Cinematographer Matt Toll shoots two short films in two months. Here, he chats to Australian Cinematographer about Electric, and The Egg (MIFF 2019) – by James Warner
For Sydney-based cinematographer Matt Toll, the two short films could not have been more different. Electric is an AFTRS masters film written and directed by Oliver Miller. It’s a story about the first use of electric shock treatment by Italian neurologist Ugo Cerletti in Europe in the 1930s, as seen through the eyes of Australian poet Francis Webb. The Egg, written and directed by filmmaker Jane Cho, by comparison, is a personal story about a six-year-old Korean girl who is looked after by her grandmother while her mother works.
“To be honest,” says Toll about first reading the script for Electric, “it was a hard read at first.” Most of the dialog is taken from Webb’s poetry which he says was extremely heavy in its language. “Without any prior knowledge of Webb’s work, or who Cerletti was, it was hard to break down those initial walls and really understand what story Miller was trying to tell.” This changed once the pair worked through the script and the director introduced the cinematographer to the world of Webb and Cerletti.
The Egg is a completely different film. “No dialogue, just a simple story told with a lens,” explains Toll. “It really felt like a great opportunity to collaborate with a first-time director, Cho, and help her bring the images to life while she steered our brilliant young actress through the script.” Toll hadn’t previously worked on any AFTRS films, nor had he collaborated with anyone involved with Electric, apart from his crew. “I knew Jane Cho, and the production team from various projects over the years,” he says. “Most recently having shot additional photography on Abe Forsyth’s film Little Monsters (2018, cinematography by Lachlan Milne ACS).”
During pre-production on Electric, Toll found the production design relatively simple. “We found a brilliant location in a disused wing of the old Drummoyne Hospital in Sydney which did a lot of the work for us,” he says. “Miller was keen to keep the dressing minimal and as a result most of the dressing and props we used were dressed and sourced by the director.” The Electroconvulsive Therapy (or ECT) machine itself, however, was made by a prop-maker. “Most of these props and set dressing were visualised early on by a detailed reference mood board that Miller had put together.”
On The Egg, the crew were fortunate to work with a great production design team; Jacqui and Merryn Schofield. “We needed to create a 1980s Australian suburban house that had a blend of Korean immigrant dressings with that touch of ‘80s Australiana’,” he says. Toll discussed what a single room dwelling like this would have looked like, as well as drawing on Cho’s own experiences. “The team did an amazing job and designed the room to flow perfectly with the script beats that were needed.”
“My choice of cameras and lenses was purely creatively based,” Toll explains. “I’m lucky enough to have built up many relationships in camera rental houses such as Panavision over the years. Their support has been endless, and fortunately for me I am able to draw on this when budgets are tight.” For the Electric shoot, Toll wanted to mix up formats and looks. “The film is pretty much set in one room,” he says. The cinematographer wanted the film to be a visual journey that took the audience to many different worlds. “With heavy dialog and a twenty-minute script, I felt like it was important to use this to help keep the audience connected.”
The main ‘treatment room’ in Electric was shot on the Panavision 37-85mm T Series Zoom and an ARRI Alexa XT. Patients’ internal vignettes and Webb introduction/conclusion scenes were shot spherical, using Lomo Illumina S35 Primes and a Zero Optic 35mm Pinhole Lens, on an ARRI Alexa Mini.
For The Egg shoot, the cinematographer used an ARRI Alexa Mini with Cooke S4 primes supplied by SDF Camera. “I thought that this film lent itself to the 4:3 format,” he says. Toll discussed this with Cho showing her examples of how well it can work in films like Ida (2011, cinematography by Łukasz Zal PSC and Ryszard Lenczewski PSC). “We decided to go this way.”
“The S4 lenses covered the full sensor on the Mini and gave us a really nice clean almost ‘large format’ feel to the image,” Toll says. “It uses the same sensor area as an anamorphic x2 lens. The square frame was interesting to use, unusual framing in certain situations and was perfect for containing the ‘tall’ world from a six year old’s height.”
Toll says he feels lucky to have great relationships with both directors. “In my experience, once the camera starts rolling on these two or three day shoots it is interesting how little time you have for extended interaction with a director,” he explains. “Schedules are tight, and everything has been talked through and discussed in length so the only thing left to do is just shoot it.” Something that really hit home for Toll working on both of these short films, working alongside first time directors, was lack of experience in regards to coverage. “We had discussed coverage for both films in pre-production and we had a plan,” he says. “With the realities of blocking on the day, however, along with other changes that inevitably evolve on a film set, I soon realised that I would have to take the lead a little more than normal in this area.”
Both directors naturally gravitated toward story and performance, which can become all-encompassing. “We managed to quickly find our rhythm on both films and it ended up being a great learning experience for the directors and myself,” Toll says. Toll’s advice for achieving a director’s vision on any short film, can me as simple as open and effective communication. “Talk to them as much as possible and really take on board all references and ideas they put in front of you,” he says. “The perspective of a cinematographer should simply be an offshoot of a director’s vision. A cinematographer’s uniqueness will still always be a key player in this process.”
Jason Weekes and Craig Sykes worked as Toll’s Grip and Gaffer on both productions, with Christian Luxton and Rhys Nicholson acting as Assistant Cameras. “World class crew that made getting through those days achievable,” says Toll of his camera crew.
“I choose to shoot short films on a ‘creative level’, which is not as easy to do for technical crew. Grips, gaffers and camera crews work for a living and many of them go above and beyond to support hundreds of ‘low’ or ‘no’ budget short films being made in this country,” Toll says. He goes on to say that both Electric and The Egg would not have delivered the level of production to the screen, or efficiency to the schedule, without the time and financial generosity of all involved.
Miller was very inclusive with Toll during the post-production process on Electric. “He regularly sent me updated edits to try and get a fresh eye and another opinion on where the film was at,” says Toll. Miller is currently doing his Masters in Screen, Sound Design and Music at AFTRS but still invited Toll into the mix theatre during the process to listen to the film and see what he thought. “It has been an inclusive process every step of the way.”
“Grading wise, on Electric,” says Toll, “Christine Trodd was kind enough to lend her awesome eye to the grade and made me sleep easy again after I had been looking at dozens of compressed edits.”
The Egg has only just gone into post-production as this magazine goes to press, but Toll hopes to be around to support Cho and discuss this part of the film’s journey. “We are lucky to have Drew Thompson cutting the film,” he says, “and when it gets to the grading process we’ll go back to our original discussions regarding colour and use that as our starting point.”
“I don’t think I would have done anything differently,” says Toll. “On both films we came up with a solid, realistic plan that we managed to pull off with some brilliant cast and crew. There’s always the odd shot that maybe you don’t quite get exactly where you wanted, for various reasons, but that would be true on any production no matter how big or small it is.”
Toll concludes by saying there’s always going to be factors that are out of a cinematographers control that you just need to bury and move on. “It has been a great experience,” he finishes by saying. “I’m really excited for everyone involved to sit back and watch them on the big screen.”
Matt Toll is a freelance cinematographer based in Sydney, Australia.