Unit photography by David James, SMPSP
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.
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
Toll discussed his new picture with AC in early October,
as he was beginning postproduction at Technicolor and Cinesite.
Cinematographer: What made this project attractive to you?
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
of your widescreen pictures have been shot in the anamorphic
[2.40:1] format. Was there any question about using it on this
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.
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.
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.
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