John Toll: Story, Camera Movement & Steadicam

From American Cinematographer, The War Within by Stephen Pizzello (February 1999)

"Terry and I talked extensively about creating a sense of movement throughout the whole picture. He loves to speak in metaphors, and he kept saying, 'It's like moving down a river, and the picture should have that same kind of flow'... During prep, we had talked about various ways to create that kind of style, but we never settled on a single approach. On the first couple of days of the schedule, we shot some scenes with a moving camera on a dolly, and some with stationary cameras incorporating conventional coverage and angles. It was all technically correct, and there was nothing wrong with the scenes, but when we viewed the footage, it sometimes felt very 'staged' and overly structured for the camera.

We knew we wanted something more, so we decided to loosen up our approach a bit. As a result, there's a lot of Steadicam and handheld work in the picture. We had a great Australian Steadicam operator named Brad Shields. We allowed the camera to explore a bit, and Terry encouraged the actors to try something different if they felt like it. At times, the camera would drift from one actor to another; we might not get conventional masters or coverage, but it didn't seem that important. Every scene became a unique situation, and we just shot what seemed to be most appropriate for a particular sequence. We allowed the camera to follow the emotional thread of a scene without worrying about much else. What seemed to emerge from that was a feeling of unpredictability which completely supported the idea that Guadalcanal was a strange and dangerous place that these characters suddenly found themselves in.

Terry got into that style of shooting immediately; he has a rather spontaneous and unpredictable personality, so the idea made a lot of sense to him. Using Steadicam and handheld camera certainly isn't a new idea, but the challenge was in shooting scenes that way without drawing unnecessary attention to the techniques themselves. I wanted to use the fluid, mobile camera movement as part of the overall style of the film, but in a way that supported the story."

- John Toll, ASC

Example in Interview:

Those techniques are very effective during a key sequence in which the Americans finally overtake the Japanese in a bivouac area.

"That scene is basically the Japanese soldiers' last stand. Some of them are dying of starvation, some commit suicide, some surrender and others decide to fight to the last man. I think we really captured the chaos and tragedy of that type of battle. No one really wants to be there, but they have to follow orders, and whether given individuals survive or get killed is really just a matter of chance.

The whole sequence was done with either a handheld camera and/or the Steadicam — primarily the Steadicam — and Brad Shields did a great job on it. The Americans are running into the area and the Japanese are all around them, so you don't know if the guy next to you is friend or foe. Once we set up for that scene, we had the actors go in and improvise action. We then kept repeating the sequence over and over, following different characters through this nightmarish situation. It was semi-controlled chaos, and it wasn't over-rehearsed to the point where everyone always knew what they were going to do. There were many extras in the scene, a lot of people firing at each other, and various guys taking some predetermined hits. We just let the camerawork be as free-form as possible"

- John Toll, ASC

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