Every movie needs a plot. It's a plain fact. Admittedly, this golden rule has been seemingly ignored lately (take Inspector Gadget, for example) but it still holds true in most cases. And what else does a movie need? Well, actors are fairly essential, a director always helps and a producer never goes amiss. But one aspect that is often unfairly overlooked is the importance of an accomplished cinematographer.
Faced with the task of coordinating every scene and every frame within a movie, the director of photography certainly has a serious bearing on the finished product. And if the job's done well, the effect can be breathtaking.
One man who certainly knows what he's doing in this sphere is John Toll, two times Academy Award winner for his cinematography on Braveheart and Legends Of The Fall and recently in charge for Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, a film that was widely applauded for its staggering imagery.
After years working as a camera operator, Wind (1992) was the first movie that Toll took charge of and he got the job after meeting director Carroll Ballard when they were both working on a TV commercial: 'That first job is the toughest,' Toll told HCC, but quickly retracts that statement. 'No, the second is the toughest because your first had to be good enough to get the second.'
Wind starred Matthew Modine and told the story of a young sailor who plans to use a new yacht to win back the America's Cup from the Australians. Although the film sank at the box office, it was a highly visual picture and the maritime photography was particularly striking.
Since then, Toll has worked on a host of films, including Legends Of The Fall (1994), the Robin Williams vehicle Jack (1996), John Grisham's The Rainmaker (1997) and the soon to be released Simpatico.
'It's always different working with different directors', he says, 'there are definite variations in style. Although the film making process does impose a certain type of discipline, no two directors have the same approach.'
Talking about those he has worked with, Toll continued, 'Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) has a very lyrical and unconventional style and he is very intuitive. Ed Zwick (Legends Of The Fall) is very organised, knows exactly what he wants and is very collaborative. Mel Gibson (Braveheart) combined many of these characteristics and was extremely committed and passionate about telling that particular story.'
Although the personnel involved on the picture is important, what makes a lot more difference is the genre of the movie.
'Shooting films like Wind and The Thin Red Line is a completely different universe to making movies like Jack and The Rainmaker. Each type of film has its challenging moments, but doing something like The Thin Red Line is so much more complicated in logistics and so much more open-ended in its physical productions. Trying to recreate WWII jungle battlefields while shooting in the rain forests of the Solomon Islands and Australia was quite a different experience than recreating a courtroom in modern-day Memphis.
The planning that goes into making a movie is pretty intense, whatever the subject matter, and is an extremely long process. However, once a director of photography has been named, the level of responsibility is pretty standard.
'Once a director has committed to a cinematographer, that's it. You are given a great deal of responsibility, whether it's your first picture or your fifteenth.'
What does change from picture to picture though, is when the cinematographer gets involved, which depends heavily on the project, and on the director.
'For A Thin Red Line, I started talking to Terrence Malick in August 1996, and we had a lot of phone conversations before I actually met him in September. He asked me to do the film in the beginning of 1997, and we began location scouting in February. After that, we started shooting in June 1997 and shot for five months. It was four months after we returned from shooting that Terry invited me to see a rough cut screening. And it wasn't until December 1998 that I did the first colour correction at the lab just prior to the release of the picture in the US. That was the longest time I have been involved on one film.'
Set on the tiny island of Guadalcanal, it follows a group of soldiers as they take the island, from the first landing until they get rested from the front line. Adapted from a novel by James Jones, a soldier who took part in the battle, it is a harrowing tale that focuses on the morality of conflict. At almost three hours, it's certainly on an epic scale. The film is packed with celebrities, with Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, George Clooney and Sean Penn all involved. But, watching the movie, it's the beauty of the camera work that really stands out.
'Just like when we filmed Braveheart in Scotland, we had gone to a unique place to put these characters into this environment and make it a realistic depiction. We scouted the actual battlefields on Guadacanal and shot a part of the picture there, but the logistics were too difficult to shoot the whole thing there and much of it was done in a part of Australia which looked just like it. The idea was to recreate the conditions of the battlefield as realistically as possible by putting our characters into these very unique environments.'
Talking specifically about certain scenes in the movie, Toll said: 'The battle in the grassy hills was pretty challenging, which isn't surprising if you consider the amount of screen time for the scene. And, to move the camera through the grass, we found the grass was uneven and the terrain was steep. We couldn't use a dolly (a wheeled camera support) or a Steady-Cam as that still needs a man to walk with it, so we came up with a crane-arm which we could swing around the grass. As a technical device it worked well and we overcame a unique set of challenges there.'
Another one of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when the US soldiers come across a Japanese camp, and John recalled that a lot of the Japanese characters were played by students who happened to be travelling around Australia at the time.
'Some of them didn't speak English', he states, 'but they didn't need to. At the same time, a lot of the Americans were played by Australian extras and everyone took it so seriously. Towards the end, everyone was all hanging around in the same bars every evening. It was a great atmosphere.'
After the shoot, one of the most notorious aspects of the film concerns the reams and reams of footage that were cut from the movie.
SHOOTING THE STARS
Over the course of his career, John Toll hasn't just worked with some great directors, he's also crossed paths with some impressive actors too, but he doesn't answer to them in terms of his own work.
'If an actor has an idea, I'll listen to it and, if it's good, I'll go to the director and take credit for it. If it's not, I'll say it's a great idea, then forget about it. Seriously, though,talking to actors about work is very rare, in fact I can't even remember a time that's happened. And if it did, it would only be in terms of their own piece of staging.'
Describing his relationship with the cast as informal, Toll says there's almost an unwritten understanding between actors and cinematographers that they don't get into each other's business. 'And if problems do arise, the director and the cinematographer are usually right there to solve them anyway.'
But such difficulties with temperamental performers are very infrequent indeed. 'I've never had a problem with actors', he says, 'the majority of actors are fine and if there's going to be a problem it'll be before they get on set, where they're utterly professional. And people like Brad Pitt and Mel Gibson were so unconcerned with how they looked that I had to fight to get dirt off them.'
'I had no official capacity in the editing suite, but Terry is a wonderfully collaborative director and invited me to come in periodically. Usually the cinematographer is not a part of the editing process, but he would encourage me to give an opinion about work in progress and it was a terrific experience for me. Of course I can't tell you that he actually used any of those ideas, but the exercise was very worthwhile for me. Anyway, some people call The Thin Red Line a long film, but believe me, it used to be a really long film.'
And, as for famous casualties, well there were some. Considering the amount of footage that had to be left behind, it was inevitable that some sections, even those featuring big stars, didn't make the final cut. Of these, Bill Pullman was perhaps the most well-known.
'There were many actors who appeared in cameos, frequently in just one scene. Sometimes the scenes became very short, and at times were cut entirely from the picture. But everyone was enthusiastic about being involved in the picture and didn't seem to get upset about it. Well, even if they were, they didn't do it in public.'
After all the effort that goes into making these films, John is glad that more and more people are beginning to see the movies as they were designed to be seen for the big theatre screen.
'I think DVD is a good format,' he said, 'especially with the extra features like the film-makers' comments. But what really makes a difference, is seeing a film letter boxed and in the correct aspect ratio.
'The Thin Red Line was shot in the widescreen aspect ratio. When widescreen films are seen on TV, it's necessary to have black bars at the top and bottom to show everything that was shot. If you don't get this, you're losing 40 per cent of the movie because you lose the sides
'This is especially important for a film by someone like Terrence Malick, where the camera tells much of the story. We designed the shots and set the compositions and used the whole width of the frame. If you cut off the sides and lose 40 per cent of the frame, you are cheating the audience and they're not seeing the whole story. When I was in Britain recently, I saw Braveheart was on TV and it was the fullscreen version with the edges cut off. It looked like a different movie and I could barely watch it'.
Tom Bourton, Home Cinema Choice, May 2000
Read about John Toll at the Internet Movie Database.