Behind The Scenes with John Toll on Tropic Thunder

John Toll, ASC supported himself by working at various jobs while attending Los Angeles City College and California State University Los Angeles. He won consecutive Oscars® for Legends of the Fall (1995) and Braveheart (1996) and a third nomination for The Thin Red Line (1999), among his many other notable film credits.

Tropic Thunder is an action comedy about a group of self-absorbed actors who set out to make the most expensive war film. When ballooning costs force the studio to cancel the production, the frustrated director refuses to stop shooting, leading his cast into the jungles of Southeast Asia where they encounter real bad guys.

Ben Stiller co-authored the script in addition to directing and playing a leading role in an ensemble cast, which includes Jack Black and Robert Downey. John Toll, ASC was the cinematographer.

“I received the Tropic Thunder script and was invited to meet with Ben,” Toll recalls. “I had never met or worked with him, but we seemed to hit it off. It’s hard to give this story a simple description, other than to say it’s a great mix of comedy, action, and drama that takes place in the world of ‘big’ Hollywood personalities. Although none of the characters in the story are based on real people, many of them, as personality types, seem very familiar; especially to people working in our business. This was a very funny script and there was a very talented group of people coming on board to do it.

“We discussed Ben’s ideas for the visual approach to the film. He was very interested in the film having a natural look and feel. Much of the humor in the film is fairly broad, and he felt the best visual support for this would be to see it take place in natural settings that felt dramatic and as real as possible.”

The production schedule included 10 weeks in Kauai as well as additional scenes filmed on sets at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Toll explains that Kauai was chosen because of the variety of terrain, dense foliage and weather that were perfect for re-creating the environments of Vietnam.

Tropic Thunder was shot in the widescreen Super 35 format in 2.40:1 aspect ratio. “This was the first film I’ve shot in Super 35,” Toll says. “All the previous widescreen films I’ve done have been shot with anamorphic lenses. I’ve been waiting for a project that I could shoot in Super 35. This film seemed perfect for that.”

Toll notes that the logistics of moving the cast, crew, and equipment though jungle settings and getting to the right places at the right times was a daily challenge on the island. “Our locations on Kauai were beautiful and very appropriate to the story, but access and logistics were sometimes extremely difficult. One would assume that moving around and finding interesting locations on a beautiful and relatively small island like Kauai wouldn’t be that difficult. Wrong. Somehow, the locations that seemed most appropriate to the story were also the least accessible and the most difficult to shoot.

“At times the weather would shift from overcast to dark clouds and rainfall, to bright sunlight and blue skies in an hour or less. Then, it would happen in reverse. When it rained the only thing we could do was to cover up and wait it out. We tried shooting in overcast light as much as possible. Primarily because this is what looked the most interesting, and second, because we had more of that type of light than direct sunlight. If necessary, we used various light control techniques as much as possible, like putting up overhead diffusion etc., and we were able to shoot matching light most of the time.

However, there are some glaring mismatches that were unavoidable. Short of shutting down production for a day there was nothing we could do about it. Given the size of our production and the daily costs involved, this was never a serious option. Thinking that I might be able to minimize mismatches later in the DI made me feel better about it.”

Toll gives full credit to his crew for getting this job accomplished under very difficult circumstances. “I was extremely fortunate to have a great crew with me,” he says. “The camera, grip, and electrical crews were fantastic. The camera assistants, key grip, gaffer and their crews would get equipment to locations that you could barely walk to.”

Most scenes in Kauai were filmed in daylight at exterior locations. Toll generally recorded daylight exterior scenes on KODAK VISION2 200T 5217 color negative film. Interiors and low-light exterior scenes were recorded on KODAK VISION2 500T 5218 stock.

“I did emulsion tests before we started production,” he says. “I looked at all the tungsten and daylight balanced stocks, and could see some differences in contrast and saturation, but I decided that they were relatively subtle. I decided that 5217 was probably the best all around stock for shooting a variety of exterior conditions and its E.I. of 200 tungsten would help us out in lower light conditions and when we needed extra stop for longer lenses. When we were in very low-light jungle locations we would go to 5218. I knew some different stocks might have been more useful in certain lighting conditions, but one important factor was trying to minimize the number of different emulsions we used. With the number of cameras we were using, and the difficult access of some of the locations, switching emulsions during the shooting day would have been extremely difficult.”

The exposed film was flown to Los Angeles where Deluxe Lab processed the negative. Toll requested printed film dailies of selected scenes during the first several weeks of production. There was an ARRI LOCPRO projector set up on location which enabled him and his crew to see how effectively they were capturing a sense of time, place and the emotional flow of the story when film images were projected on a big screen.

Toll had heard about the aIM digital dailies system developed by LaserPacific in Los Angeles. The system utilizes the Color Decision List developed by the American Society of Cinematographers Technology Committee. It includes a digital projector calibrated to simulate a film look and to be consistent with all viewing devices used in postproduction.

“We set up the film and digital projectors next to each other and watched dailies of the same shots side-by-side for a while,” Toll says. “They weren’t identical, but they were very, very close. It was good to know we had video dailies that actually reflected what the film looked like. I know it sounds old fashioned, but I still think that if you are originating images on film, it’s good to see how they look on film. ”