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THE LAST SAMURAI page 2page 3
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American Cinematographer Magazine
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You've expressed dissatisfaction with Kodak's high-speed Vision stocks in the past, but we understand that you used the new Vision2 [500T] 5218 for some of this picture. What did you think of it?

Toll: I'm not a fan of any of the Vision negative emulsions, especially since the introduction of Vision print stock. However, when starting a new picture, I test them all, hoping I've been wrong all along, because I know Kodak is desperately trying to stop making the EXR stocks, and is already phasing out EXR [200T] 5293, one of my favorites. After testing several emulsions for Last Samurai, I decided to use [EXR 500T] 5298 as a high-speed emulsion and [EXR 100T] 5248 and 5293 as primary stocks. We were shooting in Japan when Kodak introduced 5218. I asked Don Henderson [at Kodak] for a test roll when we got back to L.A. I thought the test looked great, so we shot out the 5298 and slowly shifted over to 5218. It seemed to have great color rendition and a full range of detail throughout the exposure range without feeling flat, while also managing to retain good blacks. Those are qualities that the earlier, slower-speed EXR stocks seemed to have, and I don't think they've ever been available to this degree in higher-speed stocks. I'm working on the color-correction of the answer print now and am eager to see how it looks in the final prints. I understand that Kodak plans to introduce 100- and 200-ISO versions of 5218. This could be exciting, but I hope it doesn't mean that they stop manufacturing the EXR emulsions before cinematographers have had an adequate amount of time to determine their own preferences. As we've seen before, the real test of a new emulsion is how it gets adopted and used by cinematographers, and it would be tragic if those who believe the EXR stocks to be preferable could no longer use them.

When it was decided that Last Samurai would be filmed in two different hemispheres, how did you organize your crews?

Toll: This was a fairly large-scale project, and the schedule required that we would start shooting in Japan, then move to L.A., then move to New Zealand. We would be prepping and shooting in all three places simultaneously because there was no down time between locations. I was doing a lot of traveling in prep, trying to keep up with it, and it became apparent to me that I needed two different teams of electrical and grips to stay on top of it. It wasn't just three different locations, it was three different countries, so I thought it would be better to have a key grip and gaffer from those regions prepping those areas. I hired gaffer Randy Woodside and key grip Al La Verde for L.A., and two Australians, gaffer Mick Morris and key grip David Nichols, for New Zealand and Japan. I had worked with all of them on prior pictures and knew I was in good hands. They had an enormous amount of responsibility for pulling it all together when I was off in other countries, and they did a great job of it. Mick and David had done features in Japan, and their previous experience working there proved very valuable.

For the camera crew, I kept the same key members from L.A. all the way through the picture: A-camera operator Mike Thomas, first ACs Chris Toll [A camera] and Tommy Klines [B camera], and second AC Jeff Pelton. The B-camera/Steadicam operator for Japan and L.A. was Greg Lundsgaard. Camera operator Peter McCaffrey from Auckland did all of our B-camera/Steadicam work in New Zealand. In Japan and New Zealand, we filled out the crews of all three departments - camera, electrical and grip - with experienced people from those countries and Australia. For the battle scenes, we pulled extra camera crews from L.A., New Zealand and Australia. All of our camera gear came from Panavision in Woodland Hills, where Phil Radin and his people did a great job of supporting us with the huge amount of equipment we used.

Everywhere we went, we were quite well staffed. It was a real mix of personalities and languages, but it worked out well because everyone was very enthusiastic about making the picture. We always had English-speaking translators to help us in Japan, and after listening to some of the key American personnel, it seemed like the Kiwis and Australians believed we should have brought some translators to New Zealand as well. [Laughs.] But they were too polite to say anything about it.

What was your strategy for maintaining lighting continuity on day exteriors, given that so much of the action plays out in wide shots?

Toll: I had never been to Japan before starting this film, and somehow I had the idealized impression that the exterior light there would be dramatically rich but soft and diffuse, and that this should be the starting point for the look of the film. Unfortunately, I saw very little of that kind of natural light throughout the shoot, so we had to devise various ways to create it. We had quite a bit of direct sunlight in most of our exterior locations in all three countries.

In L.A., Lilly built a Tokyo street set on Warners' New York Street. I spent time on the set while it was being laid out to get ideas about how to shoot it. We shot there in November, which meant we had 10 hours of daylight, sunrise to sunset. The set ran north to south and featured a narrow street and large, open intersections. On a sunny day, the quality and character of the sunlight, as well as the direction and size of shadows, changed continuously during the course of the day. A contrasty, sunlit look was something I was trying to avoid, and even if I had wanted it, the circumstances of this particular set created enormous lighting-continuity issues. The scenes we were going to shoot there involved 200 to 300 extras, and there was no way - or desire - to limit the scope of the shots. So I began to think about using a large, overhead silk.

Al La Verde began to investigate what it would take to put a silk over the entire set. Our set stretched down the New York Street, which was over 800 feet long. We weren't sure this would be possible but we wanted to give it a try. Al and his rigger, Kent Baker, came up with an idea and took it to the studio grip department. The studio, in turn, recommended bringing in an outside rigging company because of the structural issues involved in putting up a rig of that size. Kent contacted Paul and Craig Ryan of Ver Sales, and their engineers recommended installing separate steel poles to support the rig, because there were no existing structures on site that would do it. It became a fairly pricey proposition, so we modified the plan. The final design was nearly 500 feet long. Al and Kent designed the silk to be pulled out and back very quickly, and with a little practice their crew was getting it out in 15 to 20 minutes. I call it a 'silk,' but it was actually a diffusion material from Rosco called Silent Light Grid, which was terrific. We were concerned that the material might make noise and ruin dialogue if the wind came up, but the Silent Light Grid is actually pretty silent; we did have some windy conditions, and both the rig and the material worked very well. The planning and installation of this rig was a great demonstration of how film technicians can be masters of innovation when faced with a challenge of this kind. Fortunately, we were working in L.A. in a studio environment, and we had the talent, resources and support to get the job done. I don't believe we would have pulled it off somewhere else.

You began shooting in New Zealand during its summer season. How did the long daylight hours affect your work?

Toll: New Zealand is a very beautiful country, but making the natural exterior light interesting throughout the long summer days was particularly challenging. We had more than 16 hours of daylight when we started the shoot, and at that time of year, what you see from about 9 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. is the most uninteresting, hard-contrast overhead sunlight you can imagine. We started shooting in our village set, and based on what we had done in L.A., I was trying to figure out how to use large overheads, but it was difficult because of the terrain. The village had been built on a hilly plateau; using poles wasn't possible, and using Condors or cranes was impractical. In discussing it with Mick Morris and David Nichols, I thought of the UFO, a device Randy Woodside had found in L.A. that we had used as a lighting platform on another film. The UFO is a heavy, 100-foot crane arm mounted on a very small truck chassis. It's an all-terrain vehicle and is self-leveling, so you can get it into very odd places and extend the arm to full length in an almost horizontal configuration, even if the chassis isn't on level ground. That's a fairly unique combination, and I tried to get the UFO for New Zealand, but it wasn't available when we started working in the village. We did get it in time for the battle sequences, but the village required a different approach.

We had planned on building both interior and exterior sets at the location as a way to take advantage of weather and time of day for lighting. Ed, Lilly and I had done this successfully when we had last worked together. In addition to enabling us to shoot better light, it allowed everyone to be much more flexible, and we were able to shoot more material in a shorter amount of time because we had the continuity of being in the same location for an extended period. So Lilly and her team built Taka's house, where Nathan is nursed back to health, as a practical interior. We tried to schedule our interior scenes in the house in the mornings and work outside in the afternoons, when the light was friendlier. We started shooting there in January, which meant we didn't lose the light until around 9:30 p.m., so this strategy meant we would come to work at 10 a.m., shoot indoors until lunch, and then work outdoors in the afternoons. This sounds like a relatively simple idea, but it can get tricky because it wreaks havoc on the normal type of shooting schedule. We were sometimes breaking away from an unfinished interior scene to begin an exterior scene, and then picking up the rest of the interior the following day. Our first AD, Nilo Otero, tried to make this strategy work as often as possible, but we couldn't use it every day. Shooting that way puts quite a burden on the cast and crew, but everyone was sympathetic to the idea. Ed was especially supportive because he'd seen how it had worked on Legends.

For the other day-exterior scenes, we just dealt with the light as best we could. It took five weeks to shoot the final battle, and we shot through all of our daylight hours to make that schedule. We had a variety of weather conditions, and for the overall look and for lighting continuity, I tried to shoot indirect light as much as possible. By the time we filmed the battles, the UFO had arrived, and we used it to hang an overhead 30-by-40-foot frame covered in Silent Light Grid that Mick and Dave had built. We used it on some of the more contained shots in the final battle - 'contained' being a relative term. They weren't necessarily small shots because there were often 100 to 200 people in them, usually involved in swordfights. At times, we enlarged [the affected area] by putting a 30-by-30-foot frame on stands at the end of the UFO. The battlefield set was relatively level and grassy, so we could essentially get a 40-by-60 overhead anywhere we needed it. We had a period of mixed weather while we shot coverage on the fights, and having the overhead helped enormously in trying to match the light.

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.