Back in the day, aspiring cinematographers would join the union and work their way up, learning their craft along the way. And if they were lucky, they would be mentored by a few good men.
“John is one of the last examples of that,” says Caleb Deschanel of fellow director of photography John Toll, who will receive the American Society of Cinematographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award at the group’s 30th annual awards ceremony Feb. 14.
“(Toll) worked with fantastic d.p.’s and had the focus and determination to learn from them,” adds Deschanel, who himself received the career honor in 2009. “Today, there are so many film schools, and people burst onto the scene without all that experience. Many of the films John has done, with sweeping battles, would have become chaos in the hands of a lesser cinematographer. John maintains his artistry, because of his command of all the available tools and his skill at putting the audience into the emotion of the situation.”
Toll’s work speaks for itself, with credits that include “Braveheart” and “Legends of the Fall,” both of which earned him Oscars, as well as Terrence Malick’s meditative WWII epic, “The Thin Red Line,” which resulted in his second competitive ASC award.
Toll came to Los Angeles at age 19 from Cleveland and began working on documentaries for David L. Wolper Prods. He remembers following paramedics with a camera — literally ambulance-chasing — and thinking the resulting images looked more dramatic than they had through the eyepiece. He was hooked.
He then toiled on low budget films for AIP and Crown Intl., and moved into television as a camera assistant and apprenticed with Archie Dalzell, who had worked in the 1930s with Cecil B. DeMille and Raoul Walsh. Eventually Toll operated the camera for, and learned from, such d.p. masters as John Alonzo, Conrad Hall, Allen Daviau, Jordan Cronenweth and Haskell Wexler, serving in that capacity on such stylistic gems as “Scarface,” “Urban Cowboy,” “Tequila Sunrise” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
He has said his time as an operator lasted longer than it might have because he was getting so many top-shelf gigs, which made it easier to wait for the right opportunity to move up to director of photography.
That opportunity was “Wind,” the 1992 Carroll Ballard film about America’s Cup racing. It was a challenging milieu, but Ballard wanted a documentary-style approach to the photography and Toll’s experience served him well. His next film — “Legends of the Fall” — resulted in the first of two consecutive Oscars, as he won the following year for “Braveheart.” Two Oscars with a mere three features under his belt as a d.p. validated his relentless attention to detail and a steady temperament.
An enviable slate of assignments followed, always displaying fastidious framing and assured camera movement that subtly underscores mood and story. On “The Thin Red Line” he made extensive use of the Technocrane to create an ominous yet poetic tension.
Since 2012, his narrative work has been mostly with Lana and Andy Wachowski, on “Cloud Atlas,” (shared with Frank Griebe), “Jupiter Ascending” and the television series “Sense8” — all three projects that demonstrate tremendous range and a willingness to take calculated risks.
He’s also finishing up post-production on Ang Lee’s latest feature, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which, rumor has it, benefits from a fresh approach to digital filmmaking developed by Lee and Toll.
Toll declined to be interviewed for this profile, but his humility came through in a philosophical chat from several years ago. “I’m reluctant to think about what a great film you might be making while you are actually making it,” he said at the time. “If it comes, it comes later. You just keep going, trying to do your best work and hope that it turns out great.”