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John Toll Talks Adjusting for the Small Screen, ‘Sense8,’ the Wachowskis & More

Written by on November 24, 2015 

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Being that I don’t enjoy — and, by extension, bother with — much contemporary TV, perhaps you should take it with a grain of salt when I say that Sense8 is my favorite series in at least a decade, if not longer. Still, that prerequisite shouldn’t dull the effect of the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski‘s show — directed by the former pairing, Tom Tykwer, James McTeigue, and Dan Glass — which is immensely entertaining, always takes advantage of the endless number of possibilities its concept offers, and evinces a crucial understanding of the many opportunities afforded by long-form storytelling.

It’s also a formally accomplished bit of work, which is thanks in no small part to the helping hand of cinematographer John Toll. It might be surprising that the who shot The Thin Red Line, Braveheart, and Almost Famous would head to a conceptually bizarre sci-fi TV show, but his recent collaborations with the Wachowskis are a symbol of good collaboration — even if the pre-production process wasn’t exactly the tidiest. We spoke at Poland’s Camerimage International Film Festival, where the pilot screened, and you can read our discussion of this in addition to how the shifting nature of post-production has changed filmmakers’ eyes, Netflix’s “4k requirement,” and more.

You’ve talked about how you make little distinction when shooting for film and TV — mostly keeping in mind that you’ll be watching something on a smaller or bigger screen, with a similar image-making process — but has that changed the longer you’ve work in the medium?

Well, I think the idea of small screens and big screens is sort of changing, because television screens, the quality of television monitors — home-viewing monitors — are getting better and getting larger. I don’t know when I said that, but it’s probably a little different now.

It was for an interview about the Breaking Bad pilot.

Okay. So that was five, six years ago. I think things have changed a lot since then, so I’m not quite as… it’s not as much an influence on me as when I did Breaking Bad. But, in terms of Lana and Andy, their previous films were sort of “larger-screen images,” just in terms of visual effects, and I think the types of stories that they were telling — in The Matrix, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending — were certainly different types of stories. With the nature of the stories and the digital-effects aspects, there was a different emphasis than Sense8, so I think that’s the adjustment: it’s just different types of stories, as opposed to where you are watching it.

What kind of displays were you looking at during the production and post-production processes?

Well, we didn’t really see it in post-production; we saw it mostly on the set. Dailies would actually be small-screen images, because what’s happening now is, there’s something called Pix, which is when you get your Dailies transferred and delivered to you, so people are looking at dailies on iPads, so you’re not actually looking at projected, large-screen images for dailies. I’m not sure what everybody is doing in television, but, on Sense8, we shot and we traveled in eight different countries. We’re traveling, so we never actually had an opportunity to sit in a screening room and look at dailies, so I think we were judging the quality of the image primarily on-set, looking at high-quality monitors on-set, on larger screens — 30-, 40-inch monitors, which I think was sort of representative of the viewing experience that Netflix delivered. So we were kind of evaluating the images as we were shooting them, and looking at displays that were pretty much representative of what people would be seeing.

I think that, in shooting films for the length of time we’ve been shooting them, we’ve been able to interpolate: even though you’re not looking at a 25-foot image, you can look at a 40-inch monitor and kind of evaluate how it’s going to look that way. I think that comes out of experience, really, having made a few films and seen how a 40-inch image might translate to a 25-foot image. I think you just sort of have to take that into consideration, and you just don’t have the option — especially if you’re shooting in multiple locations all over the world — to sit in a screening room. So we watch dailies that way. You’re not shooting at the same studio for two or three months and go to lunch and watch dailies on a projected, large-screen image; it’s just not practical.

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Are you curious to see it projected on a big screen?

Yeah. I’m going to go see it, because I haven’t seen it in a theater. So I’m really curious to see how it looks. But I went to Chaplin College a couple of weeks ago, just to sit in; one of the instructors is an ex-colleague of mine. So we projected a Blu-ray of The Thin Red Line, and I thought that just the fact that it was a projected Blu-ray, number one, was questionable, but it held up really well. I hadn’t seen the film projected in quite a while, and I’ve seen it on various monitors because we’ve done various, different transfers, and it all sort of looked like the same movie.

It looked pretty much like it had, looking at it on monitors for a while, so you just get used to it — especially if you’re involved in post-production on feature films, because you’re doing your post-color correction on smaller screens, and they’re projected images — but not huge, massive, 30-to-40-to-50-foot screens — so you become used to being able to interpret and compensate the difference of that screen. So my mind is not as critical as it used to have been, before you had that experience, and when the quality of the monitors are very nearly as good as they are now.

The show uses directors across its various settings, and it seems as if you, in one way or another, worked with most of them along the way. How was that uniform, “house style” set?

Out of necessity. It was funny, because, when we started, the other cinematographers… one was Frank Griebe, who works with Tom Tykwer all the time. Christian Almesberger is another who works with Tom, and Dan Ruhlmann, who works with James McTeigue. But it came together pretty quickly, and the idea of the various units was sort of being juggled around and kind of fell into place, but we never… we did my segments first, with Lana and Andy. And we sort of developed a working style [Laughs] based on necessity as much as anything else, because we had a hell of a lot of work to do. The amount of work on a daily basis was much more work per day than any of us had been used to, because there was a television schedule and we’re doing twelve hours of television — probably the same length of time that we’ve taken to do two-hour movies.

So there was a certain practical approach to the work that was necessary just to accomplish the amount of work in a given amount of time, but it also lent itself to telling those stories the way that they want to tell them. We didn’t have a huge amount of collaboration amongst the cinematographers, but we sort of set a pace. We set a tone, because we decided first which cameras we were going to use, because Netflix has this “4K requirement,” so there’s a certain limitation on which type of cameras were available to us, only because of the “4K requirement.” So I kind of set up what I thought would be most appropriate in terms of equipment and a stylistic approach to the film, which is a lot of steady cam and a lot of handheld. Everybody else just sort of fell into place with it — not because we had established it, but all the different directors were faced with the same scheduling challenges, so it kind of became like the approach to the work.

Lana and Andy were traveling, even though we were all in production simultaneously at one point. As producers, they would travel to the other locations where the other directors were shooting, and they basically just had collaborations. Stylistically, what we had established had sort of bled into the other units. But it wasn’t a… we never all had the opportunity to sit in a room together and say, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s the style of the piece.” It just sort of emerged in a very practical sense, in that… we started shooting. [Laughs] This is what we did, and it made sense for everyone else. But there was no grand design; it just sort of came together out of necessity rather than any large, creative collaboration.

Did challenges emerge from shooting with cameras that weren’t as high-end as what you used on, say, Jupiter Ascending?

Well, they were high-end cameras; they were just different cameras. We used the Sony F55 cameras, and, because of the camera mobility, I knew that we wanted to be able to move the camera. We wanted to be able to… it was trying to accomplish a lot of work in a given amount of time. More than we’re used to in a feature. But Netflix had a “4K requirement,” where, basically, they’re trying to “future-proof” their content in terms of resolution. So they have a 4K requirement, where you can use any camera you want, you decide, it just has to be 4K-capable. That automatically limits your choices. So we settled on F55 cameras. They are high-end cameras; they’re great cameras. But it wasn’t a camera that I had to use in the past, so there’s a little bit of a learning curve. Cinematographers sort of customize the camera system to their needs, so there’s a little bit of that going in, which wasn’t a big deal — you’re just getting to know your equipment a little bit, and it just wasn’t equipment that I knew. But it didn’t take long.

Sense 8

Are you expecting to return for the show’s second season?

I think so. We’re talking about it. It’s just sort of starting to fall into place with scheduling and everything.

Do you know when it might begin shooting?

They’re talking about March.

You’re on the Student Short Films jury. You having decades of experience and worked with great filmmakers, I’m curious about what mindset you might put yourself in when evaluating the work — in the sense that they’re not as experienced or working with cheaper technology.

Well, I do, but that’s secondary. I think that these are motion pictures, and, in my mind, motion pictures are about telling stories with moving images. That’s what they’re about. It could be a $200 million feature film or a $2,000 student film. And I do remind myself that they have limited resources, they have limited experience, but given the scope of their project, you’re evaluating how these particular filmmakers — and even though they’re students, they’re filmmakers — what story are they trying to tell, and how are they trying to tell it with images? As a judge, that’s my primary consideration. Their experience level is one thing, but there are ten-year-old kids with video cameras who are telling stories, and it’s sort of like… there are limitations with the equipment, but somehow a filmmaker needs to understand what their limitations are and being able to use their tools, in a way, to tell stories, so it doesn’t need to be high-end photography.

Basically, it’s a camera and it’s a story, so how are they using the camera to tell a story? In my mind, that’s the primary consideration. And just the level of sophistication beyond that, certainly you take it into consideration, so there’s some really interesting films we’ve seen in the last couple of days. There are some pretty accomplished films, but you know that there wasn’t a big budget, there wasn’t a big crew, but they were able to use the tools in ways that really involved you with the characters and really involved you with the stories. So, in my mind, that’s what any kind of filmmaking’s about. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Ridley Scott movie or a kid down the block.

Have you done juries before?

I was on a Main Competition jury here about eight years ago, but that was the only other film-festival jury I’ve been on. In L.A., the Cameraman’s Guild, The Local 600, has a competition. I’ve been a part of that. I’ve seen some AFI films. There actually is a judge, but I’ve been exposed to films. I understand the limitation, but I try to take that all into consideration.

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See all of our coverage from Camerimage 2015.


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