1995 for his work on those two films. It was a remarkable milestone. Only one other cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, ASC has earned consecutive Oscars. Toll was also nominated for ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards for both films, taking top honors for Braveheart. He earned a third Oscar nomination and his second ASC Outstanding Achievement Award in 1998 for The Thin Red Line. His other narrative credits include Jack, The Rainmaker, Simpatico, and Almost Famous. CaptainCorelli's Mandolin and Vanilla Sky are both slated for release later this year.
Following are excerpts of a conversation:
ICG: Where were you born and raised?
TOLL: I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and, like most of my friends, I was completely infatuated with movies. We would spend days and days in our local theater sometimes watching the same movies over and over. Being in Cleveland, these were current mainstream Hollywood pictures, not sophisticated foreign pictures or even older classic American films. We would be mostly caught up in the stories, but when a picture that was well photographed would come along it was obvious to me how much more involving and interesting it would seem. I'm not sure if I even recognized the difference as photography, but those films just seemed more interesting and those images and stories were the ones that really stayed with me. I remember seeing the early Stanley Kubrick films, and wonderfully photographed films like the Night of the Hunter, by cinematographer Stanley Cortez. I knew there was definitely something unique about those films. I also just liked the idea of storytelling and I read a lot. I tried writing a story when I was nine but I couldn't find the words. It wasn't a natural process for me. When I was 10 years old I acquired a very inexpensive still camera. It felt really good in my hands. There was something fascinating about photography. I took a class in black-and-white photography where we processed and printed our own pictures and I would shoot stills of my friends.
ICG: Why did you move to Los Angeles?
TOLL: I moved to Los Angeles when I was 19 years old primarily because I wanted to explore as many opportunities as possible. I had an idea that it might be interesting to work in the film business. At one point, as a teenager, I started thinking about photography as a career but I didn't really have an idea of how to go about making that happen. I had one friend and a sister who had moved to Los Angeles. I came out and started doing various odd jobs and wound up going to school at Los Angeles City College and Cal State L.A. because I felt I need for a liberal arts education. I wasn't actually sure at that time if I even wanted to pursue film or photography, I just wanted to expose myself to a lot of different ideas. While I was in college I was lucky enough to get a part-time job working at David Wolper Productions when he was an independent documentary producer. I was hired by a man named Bob Anderson who was the head of production for Wolper at that time
ICG: What was that like?
TOLL: For me it was a whole new world. There were quite a few full time documentary producers, directors, and editors working there, and also freelance cinematographers, including cameramen like John Alonzo (ASC), Allen Daviau (ASC), and a great documentary cinematographer named Vilis Lapineks. I was working part-time as a production assistant and going to college. It was pretty exciting. I naturally gravitated to the camera department. Whenever possible, I would spend time with the assistant cameramen and learn as much as I could and eventually started taking care of the 16 mm camera equipment owned by the company, an Eclair NPR and an ARRI S with zoom lenses. One of those assistants was a young man named Otto Nemenz. He owned a couple of lenses of his own and he told me he was thinking about buying some more so he could rent them to the companies he worked for. I was fascinated with those cameras and would spend a lot of time just looking through the viewfinders and holding them and seeing the effect of different focal lengths. After a while I would go out on jobs with the crews. I went out with Otto and he showed me what to do because I really did not have a clue. After a while they would even ask me to shoot simple inserts if an editor needed something in a hurry and couldn't find a cinematographer. It gave me access to the process of filmmaking. I had to think about what to shoot and how that footage fit into the overall film. It was a pretty flexible system in those days. You could be a production assistant one day, an assistant cameraman the next day, and a cinematographer the following day, depending on whose project it was or how desperate they were for the material.
ICG: How did you become a member of the Guild?
TOLL: David Wolper sold his company to Metromedia, and they started producing TV movies of the week. One summer, while I was still in college, they did a TV movie in the Bahamas and they took me along to work as an assistant on the second unit. The 2nd AC who was working on the first unit left the picture, and they asked the Director of Photography, Andy Laszlo (ASC), if it was okay to use me as the second AC on first unit. He knew I was pretty inexperienced but said okay and I was moved up. It was my only experience with a rack over Mitchell BNC camera. A camera that can be seen today only in museums I'm sure. Coincidentally, that job was the first time I had used 35mm cameras. I needed to be checked out on the gear before going to the Bahamas. We rented cameras from Birns and Sawyer in Hollywood and the camera tech who showed me my first 35mm camera was this really nice guy named Denny Clairmont. When I got back to Los Angeles I found out that the company had signed an IA union contract and the cameraman I had worked for on the second unit, Mike Dugan, tipped me off to the fact that I had worked enough hours on that film to qualify to become a member of Local 659, the Camera Local of the IATSE, and legally they had to let me join. This was at a time when it was extremely difficult for anyone to get into the Local unless you were a relative or you had some sort of political connection. I accidentally slipped through the cracks during those dark days when one of the primary missions of the union leadership was keeping new people out of the union in order to protect the jobs of the people who were already members.
ICG: So, you got into the Guild at the very beginning of your career?
TOLL: Yes. A lot of other accomplished cinematographers who were doing fantastic work were locked out. I just sort of stumbled in as an assistant cameraman. I thought that was great. I was in the Guild and I was going to make movies. Yippee! But, one of the other tricky things about the Guild at that time was the seniority roster. There were three groups, one, two and three. It took you a certain number of years to move from group three to two, and a certain number of years to move from two to one. People in groups two and three weren't allowed to work until all those in category one were working, and they were very serious about enforcing it. This was during the early1970s, which was a slow time in the business. So, coming into the union allowed me to pay my initiation fee and dues for the privilege of not being able to accept work. Even when people called and wanted to hire me I couldn't take the job because I had to wait until all the people in categories two and one were working. It was a completely absurd situation. It eventually got changed around but it took a long time. Our Guild has become a much more professional organization under progressive leadership with people like George Dibie and Bruce Doering.
ICG: What kind of work were you doing in those days?
TOLL: Anything I could get, really. When I was at David Wolper's company one job I worked on was a documentary about paramedics. We used to go out at night, hang out with paramedics and wait for calls. It was literally ambulance chasing. There was a director, a cameraman, me as the AC, and there was a soundman. We would take two cameras and usually shoot with both because of the action so I'd get a chance to operate. We would shoot black and white negative and usually force develop because we weren't using any lights. We were basically doing what is being called Reality TV today, but shooting on film instead of shooting digitally. I think it was while doing this documentary that I decided I wanted to keep making films. Ambulance chasing was definitely not my thing, but I remembered seeing some dailies from one of those nights and thinking that the process of making films was somehow truly magic. I saw something I had shot and it seemed bigger, better, and more dramatic than it had while looking through the camera. I would go to work and really get excited about just being there. I think everyone else thought I had lost it a little. When I got out of school, I did anything I could to make money. Since the Guild jobs were almost impossible to get as a group three, I started working on very low-budget non-union features as an assistant cameraman and worked on some biker movies for a film company called American International Pictures. Then a couple of even lower budget pictures for Crown International, sometimes as an assistant, sometimes as a cinematographer, but not a particularly good one. I remember one disturbing but valuable lesson from those days. God knows how it happened, but one of the Crown International pictures I had shot some scenes for was somehow shown in a theater as part of a double feature with Ryan’s Daughter. So, can you imagine watching your own work from a pretty bad low budget picture that you have kind of faked your way through shown in the same theater with the work of David Lean and Freddie Young from a picture that looks like Ryan's Daughter? It was mortifying. But right then and there I became determined to aspire to do meaningful pictures, and get away from the ones I was doing, as quickly as possible. But that was easier said than done. I wasn't getting that many offers. I had to take whatever work was offered and so I started working for someone who directed low budget commercials and who periodically made recruiting films for the military. The man who owned the company was also the director-cameraman. This was definitely a low-ball operation. We'd go out with a very small crew and shoot documentary-style, except it was more orchestrated. They were sort of pseudo-documentaries. We shot in 35mm. We hauled three cameras around, and I did everything. I was the first assistant and film loader and sometimes operator. Because these were military training and recruiting films, we would at times get into situations that were semi-dangerous and the director-cameraman would usually figure out a reason why he couldn't do the shot and ask me if I wanted to operate. I, of course, would be enthusiastic about being given a chance to operate and would do it. I would do the shots in the Army Ranger training camp where you climbed the ladder to the top of a 60-foot tower and did the shot leaning out over the edge, or go into the firing range and shoot back at the machine guns firing live ammunition down range, or lie on top of a 155mm cannon and get a shot of a shell coming out of the cannon and going into it's trajectory, which I found to my surprise is actually possible. Another time, we were with an airborne unit on their first jump. He didn't want to stand by the doorway to shoot their faces in close-up as they were jumping out for the first time because you had to wear a parachute and not be tied into the plane. All of this was pretty exciting but I wasn't doing it just for thrills, I was mostly excited about just being the operator. The only time I turned him down was for a flight in the backseat of an Air Force T-38 jet trainer. You had to go through ejection seat training and I had a funny feeling about it. So he had to go do it and the plane developed a problem and had to come in on an emergency landing. The rest of us were waiting for him by the fire trucks that were waiting there in case the plane crashed. Fortunately for him he made it back, as white as a sheet, and the rest of us laughed for a week on that one.
ICG: How did your career progress?
TOLL: I eventually was able to get a union job through Bob Anderson who had moved from Metromedia to a company called Tomorrow Entertainment. They were producing TV movies. I got hired as a second assistant cameraman working for a cinematographer named David Walsh (ASC). He was a very accomplished feature film cinematographer. Other than the job in the Bahamas, this was my first experience with a real "A" level union camera crew. Up until then, it had been hit and miss in terms of experienced people to learn from and I was mostly doing a type of on-the-job teaching myself and picking up stuff from people who weren't that much more experienced than I was, including some bad habits. Roger Sherman was the operator and Terry Wooley was the 1st assistant. These guys were very organized and business-like and really knew what they were doing, and not just in terms of the technical side of cinematography. They also had good organizational skills. That's when I began to get a sense of what it takes for a director of photography to be the manager of a crew and how to use a crew in an efficient way. I realized there was a lot I could learn from working with people who had more experience than I did.
ICG: About what year was that?
TOLL: That was around 1972 or '73. I decided to try and get a job working on a regular show with that type of crew, just to see how it all really worked. There was an assistant cameraman named David Dalzell. He had been the 1st AC on the job in the Bahamas and had really helped me on that job. His father was Archie Dalzell (ASC), a director of photography who was shooting a TV series called The Rookies. They were looking for a second AC and David asked if I wanted the job so I said okay. Archie was a very nice man, but he was a little conservative. At first, he didn't want to hire me because I had a beard and long hair and he said I looked like a hippie. He got over it though and I really liked him. He had been an operator for 20 years or more, working on movies during the 1930s and '40s. Some of them with Cecil B. DeMille and Raoul Walsh. He would tell me how he did various in-camera effects, or how they shot the cavalry charge in They Died With Their Boots On, stuff like that. I worked with him on The Rookies for a season. As a second AC, there actually wasn't that much for me to do on that set. There was a loading room at the studio. They loaded the mags and we didn't even change lenses very often. We left the zoom on the camera most of the time. So, I would watch the crew and ask Archie why he did certain things. He was happy to tell me everything I asked about. He was pretty funny and had these great rules of thumb for the job. He would say things like 'you want to move fast? stay in second gear all day,' or 'first you get your rehearsal, then you get your marks, then you go to work.' It was actually good advice, I later learned, while watching other cinematographers flounder a bit when trying to set up shots or light scenes without benefit of rehearsals.
ICG: What did you do after that job with Archie Dalzell?
TOLL: I got involved in commercials. I was somehow recommended as an assistant cameraman to a commercial director-cameraman named Melvin Sokolsky, who is (cinematographer) Bing Sokolsky's (ASC) father. That's when I first met Bing. He was 12 years old and working on the set with the grips. They would let him push the dolly so he could be close to the camera. He was a terrible dolly grip. But my friend (cinematographer) Chuck Minsky, who I met while working on the AIP jobs, was also an assistant with Melvin and he taught Bing how to load mags and we used him as our loader. I'm sure we would be in jail for doing it today. I also worked with Steve Horn, another incredibly successful director-cameraman, who is still making commercials today. Both Melvin and Steve had been successful still photographers who came out of fashion photography. Both of them were very innovative and creative. Melvin was shooting Vogue covers when he was 18 or 19 years old. He was the first cinematographer I ever heard about who used fluorescent lights on stands for motion picture photography. I think that was around 1973. He was also the first person I knew who used Chinese lanterns.
ICG: Do you remember how that happened?
TOLL: He loved natural light. I remember one day he was experimenting with trying to re-create a look that he had seen in a restaurant. He decided to light it with practical lights so he bought about 20 ordinary table lamps with all different types of shades and he would cram them with photo floods. I think one day his gaffer, Gary Holt, decided they could re-create that look easier with Chinese Lanterns so he started bringing in different types of Chinese lanterns. But I think Melvin actually preferred the real thing. That was Melvin, he was a great innovator. I'm not sure if he was the first one to use those techniques for lighting but he certainly arrived at the ideas on his own. It was all great experience for me. During that period with Melvin I also worked on a TV movie produced by Paramount. After that, Dick Barlow, who was head of their camera department, recommended me to Richard Kline (ASC), a feature cinematographer. I did one picture with Richard as his first assistant, and then Dick recommended me to John Alonzo (ASC), who was getting ready to shoot Black Sunday.
ICG: That must have been a great experience?
TOLL: Yes, it was. I went on to that picture as a B camera first assistant. John was a great cinematographer and a wonderful person. He was always bringing along new assistants and operators and helping them advance in their careers. I worked with Ray Villalobos (ASC), who was John's first assistant on A camera. On the next picture, John promoted Ray to camera operator, so I became the A camera first assistant. After that, Ray was ready to move up to cinematographer and he thought he had an offer to shoot a picture, so John told me that I was going to be his camera operator on his next picture. But then John got an offer to direct a feature called FM, so I told him that I thought he should wait to move me up and not use a first time operator on his first picture as a director. But, he said, 'No. I promised you that I would move you up, so we're going to move up on the picture together'... except he didn't tell the cameraman, a friend of his named David Myers, until about two days before we started shooting that this was my first picture as an operator. Or, that the first assistant cameraman, Horace Jordan was also moving up from being my second. John said that he didn't want him worrying about it. It all turned out okay, but I had one of those awkward first-day experiences as an operator. My first shot was a dolly move where the actor, Michael Brandon, comes running up some stairs and past the camera, which then does a 180 degree pan and dollies into a closeup of a logo on the door that the actor has just run through. We were shooting on a stage at Universal and a lot of people from the studio front office were on the stage watching us do the first shot of the movie. John wanted to impress them with how efficient we were, so he decided to do this first shot without a rehearsal. That wasn't a very good idea. It was a hard shot even for an experienced operator, but John told me to just work it out with the stand-in and be ready to shoot. We rehearsed at what I thought would be the speed the actor would take. But of course when we did it with Michael, who was all fired up, he ran up the steps about three times faster. I had a really good dolly grip, and he did exactly what he was supposed to do. He accelerated like the camera was rocket propelled, and I almost fell off the dolly. The only thing that kept me on was that I was holding onto the wheels of the gear head so tightly. I just started turning the wheels mechanically. My head came about a foot away from the eyepiece. I was watching the actor with both eyes, not through the camera. After we finished, John asked, 'how's that?' I said, 'great.' What was I going to say with 30 people from the studio front office standing there? Sorry, I couldn't see through the camera? Besides, I assumed we would do another take and I'd get another chance, but John said 'Good, print, next.'
ICG: How did it work out?
TOLL: Someone else had a problem. I think it was the sound guy, so we did another take, but as it turned out the first one was fine, don't ask me how. I was John's operator for a couple years. The next feature was Norma Rae. Then we did Tom Horn, one of Steve McQueen's last pictures, a Western. John let me design and shoot the opening title scene for that film. It didn't have a good beginning so the producer asked John for an idea. John told me if I could come up with an idea that I could shoot it. Chuck Minsky was one of the camera assistants and he and I wrote this very simple opening scene. It was Steve by himself with his horse at sunrise sitting by a fire. We shot it with three cameras at sunrise on the last day of the schedule and it was really good. We were very proud of it. John was great about stuff like that.
ICG: What did you learn from John?
TOLL: John really knew how to use the camera to tell a story. That was really his forte. He was great with directors and the cast and he was very flexible in the ways he interacted with everybody in every department. Basically, it was a real example of what the term director of photography actually means. Being a cinematographer requires more than being able to light a scene or compose a shot. In addition to working with a director to develop visual ideas and a visual style for a film, you also have to manage all of the technical activity on the set that is taking place in order to create the image. There is high level of organizational skill required. Unless you know how to manage your time, manage your crew, and manage all of that technical activity, you never actually get time to do creative work because you get bogged down in time-consuming, inefficient expenditures of time and energy. There is not an infinite amount of time, so the more efficient you are, the more able you are to do good work.
ICG: Who else did you work with during that period?
TOLL: I worked with Ray Villalobos on Urban Cowboy, and then I went back and did Back Roads, Zorro the Gay Blade, which was a fairly funny picture, and then later on, Scarface, all with John. I had met Allen Daviau earlier, but I didn't really know him until I got a chance to operate for him on a very good TV movie called The Boy Who Drank Too Much. Because of that picture, Allen got the opportunity to do E.T. He asked me if I wanted to work on the second unit of E.T. as a camera operator. John Stevens was the cinematographer, and Allen recommended me to him. We did that for a couple of weeks and then Steven Spielberg decided he wanted to do a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of E.T. He wanted to shoot it in 35mm. Kathleen Kennedy, who was Steven's producer, asked Allen to recommend somebody, and he said, 'maybe John Toll will do it.' It sounded pretty good, so I began shooting behind-the-scenes film with a 35mm Panaflex. I was basically following Steven around and watching him direct the movie. There was just an assistant cameraman, a soundman and myself. I was shooting huge amount of film on this. This was about the same time that the Raiders of the Lost Ark came out with an hour-long network special documentary about the making of that film. I decided I wanted to do the same thing with the film I was shooting. I asked Kathy (Kennedy) if I could cut a sample reel to show her what I wanted to do. She said okay, and I got an editor, who was actually Chuck Minsky's wife Amanda Hemming, to come in and cut it with me. We cut a 20-minute segment. Kathy thought it was pretty good, and she told me to show it to Steven. Naturally, we had footage of E.T. included in the footage-not the mechanical model - but E.T. presented as a living, breathing creature. Steven looked at it on the KEM and then he said, 'This is really good'-and I'm thinking, 'Good, he likes it, that's terrific.' - and then he said, 'but I can't use it'. He didn't want an image of E.T. on television. He thought it would detract from the picture. I was depressed, but if you think about it, he was probably right. At the time, he didn't want E.T. seen in any other context other than as the character in the picture. That wasn't good news for me, but in the process of shooting that behind-the-scenes film, I acquired an incredible amount of experience. Coincidentally, John Bailey's wife, Carol Littleton was the editor of E.T. She was always very supportive and let us use her editing room and was very encouraging. It was great group and a good opportunity to do something different.
ICG: Where did that experience lead you?
TOLL: I sort of floated around for a while working with different people as a camera operator and I also started shooting some lower end commercials.
ICG: Did you set goals for yourself becoming a cinematographer?
TOLL: Yes and no. I knew I was going to be a cinematographer, in fact, I actually was a cinematographer, but I had no desperate overriding urge to do a picture as a director of photography at any cost. I had sort of been through that earlier and now I decided I would wait for a project that I could get really excited about before moving up officially to Director of Photography. I started to get offers to shoot lower budget pictures or television shows but I didn't like the scripts or ideas and so I just kept doing what I was doing. I was actually having a great time. I was working with very good people on good projects and enjoying what I was doing. I decided to wait for the right opportunity.
ICG: Which other cinematographers did you work with?
TOLL: After John (Alonzo), I worked with David Myers on some TV movies and on a feature directed by singer-musician Neil Young. It was a lot of fun. And then some TV movies with Tak Fujimoto (ASC), and then two features with Allen Daviau. I was his operator on The Twilight Zone: The Movie, on the segments he shot for George Miller and Steven Spielberg, and then The Falcon and the Snowman with director John Schlessinger. I really enjoyed working with all of these various people.Allen and I in particular had a great time together. He was really wonderful to work with. He has an incredible knowledge of all aspects of photography, does impeccable work, and he is very collaborative. During this time I also met Jordan Cronenweth (ASC) while he was shooting a commercial for Melvin Sokolsky, which I worked on as an operator. I started operating with Jordan on commercials, and then we did two features together. Working with him was great. I sincerely think Jordan was one of our all time most talented cinematographers. He had great taste, both in composition and lighting. In trying to describe his work I can only think of the word elegant. He would encourage input and was always very excited about his work. It was never about the pure aesthetics of the images with him. He always spoke about how the images advanced the story. His enthusiasm was infectious.
ICG: Was that after or before Blade Runner?
TOLL: I met Jordan right after he shot Blade Runner. I went to a screening of Blade Runner with him when he saw it from the beginning to end for the first time — other than in timing sessions. It was unbelievable. It was about two o'clock in the afternoon, and there were about 20 people in the theater. Bing Sokolsky and Ernie Holzman were there. We all did commercials together. I was Jordan's operator and Bing and Ernie were his assistants. We sat in the theater with Jordan watching Blade Runner. He was so enthusiastic it was like being with a kid at Christmas. It wasn't his work that excited him. He was almost detached from his specific work. He was actually watching the photography as part of a total story. He got very vocal as we were watching the film. He started whooping and hollering and it was genuine. You couldn't blame him, it was absolutely stunning. No one else in the theater seemed to mind.
ICG: What features did you work on with him?
TOLL: I worked with him on Peggy Sue Got Married, for which he won the first ASC Award, and also Just Between Friends. I also worked with Conrad Hall (ASC) as an operator on Black Widow and Robbie Greenberg (ASC) on Sweet Dreams and The Milagro Beanfield War. They are all great cameramen.
ICG: How did you start shooting commercials?
TOLL: In 1986 and ’ 87. I was working with Jordan (Cronenweth) and Robbie (Greenberg), on a lot of commercials in between features. Robbie recommended me as a cinematographer to a director, Robert Black, who was doing a big Caribbean cruise ship commercial in the Caribbean. It was much bigger and better than any of the smaller jobs I had previously shot. So, I went off to the Caribbean for about a month. Before I had left I had met a woman who was just starting to work as a cinematographer’s agent, and she was looking for clients. Her name is Judy Marks. I told her that if she could get me some work she could be my agent. When I got back from the Caribbean she had some good commercials lined up so I just kept shooting and never went back to being a camera operator. Judy has been my agent ever since. It was interesting work. I spent about three years mainly shooting commercials.
ICG: How did you get a start shooting narrative films?
TOLL: I met a commercial director, Rob Lieberman, who had also directed a feature and a lot of television movies of the week and pilots. He was going to direct the pilot for The Young Riders. He wanted to shoot the pilot in a style that was sort of suggestive of a commercial style at thetime-a lot of available light and a rough, realistic feeling with beautiful photography. It was a very difficult 17-day shoot in Sonora, California during the winter. It rained almost every day. But, it worked out really well and I got an ASC (Outstanding Achievement Award) nomination in 1989 for my first long form film. That was a great experience. The day the program aired, I was in Tennessee shooting second unit for Haskell Wexler (ASC) on Blaze. Haskell won the ASC Award for that film. After that, I did one more TV movie and then went back to shooting commercials.
ICG: How did that affect your career? Did your phone start ringing?
TOLL: Yes, but still not for the type of pictures I could really get excited about. I just kept waiting for something better to come along. I was getting advice from a lot of people that I was making a mistake.
ICG: How did you get your first feature?
TOLL: My first feature film was Wind with Carroll Ballard in 1991. I was lucky enough to get a chance to work on some commercials with him. He told me that he was going to direct a movie about 12-meter Americas Cup yacht racing that was going to be shot in open sailboats on rough seas. It was going to be shot in Australia and he had an Australian cinematographer lined up. I was listening and thinking, boy, this film is really going to be a nightmare for whoever does it. I had some limited experience on small boats and had been unusually prone to seasickness. I thought the idea of doing a picture like that would be pure torture. Of course, I told Carroll what a great idea I thought it was and how much fun it would be. I didn't want to sound negative about this great experience he was anticipating.
ICG: How did you end up shooting Wind?
TOLL: After we finished shooting the commercials, we flew from Boston back to Los Angeles together. We spent the whole time talking about work. I loved Carroll's work and asked him about The Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf and he asked me about the documentaries I had shot and The Young Riders. When the plane landed, Carroll said he would call me if the cinematographer he had in mind didn't do the film. I said okay, thinking I would never hear from him. The picture got delayed, and whoever was supposed to shoot it had to bail out. Carroll had the producer, Tom Luddy, call and ask me if I wanted to do the picture. It was New Year's Eve, and he caught me completely by surprise. I hadn't talked to Carroll for months. He said, 'Carroll wants to know if you want to go to Australia and do Wind' I said, 'Sure, I'd love to,' but I was thinking, 'what am I doing'? But given the opportunity, there was no way I was not going to try and do that picture. Carroll was a director I had dreamed of working with and here was an opportunity to work with him on a good picture. So, about two weeks later I was headed to Australia, but I had no idea how we were actually going to be able to shoot on the boats. I remember thinking there's got to be some way to put rigs on the boat. I was going to be scientific about it and come up with some brilliant plan, but Carroll is a sailor and he really knows boats. He had the absolute right plan, which was to put the camera on your shoulder and shoot. That was all we could do, because there was no room for anything else. The boat was designed for racing. There were no modifications we could do to the boats that would make it easier for us to shoot without changing the performance of the boat. If the boat couldn't perform to it's maximum then there was nothing to shoot because we couldn't fake it. We tried doing that when we had days with no wind and it didn't work. It just looked boring.
ICG: What was the most difficult part of the shoot?
TOLL: Actually trying to figure out ways to fit the film crew on to the boat and still be able to sail in rough conditions. And do it in a way where we could shoot sync sound dialogue scenes with actors without anyone getting injured. Fortunately, we were able to get hold of two of the new 35mm Aaton cameras, and that helped enormously. We tried various techniques. There were some parts of the boat that were great angles to shoot from, but doing so was very difficult because everything was handheld. At the very end of the stern was a very small, flat, slippery surface that was impossible to be on without being tied down. There was nothing else out there to keep you from falling off and no way to install anything without getting in the way of the lines that controlled the sails. I tried wearing a parachute harness and having the grip, David Nichols tie me to the deck. We used suction cups on the deck to ratchet the straps from the harness down. It worked but it was tough. I could feel the straps kind of compressing my spine when the boat got in a weird angle. It would get into a 45 degree lean when going upwind. Then we came up with this pretty cool idea of building an aluminum sawhorse that I could sit on and hold the camera so I didn't have to be strapped to the deck. There was a bar that went across my lap. I could sit on the sawhorse and press my knees up against the bar and sort of keep myself on the boat and still be free to hold the camera and operate. This worked great. The Australian sailors immediately nicknamed the sawhorse 'Trigger,' and put reins on it. It was still tough for everyone though. One day we had some great windy weather and we were shooting an unusually difficult maneuver. We were out on the stern and Carroll was behind me holding on to Trigger from behind. He was our most experienced sailor and had the least amount of difficulty moving around the boat, so no one really worried about him very much. It was really wet and slippery. All of a sudden I heard a clunk, clunk right behind me. I asked, 'Carroll, are you okay?' When I turned around, he was gone. Fortunately we had chase boats that followed us around for safety and they saw him go and picked him up.
ICG: Did you actually get seasick?
TOLL: I got sick a couple times, but it wasn't too bad. I was really determined to do this picture and it was great fun and such an adrenaline rush that I was okay most of the time.
ICG: How big was the cast and crew?
TOLL: On the boats, it was just Carroll, me, a soundman, an A.D., a grip and two assistant cameramen. We had the other departments follow us around on other boats. The sailors were terrific. Almost every day one of them would grab me and prevent me from falling off the boat, or getting hit by the boom, or getting into a situation where I was going to get seriously injured. Everybody looked out for one another. That's the only reason it worked. Sometimes I had to get from one end of the boat to the other, and the water would be so rough that I would have trouble. Sometimes, the sailors literally picked me up and passed me from one to the other. They were happy to get the film made and they did anything possible to help.
ICG: Other than coping with nature, what was it like shooting your first feature? Did you see it as a turning point in your career?
TOLL: It was a fantastic filmmaking experience - it just doesn't get much better than that. There was actually quite a lot of other work in the picture that wasn't on the boats and that was equally interesting, but the racing was a very special experience.
ICG: It was a daring movie.
TOLL: Yes it was, and working with Carroll was great. It was a unique experience where you have to become part of an event in order to photograph it. You can't really re-create it or fake it. You have to just do it. There was no way to control it. No way to modify anything. We just had to figure out a way to make ourselves part of it.
ICG: What did you do after you finished shooting Wind?
TOLL: When we finished Wind, I decided that I was not going to take any long-term employment that would prevent me from being around for the timing of the answer print. So, I turned down some other pictures that would have conflicted with that and did commercials. I felt I needed to be there to time the answer print. Half of our job is making sure that what happens in the laboratory when the answer print is made is what you want to see on the screen. Because of the chaotic nature of making of that picture, the postproduction schedule got pushed. The picture was originally going to be released in March of 1992 to coincide with the America's Cup yacht race. Eventually, it got released in October but unfortunately was not a big commercial success. However, I have met people all over the world who know that picture and love it, most of them are sailors — which is the greatest compliment of all to that film.
ICG: How did you get your next feature?
TOLL: I was called for an interview for Legends of the Fall. The producer, Pat Crowley, was the assistant director on three of the pictures I did as a camera operator (Falcon and the Snowman, Sweet Dreams and Just Between Friends). Camera operators and assistant directors work pretty closely together, so we knew each other well. Pat had seen Wind and felt comfortable that I could do a picture like Legends. (Director) Ed Zwick was talking to a lot of different cinematographers. Pat introduced us. I was enthusiastic about the film because I knew the story of Legends of the Fall from the Jim Harrison novella. It is a great book and was a favorite of mine at the time. I took a book of still photographs, The Vanishing Breed, which was filled with images of contemporary cowboys beautifully shot in a very naturalistic style by a man named William Albert Allard. I thought this photographic style would be perfect for that story. We talked about the film, and he told me what he wanted to do.
ICG: It was a big, epic film, and you only had one feature credit. Was anyone, including you, concerned about that?
TOLL: Ed was, because he called Rob Lieberman three times just to be sure he wasn't making a mistake by hiring me. He never knew that I knew that he did it but I didn't care. I had a lot of experience working on different types of features as a camera operator with some great cinematographers. I knew how to put a crew together and how to manage a set. I had shot a lot of commercials and had done the Young Riders and Wind in difficult circumstances. I felt ready, though it sometimes seemed overwhelming in the beginning... the idea of the night battle and the logistics were really tough and we had a tight schedule. Brad Pitt had a cutoff date, so everything had to go like clockwork. The first week we were in Vancouver, Canada, and the second week we were in Jamaica, and the third week we were back in Calgary, Canada. I took a gaffer, Jim Plannette, and a key grip, Bobby Huber, who were both very experienced with me.
ICG: Did you guys know you were making what turned out to be a classic film or did that come later?
TOLL: I'm reluctant to think about what a great film you might be making while you are actually making it, if it comes it comes later. You just keep going, trying to do your best work and hope that it turns out great. I'm superstitious about thinking that I'm working on something extremely important. I just want to do work that feels right and have a good time doing it. I also want to work with people who are enthusiastic about being there and who work hard and do good work.
ICG: You followed that with another epic film.
TOLL: The whole time we were shooting Legends I was thinking, this is pretty hard, but it's looking good. We're working 16, 17 hours a day with no sleep. When it was finally over, I told myself, this seemed to work out all right, but I don't want to do it again very soon. About three months later, Mel Gibson was looking for an actress for Braveheart, and he asked Ed if he could see some film of the actors in Legends of the Fall. Mel looked at about a half-hour of the film on the KEM in our editing room. He was looking at actors but in the process he got to see about a half hour of Legends of the Fall nine months before it was released. I got a call to go meet Mel. I asked what it was about, and they said he's directing some movie in Scotland. This is before I got the script. I thought that sounded quaint-just this little movie in Scotland that he's also directing. I thought it couldn't be very big if he was directing and acting in it. They sent me the script about two hours before I met Mel. Legends of the Fall had some limited battle scenes, so I understood how complicated they could get. I was reading the script and thinking, they can't be serious? So, I went to meet Mel. It was just he and I. That surprised me. We went to dinner. Mel was very enthusiastic. He had great ideas for the film, he knew exactly what he wanted it to be and how he wanted it to feel. I was thinking that what he said was great and it all made a lot of sense to me based on what I'd read, but quite honestly, I was also thinking that if I was his producer, I would want him talking to someone like Dean Semler (ASC), Vilmos Zsigmond (ASC), Vittorio Storaro (ASC), or any one of 10 cinematographers who had shot about 20 big movies, rather than a cinematographer who would be working on his third picture with a director who was working on his second film as a director and who would also be the lead actor. At the same time, I was thinking this sounds great and what an opportunity. I didn't hear anything for about three weeks, so I thought Mel came to his senses and was talking with other cinematographers. I think what really happened was that the studio and everybody around him was asking, why don't you just talk to some other guys? But, I think he had decided he was going to hire me to do the picture. I got another call from him. We talked on the phone a bit and arranged another meeting. One of his producers was at that meeting. He asked me what would I want to do in terms of the crew? I said I'd have to take a gaffer and a grip with me based on my experience with Legends of the Fall. He said they didn't think it was possible. I told him I didn't think I'd be able to do the picture then because I knew what I needed. It was a fairly uncomfortable situation. After that I figured there was no way possible I was going to get the job. But, I got a call, and they said, 'okay, you can have what you want'. So, I started getting ready to go to Scotland.
ICG: Did you feel totally prepared for the scope of the film?
TOLL: It was funny, because when I started Wind, I thought, this is really going to be hard because of the scope. Then, I got the call to do Legends, which was much larger in scope than Wind, and I felt the same way -this is a pretty big film for me.
There's always a certain amount of anxiety and nervousness going in to a film. Braveheart just seemed impossible. I got to England for prep and met the assistant director, David Tomblin, who was very experienced. He has done pictures like Gandhi and Barry Lyndon. I thought here's a guy who really knows what he's doing, but even he was shaking his head a little. That made me feel better. While we were shooting, David celebrated his fiftieth year in the business, but you could never tell by looking at him. A big part of the reason the picture worked so well was that Mel was so passionate about the project. He worked as hard as anybody I've ever worked with, and the fact that he was directing and acting in the movie was a pretty big job. He approached it with every ounce of energy he could muster up. Everybody respected him and did everything they could to help him make his picture.
ICG: Do you recall any other impressions?
TOLL: I've always been interested in history and political philosophy, and the idea of shooting a film set in the Middle Ages was fascinating. Mel wanted the visual style, particularly the battles, to be as realistic as possible. Despite the scope of Braveheart, the theme was simplicity both in concept and execution.
ICG: It's one of those stories that really has a magical quality. Did that also inspire the cast and crew?
TOLL: I think so. I try not to over-use the cliché, but it's really important to be in the moment when you're making a picture. You get out of the car in the morning and try your best to pull everything you can out of each scene that day. I've learned that the film will be as good as the energy you put into every single aspect of it. Photographically, it starts with what you see through the lens and just permeates through the crew and everything else. You sort of live for the dailies, and if they are really happening, it gives you more of a reason to keep coming back with the right attitude. And the right attitude effects everything on a picture. In the case of Braveheart it started with Mel. He never let up the whole way, so for most of us, we couldn't either.
ICG: Did you receive the Oscar for Legends before you shot Braveheart?
TOLL: No. We finished shooting Legends in October '93, and it wasn't released until December of '94. We left for England on Braveheart in April '94. So Legends wasn't released until Braveheart was wrapped for about two months. I got the award for Legends in March and Braveheart came out in May. It was a pretty interesting experience. I'm sure anyone who has been nominated will tell you that the process just takes over your life for that period of time. If you win, it's extended for a couple months. Just about the time that glow from Legends wore off Braveheart was released and then six months later I got nominated again and won again. It was sort of wild, because two years prior to that I had been trying to get a feature. It was such a change of experience.
ICG: I don't have to tell you how that you were only the second cinematographer to earn consecutive Oscars. The only other one was Leon Shamroy, and he did it at the backend of his career. You did it on your second and third films. What was the reaction? Did you start seeing a lot scripts?
TOLL: Yes. People who had been asking, John who, suddenly knew I was alive. But you've got to keep your sense of humor in this business in order to have some perspective. I think you're lost without that. I decided it was a good idea to try to work on those pictures that I thought I would like to go see. That was my criteria. If I got an opportunity to do more than one picture, the rule was to pick the story that I wanted to tell and be a film that I would pay money to go see. The second rule was to try to work with people who I felt good about working with.
ICG: How difficult is it keeping those rules?
TOLL: Hard, I broke them with my next film. I got a script from Francis Coppola called Jack. It was kind of a cute story with Robin Williams. I had worked with Francis on Peggy Sue Got Married. I was the camera operator with Jordan, and it was a good experience. Francis is obviously somebody who cinematographers love working with because he's very creative, a great filmmaker, and a nice man. However, it wasn't my kind of script, but I thought maybe there's something there I'm not seeing. I actually agreed to do Jack as soon as I got back from Braveheart, before Legends or Braveheart had been released. I did another picture with Francis immediately after Jack, The Rainmaker, that I thought was more interesting.
ICG: The next year you shot The Thin Red Line. What's the back-story?
TOLL: I had a call from the producer, Grant Hill, while we were still working on The Rainmaker. Grant had been the Australian production manager for Wind. Terry Malick was talking to a lot of cinematographers. Grant arranged for us to talk on the phone. I knew the James Jones novel of The Thin Red Line and I had always thought it would make an incredible film. It was a unique exploration of the emotions of these soldiers who are experiencing combat for the first time. Terry and I spent a lot of time talking on the phone, about the book and what we thought could be visually interesting for this film. We spoke in different phone calls for several hours before we met. I eventually went to see him in Austin. Terry, although completely different in personality, reminded me of Carroll Ballard in his approach to the work and we got along in pretty much the same way that Carroll and I got along.
ICG: What else do you remember about working with Malick?
TOLL: When we first met, I showed him some stills I had shot on The Rainmaker to illustrate some ideas for composition. Rainmaker had been shot in the 2.35:1 format, and we had used still cameras that shot in that format when location scouting and then used the stills for rough storyboards. So looking at these photographs in that format allowed Terry to see what I was talking about in terms of ideas for composition. Rather than merely listening to a description of an idea, he could see it. Since he is such a visual director this made it much easier for us to talk about our ideas, and this system of visual reference was actually what we used most effectively all the way through the picture.
As with any director, the longer we worked together the more we had a sense of each others visual tastes and preferences. This allowed us to collaborate to our best advantage. It also meant that while we were shooting the picture we developed more and more of a sense of mutual trust. This allowed us to be very flexible in our approach to shooting individual sequences, and at times we improvised quite a bit. Sometimes I felt the improvisational approach worked great. Other times it would miss a bit. But that's Terry's style, and what you have to do as a cinematographer is realize you are there to help the director make their film in the way they would like to make it. If you don't agree with their style, then you probably shouldn't be doing the film. Overall, I think it's a fantastic film, and it is one of my favorite filmmaking experiences.
ICG: Which is more important for you, the script or the director?
TOLL: I think the director is equally, or more important, than the script, but it's a real balancing act. I personally would rather not put the energy into trying to tell a story that I'm not particularly interested in seeing. And while good directors are able to bring much more out of a script than you can read into it, even the best directors have a hard time making good films out of poor scripts or ideas.
ICG: Do you still shoot commercials?
TOLL: I got away from them for a while, but I've been shooting some lately. I think commercials are a great way to stay tuned up and remove yourself from the routine of just shooting features. It's refreshing and you have to think in a different way.
ICG: Tell us about Vanilla Sky?
TOLL: I finished shooting Vanilla Sky in March. It was directed by Cameron Crowe and stars Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz. When Cameron and I first spoke he described it as a romantic thriller. I enjoyed working with Cameron on Almost Famous, and this is a different kind of off-beat picture. I don't want to keep repeating the same themes. I want to do different kinds of stories.
ICG: Is Vanilla Sky a reality-based story or more of a fantasy?
TOLL: It's a reality-based picture that moves in and out of dream-like states of mind. Tom also produced it and Cameron wrote it. It's based on a film called Open Your Eyes. One of the interesting things is you're never quite sure which state of existence you're in, because the main character doesn't quite understand which level of existence he is in.
ICG: How do you differentiate these different states of mind?
TOLL: I didn't do anything that was overtly obvious, because the story revolves around the main character not knowing whether he's in a state of reality, a dream or a nightmare, so we want it to feel a little ambiguous. As the picture progresses, it takes on a harsher visual quality, but not for the purpose of leading the audience to discovering whether its a dream or reality. I think it's going to be an interesting picture. We want the audience to make discoveries as Tom's character does, rather than ahead of him.
ICG: Is Tom Cruise's character on the screen most of the movie?
TOLL: He's in almost every scene.
ICG: Isn't that really hard on an actor?
TOLL: Yes, but Tom Cruise is incredibly well prepared and easy to work with. This encouraged me to do good work and to do it as efficiently as possible. He's the kind of actor who will give you whatever is required for you to do your job. This helped me to do my work and I tried to do it in a way that could help him do his work.
ICG: Was it produced in a wide-screen format?
TOLL: No, it's 1.85:1. We didn't want it larger in scope or grander than it needs to be. It's an intimate story and a psychological study. Both Cameron and I agreed that a wide screen format for this story somehow felt intrusive.
ICG: Do you have a regular crew?
TOLL: Yes, as much as possible. It's important for a director of photography to have regular crews. It's just like any other business. If you completely replace your
whole staff every six months, you can't expect to be efficient. It's in everybody's interest, especially the producer, to have that type of a continuity of crew.
ICG: What's your advice for film students or recent graduates who want to become cinematographers? Should they try to come up through the crew system or try to find a way to shoot or do both?
TOLL: It's really up to the individual. I benefited from working my way up through the ranks of the crew system. I learned a great deal by working with other more experienced cinematographers as a part of their crew, both creatively in terms of aesthetics and photography, but also in terms of actually working with a director and managing a crew. By the time I got to do my own pictures most of my energy was able to be spent creating the image because all the organizational skills and day-to-day stuff was second nature. I had loads of experience working with directors and managing a crew from my time spent working as an operator and as a result I had more time and energy to put into storytelling and creating strong imagery. Because of that, I felt I was a much better Director of Photography when I eventually had the opportunity to do feature films. I can't imagine walking into Wind, Legends of the Fall, and Braveheart with a limited amount of experience. Maybe some people could pull it off, but I couldn't have. But it's a little different today for new cinematographers. There are more film schools and different ways, like music videos, to get experience. So it's an individual decision. The only advice I give aspiring cinematographers is to tell them to start telling stories with images as often as they can by any means available to them. I also tell them to try join the Guild as early as possible. Camera crewmembers have common interests that can only be addressed collectively by the Guild. We really do need a strong national Guild with good leadership. It is in all of our interests.
ICG: How about young filmmakers who are directors? What's your advice for picking the right cinematographers and getting the most from them?
TOLL: That's a hard question really, because every director is different. It seems like a lot of younger directors are more interested in creating images than any other aspect of filmmaking. I have a feeling that many film schools are putting too much emphasis on imagery at the expense of storytelling. I would encourage young directors to look for cinematographers who they can trust to help them create images, so the director has more time to think about other aspects of their job.
ICG: I have to ask the obligatory question about how is technology going to change filmmaking?
TOLL: Hopefully for the better. I think the biggest immediate issue is how digital manipulation of images effects individual artists in terms of being able to maintain the integrity of their work. It seems like filmakers have always had to fight for their work to keep it from being changed by someone for one reason or other. Now we have powerful new technology which makes it possible to manipulate images in ways that have never been possible before. This can be a good thing, or it can be a really bad thing. It's almost like nuclear energy. When intelligent people handle it wisely, it can be a good thing; and when it isn't, it can be the end of the world, as we know it. It's great having tools available that allow us to create wonderful and interesting images, but the same technology also makes it easier for other people to change your images. It's obvious how this could effect cinematographers who are the originators of images. But, we aren't the only ones. I heard that someone has illegally re-edited George Lucas's The Phantom Menace and is distributing it on the Internet. If that's true, it is ironic that one of the strongest proponents of digital technology has become a victim of that technology. I think we all have to be incredibly aware of how our work can be abused. I'll give you a personal example. I heard there was a theatrical trailer for Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a film I have shot. I was at a film lab that makes trailers. I asked the color timer at the lab if he knew anything about it? He showed me a print in the screening room. There was no resolution and the colors were all bright orange. I asked what happened? He said they had needed to put a trailer together really quickly, so the studio had digitized the negative so they could edit it and do all the opticals digitally because it was faster. The telecine colorist apparently decided it would look better in orange. None of them, neither the lab timer nor the studio, actually liked the result, but they had sent it out anyway. I gave everyone a bad time and it was done over again, but the damage had been done.
ICG: The film critics now seemed enchanted by digital actors.
TOLL: There's a picture coming out next year called Simone. It's a story about a producer who's doing a film and an actress quits the film. He decides to replace her with a digitally created actress. It's an interesting film, shot by Ed Lachman (ASC).
ICG: Does it bother you when you pick up a copy of The New York Times and you see a picture of a director on page one with a digital camera on his shoulder, and the story says it's a more democratic way of making films because they don't need "technical people" to light. Does that concern you or make you angry?
TOLL: I used to get annoyed, but now I think it's kind of a joke they're foisting on people who read newspapers. I can't really figure out if the guys who write those articles actually believe them. It has always been possible and relatively easy for anyone to create mediocre images with film technology or any technology available. But does the fact that it's possible or easy have any real value in terms of creating images that anyone might respond to? I can buy paint and a canvas and try to create a painting, but I think it will take some time for me to develop the skill to create something that anyone else might respond to or even bother to look at. I think as long as people are interested in going to theaters to look at large screen images, or for that matter looking at any moving images designed to get their attention, there is always going to be a place for cinematographers who actually know how to create those images in interesting and stimulating ways. If we ever get to a point where the audience can't tell the difference or they don't care then it's all over anyway. Actually, I think quiet the opposite seems to be happening now. The quality of moving images is becoming more important than ever because we are being bombarded by moving images everywhere in films, television, and advertising. It's inevitable that powerful and arresting imagery will become even more valuable to those economic interests competing for audiences. It seems pretty obvious, I would think, that the most creative and powerful images will have more value than the more mediocre, easily achieved variety. And the people who will create those images will be, or work with, cinematographers. Whether the technology used to create the images is film or digital will, I hope, be determined by the quality of the images themselves, not by some predetermined personal agenda. Quite honestly, I don't think film is dead. There are just people out there trying to murder it.
ICG: For what reason? What's their motivation?
TOLL: I don't know but you hear all kinds of opinions. Different people have different agendas. There are some companies that have invested heavily in digital technology. Obviously, the sooner everyone is convinced that digital technology is superior to film technology the better it will be for them. There are also companies that mostly produce films that are heavily dependent on digital technology for visual effects. It seems logical that they would want to encourage a shift to digital origination and projection that is more compatible and easier for them. It also seems like a change to digital projection and distribution of theatrical product might have a significant effect on the studio system. Film projection technology requires a pretty extensive distribution system that is heavily dependent on a certain type of organization. This is what studio distribution departments provide. Digital distribution to theaters will make this system antiquated and possibly open up opportunities to by-pass the studios, something independent producers have been trying to do for years. Digital projection technology is likely to open up those types of opportunities. So, a company trying to build their own distribution system would logically encourage the introduction of a technology that would make them independent of existing systems. I once heard someone repeat a great quote from Malcolm Forbes. The answer to 99 percent of all questions is money.
ICG: Do you think "a digital revolution" is inevitable?
TOLL: I think it is inevitable that we will go through a constant stage of evolving technology that will give us powerful new tools and the ability to create interesting images. I just keep hoping we can do it intelligently and with a goal of achieving the highest standard of quality for those images. A couple of years ago we were hearing that digital projection for theatrical pictures is almost as good as film projection, though in my opinion no one ever showed us anything that was quite as good. Now there are articles quoting people who say digital projection looks better than film projection. I haven't seen any examples of that and I don't know anyone who I trust who has seen it either. Do you? I used to get irritated by stuff like that but that's pointless because but there is so much hype involved in this issue that it is really difficult to find impartial or objective discussion about it. Right now, if we are only talking about image quality, in my opinion, there is no question about the superiority of film technology for both image origination and projection of large screen images at the current level of technology. This year we will all be very fortunate to have the opportunity to see a great example of the value of film technology. The new version of Apocalypse Now, photographed by Vittorio Storaro in 1976, will be released and a limited number of 35mm prints will be made with Technicolor's Dye Transfer process. For anyone looking for an example of high quality large screen projected images, I can't think of a better example than the new release of this film, especially with prints made in the dye transfer process. Can you imagine a picture like Apocalypse Now projected on a big screen with dye- transfer prints? I believe there is no other technology now existing or proposed in the near future that will come close to the power of those images projected in that way. This film was shot 25 years ago, before digital film technology existed, and it will look exactly like it did, or in the case of the dye transfer prints, maybe even better. Film is the best archival medium that exists, much more stable than any existing digital technology. Dye Transfer prints, if preserved in the right way, could last for an almost indefinite length of time because the images are created by physically applying dye to an acetate base, rather than through photochemical procedures.
ICG: I have seen a dye-transfer print of The Thin Red Line, and it was stunning, It amplified the whole experience.
TOLL: Beyond the hype, there is a certain level of truth that you can see with your own eyes that is irrefutable. I guess we'll have to trust in that.
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The following are audio excerpts from the interview with John Toll conducted by Robert Fisher.
Clip 1 (174k)
John Toll talks about joining the Guild and how the Guild has changed for the better. This clip is approximately 3.5 minutes long.
Clip 2 (112k)
John Toll talks about getting his early start in films. This clip is approximately 2 minutes long.
Clip 3 (416k)
John Toll talks about following up "Legends of the Fall" with a "small, quaint Scottish film" that turned out to be "Braveheart." This clip is approximately 8.5 minutes long.
Clip 4 (109k)
John Toll talks about what it is like to win back-to-back Oscars. This clip is approximately 3 minutes long.
Live Chat / Transcripts
August 11, 2001
Moderator (Aug 11, 2001 1:00:52 PM)
Welcome! John Toll has joined us in our LA office this morning and is anxious to field your questions, so ask away.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:01:35 PM)
Hello. Thank you all for tuning in.
Jon (Aug 11, 2001 1:01:47 PM)
Mr. Toll, as you have advanced your career you have no doubt seen many cameramen and women work hard for years to become D.P.'s. In your opinion, what qualities set D.P.'s and potential D.P.'s apart from the rest?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:02:39 PM)
Talent and the ability to make good choices.
Jon (Aug 11, 2001 1:03:17 PM)
Mr. Toll, movies have captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of people for well over a century. In your opinion, why do moving photographic images, or for that matter photographs have such a profound impact on our imaginations and emotions?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:05:27 PM)
I've never really thought about it, but I would imagine it is because it is the best way for us to reproduce what is in our imaginations.
JaCro (Aug 11, 2001 1:05:39 PM)
I have a question for Mr. Toll; what is your feeling on the current state of runaway productions; do you feel this is only a short term issue, or will it become a long lasting problem?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:07:28 PM)
I think that the issue of runaway productions is a result of film producers finding economic incentives to produce films in other countries. I think the problem will last until they find economic incentives to make films here.
Rabbit (Aug 11, 2001 1:08:06 PM)
Braveheart was one of the most beautifully shot movies I've ever seen. What were some of your biggest obstacles shooting it?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:10:43 PM)
Braveheart was a very unique and challenging filmmaking experience. The scope of the film was probably the greatest challenge. The size of the battles and the logistics of the locations were very challenging. When we were shooting in Scotland, the weather was a constant problem. Weather conditions changed continuously, making continuity of light a constant problem. Although the weather was quite severe at times, the rainy conditions actually added a lot to the visual character of the film. The size of the battles, the numbers of people and the planning of the battle sequences was especially challenging.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:11:59 PM)
The fact that Mel Gibson was both the director and starring in the picture also made this a unique experience, although he did a great job in both capacities. All in all, it is probably my most rewarding film experience.
Elle (Aug 11, 2001 1:12:07 PM)
I'm a film student and a real admirer of your work. Can you tell me what you look for when you hire a crew member? Any advice would be great!
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:13:42 PM)
I think attitude is the most important quality in a potential crew member, followed by experience. But given a choice, I will take someone with less experience if the attitude is what I feel is appropriate, over the most experienced person with an attitude that I feel is not appropriate.
Jon (Aug 11, 2001 1:14:04 PM)
Mr. Toll, what is the first thing you do to prepare a picture once you have signed onto a picture?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:16:23 PM)
I try to spend as much time with the director as I possibly can. I think the primary responsibility of a director of photography is to work with a director to help him tell the story he's trying to tell. It's absolutely essential that the DP understand what it is a director is trying to accomplish. I think that this doesn't necessarily come out of one or two conversations. It's my experience that developing a visual design for the picture is an ongoing process that may or may not happen in pre-production, so the more time a DP can spend with the director, the more likely it is that you will collaborate to develop an interesting and meaningful visual style for your film.
Lighter (Aug 11, 2001 1:16:28 PM)
Does your early documentary experience ever help you? Do you draw from it now that you're doing features?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:18:52 PM)
Yes. I think that the early experience is something that helps me all the time. It was a great way to be introduced to films and I think that the basic and fundamental nature of visual storytelling inherent in documentary filmmaking is a great way for people to learn the fundamentals of the art form. I am constantly using ideas and techniques that I was introduced to in my first weeks in the film industry working on documentary films.
Hassygirl (Aug 11, 2001 1:18:56 PM)
Mr. Toll, Who have been the director you enjoy working with the most, and why?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:22:18 PM)
I can give you the names of directors I've enjoyed working with but not necessarily in terms of favorites or priorities. In chronological order – and some of these were directors I worked with when I was a camera operator – would be John Frankenheimer, Marty Ritt, Jim Bridges, Neil Young, Steven Spielberg, John Schlessinger, Karel Reisz, Francis Coppola, Carroll Ballard, Ed Zwick, Mel Gibson, Terry Mallick, Cameron Crowe, and John Madden.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:23:59 PM)
The specific reasons why are different for all of them, but as a group they understood the contributions of the DP, were interested in telling stories with imagery, recognized that the DP was someone with whom they could collaborate to make great films.
Pelagia (Aug 11, 2001 1:24:05 PM)
I'd love to know from Mr. Toll how he works with a director to decide on the "look" of a film. Captain Corelli looks so dreamy in the stills and in the trailer.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:29:01 PM)
I think the look of a film first comes out of my attraction to a particular story. I usually decide even before a first meeting with a director what I feel about how a film should look. In the first conversation with a director, I will listen to what they have to say about their ideas for the look of a film, and I will make my suggestions about the look for a film. And if we seem to have common ground, I usually find myself on the film. But the initial idea for the look has begun to be formalized. The specifics of the look will evolve out of more and more collaboration between the director and the DP. It can be influenced by many different things. Sometimes it will come entirely out of my imagination, other times I will find sources of visual reference like paintings or photographs or any type of imagery that is suggestive of a mood or visual style.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:30:35 PM)
In the case of Corelli, it was a combination of all of these things. And in addition, I spent as much time as possible at the location just studying the conditions of the light and taking still photographs. And then, in collaboration with the director John Madden, deciding how we could best take advantage of the practical realities of our location and lighting conditions and best make use of them to create the visual mood we were looking for.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:32:33 PM)
One of the biggest challenges was to actually work against some of the natural conditions that we found on the island. During the time of year that we shot, it was usually very sunny and clear all day long. This created very intense and saturated color that I found not always appropriate for the film. So we used a variety of techniques, mostly trying to shoot at those times of day that were most conducive to work against the bright and saturated color that was inherent in this location.
Post-Op (Aug 11, 2001 1:32:37 PM)
Can you talk about your experiences with Jordan Cronenweth? What was so unique about him?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:34:02 PM)
Working with Jordan was one of my most enjoyable experiences as a camera operator. He was a unique combination of a very talented cinematographer and someone who encouraged collaboration and contribution from all of the people who worked in his crew.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:37:45 PM)
Both his lighting and his sense of composition were as accomplished as anyone I've ever worked with, and I feel he was one of our most skilled cinematographers. One thing that Jordan did was try to get the absolute most out of every single shot. He never seemed to be satisfied until he thought he had done the absolute most he possibly could to make every shot the best it could possibly be. It was a great learning experience for me to work with him.
Jon (Aug 11, 2001 1:37:48 PM)
Mr. Toll, do you find it prohibitive to work with directors who understand your craft so well that they begin making decisions for you, ie. composition, lenses, developing? Why or why not?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:39:00 PM)
I try not to work with directors who think they know my craft so well that they need to make my decisions for me. This is something that DPs should be very careful about and is something that they should try to get a sense of when they first meet directors.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:40:48 PM)
If a director feels that he knows more about the DP's job than the DP does, then he shouldn't be using a DP. I have never worked with a director who felt that way, because I have successfully avoided them, by either hearing about their reputations or in meeting them. I would find it pointless to actually work with a director with that attitude.
Gerry (Aug 11, 2001 1:41:06 PM)
You had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest cinematographers of our day. Is that still possible for someone like me just coming out of film school?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:42:44 PM)
Yes. There are many different types of film opportunities existing today than there were when I first came into the business. The most important thing is to begin working in whatever capacity you are able to find work. In my experience, work always generates other work, so the most important this is to get going in any way you can.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:43:56 PM)
We all work on a freelance basis and constantly come in contact with people who are new to us. The way to meet experienced cinematographers is through your work.
simon docherty (Aug 11, 2001 1:44:06 PM)
Could you talk a little about the dye-transfer Technicolor print of The Thin Red Line that screened at the Egyptian Theatre in Nov. 2000? How closely were you and Mr. Malick involved in its creation? And why was only one print made?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:45:38 PM)
When we first started production on The Thin Red Line, I was interested in the dye-transfer process and did some testing before we began to shoot. I was interested in trying to have the prints for the general release of The Thin Red Line to all be dye-transfer prints.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:47:42 PM)
My feeling was that Technicolor's dye-transfer process would be appropriate for this particular picture. Unfortunately, the manufacture of these prints is more time consuming than the normal color positive printing process. Due to the nature of the post-production schedule of The Thin Red Line, we did not have enough time to make dye-transfer prints before the general release of the picture.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:48:29 PM)
After the picture was released, I asked Technicolor to make one reel of the picture in the dye-transfer process so we could see what the difference was between the dye-transfer process and the normal color positive print process. The dye-transfer print looked great.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:52:39 PM)
Terry Mallick, the director, and I saw the print of the one reel and were very impressed. We then asked Technicolor of they would make a print of the whole picture. This is why there was only one print made unfortunately. The dye-transfer process is a very unique film process. It is a very stable process that gives almost unlimited longevity to a motion picture. A great example of the dye-transfer process is now available to us in the release of Apocalypse Now Redux, which is the new release of the original Apocalypse Now. This film is now in release and I have seen it and it is absolutely stunning. I believe this film looks better than when it was first released 22 years ago.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:53:19 PM)
This is a film that was shot before the introduction of digital effects. This print was made with no digital effects, and it looks as stunning as any film I've ever seen.
huey (Aug 11, 2001 1:53:24 PM)
Your day exterior work is extraordinary. What are some of the ways you handle bright sky behind actors?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:55:35 PM)
Sometimes bright skies behind actors can be interesting. But if you want to eliminate bright skies, one technique is to change a shot and try to find a darker background. Normally, if I choose to shoot a bright sky, I would choose to play the actors darker, in silhouette or semi-silhouette, and not try to add light to balance the shot. If I'm interested in balancing the shot, I will usually try to change the shot to have a dark background rather than a hot sky.
ND Sedan (Aug 11, 2001 1:55:41 PM)
Which film or films did you work on with Neil Young? Please tell us a little about your collaboration with him and why you list him with Directors you admire?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 1:57:21 PM)
The film that I did with Neil was called Human Highway. It was produced, directed, and financed by him. I don't believe it was ever in general release, but it was great. And a great work experience. It starred Neil, Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell, and a great supporting cast.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:02:28 PM)
I enjoyed Neil because he is a great filmmaker. He had all the creative instincts and abilities of a good director. I was the camera operator; the director of photography was a man named David Myers. Neil had a great visual sense and he relied on David to help him realize his ideas and also encouraged the rest of us as well.
Jennifer Ann Henry (Aug 11, 2001 2:02:37 PM)
Is Human Highway available on DVD?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:03:42 PM)
I have never been able to find it but I would encourage you to ask around for it. Maybe we can create a grass roots movement to bring this hidden treasure to a Blockbuster near you!
Pelagia (Aug 11, 2001 2:03:45 PM)
Do you ever read scripts prior to the movie being fully financed? In other words, if you like something enough, do you sometimes allow your name to be "attached" as a possible DP?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:04:52 PM)
I have never actually done that, but it's a definite possibility. I think a good script is hard to find and when one comes your way I think it's important to do everything possible to help it become a reality.
thaddeus (Aug 11, 2001 2:06:04 PM)
Terrence Malick knows a lot about cinematography and has worked with only the best cinematographers. i.e. Tak Fujimoto and Nestor Almendros......was this intimidating at all?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:08:35 PM)
No. I spent a lot of time talking with Terry before I was actually hired to do the picture. He is a very visually oriented director and had a definite sense of a visual style for his film. Rather than being intimidating , I found this stimulating because we had similar visual tastes and preferences. We were able to discuss the visual opportunities inherent in this particular project and were able to collaborate on developing the particular visual style for this film together.
Jon (Aug 11, 2001 2:08:57 PM)
Mr. Toll, I listened to your commentary on Legends of the Fall, it was very enjoyable and interesting. Do you plan to do any more on your upcoming pictures? You should.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:11:13 PM)
Okay, I'll take your word for it. I actually haven't listened to that commentary yet because quite often I'm not interested in hearing myself speak. I'll have to do it now. I don't have any plans right now for more commentaries because normally the DVD releases are more interested in the directors' and/or actors' comments. This is another area for a grass roots campaign to get more cinematographers' and production designers' comments on DVDs.
Jim A (Aug 11, 2001 2:11:16 PM)
Hello John. I feel that one of your strengths is the "color" of daylight when it comes in through a window to light an interior "set?". Care to share how you get your light to match actual daylight so well?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:12:31 PM)
I usually take a very pragmatic approach to most aspects of my cinematography. A lot of it is just done by eye and whatever seems to feel right at the time. In terms of this particular situation, I will normally just do what seems to look right at the time.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:13:40 PM)
I am not an overly technical cinematographer. Much of what I do is done intuiutively and by feel, based on all my experience of the past. Sometimes you learn by just trying things. Hopefully, it always works out. Sometimes it doesn't. But most often it does.
thaddeus (Aug 11, 2001 2:14:20 PM)
Mr. Toll,,,,,,with the exception of one,,,all the cinematographers that i have 2nd for have been privey to the use of polaroid, to determine contrast ratios.....do you use this at all, or the panavision preview system?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:16:52 PM)
Yes, I have used both Polaroids and the preview system. But I find them to be rough guides and I don't depend on them. If I use them, I would just refer to them, knowing that they do not represent what will usually appear on a large screen. I find the preview system most helpful in location scouting and preproduction, rather than actual production itself. I think it is a mistake to rely on either Polaroids or the preview system for actual production work.
Pelagia (Aug 11, 2001 2:17:03 PM)
How is it that Haskell Wexler gets that amazingly plush, lush look in all his films. I was on a shoot with him once and it was sunny SB, very diff't from darkish Oregon (Cukoos Nest) and still there was such a beauty and clarity in the footage.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:17:58 PM)
Haskell is a great cameraman and I am interested in stealing as many ideas from him as I possibly can. If you can find the answers to your questions, please pass them on to me.
JaCro (Aug 11, 2001 2:18:14 PM)
Could you talk a little about the struggle with studios/producers; how to get the time, the crew, the resources you need to properly do the job you've been hired for?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:22:51 PM)
One of the most important things cinematographers can do is to evaluate whether those resources actually exist before you begin a job. The struggle should take place before you actually accept the job. If you think that you have the resources available to you, then you should get involved in the job.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:23:57 PM)
If they aren't, then you should probably pass on the job. This is not to say that you shouldn't take jobs on lower budget pictures or with limited resources. What it means is that you shouldn't get involved in projects where the ambitions of the project, either on the part of the director or the producers, exceed the resources available to actually accomplish their ambitions.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:24:53 PM)
I've done television projects with limited resources, shot on very short schedules, and done well with them. But this was only possible because the photographic style and the whole production was organized around a realistic plan based on the money and resources available to us.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:26:14 PM)
This started with the director and I adopting a style and a method of shooting that allowed us to accomplish a great amount of work and still do it in a visually interesting way. So the battle with the producers basically was mostly won before we started shooting. So this picture was only possible because we were intelligent about the way we decided to shoot it. But this is something a cinematographer needs to discover before he accepts a project.
Tomfocus (Aug 11, 2001 2:26:18 PM)
You read a script, get ideas and then meet with a director. He or she asks "how would you shoot this?" do you find this a leading question and is there a way to deflect it in a manner to find out where the director is heading. It seems like you have to dance for a bit.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:28:59 PM)
If a director asks me how I would shoot something, I tell them exactly what I am thinking. I don't believe in dancing around questions like that will get you anywhere. If a director is going to ask you that question, they are probably seriously interested in what you have to say, if for no other reason than to learn something about your visual taste. It's much better for everyone, especially the cinematographer, to get as much out as early as possible. The more a cinematographer and the director have a sense of each other's taste and style before a cinematographer is hired, the better it is for a cinematographer.
Moderator (Aug 11, 2001 2:29:01 PM)
Who are some of the old directors who you wish were around to work with today?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:30:24 PM)
John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawkes, Marty Ritt, to name a few.
Maria (Aug 11, 2001 2:30:31 PM)
Just another question about THIN RED LINE - can you talk a little about maintaining that particular consistent lighting and atmosphere outdoors?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:33:18 PM)
Sometimes it wasn't consistent. But most of the time we managed to keep it within reason, primarily by being very careful about which angles we shot at different times of day. Also, when we would find ourselves working in changing lighting conditions, for example shooting on days when it would sometimes be sunny and sometimes cloudy, trying to shoot during those times when it was cloudy rather than sunny. Shooting in clouds allowed us to shoot during different times of the day and more easily "match" and keep continuity of light.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:33:59 PM)
It also was an interesting look for the film and allowed us to keep shooting into the very late times of the day and still keep a continuity of light for scenes shot in earlier parts of the day.
Moderator (Aug 11, 2001 2:34:04 PM)
Do you ever take time off to teach at film schools?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:34:27 PM)
I never have. But I think that would be an interesting pursuit.
Ricco Ricardo (Aug 11, 2001 2:34:34 PM)
John, Where do you draw your visual inspiration from?
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:36:32 PM)
From almost any visual reference available: paintings, photographs, films, and just from observation of things I come in contact with. Oftentimes we visit paintings or photographs that are particular favorites and discover something new in them. I guess that's what makes a classic.
Moderator (Aug 11, 2001 2:37:05 PM)
That's all the time we have for now.
John Toll (Aug 11, 2001 2:38:20 PM)
Sorry we have to sign off now. We know we were unable to answer some of your questions, and we'd be happy to do so at a later time if you choose to send them to the Guild. Thank you very much for being here today.
JaCro (Aug 11, 2001 2:37:21 PM)
Thank you for your time Mr. Toll!
Jim A (Aug 11, 2001 2:39:46 PM)
Thank you, from your old house sitter :) Jim
Post-Chat Q & A with John Toll
The following questions were submitted during our chat with John Toll, but went unanswered during the session due to time constraints.
Mr. Toll, would you tell us how you started in the film business and the steps that you took in learning to photograph motion pictures?
Please see the interview I did with Bob Fisher that is available on this web site.
John, Who is your biggest inspiration? Were you ever influenced by any Italian Directors of Photography or any DP?
I think most cinematographers have many sources of inspiration. I have always greatly admired the work of Gregg Toland, John Alton, James Wong Howe, Arthur Miller, and Freddie Young in terms of historical cinematographers. There are many contemporary cinematographers whose work I greatly respect, among them are Conrad Hall, Jordan Crononweth, Vittorio Storaro, Gordon Willis, Owen Roizman, Allen Daviau, Caleb Deschanel, and Chris Menges.
Mr. Toll I am a very big fan your work on Braveheart and The Thin Red Line has inspired me to pursue Cinematography. I have been trying to volunteer with local film companies (Florida) but they seem to be reluctant to give someone with no experience a chance to assist on jobs. So I have been trying to teach myself cinematography. As you know film equipment is expensive. What alternatives could someone like me use to teach myself the art of cinematography?
Ideally you should not try to teach yourself. If you can afford to get some type of formal training, no matter how little, through a university or vocational film school it would be a good idea. If you need to work and can't afford school you need to get some type of job in the film business, any job, even if it isn't working with cameras, and then try to connect with people in the camera departments. Simultaneously, I would learn the fundamentals of photography any way that you can, starting with research and then buying cameras you can afford, both film still cameras and any type of motion picture camera you can manage to get hold of, including inexpensive video cameras. The more you are involved with creating any type of images with a camera, the more prepared you will be for opportunities that might present themselves.
Mr. Toll, what factors do you consider before you accept to shoot a film?
I think the script and the Director are the two most important factors in choosing a project. Ideally, I would like only to work on films that tell stories I am interested in telling and to work with Directors who have that same interest. The budget, the cast, the setting, and all of the other various elements are also very important of course, but I feel they come after the script and Director in terms of priorities.
Mr. Toll, do you feel that all light in a picture must be motivated? Why or why not?
No, I think lighting just needs to look interesting. Of course, more often than not motivated light does look interesting and helps enormously in creating a feeling of reality and naturalism, which in my mind is always a good idea. But I don't believe in a hard and fast rule that lighting needs to be motivated. I think the only necessary justification for lighting, or for any other cinematic technique, is that it enhances the look of the film.
Mr. Toll, what do you do to help keep lighting continuity?
I think lighting continuity best comes out of having a concept about what the source of the light might be. In trying to maintain lighting continuity it helps to imagine what type of source might have created the mood or effect you are trying to create, and refer to that idea in making decisions about continuity. But, as in the idea of motivated light, I don't think it's necessary to justify your source, as much as use the idea of it as a concept and a reference for continuity.
Mr. Toll, compromises are bound to happen all the time, but, in your opinion, does there come a point when you feel it's more important to maintain the quality of the photography at the risk of slowing down the production? For example; if an actor is only available for a certain time; will you cut corners in your work to maintain the schedule?
I think most cinematographers feel there is never enough time to do what they would really like to do. Ultimately we must be responsible to both the imagery as well as schedule and budgets. Personally, I like to move along at a good pace while trying to make every scene as visually interesting as possible. I try to do this within a reasonable amount of time that is consistent with the overall schedule, providing the schedule is realistic. If I encounter a situation that needs more time, I usually take the extra time. If you are going to lose an actor, etc., then you sometimes
cut corners. I think I can honestly say that I have been consistently on schedule on all of my pictures. However, I did have one experience where a shot was added to a sequence just as the actor was on the way out the door to catch a plane. To complete the shot in the time we had to do it would have compromised the shot beyond the point that I felt was acceptable. I just started to light the shot the way it needed to be lit. The AD kept saying the actor needed to leave so I told him that was OK and maybe it was best that he leave because we weren't ready to shoot and he was probably going to miss his plane. This went on for a few minutes while we continued to prepare the shot and eventually things got very uncomfortable for everyone, but I took the time I needed to make it an acceptable shot. I never did find out if he made the plane. I guess the point is that you always try to do your best in trying to be responsible to the quality of the images as well as the budget and schedule. But it's a good idea to set a standard for yourself where you draw the line. I think everyone needs to figure out for themselves what level of compromise is appropriate for them.
Mr. Toll, what advantages and disadvantages have you encountered on a picture with a director who wants to improvise scenes?
Improvisation seems to either work brilliantly or is a complete disaster. If you have a great deal of time and don't necessarily need the scene to be in the film then it can be great fun to improvise. If it works, great, if it doesn't, no loss. It's really hardest on the actors I think. It's usually most successful as a technique when the actors can make it feel natural and real. Photographically, it can be fun and if it's set up correctly allows everyone the opportunity to think on their feet and discover a scene as it's happening.
Mr. Toll, as a DoP and with your background as a camera operator, how do you view your relationship with the operator? Is it stressful or awkward not operating and having to waiting until the dailies run the next day to know what you have?
I worked as a camera operator with many different Directors of Photography and I had a great time doing it. As a result, I understand the value of having a good operator and I know how to work with them to everyone's advantage. Rather than finding it stressful or awkward, I find it very beneficial, providing you have the right operator. My operator's name is Mike Thomas and I trust him completely. He worked as my 1st Assistant Cameraman for a long time before becoming an operator and we benefited from that continuity. I am very specific about composition and movement and I trust him as much as if I was doing it myself. If I don't like what he's doing he hears about it, but that doesn't happen very often. And since we are usually using video assist it really isn't necessary to wait for dailies to have a sense of what is happening through the lens.
With so much profit for a film relying on video sales, we often have to frame for both theaters, as well as TV; do you feel this weakens your compositions?
I very seldom change composition to anticipate problems in the video transfer. Even on films shot in the 2.35:1 format. I've never really had any significant problems using that method. I don't think you can compose for more than one format at a time and I feel it is pointless to try and compose for both a theater screen and a video screen simultaneously. If we are going to shoot films that will be seen in theaters then this is what we should be composing for. The video colorists I have been working with in feature film video transfers are getting very sophisticated in their ability to pan and scan and I have been amazed at their ability to hide compositional changes within existing camera moves. I feel it is far better to deal with those types of problems in video transfer rather than compromise the compositional integrity of the picture in theatrical release.
There has been so much hype about technology changing everything. What do you think are the most important advances in technology? And will it change everything?
It's true that digital technology is changing the way we make films, but it's also true that there has been an enormous amount of hype about how this is taking place and what it means in terms of the quality of the image. I think what is most important in this whole issue is that we stay in touch with the idea that new technology is valuable to us only when it's used as a way to move forward and to improve the quality of our work, not when it is used in ways that might take away from that quality. Digital manipulation of images can be a great tool to improve the quality of films, but I think we need to be very careful. Just because an idea is new doesn't necessarily mean it's an improvement. This applies to the whole range of our work, origination, reproduction, and projection.
I've seen several tests done with the 24P HD cameras. So far I haven't seen done that demonstrated a higher quality image than could be achieved with 35mm film cameras. But, I'm sure the next generation of these cameras will be even more interesting than what we are currently seeing.
The digital intermediate process is also very interesting. This process can be used to help us create wonderful imagery, but only if there is enough time to use it properly. Cinematographers see it's potential as a great creative tool. It allows us to enhance our work in theatrical features in ways we haven't been able to do until now. This color correction process is similar to the color correction process cinematographers have used for years while color correcting their films for video release. However, we have learned that in order to do this work properly, it requires a proper amount of time. This is something that any good, professional video colorist will tell you.
Unfortunately, I've already heard this process described by people working in digital intermediate facilities as a faster, easier way to color time a feature. It might be true that it could be faster and easier, but only if you aren't particularly concerned with how the film looks. If you are, then it takes more time. So, if this process begins to be used as a cheaper, easier, faster way to cut the amount of post-production time for feature films, then we will be moving backwards and doing irreparable harm to the quality of films and definitely not improving them.
Digital projection is another example. I've seen several digital projection system demonstrations and none of them were an improvement on film projection in terms of the quality of the image [i.e. resolution, contrast, and color].
Why are people so eager to replace film projection systems with digital systems before we are sure we are improving the quality of our images and not making them worse? I think it's important that cinematographers, and all filmmakers, continue to be advocates for maintaining the quality of motion picture images. Ultimately, the choice of which type of technology is used to create images should be secondary to the quality of the image itself. I think we will all recognize and embrace a new technology or type of equipment when it is clearly demonstrated that it gives us a superior way to create and display our images. Technological change is inevitable, but it isn't inevitable that it will be positive change unless we are discriminating and
attentive. I keep hearing about all the wonderful things that are coming our way, but I would prefer to see them before I actually change the way that I work.
Why do you think more films haven't been released with the Technicolor dye transfer process?
Unfortunately, the dye transfer process is more time consuming than the normal color positive printing process. Because of the nature of post-production schedules there is seldom enough time to go through the dye transfer process, which takes an additional 3-4 weeks after the picture has been color timed in the answer print process. It's too bad really because for a theatrical release it is a film process which gives us the absolute highest quality available from any existing technology. When post-production schedules allow for it, there is no better way for a film to
be presented on a large screen. This is the reason Apocalypse Now Redux was released with dye transfer prints.
Mr. Toll, no doubt you are familiar with the work of Akira Kurosawa, and his use of deep focus, when he would literally light his day scenes like night scenes. Despite the obvious cost restrictions, why do you think today's filmmakers don't take advantage of deep focus and prefer to cut to images in a scene instead of placing them in the same frame?
Current editing styles have increased the number of cuts in a film and have decreased the amount of time they stay on the screen. I believe that when Akira Kurosawa, or even Orson Welles, used the types of shots you are referring to, those with extreme depth of field, the shot seemed to stay on the screen for quite a while. It was usually a static camera and actors would either move through the frame and everything in frame would be sharp or else they would remain static separated by some distance, but all would remain in focus. It seems the effectiveness of these shots would partially come from their duration on the screen. The shot needed to remain on screen long enough for the audience to be influenced by the power of the technique. I don't think modern filmmakers seem as interested in shooting these types of scenes because using them requires a slower editing rhythm which might seem to effect the overall pace of the film. It also might mean giving up some other angles, like close ups. And many contemporary filmmakers seem to like using quite a few closeups.
Could you offer any details as to the different cuts of The Thin Red Line that were prepared? Were there ever any radically different versions of the film seriously considered or assembled (e.g., the rumored 6-hour version)? Was the final release version always what Mr. Malick intended?
The picture as it was released is really the only version that exists. All other 'versions' were just work in progress and a normal part of the editing process.
I loved Louis DeBerniere's novel and was curious about how closely the script for Corelli follows the book. I'd guess you had some really beautiful environments to shoot in. BTW, how's Roger Mitchell doing?
There is a pretty extensive article in the April 2001 issue of American Cinematographer Magazine about the cinematography of Corelli. I hear Roger Michel is doing really well and he did a film in New York in the fall of 2000.
You have had the chance to travel to some very exotic places, and film landscapes and genres in many different countries and many different continents. Is there one location, and one film genre that you would like to have filmed but have not gotten the opportunity? If so what are they?
A 1930s picture set in Chicago or a contemporary story set in modern Tokyo.
What was the main decision to shoot Jack and Rainmaker? Was it the script or the chance to work with Copolla? Was it both?
I think every cinematographer I know would jump at the chance to work with Francis Copolla.
Mr. Toll, would you shoot a black and white picture if the right script came across your desk? Why or why not?
Yes, I would love to.
If you were a 19-year old kid from Cleveland today, how do you think your career path would unfold?
Good Question. I would get some formal training in still photography, both film and digital, as well as cinematography. But not at the expense of a general education. I think it's a mistake and very limiting for young filmmakers to ignore the more traditional aspects of education like literature, art, philosophy, etc. I think it's not particularly popular presently, but it's very important to have a broad based education. And, at some point you would probably need to live in Los Angeles or New York to take advantage of the opportunities you would find in those
places. Whether it makes sense for you to become a cinematographer immediately or to work through the crew system is something you will discover in the process.
A Call to Arms: Captain Corelli's Mandolin
by Stephen Pizzello
(This article originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of American Cinematographer Magazine.)
In Captain Corelli's Mandolin, World War II provides the dramatic backdrop for a touching love story set on the idyllic Greek island of Cephallonia. Adapted by screenwriter Shawn Slovo from the critically acclaimed historical novel by Louis de Bernieres, the film recounts the Italian occupation of Greece and its harrowing aftermath, during which Nazi troops were eventually deployed in Cephallonia to attack their former Axis partners.
The story's critical view of warfare is personified by its reluctant protagonist, Capt. Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage), a mandolin-strumming artillery officer whose exuberant spirit initially elicits the disdain of the natives -- most notably Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), the beautiful daughter of a respected village doctor (John Hurt). Educated and strong-willed, Pelagia is engaged to a local fisherman (Christian Bale), but she gradually succumbs to Corelli's charms after the officer is billeted at her father's home. When the strife on the island begins to escalate, however, the lovers are forced to weigh their feelings for each other against their ethnic allegiances.
An A-list project all the way, Captain Corelli's Mandolin teamed Oscar-nominated director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) with two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer John Toll, ASC (Legends of the Fall, Braveheart). Their efforts were bolstered by a top-notch team that included production designer Jim Clay, supervising art director Chris Seagers, costume designer Alexandra Byrne and makeup artist Lois Burwell.
When AC phoned Toll to request an interview, he was busy shooting six-day weeks in Los Angeles on Vanilla Sky, a project that reteamed him with director Cameron Crowe, with whom he had collaborated on the critically acclaimed Almost Famous. Despite his hectic schedule, Toll graciously spent part of a Sunday-morning respite answering questions posed by executive editor Stephen Pizzello. (Editor's note: Although Captain Corelli's Mandolin was initially scheduled to be released in April, the date was pushed to August at press time.)
American Cinematographer: Did you read the novel by Louis de Bernieres before you began working on Captain Corelli's Mandolin?
Toll: When I knew I'd be shooting the picture, I started to read the novel, but I quickly decided not to finish it – I knew right off the bat that the film would only be able to cover about 20 percent of the material in the book. On previous projects, I'd gotten very involved in the book, only to realize later on that we weren't really shooting the book. This time around, rather than be distracted by all of the great things in the book that wouldn't be part of the film, I opted to approach the work purely as a film that was simply based on the novel. Otherwise, I might have found myself second-guessing various decisions or trying to talk somebody into including a certain scene from the book. The director, John Madden, and the screenwriter, Shawn Slovo, already had their hands full doing the adaptation, and they didn't need my involvement as well.
Were you still able to draw inspiration from the novel?
Toll: The book had a tone of 'magic realism' that I found interesting, but both John and I were drawn more to the story's realistic elements. That approach just felt right to me, because I felt that if we leaned too much toward the 'magical' elements there was a danger of making the film too sweet. Those aspects of the story worked well in the book, but when making a film I think you sometimes walk a very fine line between what is perceived as ‘real' and what isn't. It is a wonderful book, however, and the island characters are fantastically drawn.
John Madden came onto the picture after the original director fell ill. How did that development affect the production?
Toll: John came aboard on relatively short notice, but the preparation of the picture was already well underway; they were locked into a shooting schedule because of Nic Cage's availability. The English production designer, Jim Clay, had already made plans to build sets on the island. When John took over, he met with Jim and together they came up with a final plan for locations and which sets would be built.
I got involved with the picture after John had signed on. I met him in February 2000 and went to Greece in March on a location scout. I then came back to LA for awhile, and we began shooting on Cephallonia at the end of May. I like John as both a person and a director; he's a very intelligent, personable guy, and he has very good taste.
What kind of collaboration did you have with him?
Toll: We'd sorted out our relationship before I even took the picture. We had a great meeting in LA, and we also spent a lot of time on the phone. He would tell me his ideas, and I would tell him mine, so we knew what we were after by the time we scouted the locations. We had a similar take on our general approach to the work, so it was just a question of going in and finding the details. John had a lot of specific ideas, and he thinks about the whole picture. He realizes that in addition to the story and the performances, you also have to factor in the production design and the overall visual context. In that sense, he's a total filmmaker, as opposed to, say, a writer who might be most focused on seeing his dialogue performed onscreen.
Cephallonia is where the events depicted in the book actually took place. How did the authenticity of the location affect the narrative?
Toll: Since John decided to shoot the story where certain aspects of it actually happened, we were automatically thrust into the more realistic aspects of the story, which validated our approach to the material. There were a lot of older Greek people around who confirmed that the book was pretty accurate; they told us that yes, Germans had taken hundreds of Italians out in the field and machine-gunned them to death.
A big part of the film's story is about how well the Greeks and the Italians began to get along, even though the Italians had invaded the country. There are many similarities in the two cultures, and Cephallonia had been occupied by the Venetians for a few hundred years. The Italians were on the island for almost three years during World War II, and once they settled in, they mingled well with the Greeks. In fact, when the Italians surrendered to the Germans, some of them tried to hide, and many of the Greeks tried to help them.
Today, Cephallonia is a very popular destination for English tourists. They even have Captain Corelli tours that visit all of the places in the book. I'd never really spent time in the Mediterranean, but I liked the idea of shooting there, and I also liked the idea of doing a love story set against a big historical event.
Given the nature of the story, I assume that you set out to exploit the island's natural beauty.
Toll: We did, but I wasn't interested in presenting it in a pictorial, 'beautiful' type of way. I was trying to go out of my way not to take that classic sort of approach. For example, the water usually has a very vibrant and saturated blue/green color that definitely gets your attention when you see it, but on film I found it to be almost surreal and unattractive in a certain way. In contrast to that, the landscape was very mountainous and had a feeling of being rugged and harsh, which I thought was quite interesting.
We wanted to develop a look that worked against the picture-postcard aspects of the settings. We felt that if we went with a simpler and more realistic approach, the audience could appreciate the predicament of the characters more than if the settings were 'magical.'
What was the quality of the light in Cephallonia?
Toll: The day exterior light was extremely contrasty. We were shooting in the summer months, and the island is pretty far south. We usually had clear, bright, blue skies, and we actually went through a period where I didn't see a cloud for six or seven weeks! It was also very hot, usually over 100 degrees, sometimes as high as 115 or 120.
Because it gets so hot and dry during the summer, the landscape becomes very stark-looking –
almost like a desert at times. The sun is very harsh, and there's this wild contrast that exists between the land and this huge expanse of intensely saturated blue water and sky.
When we worked outside, it would usually be for a whole day, and we were faced with the usual problems of lighting continuity as the light changed throughout the day. We were also shooting in anamorphic widescreen, so we usually found ourselves placing characters in big settings, which made controlling the light difficult or impossible in the wider shots. I actually suggested shooting in the 1.85:1 format, but John liked the idea of using the compositional opportunities of 2.35:1. I felt it might be interesting to work against what you might expect from a picture of this kind, and that it might be good if the picture felt smaller and didn't have a sense of being a 'big picture.' I thought the picture would have plenty of scope in any format, and I didn't think we needed the extra help of the 2.35:1 ratio.
When I suggested this, I knew that both John and production designer Jim Clay thought I was completely insane, but they very politely listened to me. Then John said that he really liked the widescreen format and thought it could work well for us. Now, having shot the picture, I find it impossible to see it any other way.
How did the anamorphic format affect your shooting and lighting?
Toll: The anamorphic format didn't change the day-exterior work much. It probably made light control more problematic, but it would have been difficult in any format. We probably had to work harder to use the frame well. When you shoot in anamorphic, I think there is a real obligation to fully use the frame, and sometimes compositions become a little more studied and formal because of the extra width. I think you also have a tendency to move the camera in different ways than you would in other formats. These are not necessarily bad things, and most of the time they're very interesting and exciting. To me, it just means that you need to be extra conscious of how the whole frame is working all of the time.
For the night work and interiors, I worked at a higher light level than I would have on a spherical picture. In lower-light situations, I find the lack of depth of the anamorphic format a bit distracting.
What did you do to try to combat the island's contrasty conditions?
Toll: I actually became attracted to the stark, realistic feeling of it. Rather than trying to minimize the contrast, I tried to use it as much as possible. After a period of seeing many cloudless days, I could pretty much depend on consistent sunlight and, like it or not, that was the reality of the island. However, I actually did think it was interesting. Seeing very intense sunlight glaring off the rocks and dusty roads seemed right for the feeling of the place. It just became a question of how to make it work for the picture, but even in direct, overhead, midday sunlight, there is usually a way to make the light work for you. We were careful about how we staged sequences and planned our angles of coverage, so we were usually shooting in a direction that was best for us. John was terrific with all of that, because it required careful planning in staging the scenes, and he worked very hard to help make it work.
Lighting continuity was also a concern, because we would often be in a sequence for a whole day or over several days. We therefore needed to plan our angles to avoid obvious mismatches from shooting at different times of day. The close-ups could also get a little tricky at times, because it meant manipulating the light on the actors' faces to maintain the feeling of harsh sunlight, without some of the unflattering characteristics of that look.
Did you use any filtration or special processes to deal with the contrast or enhance the look of the film?
Toll: I decided not to; I opted to play the realism and not try to over-romanticize the look. I did do a lot of testing, and at one point I actually contemplated exaggerating the natural contrast of Cephallonia. Before I went to Greece, I did some tests at Deluxe Hollywood with Beverly Wood. I tested the CCE process simply because I wanted to leave no stone unturned. During those tests, I used just about every emulsion that Kodak manufactures, just to see what would happen. I thought the CCE look had some possibilities; I considered really going for shadow detail and very hot highlights, and when I tested that approach it looked pretty interesting. I shot some contrasty situations in LA, and when I went back to Greece during prep I shot some additional test footage there in even more contrasty situations. I then took that footage to Deluxe London, where I experimented with different looks.
When I shot in Greece, I used some local people from the island as stand-ins for Penelope and Nic. The woman especially looked a lot like Penelope and had a very similar skin tone. When I began to see how the CCE process was working on the skin tones in close-ups, I started to think that it probably wasn't the right look for this picture. I thought the process itself was very interesting, but it appeared to be a little harsh and unflattering to the olive skin tones that most of the actors in this film have. I decided it wasn't right for us and went back to the normal print processes.
However, I did find myself wishing that I had a way to minimize the color saturation of the existing print stocks. I find that the Vision print stocks have quite a bit of contrast, so I thought that I didn't really need the CCE process to add much more contrast to the image. But I kept thinking that it would be great if there were an alternative to the existing color-saturation levels of the current Vision print stocks. I think both of the Vision print stocks are great if you're looking for very rich blacks and saturated color, but every picture doesn't necessarily want that look. I wanted to keep rich blacks, but I also wanted less color saturation, and there seemed to be no way to do this. I tried various types of filtration, but I wasn't happy with the way they changed the overall feeling and look of the picture.
Which film stocks did you end up using for Corelli's Mandolin?
Toll: I tested with Kodak's medium-speed stocks, but I wound up shooting most of the picture on Kodak's pre-Vision, slow-speed (100 ASA) 5248. To my eye, it just looked the best; the shadows looked deeper, and the highlights had more detail. I often tried to blow out the highlights and make them disappear, but when I wanted them to have detail, they did. For some of the interiors and night exteriors, I went with the Vision (500T) 5279, because we were shooting anamorphic and I needed the stop. But I found that the 5248 worked very well as a general, all-around stock. It looked great outside in all types of lighting situations. It has a great range of detail, and I found that it worked well with the contrast of our location and the black levels of the Vision stock. I know that many cinematographers have begun using the wider-latitude, medium-speed negative emulsions like 5277 and to help soften the contrast of the Vision print stocks, but I found that the 5248 worked well, especially in the highlights, and maintained a wonderful sense of richness without sacrificing any of the blacks.
Do you ever worry when you have to mix different emulsions within a picture?
Toll: I never used to, and in the past I have mixed emulsions in the middle of individual sequences. I used to hear people talk about the grain structure of different emulsions being a problem, but I never found that to be the case. These days, however, I do have more concern about mixing negative emulsions. I think this has come about because of the print stocks. It's my feeling that the change to the Vision print stocks has changed the apparent characteristics of some of the negative emulsions. In particular, I feel that the higher-speed negative emulsions look more contrasty and feel harder and sharper-edged than when they were first introduced and when we saw them printed on 5286, the previous version of print stock. In making negative-comparison tests, I see more of a difference between the current negative emulsions than I did before we began using the Vision print stocks. As a result, I'm now more sensitive to mixing negative emulsions within a sequence; in fact, I try to stay with one emulsion as much as possible while shooting a feature.
You were working with a British director, so did you use the English crew system?
Toll: I like working in the American system, but I've also done a lot of pictures out of the country and I can work both ways. My crew was actually a great mix of UK-based, American and Australian people. I took my American assistant cameraman, Christopher Toll, but the rest of the camera crew was English. The camera operator was Peter Cavaciuti, and the B-camera assistant was Graham Hall, who had worked with me on Braveheart. The grips were mostly English and headed by Kenny Atherfold; the lighting department was Australian and included gaffer Mick Morris, with whom I'd worked on Wind and The Thin Red Line. We organized the camera department in the American system, and the grips and lighting department worked in the English system. John Madden and I would work out the shots, as we would in the American system, and everything fell into place from there. It worked quite well.
Why did the production build such extensive sets on the island? Was it too difficult to create a period look with the existing architecture?
Toll: There was an earthquake on the island during the 1950s, and it completely destroyed about 90 percent of the buildings there. As a result, nearly all of the architecture that now exists was built after the quake. The buildings that were there before the quake were really beautiful, and the architecture had an Italian influence because the Venetians had been on the island from the 1600s through the early 1800s.
In that respect, the big problem with our location was that all of the elements that would have helped us recreate the historical context no longer existed. The only thing about the island that helped us, in terms of creating a sense of authenticity, was that it was the same place where these historical events had occurred. It was a fairly large island, so our choices about where to place the sets and characters became the most important consideration. The main town in the story, Argostoli, is on the southern part of the island, and it's a really busy place. Since the town no longer had any actual World War II-era architecture, we opted to find another area to shoot in.
Some of the movie takes place in a small village where the family lives, and other scenes take place in the town where the Italians set up their base of operations. We therefore needed to create the village and the town with sets that resembled the original Venetian architecture that still existed during the 1940s. We also needed a seaside port for arrival scenes of the Italians getting off their boats. We eventually found a suitable town called Sami on the northern coast of the island. Jim Clay worked out a way to re-clad the fronts of the existing buildings to create authentic period facades, and art director Chris Seager supervised all of the detailing. They eventually built three main, interconnected streets, a town square and a village, which involved an incredible amount of work. We began work on the picture in the town, and we shot there for about a month. The sets really gave us a sense of the period, and they were so complete that we could essentially shoot in 360 degrees.
Jim did a fantastic job with all of his work on the picture. In fact, the sets were so good that a lot of the tourists couldn't believe that the buildings weren't made from authentic materials. While we were there, people even started shooting postcards that featured our sets! Even after we ripped the sets down, tourists kept showing up looking for 'Old Argostoli,' because they'd heard it was up there! (Laughs.)
Did you light any major night sequences in the town set?
Toll: We did a big waterfront party sequence in the town. There was a large dance floor and a couple hundred extras. I wanted to keep the night sequences warm in color, so I used tungsten-balanced light and stayed away from a cooler night look. The warmer look seemed more appropriate for this picture. We hung electric party lights over the dance floor and used those as motivation for general ambience. We lit mostly with 20Ks, aimed directly through layers of diffusion when we had enough room, or bounced into large muslin frames when we were in tighter places.
I usually shot at T4 or 4.5 because of the number of people in the shots, and to facilitate some depth of field. There were some big shots with quite a few people, and I was trying to keep backgrounds and foregrounds as sharp as possible. There was also something about this picture that made me want to shoot with more depth of field; I think it was the period aspect and the fact that the sets were so detailed and interesting. I often used wider lenses to try and show as much of the sets as possible. Panavision's 35mm anamorphic lens was one of our workhorses, and it presented us with many compositional opportunities. It's a wide lens but it doesn't have an exaggerated perspective, and we kept using it to place
A Conversation with John Toll
(Originally published in ICG Magazine in July 1999.)
Prologue: Many people believe John Toll, ASC, has set the contemporary standard for success as a cinematographer. Toll is one of only two cinematographers in history to earn consecutive Oscars®. Leon Shamroy, ASC, did it in 1944 and 1945 at the back end of his career. Toll earned Oscars for his second and third films, Legends of the Fall and Braveheart. There was another Oscar nomination for The Thin Red Line. In addition, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, and The Thin Red Line also earned ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nominations, with Toll receiving top honors for the latter two films.
Toll grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and moved to Los Angeles when he was 19-years-old and attended college there. While still in college, he got a part-time job working at David Wolper’s documentary production company. Toll started as a production assistant, but soon gravitated to the camera department.
Metromedia acquired Wolper’s company, which resulted in Toll getting an opportunity one summer to work as a second assistant cameraman on a movie-of- the-week that was shot by Andy Laszlo, ASC. It was done under an I.A. contract and that gave him the required number of days to qualify for the experience roster and union membership.
Toll continued to work on documentaries and commercials, as well as low budget features, until he was accepted into the Guild as an assistant cameraman. His first regular job after joining the Guild was working as a second assistant for one season on the TV series The Rookies.
“I was working on (director of photography) Archie Dalzell’s crew. It was my first good opportunity to watch how a large film crew is organized and a set is run,” Toll says. “Archie was great. He was extremely efficient and ran a tight ship. He was definitely in charge and the crew respected him and worked very hard for him.
“Up until that time I had worked mostly on documentaries or on chaotic low-budget features with crews that had very little experience. Archie had been in the business for 40 years or so but he was still very enthusiastic about the quality of his work. He had all these great old stories about working as a camera operator on Cecil B. DeMille and Raoul Walsh films and would tell me how they did various in-camera effects or shot the cavalry charge in They Died With Their Boots On. I thought it was fascinating.”
The following year he began working as a first assistant cameraman on TV commercials with several top director-cinematographers, including Melvin Sokolsky and Steve Horn. Toll worked primarily on commercials for two years until he got the opportunity to work with John Alonzo, ASC, on Black Sunday. He worked as an assistant on five features with Alonzo until
promoted to camera operator on FM, a feature directed by Alonzo. He was also Alonzo’s operator on Norma Rae and Tom Horn.
In 1979, Toll operated for Ray Villalobos, ASC on Urban Cowboy. He was camera operator for Allen Daviau, ASC, (Falcon and the Snowman), Conrad Hall, ASC, (Black Widow), Jordan Cronenweth, ASC, (Peggy Sue Got Married), and Robbie Greenburg, ASC, (The Milagro Beanfield War). He also worked with several other cinematographers compiling more than 20 feature and TV movie credits as a camera operator during the 1980s.
While working as an operator during this period, Toll was also shooting documentaries and commercials. In 1988 he stopped working as an operator and began shooting commercials full time. He shot second unit for Haskell Wexler, ASC on Blaze in 1989, and earned his first mainstream narrative credit for the pilot for The Young Riders TV Series. Toll earned an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nomination for that effort. His first feature credit as a cinematographer came in 1991 for Wind, which was directed by Carroll Ballard. Following are excerpts of an interview with Toll:
Question: You chose to work your way up through the camera crew system. Looking back, do you have any regrets?
Toll: No. Before I joined the union as an assistant cameraman, I was working freelance either as a cinematographer or as an assistant on documentaries and very low-budget features—extremely low budget. I would take any job I could get. I was trying to get as much experience as possible. I had always been interested in still photography, but hadn’t been to film school or anything like that. I was pretty much faking it, really.
Question: What was your goal?
Toll: I wanted to work on large-scale features that told great stories about people and did it with wonderful imagery. The work I had been doing was as far from that as you could get. I was really enjoying the work, especially the documentaries, but I was working with people who had just a little more experience than I had. What I wanted was to move on to larger scale projects. However, all the worthwhile pictures were union pictures and I wasn’t in the union. Then, by pure accident, I worked enough days on a union job to qualify for the experience roster. Unfortunately, these were very dark days for our union. It was nearly impossible to get into the I.A. The attitude of the leadership of both the I.A. and of the camera locals was the opposite of what exists today. At that time the union leadership was actively working to exclude people. It wasn’t easy to get into the union, so I took advantage of the opportunity to get in when I could. I joined the union as an assistant and worked my way up because it seemed like the most direct route to working on the types of films I thought I wanted to do. It took a while to become the director of photography on those films, but at the time it felt like the right thing to do. Today, thank god, we have progressive leadership that is working for the members and trying to organize and bring people into our union.
Question: Would you make the same choices today?
Toll: Quite honestly, I don’t know what I would do. I think there are more opportunities for younger cinematographers today. There are many more film schools and a greater variety of work is available to new cinematographers. But, I also know that I am a better cinematographer today because I had the opportunity to work for the directors of photography who included me on their crews. Young cinematographers ask me this question all the time, and I don’t think there is one simple answer. I just followed my instincts most of the time and it seemed to work out okay. Some cinematographers have worked on crews and some haven’t. For a short time Conrad Hall worked as an assistant and as an operator. Bill Fraker (ASC) was Conrad’s operator for several pictures and Jordan Cronenweth worked as both an assistant and operator for Conrad. But excellent cinematographers like Allen Daviau and Steve Burum (ASC) have only worked as directors of photography and never as assistants or operators. I’m a great believer in following your intuition. The only advice I ever give to aspiring cinematographers is to tell them to start telling stories with images as often as they can by any means available to them. I also tell them I would try to join the Guild as early as possible. Guild members are still working on the most impressive films. And even more importantly, camera crews have common interests that can only be addressed collectively by the Guild. We really do need a strong national Guild with good leadership. It is in all of our interests.
Question: Were there specific cinematographers whom you wanted to work with, or was it fate that you ended up with some really talented people?
Toll: I always had ideas about specific cinematographers, or at least the type of cinematographer I wanted to work with, but I never thought I could orchestrate it and never really tried to. Things just worked out. It sounds pretty corny, but what I really did was to just concentrate on the work. Whatever job I happened to be doing, I just tried to do it as well as I possibly could. I felt that if the work was good everything else would fall into place. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the film business and the art and craft of cinematography, so I just kept working as much as possible and eventually started to get calls from the type of cinematographers I had hoped to hear from. When given a choice of who I could work with, I would always go with a cinematographer whose work I admired.
Question: What were the most important things you learned about while you were working as an assistant and operator?
Toll: I learned that it isn’t specific technical things that are most important. Everyone I worked with had different techniques, just as mine are different from theirs. I think what is important is the idea that great cinematography comes from having a passion for telling a story with images, and having perseverance in making the imagery a vitally important part of the film. Of course, this is no secret. But it is amazing how often the visual design of a project gets buried in the various agendas which are brought to a film that really have nothing to do with what is on the screen. I learned that it is not enough to just have technical knowledge of cinematography or even the creative ability to design great visuals. It is being able to give those visual storytelling ideas a priority and making sure that everyone else on a picture understands what that means. Cinematographers must be passionate about their work and be willing to fight for its visual integrity. That is as vitally important as technical knowledge or creative ability. The cinematographers I worked with all had different ways of working, but they shared this common attitude. They believed in the importance and integrity of their work. It didn’t really seem to matter whether it was a feature or TV or commercials. It was a common characteristic.
Question: How did you decide it was time to give up operating?
Toll: I was always looking for opportunities to move up while I was working as an operator, but I waited for two reasons. One, I was having a great time, and two, I wasn’t getting the kinds of offers I wanted as a director of photography. I would get periodic offers to shoot some really bad low-budget scripts or a series or something, but I would pass. There was good television being made, but the shows I was offered didn’t seem that interesting to me. This was during the time I was working with Allen (Daviau), Jordan (Cronenweth), Conrad (Hall), and Robbie (Greenberg), so there was usually something really interesting going on with someone like that on a feature and I found it difficult to turn down those pictures.
At one point I was offered a picture that would have been great. It was with a fairly well known director who I had worked with as an operator. I was offered the picture but it was non-union. That was okay, because during that period a lot of people in the Guild were working on non-union pictures that were organized while in progress. I said I would like to do it, and then the producer told me I would have to go financial core or quit the Guild in order to do the picture. Those were unacceptable options, so I turned it down.
This was type of situation that was happening to many other Guild camera operators who were trying to move up during this period. There was a large pool of talented non-I.A. cinematographers and crews available, and producers were using them (to shoot) non-union (pictures). They didn’t hire I.A. cinematographers, because they were afraid the pictures would become organized. So, most of the lower budget pictures that had traditionally been available to first time cinematographers were being shot non-I.A. This was a situation the I.A. had partially created inadvertently by excluding experienced cinematographers from becoming members. We actually helped create an experienced non-I.A. labor pool. Fortunately, our current leadership, George (Spiro) Dibie (ASC) and Bruce Doering have gone to great lengths to help open up the Guild to qualified cinematographers.
Question: When did you actually begin shooting?
Toll: In the 1980’s I worked with Jordan (Cronenweth) and Robbie (Greenberg) on a lot of commercials in between features. Robbie recommended me to a director he knew, Robert Black, who was doing a big Caribbean cruise ship commercial. That was the beginning. Just before I left on this job, I had met Judy Marks. She was just starting out as an agent and was looking for clients. I told her she could be my agent if she got me some work. When I got back from the Caribbean she had some commercials lined up and so I became a director of photography. I felt it was time to be shooting full time, and commercials were the most visually interesting work available to me.
Question: How did shooting commercials affect your career?
Toll: It was great. I was exposed to many different shooting situations in a very short time. I worked with lots of different directors and was able to experiment and use a great variety of styles and techniques. One week I was shooting in the Caribbean or Alaska, and the next week it was a car commercial on a stage. Many of the jobs were built around storytelling ideas. The commercial directors were practicing for their first feature, like they are today, but with a different emphasis than you see now.
Question: How did you happen to shoot The Young Riders pilot?
Toll: The director was Rob Lieberman. He did both commercials and television. We first met when he was looking for someone to do a commercial. The commercial didn’t happen but then he called me about The Young Riders. He liked my commercial reel and thought my experience on features as an operator would qualify me to shoot the pilot.
Question: What was it like finally shooting a main stream film?
Toll: It was really good, although fast and furious. Rob is a very talented and well-organized director. We came up with a good visual style for telling the story, and designed the picture in away that allowed us to do interesting cinematography and do it on a 17-day schedule.
Question: How did you get your first feature?
Toll: I was shooting some car commercials with Carroll Ballard. He told me about this picture he was going to direct called Wind. It sounded like a nightmare. It was about 12-meter yacht racing, and half the movie was going to be shot on open sailboats in rough conditions. He was very enthusiastic about Wind. I told him I thought it would be a great project, but I was actually thinking that it would be pure hell to shoot. I kept remembering my limited experience on small boats had been spent watching my lunch go over the rail.
Question: Did you tell him that?
Toll: No. He had told me he had asked an Australian cinematographer to shoot the picture, so I knew I wouldn’t be involved in it. I had really liked working with Carroll, and knew him to be a wonderful filmmaker. He was very excited about it all. I just kept sounding enthusiastic about how great it was going to be and how much fun they would all have. We were working in Boston and flew back together. He spent the whole time talking about the picture. He asked me about the documentaries I had done and about The Young Riders. When we got off the plane he said, “Maybe I’ll give you a call if it doesn’t work out with the other guy,” I said “OK. That sounds great,” thinking I’d never hear from him. Four months later I get a call from Tom Luddy, Carroll’s producer, saying they had been delayed and now the other cinematographer had a scheduling conflict and Carroll wanted me to do the picture and could I be in Australia in three weeks? So of course I said yes.
Question. Did you end up having problems with seasickness?
Toll: No, I kept so busy with the challenge of actually shooting the picture that I never really had any problems like that. Working on the boats was so exciting that I didn’t really think about much else and I did fine. It was just too good a project to even think about saying no. It was a chance to work with a classic visual storyteller on a picture with unlimited visual potential. And, just as I had told Carroll, it was really a lot of fun.
Profiles: Oscar Nominees, A New Breed of Filmmakers Stakes a Claim
(Originally published in FILM & VIDEO Magazine in 1995.)
It only happens once in a lifetime. You are nominated for an Oscar for the first time. No words can describe the feelings that evokes. When the nominees for cinematography talk about their feelings, they make it sound like a surrealistic experience.
“I’ve only met Gordon Willis, Haskell Wexler and Owen Roizman recently, but they and many others have been a part of my life since I was first drawn to the cinema,” says Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, who was nominated for photographing The Shawshank Redemption. “Conrad Hall’s work first turned me on to the idea of shooting movies instead of stills.” Now, Deakins was no longer an outsider. He was one of them.
It was also the first nomination for three of the other four Oscar nominees. Don Burgess for Forrest Gump, Piotr Sobocinski for Three Colors: Red and John Toll for Legends of the Fall. Chances are that you can’t name the title of another film shot by any of them. Maybe Wind photographed by Toll is the exception. Burgess and Toll both previously received ASC nominations for Outstanding Achievement Awards in Cinematography for telefilms. Burgess for The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson. Toll for The Young Riders pilot. All of Sobocinski’s previous dozen or so credits have Polish or German titles. This was his introduction to the Western world.
In contrast, itwas the fifth Oscar nomination for Owen Roizman, ASC, for his work on Wyatt Earp. His other nominations were for The French Connection, The Exorcist, Network and Tootsie. That’s a worldclass body of work in itself. There’s more, including Three Days of the Condor, Grand Canyon and Absence of Malice, to name just a few.
Still, Roizman has a lot in common with the other nominees, including his unquenched passion for his work. Roizman says an Oscar nomination never becomes commonplace. It tasted as sweet as The French Connection, his first feature. Roizman shared something else with the other nominees. Despite his four previous nominations, it would have been his first Oscar. Many insiders expected Roizman to win, in part, because he is long overdue. Also, many cinematographers consider period Westerns with big exteriors the ultimate creative challenge. Nearly half of the Oscars for cinematography are for films with a lot of geography and big vistas.
Some insiders favored Burgess. Forrest Gump had already grossed nearly $400 million, and it had fostered a mini-industry for marketing everything from cookbooks to baseball caps. After years of shooting low- and no-budget features, and second unit work for many better known directors of photography, Burgess was suddenly in demand. After Forrest Gump, he shot Richie Rich and Forget Paris. The latter features Billy Crystal, who also directed. It’s an early favorite in the 1996 boxoffice sweepstakes.
Deakins, Roizman, Toll and Burgess were also nominated for the ASC Outstanding Achievement Award along with Hall for Love Affair. Deakins took top honors in that contest. He was his peers choice. That was a clue for what to expect in the Oscar race.
Sobocinski was the long-shot. Yet, a few months earlier he won the Golden Frog Award at CamerImage ‘94, the International Festival for Cinematography, in Torun, Poland for Three Colors: Red. Admittedly,it was Poland, his native county. But, he vied successfully for honors with some 30 cinematographers from every corner of the world. Their films were chosen by the directors of the world’s top film festivals. The majority of judges at Torun were from the U.S., including Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, John Bailey, ASC, and Adam Holender, ASC. Sobocinski also earned kudos from critics at Cannes.
“And the winner is John Toll,” said Paul Newman.
The actor stuttered and giggled He seemed embarrassed and bemused. Newman had omitted identifying the nominees before naming the winner. He gestured at the teleprompter. “Should I read it again,” he asked? It was a rhetorical question, because no one answered. A billion people were watching. Toll instinctively knew what to do.
Toll recited the names of the other nominees and their pictures. He congratulated them for their accomplishments before he accepted the Oscar. It was only his second feature length film. But don't let that fool you. It’s been a long and sometimes arduous journey. The Oscar is a giant step forward on his career.
Toll, Deakins, Sobocinski and Burgess are in the front ranks of a new breed of talented cinematographers who are staking their claim on the future. It’s not a new phenomena. Last year, it was Gu Changwe, Farewell My Concubine, Stuart Dryburg, The Piano, and Janusz Kaminski, ASC, Schindler’s List. All of these emerging talents share a sense of continuity with the cinematographers who blazed new creative paths during the 1960s and ‘70s. None of them is a child protégé. Without exception, their current successes are dividends paid on many years each of them invested in mastering their craft.
Toll is the only cinematographer among the 1994 nominees who followed the traditional path of apprenticing in the Hollywood crew system. He grew up in Ohio, where he developed an appetite for movie-going. Toll can still tell you where and when he saw Lawrence of Arabia. Freddie Young’s cinematography made a deep impression on him. Toll was a photographic hobbyist during his teens. Looking back, Toll says that’s when he started telling stories with pictures. Toll moved to Southern California at the age of 19, and matriculated as a political science major. That year, he got a job running errands for David Wolper’s documentary film production company. Toll quickly became a production assistant, and then an assistant cameraman. He earned his degree in political science, but eschewed a career in that field when he was able to claim a spot in the ranks of the International Photographers Guild. Toll worked his way up through the crew system. He was the A camera operator on 15 features with Allen Daviau, ASC, John Alonzo, ASC, Robbie Greenberg, ASC, Jordan Cronenweth, ASC, Hall and others.
In retrospect, he muses that perhaps he spent too much time operating. But Toll confesses to enjoying every moment of those experiences, and he believes that it added immeasurably to his makeup as a cinematographer. The common denominators, he says, was the passion those cinematographers feel for their work.
Toll started shooting in 1988. He earned an ASC nomination for The Young Riders that year. He subsequently earned several other telefilms and TV special credits, did some second unit work and shot more than 100 TV commercial credits. He segued to features when Carroll Ballard selected him to photograph Wind.
Toll remembers seeing videocassettes of Lawrence of Arabia and Days of Heaven on director Ed Zwick’s desk the first time they met. That gave him his first clue that this relationship could be something special. Zwick made his reputation on TV with thirtysomething. His first feature credit was Glory, and Freddie Francis, BSC earned an Oscar for cinematography on that film.
It was immediately evident to Toll that Zwick is a very visually oriented director. All of those years he prepared for this opportunity were about to reap dividends.
Behind the Scenes at the Oscars, a Lot of New Faces in Cinematography
(Originally published in FILM & VIDEO Magazine in 1996.)
The 1996 Academy Awards was a landmark event for cinematographers. For starters, there were a lot of new faces. Get used to them. Chances are you will see them again. It was the first Oscar nomination for Emmanuel Lubezki, AMC, Lu Yue and Michael Coulter, BSC, and the second for Stephen Goldblatt, ASC and John Toll, ASC. Toll was the only nominee born in the United States. He won his second consecutive Oscar for Braveheart. That's nearly a singular accomplishment. Toll won last year for Legends of The Fall. Only the legendary Leon Shamroy, ASC, had previously earned consecutive Oscars for cinematography (in 1944 for Wilson, and in 1945 for Leave Her to Heaven).
Toll was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Braveheart was only his third feature film, though he has earned accolades for several television movies and many commercials. "I was around 10 years old when I took a class in black and white photography at a YMCA," says Toll. "We processed and printed our own pictures. There was something fascinating about photography. I think it was the idea of using a camera to tell stories. I remember trying to write a story when I was nine. I had the idea, but I couldn't find the words. It wasn't a natural process for me. The first time I picked up a camera, it felt like it belonged in my hands. I also loved the movies. I was the kid in the front row with a box of popcorn at Saturday matinees. I loved the images and the stories."
Toll enrolled in college in Los Angeles, and majored in political science. While he was still a student, he got a part-time job at David Wolper's company as a production assistant working on documentaries.
"Because of my background, I gravitated to the camera department," he says. "Within a couple of months, people were handing me a camera and sending me out to shoot simple assignments, mostly inserts. I was teaching myself and making very little money, but it gave me access to the process of filmmaking. You had to think about what you shot and how it fit into the overall film. I would also spend a lot of time watching editors piece together documentaries that told stories by choosing segments from miles and miles of film. "
Credit fate with what happened next. Metromedia bought the company, and they started producing movies of the week. That got Toll into the International Photographers Guild as an assistant cameraman working on narrative film while he was still a student.
After graduation, Toll worked as an assistant, mostly on documentaries and commercials. His break came when Archie Dalzell, ASC, took Toll onto his crew as an assistant cameraman for a TV series called The Rookies.
His first mainline feature as an assistant was Black Sunday, photographed by John Alonzo, ASC. During subsequent years, Toll worked his way up through the crew system with some of Hollywood's top cinematographers, including Jordan Croneneweth, ASC, Allen Daviau, ASC, Robby Greenberg, ASC and Conrad Hall, ASC. In between narrative film projects, he worked on TV commercial crews, and photographed occasional documentaries and no budget independent features.
Toll's first narrative credit was the TV pilot for The Young Riders, which earned a nomination for an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award. His first mainline feature as a cinematographer was Wind, directed by Carroll Ballard.