Interview With Cinematographer John Toll

John Toll filming WIND

One of the most highly praised of the younger generation of cinematographers, John Toll worked his way up the ranks in television, commercials, documentaries and features, to a camera operator and assistant DP on such pictures as BLACK WIDOW and PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED. In 1991 he tackled his first feature DP assignment, the Carroll Ballard film WIND. Though not successful at the box office, the picture expertly captured the visceral experience of being on the open sea at the mercy of Nature. Since that debut, Toll's credits included LEGENDS OF THE FALL and BRAVEHEART, for which he won back-to-back Academy Awards (he was the first cinematographer in nearly 50 years to do so).

In June of 1991, he spoke on the Newport, Rhode Island location of WIND.

Morgan: I admired Ballard's first two films, which were shot by Caleb Daschenal and Hiro Narita, because of the strong presence of Nature as a catalytic force — the images really reinforced how small Man is in the scope of things. How is that aesthetic being carried through in the images in WIND?

Toll: As it's evolved, I think what will be the emphasis is the men on the boats fighting the elements and the conditions of the sea, basically using the idea of a race against one another as an excuse to get out there on the water. The idea to illustrate that is to put these boats in the most extreme conditions possible — a lot of wind, lot of swell, basically those conditions that test the ability of the boats and the men who sail them.

So the whole idea is that we'd be able to participate in an event like that as filmmakers and go along for the ride and record an event, in the sense that we are witnesses to what happens aboard all these twelve meter yachts. Taking the boats right to the limit, to the area where basically it's unsafe to sail these boats.

What are some of the difficulties facing you and your crew on these boats?

It was very difficult. I'm not a sailor and I really don't have a lot of boat experience, and there was a certain amount of shakedown and trial-and-error the first couple of weeks. [At the very beginning] we knew for at least a week we'd do nothing but involve ourselves in the problems, finding out how to shoot in conditions which were not conducive at all to shooting, [such as] dialogue scenes with major actors in sea conditions that were as extreme as we want them to be. There are always difficulties keeping the cameras dry, keeping water off the lenses, just holding onto the cameras! Figuring out how to keep the crew safe aboard the ship, finding shooting positions where we would not interfere with the operation of the boat or be in an unsafe place aboard the boat, which there are many of — there are more places where you can get injured aboard a boat than there are not.

There's a lot of communication that happens between the sailors, but they can really do their jobs without any of it if necessary. In fact it's very difficult to communicate aboard the boat, especially when you're getting pounded left and right, water splashing, yelling, you get knocked down, almost knocked off the boat. Staying on the boat is a major occupation, forget about filmmaking! The sailors are really looking out for us. Every day that I've been out there one of these guys has grabbed me just before I've fallen off the boat. Or, 'Don't stand there, remember the boom?' two seconds before it swings over your head and gives you a concussion.

It's a hostile environment aboard the boat, much less the water. The first two days on the boat we never took the cameras out of their water-proof cases because the conditions were so bad we really wouldn't have accomplished anything. [On top of that,] these boats are as uncomfortable an environment as you can possibly find. They're made out of aluminum and wire. There's not a comfortable place to sit down on them, there's nothing soft on these boats; even the sails are hard. They're made out of the same material they make bullet proof vests out of. If you get hit by one it can knock you out.

Can you describe how your working relationship with Carroll has developed?

Carroll's an unusual director, in a good sense, in that he's so visual. That's one of the reasons I wanted to work with Carroll, because of who he is and what his films are all about.

What is he asking of you the most?

Just basically to be his eyes, and help him make the film. We'll talk about a sequence, he'll talk about a basic visual approach and he'll turn it over to me and ask me to make it happen for him, in terms of setting up the shots, getting the position, the lighting. We'll discuss a particular lighting scheme and just sort of lay it out for him. It's working with a director in the best possible way in that he has a definite idea about what he wants the film to look like, how it's going to cut, how one cut is going to lead to another. And he is basically relying on all of us — not just me but the production designer, his AD and all the other people [to help achieve that].

Because he's such a visual director, [our dialogue] is really based on sort of a visual shorthand — not a lot of dialogue about what we're going to do, basically just a general approach. You get a lens out and start looking, and sort of build it as you go along. There's certainly a general concept but it's more of an on-set type of experience.

I've really respected Carroll's work, even before BLACK STALLION. I remember seeing (before I was in the business) a short film that he did called RODEO in 1969 or '70. It was a wonderfully conceived, great little short visual piece that I'm not sure who he did it for but it somehow made its way into theatres. I think it was shot in 35mm. It was just stunning, I'd never seen anything like it, and I always remembered his name, and I never heard anything about him until THE BLACK STALLION came out.

Somehow we have a similar idea about how to approach the job — not just the specific visuals. Everything that he's always done has made sense to me, in a visual sense. You know that you'd be compatible with this person in a working situation. You can see other great cinematography, respect it for what it is but not be sympathetic to it, you know what I mean? You can respect it and it's really technically well achieved . . .

But it only serves its own purposes?

Not necessarily, it's just not my taste. There is great photography that's somehow just not my taste.

What do you define as your taste?

I don't know, I hate to use the word 'simple.' but it's uncluttered — I have uncluttered tastes. I love just very simple, natural-feeling things. Things that are really technically difficult to achieve. Sometimes I feel that things are over-produced to the point where [it] can be too realistic. If I can feel the hand of the cinematographer . . . that's not my natural inclination. I love things where the hand of the cinematographer is almost invisible; it's like he showed up on the most gorgeous natural light possible and happened to take advantage of it. He may have had to wait three weeks or had twelve days off-stage making it happen, but I guess being unobtrusive makes more sense to me.

I don't really have a visual definition for myself. I haven't done that many pictures as a cinematographer — this is my first feature. So I don't feel I've come to the point where I have an individual style, but that's just the direction I find myself going. Just look at a setting, decide what you don't like, essentially.

And improve on it?

Improve on it. And improvement always comes from a certain point of view. Unless a situation requires a different point of view.

We used 35mm Aaton cameras for this; I knew right off the bat we were going to need the smallest, most lightweight portable hand-holdable camera, and the Aaton is about half the weight of the Arri, so we used those and they actually allowed us to do shots that I don't think were possible any other way.

We tried to build a waterproofing and lens-clearing system that would still allow us to hand-hold the camera, where the camera could take anything short of immersion. It worked quite well. There are shots in the film where you see water rolling across the deck, like a wave would hit the camera, would be obscured for a beat and then it clears itself. So it's really the effect that someone would have as water hit them in the face and they're blinded for a second and then they can see again.

How was that done?

One bag went completely around the body of the camera; all that was really exposed was the switch — that was one layer. The second layer started with a matte box of our design with a piece of optical glass built into the matte box was an air nozzle which was hooked up to a nitrogen tank below decks with a lever controlled by a grip who would stand behind the camera so that when water would get inside the [box] on the piece of optical glass, nitrogen would clear the lens.

Did you also operate cameras yourself on this?

Yes, I did, [for] a couple of reasons; we started the picture in Australia, and basically it's a different system down there — a lot of the DPs down there operate. I've got a background as an operator, I operated for almost ten years on 15 or more features, and on television shows with a lot of really good DPs. I always felt I've got the instincts of an operator, so it was the most natural thing in the world for me to pick up a camera and do it. Plus it was great fun. I mean it really was very exciting. The Australian crew was great. They're out there ready for anything and [are] very flexible.

More importantly, there's not that much room on the boat, and it was really limited as to who could get on the twelve meter yachts. The script supervisor couldn't get on board, there was barely enough room for the camera, the director, and an assistant cameraman and a grip and assistant director, and that's it. So I operated.

A lot of the picture is basically made up by the camera; you kind of lay out shots, sort of get an idea what will happen, but once you're into a particular maneuver, things happen spontaneously in a sense that — I hate to use the word documentary, but it's an event with limited control. We all know our intentions, we all know probably what's going to happen with the boat, but there are things that happen out there spontaneously you just want to have the flexibility to grab [it].

Was Carroll feeding off of that, and you, being in the position of having to do that, of not being able to say 'This is the frame, this is the image we plan to get'?

No, we always start out with that intention. There's always a plan. 'Here's the shot, this is our intention,' but we're ready for any eventuality. Sometimes it went right according to plan. It's funny because as conditions got worse — meaning better for the film's sake — things happened. This is exciting shooting.

Let's take for example the business just now with the horse.

We do this periodically. Carroll's a basic filmmaker. He's a guy who started in film school and his first professional jobs in the business were to drive around with a camera in the trunk of his car. He made films for the U.S. government, USAID, in the 1960s. He was literally a one-man band, I mean he was the whole crew himself; he'd take the film home, and cut it in his garage. So he understands every aspect of filmmaking, and he's sensitive to light. This stuff was just a little vignette that he knew he might need as a bridge for this particular sequence where he had Modine and Rebecca Miller meeting on the rocks at the seashore and they wind up having a drink at her house and he spends the night, the next morning they wake up, they do the sequence that we shot [earlier] today. He felt that in the middle of all that he might need a little bridge, some cut to another event that will take the whole sequence somewhere other than a real linear progression from "Meet this girl/have a drink/go to bed." It might be interesting to throw something in there that may make no sense at all but had a visual interest. So we got a little hung up on the scene today. We didn't expect it to get overcast and gray like this, but that's where the idea of the horse came from. It's something that we threw together in five minutes. It could turn out to be wonderful and beautiful, and it may not.

I noticed he took the camera himself.

He wanted a cutaway of the horse's hooves and basically we ran out of light and didn't have time. And you could see what was happening with the horse, the horse was frisky so he didn't want to jeopardize the actors any moreso. He knows how to look through a lens, so he grabbed another cut. It's all about getting [the] pieces of film you need.

How would you characterize the yachting footage you got in the Australian period of production?

What we've got there is great, a lot of great helicopter work, but what we don't have is sequences. We don't have all the pieces that essentially pull the story together. What is to come [in Hawaii] will probably be our most difficult work. We've had a lot of opportunities to figure out the system, we know what we're dealing with. It's like a team that's been in spring training, has gone through a good season, and now we're going into the playoffs.



copyright 1991, 2009 by David Morgan
All rights reserved.