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Greig Fraser on Retaining ‘Star Wars’ Iconography in ‘Rogue One’ and Lighting Rooney Mara

Written by on November 22, 2016 

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The Golden Frog winner at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival — a healthy bit of competition compiling the best in contemporary cinematography — was Greig Fraser for Lion, which we called “stunning” in our TIFF review. The Australian cinematographer’s quickly risen through the ranks, in several years jumping from collaborations with Jane Campion to Andrew Dominik to Kathryn Bigelow to Bennett Miller to, next month, Gareth Edwards on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

That comes up herein, of course, despite the fact that Fraser is limited in what he can say. A man of his knowledge and experience can go many ways in exploring his craft, so that’s exactly where we took it.

The Film Stage: When you come to a foreign country, do you look at environments and think about how to shoot them?

Greig Fraser: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s the light that’s the primary thing — well, not the primary thing, but light’s an incredibly important thing. When I landed yesterday in Bydgoszcz, I was just taken aback. I’ve been in Italy for the last two months shooting another movie, so landing here with the low sun, the fog, the cold, the slight softness to the air, I was just in heaven. I was like, “Why aren’t we filming more here? I want to be here, filming.” That freshness, that crispness. The coldness gets rid of it and creates a really lovely clarity, but, at the same time, there’s a certain mist in the air that creates a softness. The sun’s nice and soft, coming from Australia where the sun is not soft — it’s quite ozone-depleted. It’s just lovely being in Europe, just to see that amazing winter sun.

I’m curious how you discuss cinematography with fellow DPs, since this festival is overflowing with them. Is it a lot about equipment, chatting about directors?

It’s chewing the fat, yeah. It’s everything; it’s all those things. You might be talking specifically about the ethics of a movie or the underlying story. I just had a great conversation last night with Anthony Dod Mantle. Being a father to some very young children, the extent of my filmgoing, now, is limited to animated films, like Finding Dory and Inside Out. It’s not as common for me to see an adult film anymore, just for fun. It’s very rare for my wife and me to go out and watch a movie. I recently saw Snowden, which I thought Anthony did an amazing job on. I was really blown away by the film, and we had a great chat — the pros, the cons, the ethics, this, that, all the things that people talk about when they walk out of the film. Good? Bad? Ugly? Should he? Shouldn’t he? Without casting moral judgement. That’s not our job as cinematographers. But it’s really lovely to have a chat with him.

We caught up with a couple of other amazing cinematographers last night. We talked about everything from our amazing agents through to brand-new LED lighting. I went with Jacques Ballard, a great French DP, and Ari Wenger,  a great Australian DP; we had a look at the new Panavision DXL camera. We geeked-out a bit; looked at some lenses. This is the thing: our job is wide-ranging. It goes from being incredibly technical, extremely technical, to being very much the artist-based art of lighting, illumination, or not-illumination.

So to run the gamut in conversation is what’s so fun about this. Some DPs are very technical; some wouldn’t know what end the lens is on on a camera. All they know is where they want to put it, or how they want to light it, but they don’t know the name of the light or its power; they just know it’s how things should feel. To be able to have those kind of conversations… on set, you don’t run into many cinematographers on set. Unless you’re taking over from somebody who’s leaving or… [Laughs] it’s very rare to be having a conversation about a project with a cinematographer.

And that could be pretty awkward.

It could be. It could be. Depending on how that was to go down, yeah.

Your filmography balances between very high-profile and smaller-scale. I wonder how much you feel the change between projects, scale-wise, in terms of access to equipment and locations you’re shooting in. And, in the case of something like Star Wars, you probably have a far longer shooting schedule.

At its core, filmmaking is identical, regardless of what you’re doing. You’re working with a director and an actor. It doesn’t matter if the machine around you is a $1 billion movie or a $1,000 short film; at its core, it doesn’t actually matter. What we do is identical: every actor and cinematographer on the planet, it’s all the same core. That doesn’t change one iota. The thing that does change, though, like you said, is access to equipment. That’s the tail, though. The dog wags the tail — so, effectively, just because you’re on a big film doesn’t mean you have to use big equipment. What it does allow, though, is for you to be… I guess it’s a luxury to be able to light with more expensive or complicated light set-ups. The classic example: I’m a massive convert to both 65mm and RGB LED.

On Lion, we used a handheld kit of three digital Sputnik heads in India — it’s pretty much all the light we used — whereas, on Star Wars, we had quite a few more than that. They’re exactly the same lights, but quite a few more. It just meant, I think, that limitations are less, technically. Also, prep time: on a big project, often you have more prep time — and, if you don’t have prep time, you have access to the sources that let you prep. So you have more days with your AC, with the gaffer. It just affords you slightly more luxury, and I don’t mean “luxury” as in “more comfortable beds” or “more comfortable pillows.” Just more luxury in, “Actually, I need two of those heads. Can we afford two?” That’s, effectively, the difference. The same end result still occurs, though. You still want the same result; you still want the drama and the performance to connect with the audience. My end result doesn’t change a bit. It’s more about the approach to that point slightly changing.

But, effectively, it’s the same. I can recount time sitting in a room in New Orleans, and I can recall sitting in a room in Pinewood Studios. Two very different budgets. Or sitting in a room in Calcutta, India — the film that’s playing now. They’re exactly the same. The tripod’s the same. [Laughs] Also, what a high-profile film allows, I think, is to get the R&D going. A perfect example is: the marriage of the lenses and the camera we did on Rogue One was a beautiful Panavision lens and beautiful ARRI cameras. They married. They may not have been able to marry if it was a small production. I say that economically, because the economics of filmmaking, obviously, are very important as well. We may not have been up to marry. There may not be the LEDs that exists in the world right now unless Rogue One had shot with them. Do you know what I’m saying?

This is the good part: Rogue One kind of helped push my LED idea along, and now, on Mary Magdalene — which is a biblical film — I’m using exactly those same LEDs. For a low-budget film. So I wouldn’t have been able to use those for that low-budget film unless they existed in a world, and only existed in a world, with a big-budget movie; and they only exist on the bigger-budget movie because I used them on a smaller-budget movie. So it’s this kind of infinite loop that just keeps going round and round.

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Gareth Edwards’ work with DPs has a way of making high-concept stories feel feasible. How much is there a pressure to stick to a very culturally embedded iconography, as opposed to not wanting to be beholden to a 40-year-old movie? What was that conversation like?

Obviously, what I can say about Star Wars is limited. The main thing with Star Wars — and I’m not sort of revealing any spoilers here — but we all have our own influences. I mean, I do. Anyone who’s around my age — I’m 40 — has their own influences from Star Wars. They either absolutely hate it or absolutely loved it or are somewhere in between. It existed in everyone’s world, regardless of how they grew up. The thing with Star Wars is, iconography is a very big deal. It is built on iconography; it is built on silhouettes and images and shapes that are instantly understandable and repeatable. Death Star, Vader, Storm Troopers — those shapes, you catch a glimpse of them out the corner of your eye and you know what they are. To have that at your disposal is fantastic, because it means you’re not having to sell… Vader is Vader. You don’t have to go, “Ooh, isn’t he dramatic?”

We all know Vader is Vader. Having that iconography as a core point from which to launch from, visually, is incredibly inspiring. I wouldn’t say you have to work as hard to make it iconic, but there are shots we have in Lion that, again, you have to work a bit harder to make those shots iconic, because you need the audience to go away and remember those. I’m doing a Bible movie right now, and there’s clearly going to be iconic images in that Bible movie; that’s a western image. So the pressure’s less about sticking to the way it was 40 years ago. The pressure’s more about being true to your own belief and understanding about what Star Wars was — but, at the same time, not be hamstrung by that.

We’re making a movie that’s very separate to any of those other movies, and you want to be inspired by it, and you’re encouraged to lift — steal — from those films; it makes sense to do that. If you steal from that movie to make another sci-fi movie, well, maybe you shouldn’t be doing that. But if you’re lifting to put it into our film — I’m talking about frames or images or styles or lighting ideas or moods — then it’s encouraged. It’s great. But then, also, injecting your own aesthetic. I mean, Gareth Edwards… I don’t know if you’ve seen Monsters. That was the first thing that I’d seen Gareth did, and it looked amazing. He shot it; he had a very big say in how that film looked. I was quite excited to work with him, because you’re right: he makes conceit work. Filmmaking is false, at its core: you put an actor in front of a camera. Unless you’re filming a news report, it’s false. It starts out by being false; it becomes even more false when you start telling a person what to do. So it’s trying to make it so it feels not-false, and Gareth Edwards is incredibly good at that.

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