John Toll is one of the few cinematographers in history to score back-to-back Oscars — for “Legends of the Fall” in 1994 and the following year for “Braveheart.”
His work on “Braveheart” and “Thin Red Line” certainly served him well in terms of shooting “The Last Samurai’s” extensive battle sequences, but the d.p. says that is not the reason he took the job. Instead, he says he became sold on the film only after (director) Ed Zwick took him location scouting to Japan, where he found visual inspiration for the entire film.
“On our first location scout in Japan, we found a wonderful 1,000-year-old Buddhist monastery built in a forest on a mountaintop,” he explains. “We were able to get permission to shoot there. It was an incredible place — still an active monastery, and filled with traditional architecture. It definitely evoked the feeling of stepping back in time. A primary aesthetic goal was to visually set the story in a way that had the same emotional tone and atmosphere of that place.”
The challenge was that only parts of the film were shot in Japan, let alone anywhere near the Buddhist monastery.
A method of matching sunlight from different locations in New Zealand and L.A. was achieved by Toll’s team while preparing to shoot an 1876 Tokyo street scene on a converted New York street set at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
“We constructed an overhead support system that allowed us to cover most of the set with several hundred feet of diffusion material (called a Silent Light Grid),” he explains. “This not only created the desired look, but it gave us control of the light, which made our shooting day much more efficient. In New Zealand, we used this same idea throughout the battles, but there we used a portable crane, built exclusively for film use, that allowed us to fly very large frames covered with this same material.”
Key tools: Panavision Panaflex cameras; Panavision anamorphic lenses; Kodak 35mm 5248 and 5293 stock for exteriors, and Kodak 5298 and 5218 for interiors
Aesthetic: “(Director Ed Zwick, production designer Lilly Kilvert) and I all agreed that the film should try to recreate the feeling and ambiance of Japan in the 1870s in a natural, realistic way, and on as large a scale as possible.”
Challenge: “To light the interior sets and to control the bright exterior sunlight of New Zealand and Los Angeles in a way that was consistent with the feeling and general ambiance of what I had seen in Japan.”
Oscar Pedigree: Nominated for “The Thin Red Line” (1998); won for “Legends of the Fall” (1994) and “Braveheart” (1995).