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Sense8: John Toll, ASC Navigates a Global Production with Panavision

Eight seemingly disparate people from around the world have become linked. Through telepathy and a kind of astral projection, they bond and help each other using the others’ strengths to fight against a sinister force that is out to eliminate them. Such is the premise for the mind-tripping Netflix original series Sense8, created by J. Michael Straczynski, and Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the visual duo behind The Matrix trilogy and V for Vendetta.

Netflix recently made the second season of Sense8 available on the streaming platform. Oscar®-winning cinematographer John Toll, ASC has had cinematography duties for both seasons. The collaboration extends the relationship between Toll and The Wachowskis, who previously worked together on the sci-fi features Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending.

Sense8 marked the first series-style work for Toll, but because of the logistical challenges set forth – shooting real locations for eight main characters living in eight different cities on five different continents – the approach was not the stuff of typical series television. 

“Since it was a 12-hour series and the story takes place in all the locations throughout the entire series, it was most practical to go to the individual cities only once, not 12 times for individual episodes,” Toll explains. “So, the production plan was based on shooting as we would a feature film, except it was like shooting a 12-hour movie.”

Because of the hefty travel involved with multiple shooting units, Toll turned to his trusted resource: Panavision Woodland Hills. “I have a long history of working with Panavision,” he notes, “and it’s always been an incredibly positive experience. Just the logistics of it all – we needed reliable support.”

Toll spent quite a bit of time discussing logistics with Panavision's VP of Marketing Larry Hezzelwood. “He knew what the history of the show was,” Toll adds. “We shot on five continents. Just getting the equipment to us when it needed to be there became a very complicated logistical issue. We were moving quickly. Larry told me Panavision could do it, and that’s all I needed to hear.”

Toll offered an example of the fluid nature of the production, where they were shooting in San Francisco one day, made an overnight move to Los Angeles and brought the camera equipment with them to shoot the next day, then hopped a plane to capture the action in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where Panavision had a camera package waiting for the weekend work.

“At one point,” the cinematographer admits, “I decided to remove myself from the logistics planning because I wanted to concentrate on shooting the movie, not wondering how we were going to get cameras from one part of the world to the other. The easiest way was to make this the responsibility of first AC Chad Rivetti. In collaboration with Panavision, they figured out how to get cameras where they needed to be. It was like a three-dimensional chess game, and I was happy to let them work it all out!”

The cameras and support gear Panavision sent around the world included multiple 4K Sony PMW-F55 CineAltas. Mated to these were Panavision 11:1 Primo zooms, Zeiss Ultra Speed Primes, and Fujinon 19-90mm Cabrio Premier lenses. Small Sony a7S II 4K mirrorless digital cameras were used on vehicle mounts or crash housings. (These shoot the same Slog3 gamma curve as the F55.)

“Using the F55 was based partially on the Netflix 4K requirement,” Toll says, “but most important was the quality of the image, and the requirement the camera system be very reliable and flexible due to an enormous amount of Steadicam and handheld work.

“A and B cameras worked in tandem nearly all the time,” Toll continues. “A Camera Operator Daniele Massaccesi was on the Steadicam nearly 100% of the time. We adopted a system of shooting traditional wide master shots and, during the course of the shot, gracefully moving into other angles and even close-ups at times. Essentially, we were often doing masters and coverage within the same take. We made extensive use of dimmers and remote control iris from the DIT tent to change lighting while the shots were in progress. B Camera Operator Stefan Stankowski was always handheld and looking for opportunities to support Daniele.” 

Toll continues, “This was an idea driven by the necessity of the schedule and the volume of material, but was also greatly due to Lana Wachowski’s visual sensitivity and commitment to telling these stories with stunning imagery. Lana stayed with Daniele while shooting and was able to make choices. This greatly expedited the whole process, and due to the exceptional talents of this team, it all worked surprisingly well.”

This shooting style lent itself to Toll's overall visual approach – a sense of realism – taking advantage of the unique characteristics of the different locations around the world.

“Panavision made this job very easy,” says Rivetti. “The show shot in 14 countries, and because Panavision has facilities all over the world we were able to rely on local offices. Getting specialty gear, replacement cables, or equipment serviced took hours rather than days.”

Toll concludes, “We always had reliable equipment, it was always where we needed it, and it always worked – and we were very demanding of it. Panavision gave us terrific support, which is not unusual because that’s always been my experience working with them on many, many shows.”