Toll, John

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TOLL, John

Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: Cleveland, Ohio. Education: Attended school in Ohio before moving to Los Angeles at the age of 19 to attend college. Family: Married Lois Burwell (a makeup artist). Career: Production assistant, Wolper Productions, 1970s; served as an assistant on feature films before working as assistant camera operator for cinematographers John Alonzo, Jordan Cronenweth, Allen Daviau, Conrad Hall, and Robbie Greenberg; television credits include cinematography for A China Odyssey: Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" (CBS, 1987), The Young Riders (ABC, 1989), and Good Night, Sweet Wife: A Murder in Boston (CBS, 1990); shot hundreds of television commercials since 1988. Awards: Academy Award, Best Cinematography, for Legends of the Fall, 1994; Camerimage Golden Frog (Poland), for Legends of the Fall, 1995; Academy Award, Best Cinematography, American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Award, Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases, both 1995, and British Academy Award, Best Cinematography, 1996, for Braveheart; New York Film Critics Circle Award, National Society of Film Critics Award, Best Cinematography, both 1998, ASC Award, Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases, Berlin International Film Festival Honorable Mention for Outstanding Camerawork, Chicago Film Critics Association Award, Best Cinematography, and Golden Satellite Award, Best Motion Picture Cinematography, all 1999, all for The Thin Red Line.Agent: Judy Marks Agency, 119 N. Larchmont Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90004–3704, U.S.A.

Films as Cinematographer:


The Young Graduates (Anderson)


The Hoax (Anderson)


A China Odyssey: Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" (for TV) (doc)


The Kid, pilot for The Young Riders series (for TV)


Good Night, Sweet Wife: A Murder in Boston (Freedman—for TV)


Wind (Ballard)


Legends of the Fall (Zwick)


Braveheart (Gibson)


Jack (Coppola)


The Rainmaker (Coppola)


The Thin Red Line (Malick)


Simpatico (Warchus)


Almost Famous (Crowe)


Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Other Films:


Tom Horn (Wiard) (camera operator); Norma Rae (Ritt) (camera operator)


The Boy Who Drank Too Much (Freedman—for TV) (camera operator)


Zorro, the Gay Blade (Medak) (camera operator)


Scarface (De Palma) (camera operator)


The Falcon and the Snowman (Schlesinger) (camera operator)


Peggy Sue Got Married (Coppola) (camera operator); Black Widow (Rafelson) (camera operator)


Tequila Sunrise (Towne) (ph: second unit); The Milagro Beanfield War (Redford) (camera operator)


Blaze (Shelton) (ph: second unit); Always (Spielberg) (additonal ph: Montana unit)


By TOLL: articles—

"Cinematographer John Toll," interview with David Morgan, in Wide Angle/Closeup,, June 1991.

"Filmmakers' Forum: ASC Members Riposte Variety Article," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1996.

"John Toll, ASC Details His Experiences on The Thin Red Line," interview with Stephen Pizzello, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1999.

On TOLL: articles—

Heuring, David, "Cinematographers Honor Their Own," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1990.

Daily Variety (Hollywood), 17 February 1995.

Pizzello, Stephen, "Legends of the Fall Exploits Scenic Locale," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1995.

Probst, Chris, "Cinematic Transcendence: The ASC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Honor 1995's Standout Feature-film Cinematographers," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1996.

Thompson, Andrew O., "Production Slate: ASC and Digital Domain Explore New Frontiers," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1996.

Shoot, May 15, 1998.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1999.

* * *

In a 1991 interview on the Newport, Rhode Island, location of Carroll Ballard's Wind, John Toll divulged that he did not have an individual style. After almost ten years of working his way up through the ranks from assistant camera operator to camera operator—under the tutelage of such distinguished cinematographers as John Alonzo and Jordan Cronenweth—he had landed his first job as director of photography on this theatrical feature. Within a decade, the fledgling cinematographer who proclaimed "I don't really have a visual definition of myself" would develop a signature look.

Toll belongs to the school that believes the cinematographer's art is one of illusion. He prefers an unobtrusive, uncluttered style in which the hand of the director of photography is almost invisible. The Ohio native favors images captured in natural light—or at least those that appear that way. He had little choice while shooting the America's Cup sailing adventure Wind on a twelve-meter boat in the open seas. The cramped quarters and difficult circumstances forced him to work with existing daylight conditions. Although Edward Zwick's Legends of the Fall (1994) offered plenty of wide-open space on location in western Canada, the shoot was plagued by rainstorms and floods, requiring Toll to make constant technical adjustments. Matching shots posed a particular difficulty, as cloud cover alternated with brilliant sunlight. Despite these challenges, Toll remained committed to his naturalistic aesthetic of making "the lighting feel natural, and not manipulated." His striking widescreen cinematography captured breathtaking vistas in the "big sky" tradition of classic Westerns and earned him an Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1994.

Toll's experience with shifting, unpredictable weather patterns and his flexibility in dealing with change proved invaluable on his next project, Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995). Shot in Ireland and Scotland, where the climate seemingly cycled through four seasons in a single day, the historical epic was a difficult shoot. He achieved a "very rough, raw, stark, dark and graphic—almost primitive" feel suitable for the uncivilized Middle Ages in which the story of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace takes place. Similar to Legends of the Fall, the subject matter called for realism and a degree of visual stylization to elevate the heroic protagonist to mythic stature. In both films, Toll linked characters to the surroundings that shaped them in wide shots of bold composition. The imagery recalls John Ford's Western films, especially those set in Monument Valley, and David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia—influences that Toll has cited. His backlighting gave the characters a romantic quality, adding golden highlights to the long tresses of the adventuresome Tristan (Brad Pitt) in Legends of the Fall and the valiant Wallace (Mel Gibson) in Braveheart. Although executed with existing light sources, the stylized photography marked a new direction in the cinematographer's work.

The strength of Toll's action-sequence photography lies in his ability to plunge the spectator into the midst of a scene. Using handheld cameras aboard the racing yachts in Wind, he simulated the visceral experience of being ravaged by the forces of nature. Shots of sea water splashing against the camera lens make viewers feel as though they are being hit in the face by a wave. Handheld cameras were also used to shoot the sweeping battle sequences of Braveheart. "We wanted to create a sense of immediacy and make the audience feel as if they were participants, that they were witnessing the battle from close range," Toll was quoted by Chris Probst in American Cinematographer. He used longer focal-length lenses to fill the frame with close-ups of the combatants. The unsteady images and moving camera created visual chaos, capturing the confusion of the fighting. Toll's creative and logistical accomplishments earned him a second Best Cinematography Oscar for Braveheart in 1995, making him the first cinematographer in almost fifty years to win back-to-back Academy Awards.

Collaborating with Terrence Malick on The Thin Red Line in 1998, Toll elevated his artistry to a new level. The screen became his canvas, and he transformed images into poetry. Based on James Jones's 1962 novel about the 1942–43 battle for Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line unfolds like an impressionist mood piece. Instead of using traditional master shots and coverage, Toll's camera drifts from soldier to soldier, following the emotional thread of each scene as the scared men question why they are there and ponder the meaning of life. The spontaneous camera work and high-contrast images mimic the unpredictability of combat and contribute to the feeling that things are out of control. The wide-screen format situates the Americans within the Pacific paradise, an environment violated and scarred by the war. Nature becomes the most powerful character. Shots of vegetation and wildlife—grasslands undulating in the wind, a leaf riddled with bullet-like holes, a crocodile easing into shimmering water, a cluster of bats—are intercut with the drama. Putting the viewer into the action, Toll's moving camera stalks American soldiers through waist-high grass as they try to overtake a Japanese hilltop bunker. When red blood splatters a blade of grass, the effect is jolting. Not only has life been lost, but nature has been defiled. Toll's stunning, lyrical work earned him a third Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography in 1999, although the Oscar went to Janusz Kaminski for another war film, Saving Private Ryan. John Toll has teamed with visual directors ranging from Carroll Ballard to Francis Coppola to Terrence Malick. He became their eyes and turned their visions into photographic reality. Even when shots were technically difficult to achieve, he favored a naturalistic approach of working within existing set conditions. In less than a decade, Toll evolved from a craftsman of no distinguishable style to an internationally acclaimed cinematographer with a style all his own.

—Susan Tavernetti