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American Cinematographer Magazine
Envisioning an Empire
John Toll, ASC details his approach to The Last Samurai, the tale of a fateful rebellion set during a tumultuous period in Japanese history.

Unit photography by David James, SMPSP

Set in Japan in 1876, The Last Samurai chronicles an unusual alliance that develops between an embittered U.S. soldier and a determined samurai warrior. The soldier, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), has been hired to train Japan's army, and their immediate target is a samurai uprising led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), whose adherence to tradition is perceived as a threat to the emperor's plans. Over the course of the picture, Algren comes to know and respect Katsumoto's way of life, and he eventually stands with the samurai against the emperor's troops.

The Last Samurai reunited director of photography John Toll, ASC with director Ed Zwick. Their first collaboration, Legends of the Fall, earned Toll his first Academy Award in 1995 (see AC March '95). He won his second the following year, for the epic war film Braveheart (AC June '96.) Some of the lessons Toll and Zwick learned on Legends of the Fall proved valuable on The Last Samurai, a far-flung production that encompassed locations in New Zealand and Japan and several weeks of studio work in Los Angeles. Toll discussed his new picture with AC in early October, as he was beginning postproduction at Technicolor and Cinesite.

American Cinematographer: What made this project attractive to you?

John Toll, ASC: It was a combination of things. First, I was attracted to the genre and the period. I found the prospect of portraying Japan at that point in its history extremely interesting. The story of the movie is historically accurate to a degree, in that Japan did bring American and European advisers in to oversee changes in its military, educational systems, industry and so forth. It was essentially the birth of modern Japan. In addition, I'd had a good working relationship with [director] Ed Zwick and [production designer] Lilly Kilvert on Legends of the Fall, and I'd enjoyed working with [producer and actor] Tom Cruise [on Vanilla Sky], so there was a sense that I would be collaborating with a great team. We were all very excited about the visual potential of the film because of the nature and scope of the story.

How did you and your collaborators arrive at the decision to film in Japan, New Zealand and Los Angeles

Toll: In August 2001, while the script was still coming together, Ed asked me to join him in a preliminary location scout with the producer at that time, Pat Crowley, Lilly Kilvert, and visual-effects supervisor Jeff Okun. The picture had not been greenlit yet, but Warner Bros. was interested in Ed's ideas about where the picture might be shot. There had been discussions about shooting in New Zealand as a substitute location for Japan, so we scouted in both countries.

The story takes place in Imperial Tokyo and rural Japan, so we knew we needed a certain amount of traditional Japanese architecture as well as open country. Eventually the decision was made to use New Zealand for the rural settings, and to try to find as much of the Imperial architecture as possible that still exists in modern Japan. We primarily looked for architecture that represented the look we were after but would have been difficult to build or otherwise reproduce. Ed was flexible about certain story points and willing to adapt the script to accommodate a potentially wonderful location. We were also exploring how we might use either part of a location in Japan or part of a built set and then enhance it with visual effects. Ed took us all along because he wanted to hear all of our points of view.

Lilly had found a great location for the samurai village in New Zealand's Taranaki region, on the west side of the North Island, and we also saw various locations for the battles there. In Japan, we went to Kyoto, which still has a great deal of traditional architecture, and to Himeji Castle, made famous by many Kurosawa films. We heard about Engyo-ji Temple, a Buddhist monastery in the hills outside Himeji that had never been used in a film, and we decided to check it out. It was fantastic. It's an active monastery of the Tendai Shu sect that sits in a forest on top of a mountain and comprises large-scale, mostly wooden buildings, some a thousand years old. The monks who run the monastery were incredibly accommodating, and it became our principal location in Japan. In the picture, this is where Katsumoto lives in the samurai village. We also used a temple in Kyoto for part of the Imperial Palace, and during postproduction, I shot a small second unit in Tokyo and Kyushu, filming architecture and landscapes that could be used as transitions.

In the earliest stage of preproduction, the thinking was that we wouldn't shoot any of the picture in L.A. because it would be too expensive. But once we knew what the alternatives would be and someone actually worked out the numbers, everyone realized that shooting in L.A. wasn't such a bad deal after all. In the end, we spent five weeks at Warner Bros. in Burbank, where we shot the larger interiors and all of the scenes set on the streets of Tokyo.

All of your widescreen pictures have been shot in the anamorphic [2.40:1] format. Was there any question about using it on this project?

Toll: It was obvious to all of us that the picture needed to be widescreen, and although I'm a fan of anamorphic, I did a lot of testing in Super 35mm. I've never shot a feature in Super 35, primarily because I have reservations about the optical [step in postproduction], but I decided to really experiment with it for this project. As much as I love the look of anamorphic, it's always been a temptation to shoot the widescreen format with spherical lenses because of depth-of-field issues and the variety of lenses available. Also, we were planning a certain amount of visual-effects work, and Jeff Okun said that although he could work in either format, shooting in Super 35 would simplify his work. We took the anamorphic/Super 35 comparisons all the way through answer-print and release-print stages, and in the end, I essentially confirmed to myself that I do, in fact, like the look of anamorphic more than that of Super 35. [Laughs.] There have been many wonderfully photographed pictures shot in Super 35, but in the comparisons I did, there was a definite difference in resolution in the Super 35 release prints, especially in shots with a great amount of small detail filmed at wider focal lengths.

I knew I could eliminate the Super 35 optical by going through a digital intermediate [DI], but at that stage it was unclear how much time I would have for postproduction. The film's release date was set, but the start date was a question. Without a definite commitment to a specified post schedule and a guaranteed amount of time to finish the picture digitally, I was reluctant to commit to Super 35.

Although I assumed Warner Bros. would prefer I shoot Super 35 for budgetary reasons, everyone at the studio actually encouraged me to shoot anamorphic, especially [senior vice president of production technologies] Rob Hummel. When Rob heard I was testing [Super 35], he called and made me aware of the comparison tests he had shot for the studio a few years earlier. In Rob's opinion, there is no comparison. [Laughs.] But the decision was left to me. I decided I should shoot the film as though I would finish in the traditional photochemical method, but if I had the opportunity to finish with a DI, I would. So I chose to shoot anamorphic. And as it turned out, I would not have had the time I felt I needed to finish the entire film as a DI, so I believe I made the right choice. Fortunately, however, I have the opportunity to finish two sequences in the DI process, and this work is in progress as we speak.

Where are you doing that work?

Toll: I'm working at Cinesite with [colorist] Jill Bogdanowicz. Cinesite has scaled down a bit, but they have a very good DI facility. I initially went there with Jeff Okun because he had decided to do all of the visual-effects scanning and recording there, and I was color-correcting some of the scans. They offered to let me do some DI tests with Jill, and the tests looked very good. At the time, I wasn't sure if I'd be doing any DI work on the picture, and I wasn't able to commit to a schedule, but Cinesite was very accommodating and told me they'd work it out if I had the opportunity to do something. I knew the other DI facilities were getting popular and busy, so this seemed like a good way to go. I'm finishing the picture at Technicolor, where I'm working with color timer David Orr for the fourth time. He is doing his usual fantastic job.

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.