John Toll: Jungles & Daylight Exteriors

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

"In those situations [jungle], scouting is everything. We would basically clear out a path to get the gear in, and then take the actors in another 100' and let them struggle. [Laughs.]

We did haul some lights into the jungle, but when we turned them on, they completely changed the character and nuances of the natural light. It was beautiful in there, but we were dealing with extremely low light levels. There were subtleties in the colors and gradations of the natural light that completely disappeared when we mixed in any artificial fill. There was plenty of contrast, though, because the sunlight that did filter in created great hot highlights. I decided to just expose into the shadows as much as possible and go for the natural falloff of the shadows to compensate for lack of detail. It worked out okay.

This became a general approach to lighting most of the exteriors. I started out using some amounts of fill, but I became less and less interested in controlling contrast; I would expose for the shadow detail that I wanted and then usually let highlights go. At times, we would use indirect light bounced from muslin or beadboard to lift faces, and maybe use black for negative, but when we were working in heavy contrast, I was quite a bit overexposed from what a more normal exposure would be in those situations. When it was sunny, it was extremely contrasty, but rather than trying to balance everything by adding fill, I just ignored the highlights.

I thought the film actually started looking much better when we lost the details in the highlights; it seemed more appropriate for the story. The more contrasty things got, the better, because it felt as if things were out of control — just as they were in the story.

There's a sequence that I like between Nick Nolte, who plays this mad colonel, and John Cusack, who's his adjutant. In the scene, which occurs about halfway through the battle, Nolte tells Cusack not to worry about the men and to focus on the charge up the hill. We were on top of a hill in an area with all of these burned-out tree trunks. It was extremely contrasty, but we really wanted to get into the faces and show the actors' expressions. We chose to shoot in a direction that would allow us to take advantage of the light. We put them in areas where they were in direct sunlight that was broken up by the trees, and we also added smoke to soften the sunlight. We wanted to show the environment, but we also chose angles that were good for close-ups and dialogue. We used some white fill and black negative to give the characters some shape and contrast, but choosing the right angles was the most important consideration...

...It's amazing to me how often I hear cinematographers say that they think shooting good-looking day exterior movies is all about sitting around and waiting for the right light to happen, and then just pointing your camera at it and shooting 'pretty pictures.' Doing good work in day exterior situations means that you must be able to make great images all day long, even when the light isn't ideal for pretty pictures. You must make choices that will allow you to take advantage of natural light in existing conditions. Even when the light is 'bad' it is possible to do good work by making wise choices.

The predominant day exterior lighting conditions on this film were either sunny high-contrast or soft contrast resulting from overcast conditions. Because we were shooting all day long and didn't have the luxury of waiting for ideal light, we had to decide how to make existing light work for the scenes we were schedule to do on a given day. It was impossible to entirely control all of the light in our shots because we were using wider-angle anamorphic lenses and constantly moving the camera. None of the traditional methods of light control, such as putting up silks, were possible, because of the terrain and the nature of the shots. Sometimes, if we were doing extended dialogue and didn't like the way the contrast was affecting the actors' faces, we would try to create an artificial 'overcast' look by staging scenes under trees or in the shadow of a hill. At other times, we would stay in the open and go with the existing high contrast, exposing the faces and letting the contrast go. There were also days when we had both overcast and high-contrast sun happening simultaneously because of low clouds moving quickly and causing severe light changes. We had some days when the light changes happened so quickly that we just shot through them. It could be blistering hot one moment, and completely dark the next — sometimes in the same shot. But that represented the reality of the situation, and we just went with it. We didn't fight the conditions; we just tried to make them part of the story. In fact, for one Akela shot of the soldiers climbing up the hills, we waited specifically for a light change to happen. The scene starts out in heavy cloud cover, but the sun comes out and reveals these guys sneaking through the grass. That particular light change worked well for us.

The point I'm trying to make is that good daytime exterior cinematography is not comprised solely of making 'pretty pictures' at magic hour; it's about being knowledgeable about your craft and being able to create interesting images in all of the various daylight conditions."

-John Toll, ASC

No comments:

Post a Comment

I am always open to relevant, professional feedback, opinions and critical critique.

go raibh maith agat!