John Toll: ‘There’s No Difference Between Feature Films and TV Shows—It’s All Filmmaking to Me’

John Toll behind the camera while shooting The Thin Red Line. Photographed by Merie Weismiller Wallace © Fox 2000 Pictures, Geisler-Roberdeau, Phoenix Pictures

By Sven Mikulec

Having debuted as director of photography on Malcolm Leo’s documentary film The Beach Boys: An American Band back in 1985, John Toll has enjoyed a very successful career during which he worked closely with a series of renowned filmmakers, such as Edward Zwick, Francis Ford Coppola, Mel Gibson, Cameron Crowe and Terrence Malick. “Quite honestly, I couldn’t make a distinction,” he states calmly when I ask him about the visual compatibilities he experienced with these directors. “Everyone’s different, they all have different approaches. I would make an effort to try to adapt to the particular visual sensibilities of the people I was working with.” Toll, now 65, came to the Camerimage International Film Festival to receive the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. Prestigious awards, however, are something Toll is certainly familiar with. In the first half of the nineties, he won two back-to-back Academy Awards for his work on Edward Zwick’s Legends of the Fall and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, becoming one of only four cinematographers to ever have achieved such a feat. “It meant everything in the world to me. Every filmmaker fantasizes about the opportunity to win an Academy Award. It definitely gave me more visibility, people all of a sudden were more aware of who I was,” he recalls the impact of the golden statues on his career path. “I mean, I’d been in the business for twenty years before I officially worked as a director of photography, and I knew many people in the business. But the fact is, when you win an Academy Award, more people become aware of you. You become more interesting to people and people become more interested in the possibility of working with you. It means everything to me.”

Since The Thin Red Line is one of my favorite anti-war films of all time, I wanted to know a bit more about the process of making it, about his working relationship with Malick. “He’s just such an incredible visualist,” Toll starts by stating what most fans of Malick’s work would perhaps deem obvious. “Many of his ideas are spontaneous. He definitely had specific ideas about the visual approach to the film, but he also wanted to leave himself open to opportunities that we would find as we were shooting. It was like a combination of being very specific about what we were going to do and being very open to when new ideas came about.” This immediately reminds me of James Mangold and what he recently told me about the importance of being ready to adapt to new circumstances and new ideas that spring out in the process of making a film: “[Filmmakers] had an idea about what a scene was supposed to be, and it could be a very brilliant and informed idea, but then some kind of magic is happening and they resolutely ignore that magic because it contradicts or complicates their original plan. I really think it’s the director’s responsibility to take advantage of whatever magic is happening and make it look like their plan. There’s no greater myth than that the director saw it all in advance.” Malick and Mangold, it seems, would get along just fine. “He was very open to adapting to any opportunities that might happen because of the unique nature of the locations and the amount of time we had,” Toll continues. “He sees everything in terms of nature, natural environments. We were working in incredible exterior environments, and when things would change in those environments, he would be eager to take advantage of those things.”

Mel Gibson’s 1995 epic war classic Braveheart was a huge production, for which members of the Irish Army Reserve had to be enlisted as extras to produce those spectacular battle scenes. As soon as I mention the obstacles he had to face to shoot it, however, Toll shoots me down. “There were no obstacles and no problems. Only challenges.” I quietly nod and let him travel twenty-two years back to Curragh Plains, Ireland, where Gibson set the Battle of Sterling Bridge. “The challenge on that film was the scale. The whole idea of the battles was to recreate the sense of not only the violence, but the scale of those bigger battles and the numbers of people we had were very important. We had to come up with a way to shoot it in a way that it accentuates the idea of scale, trying to maintain the idea that there were thousands of people involved in that event, while we were working with hundreds of people. During the battle itself, we had to have people edge-to-edge in the frame, there could be no empty spaces. That took quite a bit of doing. There were days when we had like a thousand extras, there were days when we had a hundred of them. We always had to concentrate on the big picture. If we had an empty space in the frame, we were doing the wrong thing.”

As you can probably imagine, such problems are much less of an issue today than they were more than two decades ago. “This was 1994, visual effect solutions were not nearly as simple as they are now. It wasn’t, like, no problem, throw a couple of CG people over there. The technology hadn’t gotten to that level yet. You know, there were only a couple of visual effect shots in the whole movie.” Toll’s eyes seem to shine and a little smile appears on his face. “One of them was at the beginning of the battle of Sterling. Malcolm’s riding up, he rides and stops in a frame where you see the whole English army on the hill. There are 1500 people in that shot, live people, but we had to expand it so it would look like there were 5000 people. We used the old-fashioned technology (he laughs), it was a crane shot and we rode him up, stopped the crane, there was panning, you know, like an arm swing, and then logged the camera off. Then we would move those 1500 people who were in the shot over here to fill that new space and then do it again to shoot that space. Doing that shot took three or four hours. You do the first pass, then you move the people, you do the second pass… You know, it took forever. It was a creative shot, but we didn’t do many of those because they were too time-consuming, it takes over half your day. When we got into the battle, we just had to be very careful that we have people everywhere in the frame. Live people, not digital. The other visual effect shot was the aftermath of the battle, where you see a lot of bodies lying on the ground. It was a three-pass visual effect shot.”

His impressive filmography sheet aside, younger or, perhaps, more TV-prone audiences might recognize his name from two recent TV shows. Toll shot the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, and worked as the main director of photography on Sense8, Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski’s series. For the second season Toll even served as an executive producer. “What attracted me was the directors, because I’d worked with Lana and Lilly on Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending. They are great filmmakers and they had great ideas. You know, I make basically no distinction between feature filmmaking and television. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s all about who you’re working with and the nature of the work. Is it going to be seen on television? Okay. Is it going to be seen in theater? Okay. It’s all about filmmaking.”

But as someone with the experience of participating in the creation of both great films and hugely popular TV shows, Toll might contribute to the debate on the new Golden Age of Television. William Friedkin once told us TV represents “an alternative to the basically mindless experience of going to a cinema today.” Is television the venue through which best visual storytelling comes from these days? “I’m not completely up to date, as I haven’t seen the most current TV shows, but a lot of what I’ve seen is very good. I think we’ve gotten away from that distinction between TV and features, which was always very silly to begin with. More people are watching images on TV monitors that they are in the theaters. It’s all filmmaking. You should be designing images that tell the story for the way they are going to be seen. If your primary objective is to shoot large screen images, that’s what you should do. If your primary objective is to shoot images that are going to be seen on TV monitors, you should design the images that way. It doesn’t mean that any of those is better or worse than the other. Design the images that tell a story in an interesting way with the understanding of how they might be seen. It’s not rocket science. It’s not sort of this esoteric conversation about art versus television or whatever. In my mind, they are all movies. They are just going to be seen in a different way. And you can be as creative and have as much fun with any of it as you allow yourself to do.”

There was, of course, one other intriguing debate that I wanted Toll’s two cents on. “I resisted shooting digital until someone could demonstrate to me that there was a reason to shoot digital. I went through that whole period of the early 2000s, and the whole debate of film versus digital, about how digital was the way of the future and how good it was. But people were shooting feature films with digital cameras and they weren’t looking very good. It was that whole period before the Alexa came out. Before the Alexa, in my mind there was no reason to shoot digital at all because I didn’t see the advantage to the quality of the image. For me, the only consideration is what the images look like. What are you trying to do? What are you trying to create? How does the image look? Film, digital… forget it, it doesn’t matter, it’s not important. What’s important is how the image looks. And once Arri developed the Alexa, all of a sudden there was a digital camera that made sense to me. All the images on digital cameras prior to the Alexa were inferior compared to film. So I wasn’t even interested in experimenting with digital, because, you know, I didn’t care, I didn’t see anything that looked that interesting, there was no reason. And then suddenly there was a reason to start experimenting with digital.”

“The use depends on the nature of the project, what you’re trying to create, how and where it’s going to be seen. If you’re creating a project that’s going to be seen on television, at this point I wouldn’t understand an advantage of trying to shoot film. Nobody actually sees film. You don’t even see film when you’re shooting it. All you see is a digital representation of film. Even if you’re shooting a feature film, unless you’re actually doing a film finish, if you’re using a piece of a film negative printed on a piece of positive film and projected in a film projector, that’s the only time you’re seeing film. If you shoot with a film camera and it’s digitized, and basically you go through a DI process, where you’re doing a digital representation of a film image. That’s not film. There might be very subtle characteristics, but in my mind I don’t understand the advantage of film at this particular point, unless all you’re seeing in the end is a film image. If you’re creating a digitized version of a film image, you’re losing the whole reason for shooting film in the first place. The cameras are getting so good and the image capture is improved to the point where there’s very little difference anymore. I know there are people, you know, ‘it’s life or death, we have to shoot film,’ but I don’t understand the advantage anymore.”

A few days before Toll received the American Society of Cinematographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award last year, fellow cinematographer Caleb Deschanel described him as one of the last examples of cinematographers working their way up from within the union, learning the craft as they climbed their way to the top. Deschanel pointed out that, since there are so many film schools today, cinematographers burst onto the scene without all that experience. Toll agrees there’s an issue that should be discussed. “It’s not a technical issue as much as it’s a procedural issue. I think there are incredibly talented cinematographers who are able to create great images. But being able to create great images is not necessarily the only part of the job. The other part of the job is the dynamics of how you go about working within a system. I keep hearing about young cinematographers talking about how they are not being allowed to do their jobs. They are not allowed to use this kind of equipment, that the producers are telling them basically how to do their jobs. I think that people who had worked through the system have a better understanding of how to avoid getting into those situations. Essentially, I’m a much better cinematographer because I came up through the system. I worked as an assistant, I worked as an operator… And I’m not talking about being a better cinematographer technically, but in terms of being able to work within the system and get the resources, get the tools that I need to do the work. Unless you can get the cameras, and the lights, and the equipment you need to have to work, no matter how talented you are, you’re not going to be able to do your best. And when I hear young cinematographers talking about what they’re not allowed to do their jobs, that tells me that they don’t understand the system. They are just sitting there and being passive… that’s not how you approach the process. The fact that I watched other cinematographers go through those kinds of challenges… It’s how you use the system. If you think the system is going to film school and then coming out and basically buying a RED camera and shooting some images and going to work, then you don’t understand the system. You have to make your opportunities. You can’t basically show up out of film school and expect people to hand you opportunities, you have to make them. Unless you understand how the system works, you’re at a disadvantage. Every time a hear about cinematographers whining about not being able to do their jobs, I say, well, then you don’t understand what you’re doing.”

Moments before I congratulate him on winning the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award once again, I ask him to look back at his beginnings and tell me in what ways he’s a better cinematographer today. “I’m more comfortable on the job. I’m more experienced. I mean, everything I’ve done since my beginnings increased my knowledge of cinematography and made me become more familiar with it. It just gets better and better.”

An interview conducted by Sven Mikulec. Photo credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace (The Thin Red Line © Fox 2000 Pictures, Geisler-Roberdeau, Phoenix Pictures); Andrew Cooper (Braveheart © Icon Productions); Neal Preston (Vanilla Sky © Paramount Pictures); Ursula Coyote, Lewis Jacobs, Gregory Peters (Breaking Bad © Sony Pictures Television, AMC). All images are copyrighted to their respectful owners. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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