The Look and Logistics of The Last Samurai
Director Edward Zwick. Photos: David James / ©2003 Warner Bros.Ent. All Rights Reserved
If the devil is in the details, then there was plenty of devil inThe Last Samurai. As director Edward Zwick explains, hisdecision to commit the film to historically accurate visuals at anepic-like scale meant an almost unending research and logisticalmanagement project for him and his collaborators. At the end of theday, everything combined to directly impact the look and feel of hismovie.
“We had to build roads and buildings,” he says. “We had to havediscussions about such things as whether it’s better to load actorsinto buses out of costume, or have them wear their samurai armor,meaning we would have to physically remove seats from the bus and renta second bus. Which was the more efficient way to do it—removeseats and hire another bus and driver, or dress the actors on location?People don’t talk about it much, but there is a moment on every film ofthis scale when logistics affect creativity, and it’s the director’sresponsibility to mitigate that. I’m very pleased with this movie, butI’ll admit, there were times while making it when I thought my headwould explode.”
To help him wade through all this, Zwick appointed high profile,award-winning, expert collaborators to head major departments, many ofwhom, like DP John Toll and production designer Lilly Kilvert, he hadworked with on movies such as Legends of the Fall. But evenassistance from such artists placed burdens on Zwick’s managerialskills.
“Working with John and Lilly and [costume designer] Ngila Dicksonwas a great relief, and I had worked with some of them before, whichalso created a greater comfort level and better communication,” hesays. “But make no mistake, there is a sense of ferocity in theircommitments to their own departments, their own visions, and creativeagendas. They are substantial artists and their visions need to beheard and examined. So there is a pressure there in terms of thepsychological dynamic. My job is to reconcile the demands andlegitimate aspirations of very talented and important people with theneeds of the story and our financial constraints.”
That creativity and commitment is obvious in the film’s overallvisual design and execution—the result of a close alliancebetween the “visual holy triumvirate” of the production design, costumedesign, and camera departments, as Dickson describes it. Indeed, Toll,Kilvert, and Dickson, along with visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun,were brought into the project at its earliest stages and participatedin location scouting (the film was shot principally in New Zealand andJapan, with a few scenes shot on sets at Warner Brothers, Burbank) andclose to a year of research with Zwick before principal photographycommenced in August 2002.
The look of The Last Samurai evolved out of “nutty research,”as Kilvert calls it. The architecture and details, for the most part,came straight out of period photographs.
Martial artists in a choreographed sequence. Zwick says The LastSamurai was among the most logistically challenging projects he hasever been associated with.
“Fortunately, this was an era in Japanese history in which thecamera had only recently been introduced to Japan, so their society wascamera-mad at the time, and we had access to incredible photographs ofthe tiniest details—streets, villages, wardrobes, weapons,fabrics, and so on,” explains Zwick. “Our default was to achieveauthenticity with surfaces, textures, signage, flags, and banners, allthat stuff.”
The palette, Kilvert says, was simply to “follow what it was inhistorical terms. Spartan homes, lots of wood, screens, flowersarranged, and so on,” she explains. “The colors were closelycoordinated with Ngila for the costumes. We had a limited palette inthe samurai village [built from scratch on a hillside near a NewZealand cattle farm]—mainly indigo blue to match the kimonos, alot of soft colors to match silk flags and clothes, and a lot of mutedwood tones. “
The attention to detail was staggering at times. Kilvert, forinstance, spent weeks testing different textures for the tatami matsand shoji screens that were, and still are, common in Japanesehomes.
“Those screens are very reflective, and that makes for flat light,”Kilvert says. “We therefore had to try and give them some dimensionwhen, by their nature, they normally create flat light. We tested paperafter paper and density after density and color after color. We alsotested lanterns and lights and rice-paper lampshades, just to see whatit would look like on film. We built an 8ft.-wide model of the villageand spent months with a small camera, poking around that model,examining one house or another and one tree or another.”
Kilvert’s work had to correspond closely with Dickson’s costumedesign, as well. Dickson joined Samurai fresh off finishing costumedesign for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and like that project,spent much of her energy designing armor and other fighting gear.
“This was different, though, in the sense that we were trying toreplicate period costumes and armor exactly,” Dickson says. “But I didtake the same approach in the sense that I also approached Lord ofthe Rings as a historical piece. Some of my key crew members camewith me from that job to this one, as well.”
Staying with Kilvert’s themes, Dickson wanted to keep the costumecolors muted and rich, in keeping with actual clothing from the Meijiperiod. “But you have to still be selective,” she adds. “You want tofollow history, but also do what is best to serve this particularstory. When I met with John Toll, he told me the same thing I had beenthinking: we should keep it rich but dark, so he, myself, and Lillywere all in kismet on that issue.”
As to the samurai armor, Dickson’s work was central to thefilm—the blood-red armor worn by Tom Cruise into battle at theconclusion of the movie was personalized to the warrior he previouslykilled and his family and ancestors.
“All armor for samurai was made individually to express thepersonality of the specific warrior,” she says. “It’s not genericsoldier armor—it’s family armor made with family money anddesigned with family colors. This is an area we actually paid a greatdeal of attention to. In fact, we actually back-storied the armor foreach character—it’s pretty subliminal because the audiencedoesn’t know most of it, but it was crucial to how I designed eachpiece.”
Dickson also consulted in Japan with Munehisa Sengoku, the master ofcourt costumes for the Japanese Imperial Family, and she hired AkiraFukuda, a well-known Japanese film costumer, to join her wardrobedepartment, which at one point, swelled to 85 people in threecountries.
All of these subtle designs and colors had to be appropriatelycaptured in combination with the New Zealand and Japanese backdrops byToll’s cameras during the lengthy production. Before formally acceptingthe Samurai job, Toll, a two-time Academy Award winner forLegends of the Fall in 1994 and Braveheart the followingyear, was invited to go location scouting in Japan with Zwick. He saysthat trip hooked him on the project, and he signed on with a goal torealistically visualize Japan’s Meiji period on the big screen.
“Ed, Lilly, and I all agreed that the film should try to recreatethe feeling and ambiance of Japan in the 1870s in a natural, realisticway and on as large a scale as possible,” says Toll. “This made it avery challenging project—one reason being that we were shootingon three different continents on a fairly large scale, often withhundreds of extras in large settings. But I think [filming the battlescenes] was the most difficult aspect of the job.
“Photographically, the approach to the battles was based onstoryboards. Not that we literally did every shot as boarded, but thebattles were broken down and scheduled according to the boards. Theydescribed every phase of the battle, as well as specific shots, but weusually enhanced and improved the ideas for individual shots as weworked our way through each phase. It was also necessary to shootwildly out of script continuity because we were using the same extrasas both samurai and as Imperial troops. What this meant was that oncewe were shooting a certain angle, we would try to stay in that angle aslong as possible, even if it meant shooting entirely different phasesof the battle out of continuity. In terms of lighting continuity, thiswas difficult because we shot the final battle over a period of fiveweeks, and during this period, we shot through every lighting conditionknown to man.”
Toll adds that he tried to shoot in overcast or cloudy conditions asmuch as possible, primarily because this matched the desired, overallmood and look of the film, but also to mitigate problems caused bymismatched light. On sunny days, he also utilized a large, overheaddevice called the Silent Light Grid to diffuse the harsh sunlight.
“We built a frame that was 30’x40′ and covered it with thismaterial,” he explains. “It was held in place by a small, portablecrane we called the UFO. This is a piece of equipment designed for filmuse that consists of a 100ft. retractable crane arm built on a smalltruck chassis that is capable of off-road access in difficult terrain.We brought the UFO from Los Angeles specifically for this reason, andit was invaluable in helping us try to match light from sunny days toovercast days.”
The horse charge seen during the climactic battle also posed a hostof challenges for filmmakers. Toll chose to use longer focal-lengthlenses and state-of-the-art remote camera heads to seamlessly capturethe action from a moving camera insert car. “The long lenses lookedfantastic, but using them required stabilization,” says Toll. “We usedtwo different heads for this purpose—the Wescam XR head and theLibra head. Both are electronically gyro-stabilized and workedextremely well. These tracking shots were actually shot by our secondunit, headed by [second unit director/cameraman] Gary Capo. Using thoseheads allowed Gary to use focal lengths up to 550mm, while movingalongside the horses in the insert car.”
DP John Toll shot portions of the final battle using longer,focal-length lenses.
Toll shot Samurai in the widescreen 2.40:1 format withPanavision Anamorphic lenses (series E and C), using four differentfilm stocks—mainly Kodak 5248 and 5293 for exteriors, and 5298and 5218 for interiors.
In preproduction, Toll seriously considered performing a digitalintermediate on the movie. “But there was no guarantee I would get theamount of postproduction time I felt I needed to actually do the DI,and quite honestly, for this picture I wasn’t sure the DI process wouldbring us anything in that area that we couldn’t get in the traditionalway. So I shot the picture in a way that could be finished in thetraditional photochemical process [color-timed by David Orr atTechnicolor, Burbank], and I think it turned out well.”
Nevertheless, Toll did bring a couple of sequences into a digitaltiming suite at Cinesite, Hollywood. Most prominently, he digitallytweaked the first battle of the movie—the scene in which poorlytrained Japanese soldiers encounter feared samurai warriors for thefirst time in a blanket of fog deep inside a forest.
“We shot this scene for 10 days, and we had serious changes inweather from sun to overcast,” says Toll. “We also used very heavysmoke to create the fog effect. But changing wind conditions madematching the smoke levels very difficult at times, and this, along withthe changing weather, created difficult lighting continuity issues. Iwas able to minimize some of these problems on set, but we still hadsome problem areas to deal with in color timing.
“So during postproduction, I went to Cinesite and we did some testswith material from this sequence, working with [color timer] JillBogdanowicz. I wanted to use the capability of the DI process to altercontrast, shot to shot, in a way that would minimize the lightingcontinuity issues, and to also use the process to apply an exaggeratedcool tone to the scene. The ability to alter contrast and the abilityto match color on a shot to shot basis in realtime allowed us tocolor-time this scene in a way that would not have been possible in thelab.”