As an esteemed member of the Australian Cinematographers Society since 2012 and soon thereafter the American Society of Cinematographers in 2014, cinematographer and master lensman Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS, began his remarkable pedigree in filmmaking with documentary and short film work. But it was an American Film Institute win for Best Cinematography on director Tony Krawitz’ feature Jewboy, only five years into his career as DoP, that quickly led to several high profile feature films shot in his native Australia.
Now based in Los Angeles, Fraser has continued his stratospheric rise as cinematographer, most recently capturing the prestigious Golden Frog at Camerimage in Poland in Nov. 2016, the 2017 American Society of Cinematographers’ Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography and an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography for his work on Lion.
His painterly approach to composition combined with fluid, immersive camerawork has made him a go-to DoP for a number of high profile directors like Bennett Miller, Jane Campion, Kathryn Bigelow, Rupert Sanders, Matt Reeves, Scott Hicks and even Spike Jonze. But nearly two decades of work with director and frequent co-conspirator Garth Davis, dating all the way back to 2000 with his first film, the documentary P.I.N.S., has probably had the biggest impact on his career. The two have worked together on countless television spots, Lion, plus the upcoming feature Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara in the titular role alongside Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus. Mary Magdalene is also Fraser’s second film using the ARRI ALEXA 65 system. He says that at this point, nearly two decades into their collaborative relationship, he and Davis share a visual language.
the documentary P.I.N.S., has probably had the biggest impact on his career.
Lion, which stars Dev Patel and Rooney Mara, is based on the autobiography, A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley. Centering on the efforts of the author to locate his family after being tragically separated from them as a young boy, the trick to the camerawork was to show how removed Brierley was from not only his friends and significant other, but also how disconnected the main character feels throughout the film. Set amidst the massive backgrounds of India and Australia, Brierley was ultimately raised by an adoptive couple, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham in the film.
Fraser says that’s the beauty of filmmaking for him; the subtle and subconscious reactions an audience will have to a story as it unfolds. “A film has its own life,” he explains, “a film will develop its own feel and look. When you start getting into the production, you begin to discover what that voice of the film is going to be.” Fraser had wanted to shoot with the ARRI Alexa 65 on Lion, but it wasn’t available to the production at the time. So they chose to work with the smaller ARRI Alexa XT, which ended up being ideal for the frequent location changes and work that they encountered. Fraser says Davis likes anamorphic, but preferred not to go with the medium for Lion, instead choosing to shoot spherical with the Panavision PVintage line of rehoused and recalibrated Ultra Speed Prime lenses.
Following Lion up with director Gareth Edwards on a little-film-that-could, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (released in theaters at nearly the same time) meant a bigger budget and more time, allowing Fraser to graduate to the much larger 65mm sensor plane of the Alexa 65. He looked briefly at the original Panavision C-Series lenses employed for the first Star Wars film, 1977s A New Hope, which were actually used on the 2015 J.J. Abrams’ film Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but he instead decided to go with the classic and yet modern look of Ultra Panavision 70 lenses and Hawk65 glass. “I found there was a new lens available to us, a 70mm anamorphic series, that was used by Quentin Tarantino in The Hateful Eight. They were more appropriate and for us, gave us ‘the look’ more than any of the other options.”
“Everybody involved in the film had a very strong influence from Star Wars,” he says when asked if there were any purposeful throwbacks to the classic cinematography of the original series, “So we made sure we stayed true to that, but it wasn’t like we were trying to do an homage. The very first meeting we had together, Gareth implicitly said that he was not making a tribute to the original Star Wars. I thought ‘great!’ — because I wanted to develop our own inspiration.”
Fraser says as an example that even though there is very little shoulder-mount work in the original Star Wars, he often operates handheld and chose to do so frequently on Rogue One. Despite the heavy post and CG additions, he says his framing choices are at all times a direct response to the emotional arc of the characters, in any given scene, rather than any practical considerations
“What I love about Gareth’s direction,” he continues, “is that he’s not a classicist, in the sense that the camera doesn’t automatically live on a dolly or a track, on a crane, or on a shoulder. He very much plays out each scene as he feels it should look to an audience. It wasn’t necessarily a mantra to go hand-held, either. We made decisions when to loft the camera or fix it down. So, for example, you might have times where you’re locked off with a cinematic wide shot, where the camera doesn’t move at all. This might heighten the sense of tension, because the previous shot was all hand-held. And there are different levels of hand-held — sometimes you can just keep very still.”
Lion, while no less of an accomplishment from a production standpoint, was, of course, a much, much smaller budget. Fraser also had to plan for efficiency and portability, though he says he had very few problems working with his crew — whether in India or Australia. “The great thing about filmmaking,” he says, “is that it’s a universal language. Even though methods may differ from time-to-time, or place-to-place, we had a great kind of symbiosis.”
“The great thing about filmmaking,” he says, “is that it’s a universal language. Even though methods may differ from time-to-time, or place-to-place, we had a great kind of symbiosis.”
To light, he brought three small but quite effective Digital Sputnik 4 x 4″ DS 1 LED lighting systems, chosen thanks to their size and output — equivalent to 100W HMI or 500W Tungsten. With a maneuverable white balance range of 1,500K – 10,000K, the modular light heads can also be stacked together with DMX- or WiFi-control to customize as needed, an advantage he often employed on Rogue One.
“The Digital Sputniks were lights that lasted from Lion through Rogue One,” he says. “I discovered that they are very malleable.You could use just three heads, or you could have three hundred heads. I could run all of it off an iPad for any color we needed. If we were lighting in a fluorescent lit room, we could change the color of the fluorescence. If I was lighting a room that was primarily sodium vapor, then I could dial in sodium vapor.”
For Lion, surprisingly, Fraser says he didn’t have to employ too many light modification tools, but for the more advanced needs and set usage on Rogue One, he used diffusion frames and softbox grids available through Digital Sputnik. “That’s what I love about the Digital Sputniks,” he says. “If you need a harder light, you take the diffusion off. If you need it to be soft, you put it back on. If you need it really, really soft, you add a baffle or two to the inside — and channeled diffusion to the front — and it becomes very directional, but still nice and soft.”
“If you need a harder light, you take the diffusion off. If you need it to be soft, you put it back on. If you need it really, really soft, you add a baffle or two to the inside — and channeled diffusion to the front — and it becomes very directional, but still nice and soft.”
The availability of heads, or rather lack thereof, became a big part of the decision making process for Fraser and his team, as well. “You can’t just go, ‘Okay, give us a thousand Creamsource Skylights, or give me two thousand Digital Sputnik heads, because those quantities don’t exist,” he laughs. “Manhattan Beach, the lighting company at Pinewood, were fantastic, and they were progressive. They went out and acquired quite a lot of these LEDs, which are now inventory for them.”
Also on Rogue One, Fraser says he faced several difficulties with such a large production and so many different settings in the film, ultimately settling on three systems that he could leverage appropriately as needed. In addition to Digital Sputnik lights and ARRI panels, he chose large output LED models from Outsight, a newer company based in Australia. Outsight’s IP65-rated 1200W Creamsource Sky LED panels were used overhead as space lights, for instance, because they could be hung for several weeks without maintenance, even on raining stages designed to simulate the stormy Star Wars world of Eadu. They also offer a full stop of Green and Magenta control for fine adjustments over skin tone.
Also on Rogue One, Fraser says he faced several difficulties with such a large production and so many different settings in the film, ultimately settling on three systems that he could leverage appropriately as needed.
“We used waterproofed Outsight Skylights as the space lights because it was a water set,” he says. “They have a great overall color with good room tone. Instead of old school tungsten space lights, these Outsight space lights have pretty much the same amount of output, but can do any color between, from 1500 Kelvin, which is fire, up to 12,000 Kelvin, which is skylight. You can really fine tune them, too.”
“Another thing I love about LEDs is that it’s become a lot like choosing a film stock. Back in the days of film, you’d choose different film stocks with a specific feel for each scene. Now, instead, all these LED solutions feel very different too. To work with that, you make distinct decisions about a particular light for a particular set — and some lights will work for some shots better. And as a modern cinematographer, we are constantly having to make compromises about the look. We’re placing a lot of control in the hands of someone later in the process, so having more control on set is paramount. It means we leave less to chance later, and we make better decisions on the day that we’re there shooting.”