Cinematographer Greig Fraser has been doing exciting work for years on films ranging from Bright Star to Zero Dark Thirty to Killing Them Softly. But 2016 was a banner year for Fraser, as it not only saw the release of both Lion and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but both films brought Fraser well-deserved acclaim. Lion has been an awards season contender for months, scoring six Oscar nominations including Best Cinematography, and Fraser won the American Society of Cinematographers’ top honor for his work on the emotional story of a man trying to find his home. And Rogue One notched swell reviews from critics and has grossed over $1 billion at the box office. So yeah, Greig Fraser had a good 2016.
Having been a fan of Fraser’s for some time now, I jumped at the chance to interview him as final voting for the Oscars is underway. During our exclusive conversation, he talked about the whirlwind year that he’s had, what came out of his early conversations with Garth Davis for Lion, and how his early hiring for Rogue One allowed him to test out some of that technology on the India shoot for Lion. We also discussed Fraser’s next collaboration with Davis, the Biblical drama Mary Magdalene starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. Fraser revealed that he shot the film with the Arri Alexa 65 and used entirely LED lights for the shoot, meaning we’re in for a treat when that one hits theaters. Check out the full interview below.
First of all congratulations on the ASC win and the Oscar nomination. What’s this experience been like for you with all this Lion stuff and then of course the Rogue One of it all.
GREIG FRASER: Yeah it’s pretty great. I mean obviously being Aussie I tend to try and downplay everything a little bit, I’ve been like ‘Yep, yep. It’s alright.’ And unfortunately I got into trouble with my wife, I think I was speaking to somebody the next day about the ASC Awards and I was going, ‘Yeah it’s good. Yeah.’ trying to be a little bit cool about it. She was like, ‘No, no, it’s bloody good!’ It’s cool. To be first of all nominated by your peers for the best film of the year in your category, and then to be awarded it I mean wow, what an amazing journey. And then the Oscar nom of course, the Academy is such a respected organization so to be nominated alongside those guys, my peers, my colleagues, the Linuses and the Bradfords and the Rodrigos and the James—I mean wow, what an honor. So yeah I’m sitting here quite buzzy and considering the fact that, Lion I’m nominated for that, but I did one of my favorite franchises, Star Wars, coming at the same time, I mean perfect year. I can’t top that year in terms of enjoyment.
It’s a little insane, and man the field this year of cinematography is so good.
FRASER: Isn’t it? And that’s the thing, I’m gonna go to the Oscars of course, and of course we’d all like to take home that trophy, but what I love about my colleagues is that we’re all kind of rooting for each other as well. We’re all really into each other’s work and what we can learn from each other and what we can teach other people. So I don’t know, I feel very honored just to be part of that really core group of humans that are doing that craft. And also for a film that I’m so passionate about, like Lion is such a passion of mine to have made. You know we made it on a shoestring and it’s such a great little story, and to work with someone like Garth who’s a really good buddy, my best mate, that we made this little film together and this little film has been really successful and a lot of people are seeing it. That’s the main thing, and the cherry on top’s the recognition for my craft.
Well Garth had obviously done tremendous work like Top of the Lake, but this was his first feature film. What were your early conversations about the film like?
FRASER: Well he told me the story and of course I went, ‘Wow’, and everything that I’ve always done with Garth I’ve always been really excited by, as in I’ve always been happy with. Now that goes from the early days of us doing a little $1,000 music video that he shot on Super 8 through to a documentary that we shot on mini-DV through to really high-end commercials for Xbox and other big brands. So every time Garth and I have ever worked together I’ve been particularly happy with the work that we’ve done together, as has he. So when we were talking about doing Lion, it was all a bit of a pipe dream in terms of we weren’t sure when it was going to film and we weren’t sure when the cast was gonna be ready, but in our initial conversations we were talking about how to best relay this story in a visual sense, because it’s got such strong overtones of Google Earth. Google Earth has become a little bit of an icon in our society. You get on maps and you wanna see what the quality of the road’s like, you go on Google Maps. Google Maps or virtual mapping had become such a staple of our daily lives that we couldn’t touch upon a film like that without then touching upon the visuals that go along with that. Given the fact that Google is an icon—not the company I’m talking about, very much I’m not talking about advertising the company I’m talking about the modern technology that they’ve brought to the show which is that visual mapping. So that had become such an icon that we needed to make sure that we touched on that and represented that without it all being just a simple map show. It’s not all about the maps, it’s about the people in those maps and the people in those stories. So yeah we wanted to come up with that balance between the humanity and the emotion as well as the epicness, that largeness.
For sure. Well obviously you followed Lion up with Rogue One, which is a very different kind of movie and a much larger scale. But I’m curious, is there anything you learned or hit upon in Lion that you took with you to Rogue One? Or is every movie just completely different?
FRASER: No they all influence each other. I was fortunate enough to test for Rogue One while I was just prepping Lion. This is the great thing about my friends over at Lucasfilm: They are so committed to the highest quality product that they allow their DPs to come on well in advance of the shoot. Often studios will go, ‘You’ve got 10 weeks of prep’, you’ll come in, you’ll tick the boxes and then you’ll start shooting. Lucasfilm, in their wisdom, they employed me about a year before we started filming so we were testing formats early. I knew about all these new formats that were coming down the pike like the 65mm, all this brand new LED technology, and I knew that it wasn’t quite ready. It wasn’t out, it wasn’t quite ready, I couldn’t do a film with it right now, but what I could do is I could go, ‘Hey guys if I chose this for Star Wars in a year’s time do you think it could be ready?’. And of course most of the suppliers went, ‘Uh yeah, I think we can make it ready for Star Wars.’ The good thing about that was I could then kind of test some of it for Lion. The perfect example is we had these LEDs that were kind of in the early stages of development, these digital sputniks they’re called, and I knew they were great and I knew they’d be amazing, so what I did is I went, ‘Listen I’m just gonna take them to India and do tests,’ because I knew they were gonna be amazing, but I ended up doing all of India with three small LEDs. Now we used a lot more of those on Rogue One because we had sets and stages and stuff, but the point is that the technology was just as at home in India as it was in a space station or a space ship or a set in a galaxy far, far away. So each film absolutely propagated each other. But the focus at that time of the year was doing Lion and making sure that we were able to properly shoot that emotion of that child and of the other characters, so trying to make sure that the technology never got in the way. To go back to your question they were very influential on each other, and even though you might look at them from a distance and go, ‘They’re very different movies’, actually the intention of the emotion’s similar. You want a similar level of emotion.