Filming a movie involves months of prep on top of months of physical shooting, and still more months of editing. Sometimes it just so happens that the two films a cinematographer has shot open within a month of each other. Greig Fraser was the cinematographer for Lion, which opened over Thanksgiving weekend, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story which opened this month.
Lion is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian boy who got lost at a train station as a child (Sunny Pawar) and adopted by an Australian family. As an adult (Dev Patel), he searches for his village using new technology. Rogue One tells the story of the rebels who found the plans that Luke Skywalker used in the original Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. We spoke with Fraser about his work on both films.
CINEMA THREAD: Was the first half of Lion filmed specifically from a child’s point of view?
GREIG FRASER: It was. We specifically said, “We want Saroo not to feel like a little boy because we wanted times to remind the audience that he is that little boy.” We don’t want the first half of the movie to feel like this boy’s a victim. It’s really important to make him feel like the plucky little guy that he is because he is. He’s a fantastically energetic little character. So we wanted to make sure that the world didn’t necessarily see him the way the world actually does see him. I don’t know if you recall being a kid but I don’t really ever recall being short as a kid. I remember there being lots of people around me that were bigger, but I don’t remember being short. The world was kind of at my height when I was that age. So I think like now, I don’t think that I’m tall or short. I just feel like I am. The camera needed to reflect that and that was a really big part of our decision-making process whenever we wanted to move the camera or not move the camera or change the lens or not change the lens, it was like how does this relate to the emotion of this scene and this character?
CT: Was it as simple as keeping the camera low?
GF: At its core, it was that simple. What was harder though is to move the camera at that height. Steadicams are set up to be higher than his eye height. The difference in inches is massive. If you’re slightly below his eyeline it can mean so much difference to if you’re slightly above his eyeline. It’s subtle, as you know, but it’s subconscious. The audience will be like, “Above his eyeline or below his eyeline?” You don’t quite understand what the filmmakers are trying to say. As a filmmaker you need to be clear with what you’re trying to say so that when you then cut out wider, when you then show him in perspective to the area that he’s in, it then hits home about how small he is. When he’s on the train for that period of time, with not much interaction with anybody else, it was important that we didn’t tell the story that he was a little child. You know he’s a little child. The audience is not crazy or dumb. You know he’s a small child but you kind of forget how small and vulnerable he actually is until he then gets out on the platform in Calcutta as this heaving mess. He doesn’t cast above anyone’s belly button. He’s that small. Then he has to climb above the melee to be seen or to see anything. It was very important to make sure that we picked our angles very carefully and chose exactly when to come out high or low.
CT: Working with a child, was he adept at hitting the marks?
GF: We approached it slightly differently. We didn’t give marks. We gave suggested areas for him, then marked what worked for us, but we didn’t give him marks. I think he would’ve been. I think if we had given him that challenge, I think he’d have done it well. The main thing with child actors, from my experience, is you need to give them the least amount of distraction possible, I think. I’ve done some interviews on camera and whenever there’s any movement behind the camera, if the cameraman is checking something, I find it really distracting and I’m a relatively well together 41-year-old. Imagine a five-year-old whose eyes pop out of his head any time something goes on. We had to just make sure the camera was allowed and able to follow him and to go wherever he went. That meant us being flexible and lighting in such a way, or choosing locations that had that lighting that worked for us.
CT: Did filming in India require unique lighting or lenses?
GF: The good thing about India is that it’s so unique, it’s a very deliberate decision about choices that you make in India to make sure that you capture it the right way. But, the fact is you can put a camera in almost any place and end up with something very interesting. That’s the good thing about India is the camera will land somewhere and you’ll end up with a very interesting frame. Whether or not it’s appropriate to your film is a different story.
That’s the good thing about India is the camera will land somewhere and you’ll end up with a very interesting frame. Whether or not it’s appropriate to your film is a different story.
That’s one thing we worked really hard at making sure that all the locations were appropriate and made sense, because we knew it was like shooting fish in a barrell really. You could put the camera anywhere, it’ll look great. We just had to make sure it was appropriate for our film.
CT: Did you talk to any Indian cinematographers about how they do it?
GF: No. We had quite a few Indian crew that does those Bollywood films but the look that we were after was remarkably different to what a Bollywood film would be aiming for. Bollywood films, as beautiful as they are, they do polish Indian society visually. They do light Indian society to make it look like there’s bright sun, where in fact a lot of these cities rarely see bright sun because there’s so much pollution or there’s haze or so much dust. So they add color, saturation, and light. I think that’s a beautiful look for some projects but I think for our project it wasn’t appropriate. I did definitely take the advice of our extraordinarily talented electricians and grips in India. But at the same time, we tried not to carry too much equipment. We couldn’t. We couldn’t afford it to start but second of all, less about affording, it was more about the desire to not be bogged down in the technical.
CT: So much of Saroo’s search is on Google Earth. Is every screen a post-production effect, where it’s actually a blank screen when you’re shooting?
GF: No, we used a lot of practical screen. A lot of the searches we had already [loaded]. We were not just shooting like a machine gun approach, a scattergun approach where we just shoot him looking, faces, keyboards, mouse. We were very particular about what he needed to see. [Director] Garth [Davis] and [screenwriter] Luke [Davies] worked quite closely at figuring out exactly what we need to see as an audience to tell this story. We needed to see certain key elements. We needed to see Harra Station. We needed to see him zoom into Harra Station. We needed to see him zoom into the bridge that he crossed as a boy. There were certain key elements that we needed to see so we shot them.
CT: Dev’s performance is so wrenching, was it a unique experience being so tight and close with him going through that?
GF: Oh yeah. Listen, any time you put a camera on an actor of the caliber of Dev, who just absolutely gave it all his might and hit this role out of the park, it’s always a pleasure. It’s one of my favorite parts of this job. I often think, “Well, being able to operate a camera in that proximity to an actor doing their thing, being vulnerable, it’s a huge honor.” When you’ve got an actor like Dev who’s giving it his all and hitting it out of the park every single time, not to mention Nicole [Kidman] and Rooney [Mara]. Wow, what a pleasure that was.
CT: On Rogue One was your job to make it look like Star Wars but also unique?
GF: I don’t know. You tell me what Star Wars looks like. Often people ask me about that similarity or that difference. I don’t know. What does a Star Wars film look like? This is the thing. Everybody has a different opinion about what that is. I found that during the prep on Star Wars. When we were deciding between digital versus film, you had people come up to us and go, “Come on, you’re going to shoot this on film, right?” And I’m like, “Well, I don’t know. It’s tempting.” Then you have other people come up and go, “You’ve got to shoot this on digital. Film is outdated. You’ve got to do this on digital.” Everyone has their own opinion of what Star Wars should be or what it could be.
Everyone has their own opinion of what Star Wars should be or what it could be.
I guess the deal is to make sure you don’t make it a hodgepodge of people’s ideas. It comes down to a very simple what you think Star Wars is or was in your mind, how you remember Star Wars being. Watching A New Hope versus remembering A New Hope, I have very clear memories of what I thought A New Hope was. The reality was I watched A New Hope on VHS 1000 times and probably killed the VHS. So by the time I last watched A New Hope on VHS, the quality was probably so bad but I don’t remember it as being bad. I remember it being incredibly deep and fulfilling. That’s how you would approach something like Star Wars, to make it feel like Star Wars.
Linking it into Lion, which I think is relevant because for me as a cinematographer, they were done very closely together, as in back to back and prepped at the same time and shot very closely together. I think there’s a beautiful singularity because they both focus on characters. There’s both the element of parents in them as well. I’m not saying that Rogue is similar to Lion. That wouldn’t give either of them enough credit but there are similarities. There are characterizations that are similar.
CT: But you approach them the same way. One isn’t any less deserving of that attention just because it’s a big spectacle.
GF: No, in fact because of the balance of things, Rogue would require more attention to the characterizations from my perspective. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that but I would say that I’ve approached them both in the same way. Somebody at a Q&A asked me was it so much different and I had to think about it. At its core, it’s no different. Let’s take the scene with Nicole and Dev in the bedroom in Tasmania. Nicole is pouring her heart out to Dev, it’s a two hander. You take that scene, you’re in a room with two fine actors, two cameras and you cross shoot it and you’re doing some amazing drama. Transpose yourself into a drama scene in the cockpit of a spaceship on a stage in Pinewood. You’re after the same emotion. You’re after the same beauty and the same kind of understanding of the character through filmmaking. My approach as a filmmaker doesn’t change just because I’m in a bedroom in a house in Tasmania or a cockpit of a shuttle in Pinewood—they’re the same. It’s the same approach. It’s the same bubble that you build for your actors as well.
CT: When you’re working at a studio as legendary as Pinewood, do you benefit from all the cinematographers and crews that came before you and figured out how to use and light that space?
GF: Yeah, for sure. You’ve got some of the best crew in the world in London. My group that I had on Rogue were just mind blowing. I took quite a few of them away with me on Mary Magdalene, the film I just finished with Garth. You reap the benefits of all those past DPs and all the work they’ve done. On Rogue, we chose specifically to mix up the lighting style. We were fortunate enough to be some of the first people to work with exclusively RGBW LEDs from companies like Creamsource and Digital Sputnik. So we were able to do the entire movie with color changeable lights. It doesn’t mean the film is going to look like a disco. It doesn’t mean that suddenly the light is going to change and go bright red, but we were able to really finesse and fine tune all our colors.
When you’ve got a stage like Pinewood and a company like Lucasfilm that’s really open to technology, it’s a perfect situation because they’re really open to experimenting. They’re really eager to preserve power, like save carbon emissions. They’re not just talking about it. They’re actually doing it by actively recommending and suggesting we do that. Then you’re faced with a perfect storm of an amazing stage which has amazing history, amazing technicians that have done some incredible movies, and a studio like Lucasfilm that’s absolutely sold on the idea of reducing their carbon footprint. As a filmmaker, you can reap the rewards of that by using brand new technology that actually is better, or not better but different and appropriate for that type of project.
CT: When we visualize biblical stories we’re probably highly influenced by the films we’ve seen. I doubt you’d do an old school technicolor look like The Ten Commandments but is Mary Magdalene full on gritty historical like The Passion of the Christ?
GF: It’s a mixture of the two. It’s definitely not flowery, I can tell you that. It’s not romanticized. If people have been walking through the desert, they’re dirty. Their hair’s matted. It’s definitely got some grit to it so it doesn’t try and sugarcoat it, but it also doesn’t try to get too outlandish with its colors. It’s very naturalistic. That’s all I can say. It’s a very naturalistic telling of the story.