John Toll, ASC treks through the Hawaiian jungle for Tropic Thunder
Tropic Thunder begins with an action sequence that portrays a battle taking place at a helicopter landing zone during the Vietnam War. This sequence is actually a “movie in a movie” being filmed as part of a major production for a Hollywood studio. The studio has bought the rights to a book written by a Vietnam vet about his heroic exploits during the war. This film has an all-star cast, but it is running over budget and the head of the studio doesn’t like what he is seeing. After the mogul pulls the plug, the Vietnam veteran convinces the director to lure the actors to a jungle in Southern Asian. They plan to cover the adventures of the cast in the jungle with video cameras as a TV reality show. The actors are in the jungle outfitted as American soldiers carrying 1960s vintage weapons. They are confronted by a drug gang controlled by a warlord. In order to survive, the actors are forced to become the characters they were portraying.
Tropic Thunder was produced by DreamWorks, SKG for distribution by Paramount Pictures. Ben Stiller co-authored the script in addition to directing and playing a leading role in an ensemble cast, which includes Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Nick Nolte and Tom Cruise. 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, the most tropical Hawaiian island, as well as additional scenes filmed on sets on stage 12 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 wide screen 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.”
One serious consideration in choosing Super 35 was the availability of anamorphic lenses at that time. Tropic Thunder would be shot with two units working simultaneously with multiple cameras working on both units. The sheer volume of lenses needed for this was a consideration because the number of productions also shooting in the anamorphic format at the time created a short supply of lenses.
Toll suggested shooting the film in Super 35 format and planning to do a digital intermediate (DI) in postproduction. “I knew a DI would be the best way to do the blown-up squeezed images in postproduction, and it would also be incredibly valuable to have the advantages of the DI for final color correction. I knew we would be dealing with major light matching issues. Doing the final color correction in a DI would help tremendously for doing shot to shot matching in postproduction.”
Toll assembled a crew that was a mix of Los Angeles and local Hawaiian-based personnel in all departments. His first unit camera crew included A-camera operator Mike Thomas, B-camera/Steadicam operator Brooks Robinson, and both Mike Chavez and Steve Adcock alternating on C-camera. The first camera assistants were Chris Toll, Patrick McCardle, and Tony Nagy. Second camera assistants were Jeff Pelton, Eric Amundsen and Scott Ronnow. The camera loader was Brian Matsumura.
His basic first unit camera package consisted of two Panaflex Millennium XL bodies and one Panaflex Platinum body with two full sets of Primo prime 14.5mm, 17.5mm, 27mm, 40mm, 50mm, 100mm, 150mm, two 24-275mm zoom lenses, and a 135-420mm zoom lens. An ARRI 435 ES body was carried by the first unit as well.
There was also a second unit led by cinematographer Josh Bleibtreu, as well as an aerial unit with cinematographer David Nowell, ASC and helicopter pilot Alan Purwin. The second unit crew included camera operators Marvin Shearer, Colin Anderson, Todd Henry and Jay Hager and assistants Jack Ellingwood, Mike Klimchak, Warner Wacha, Don Steinberg, and John McEveety. The camera loader was Andy Peck. They were working with ARRI 435 ES cameras with Primo zoom and prime lenses provided by Panavision.
“I’ve known John (Toll) for years, but had only worked with him once before when I was a camera operator in 2000 on some of the concert sequences for Almost Famous,” Bleibtreu says. “I consider him a mentor. During our first discussion about Tropic Thunder, John spoke about the overall visual approach to the film and emphasized that he wanted us to work together as closely as possible. We spoke about various technical issues, how he was exposing the film, etc. Our job was to provide footage that blended seamlessly with his film.”
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.
“There is one location on Kauai that has more rainfall than anywhere else on earth, Mt. Waialeale. Most of our locations were within a couple of miles of it and we learned very quickly how to deal with sudden changes in the weather and the rain squalls that would blow through the set several times a day.
“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 Herb Ault, and gaffer Randy Woodside and their crews would get equipment to locations that you could barely walk to. Also, I can’t say enough about the contributions of both Josh Bleibtreu and David Nowell. David’s aerial work is a major contribution to the whole scope of the film, and Josh and his crew did a wonderful job of shooting action sequences or matching into and completing sequences that the first unit hadn’t finished…always one of the most difficult types of shooting.”
Most scenes in Kauai were filmed in daylight at exterior locations. Toll generally recorded daylight exterior scenes on Kodak Vision 2 200T, 5217 color negative film. Interiors and low light exterior scenes were recorded on Kodak Vision 2 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 opening scene of the film, where all the principal characters are introduced as members of the combat unit engaged in the firefight at the helicopter drop zone was an especially challenging sequence. The scene ends with a huge napalm explosion that was shot as a live action physical effect on the principal set.
“This is a major moment in the film,” Toll explains. “It was also the kind of situation that is very tricky because of the amount of live explosives being used. We really didn’t want to do it more than once. So, in addition to planning all the angles and camera placement, we tried to anticipate everything that might go wrong. I have to admit we hadn’t planned on shooting quite as many angles as we did, but when we started placing cameras that day I kept asking my first assistant, Chris Toll, for more camera bodies and he kept coming up with them.
“The camera assistants had seen this coming and they had made sure we were covered. They did a great job on this film. We also needed to incorporate principal actors into the explosion, so in the end we had seven or eight cameras on the explosion itself, two angles for the blue screen plates we would use for the actors, and David Nowell shooting from a helicopter flown by pilot Alan Purwin.”
“I had occasional opportunities to see John at work, including a physical effects shot simulating a napalm strike, “ Bleibtreu says. “It was like going to school watching him maintain his composure and keeping his vision for the story and continuity in sometimes very challenging circumstances.”
He observes that different scenes were filmed with cameras on dollies and cranes, Steadicams and handheld, on the ground, on moving trucks and on helicopters.
“John has an instinctive sense of when and how to keep the cameras moving, and which lenses to use in different situations,” Bleibtreu says. “I don’t think he has any unbreakable rules, except to do what is right moment-by-moment. We also shot some tests for him using different lenses and frame rates, including a missile flying through the air. We shot that scene with a Cablecam at 12 and 24 frames per second. John made his choice for the actual shot. We also filmed various stunts at 60 to 72 frames per second.”
The second unit crew coped with the same demanding logistics to get to where they had to be when they had to be there ready to shoot. Bleibtreu shares vivid memories of sloshing through deep mud with rain falling on him and his crew.
“We did a lot of trekking up to the high ridges on the north shore of the island and to other remote areas you could only get to by driving in a tiny Jeep,” Bleibtreu says. “There were times when we were shooting the same scene as John and his crew from different perspectives. We filmed one big sequence at the actors’ camp from different sides of a river. However, generally we were in completely different places. While John was shooting dialogue scenes with the actors, my crew was 20 to 30 miles away filming battle scenes with helicopters flying overhead.”
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 that 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 system 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.
“One great thing about the aIM system is the ability to color correct individual shots based on a point system similar to a printing scale at a film lab. If I wanted to make RGB color corrections or density corrections, I could make that correction on the location digital projector and then speak to the colorist in Los Angeles, John Allen, and tell him what I had done. He was doing his dailies transfer on exactly the same type of calibrated projector so he could see those same corrections on his equipment and see exactly what I liked. I didn’t intend to do any additional manipulation of contrast or color saturation for our dailies, but the aIM system would have allowed us to do this as well.”
Bleibtreu and members of the second unit crew, watched dailies with Toll and his crew almost every night. “I got to listen and watch John make timing corrections, which helped me understand the looks he wanted and how he was exposing the film,” he says.
Toll was timing the final DI version of the film with colorist Skip Kimball at Modern VideoFilm, in Burbank, California as this issue went to press. Like many other cinematographers, he sees the digital intermediate process as a mixed blessing. Toll says, “Right from the beginning, when we began using the DI process several years ago to color correct answer prints for feature films, I’ve seen it as having the potential to either create the best of worlds or the worst of worlds for the cinematographer. When used wisely and in ways consistent with the original visual intent of the cinematographer, it’s a great tool. It allows us to support the visual integrity of our work in ways not otherwise possible.
“However, due to the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process there are times when additional creative input is added to final color correction decisions. Sometimes this can be very valuable and enhances the quality of our work. The opposite can also be true. As we speak, we are in the process of finishing the DI for Tropic Thunder. At times there have been experiments in creating an embellished look for certain sequences that was not the intent of the original photography.”