Tech Support: John Toll and Frank Griebe on shooting 'Cloud Atlas' across six stories

Posted by · 6:51 am · January 4th, 2013

As usual, the Oscar race for Best Cinematography presents an embarrassment of riches this year. Contending directors of photography have offered exemplary work, whether highlighting fantasy or history, focusing on land or water, displaying composed and gorgeous widescreen shots or gripping action and dynamic camera movement.

One film managed to do all of these things, and used two DPs to do it. I’m referring, of course, to “Cloud Atlas,” where John Toll and Frank Griebe collaborated with the Wachowskis and Tom Twyker on what is widely considered one of the most ambitious films of the year.

Toll, a back-to-back Oscar winner for “Legends of the Fall” and “Braveheart,” worked with the Wachowskis on the segments of the film set in the 1840s, the 2100s and the 2300s. Griebe, who has shot all of Twyker”s feature films, lensed the stories set in the 1930s, 1970s and 2012. Generally speaking, there were two crews that worked with the respective directors. Obviously, however, the actors were shared. But having two sets of directors and two DPs posed inherent challenges to creating a consistent look for the film.

“We spoke a lot of exactly that,” Toll says. “We approached it as a unified film. Tom and Lana and Andy had prepped it together. We spent a lot of time talking about individual approaches to the segments. From my point of view, I thought to ask how to create each individual story as a standalone story, but we wanted to make sure it didn”t feel like six different movies that were all connected.”

Adds Griebe, “This is moviemaking. You try something new and find out if it works or if it doesn”t.” For the 1970s segment, he says he looked to movies from the era, such as “Sleuth” and “Three Days of the Condor.” But he was not concerned about confusing the audience. “I think today so many people watch three minutes here and there,” he says of this sort of YouTube culture that could easily adapt to a jumpy storyline.

Toll notes the need to advance each individual story within its own aesthetic, observing that “Neo Seoul” was “an emotionally dark story” that consequently required dark photography. The futuristic Tom Hanks story, however, had lots of exterior work and tension needed to be created in the light. “I just do what makes sense,” he says of trusting his instincts along the way.

While Griebe had a shorthand in place with Tykwer due to two decades of work together, Toll had to develop a fresh relationship with the Wachowskis. “They”re very visually articulate,” Toll says. “They put an enormous amount of time into collaboration. They work very much on their feet, which is the way I like to work.”

The DPs also spotlight the contributions of the production designers and makeup artists in bringing the film to life. “There was a great working relationship among everyone,” Toll recalls. “We were setting the tone for the entire production and we all had the opportunity to share the prep time together. If I had suggestions for modification, they were receptive – things like the color of the wall and for special makeup, areas that might be problematic.”

“I”ve worked with the production designer [Uli Hanisch] for over a decade,” Griebe says. “So we know each other very well. The makeup artist – Daniel Parker – is very new. He had a lot of work and he had a very, very good crew. We did a lot of makeup tests to ensure everything worked.”

Despite a lengthy and accomplished career, Toll had never done a film before this that relied on visual effects to such a great extent. But both his strengths and the directors’ ended up being symbiotic. “The Wachowskis obviously know their way around visual effects,” he says. “When we started, I said, ‘I”m going to learn a lot about shooting visual effects.’ But they hadn”t shot large exteriors, an area where I had had experience. So we learned from each other.”

Griebe, whose career has been mostly focused in Europe to date, admits there is a difference between German and American filmmaking, “Especially with the money,” he says. But how did he think “Cloud Atlas” fit into this paradigm? “They collected money from all around the world,” he says. “It is a mix between American, German and I think it”s a ‘world movie” – players came from China, Korea, England, Germany, France and the States.”

While maintaining a certain continuity across the various stories was a stated challenge, Toll also marvels at the actors” ability to switch gears along the way. “It was a particularly elaborate schedule,” he says. “We were shooting all different stories wherever we went. Both units were shooting simultaneously and we were sharing the actors. It was hard on everybody but the actors had it toughest of all. I can just imagine what they were going through. I have to give an enormous amount of credit to them.”

When he looks back on the film, though, he feels its unique nature – and what the filmmakers were reaching for – is what he”ll remember most. “It”s not a commercially-minded film,” he says. “It is trying to say something about the human condition, about really big ideas. As a filmmaker, those opportunities are rare.”

Whether the film succeeded in its ambitious goals is a matter people have debated and will undoubtedly continue to debate. But there may be more seemingly successful films from 2012 that I”m willing to bet won”t be nearly as well-remembered in the future. And with their work behind the camera, Griebe and Toll contributed immeasurably to that place in cinematic history.

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