Australian Cinematographer Greig Fraser ACS ASC (Bright Star, Killing Them Softly, Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher) - who was recently awarded the prestigious Golden Frog at Camerimage for his work on the film Lion starring Nicole Kidman - speaks exclusively with Australian Cinematographer Magazine about lensing the big-budget and highly anticipated Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - interview by Lindsay Coleman
AC: The look of Rogue One seems very naturalistic.
GF: Yes, I feel that is really what cinematography should be, that is what it should be at its best, though of course it depends on the story.
AC: On Last Ride (2009) you used incredibly minimal lights. Would you say you took any lessons from that into Rogue One?
GF: Yes, for sure. One thing Last Ride proved to me is that it is more important to be in the right place at the right time. Even though we often have to light things in our job, as humans we’ve been able to recognize when lighting isn’t correct. We sense when things are not right.as humans. In my opinion lighting accurately imitating real life, has always been a tricky thing. I’ve always found, particularly on Last Ride, the tools I had available I wasn’t able to get the type of lighting I was aiming. Jumping forward many years to Rogue One there were lots of times we were having to light, although what I found, with RGBW LED lights, was in fact allowing me to get much closer to what I might have envisaged as excellent lighting on an earlier film like Last Ride.
Digital Sputnik are making them, Creamsource are making them. The way I light, I can match to eye, or the camera. Rather than adding gels, having a false colour of light, the ability of these lights to match is incredible. When I was shooting Lion in India we had ourselves a small lighting truck with some ARRI 1.8Ks and small lighting frames but I realised the most useful I could do was to use these Digital Spuntik DS 3s which I had already used in a couple of commercials. The DS were great, a smaller package, and I could operate them from my iPad. It’s amazing, I actually think we were quite influential on that film, and a lot of cinematographers in India are now adopting similar lighting.
AC: Do you feel it is good to set limitations for yourself?
GF: Yes I definitely do. I think that the reason I'm a cinematographer rather than a photographer is because when I was a freelance photographer I would really agonise over my lighting and spend forever on things, but on film I have limitations which are produced by working with actors, producers, other departments and as a result of this I think limitations are really helpful and useful to push you to become very resourceful. You don’t want to have too many limitations imposed, but I think having self-imposed limitations are great.
I am presently doing a biblical film, Mary Magdalene, here in Italy. It was a night shoot yesterday and we used a small group of DS 6s and we only ended up using 6000 kW for the whole night, 800watts per head, instead of the usual business with cables, gels, 18ks, and so forth. We had fewer personnel, just a guy on a dimmer board. Doing fire, he could program that, plus we figured out how to do lightning flashes. We could respond to what was happening on the day. I knew I couldn't flash an HMI, but knew a lightning flash was back at base which would cause us to lose an hour. Instead we could do it with the DS 6s.
AC: Would you say these lights really help to create the kind of naturalistic look you favour?
GF: Well sometimes the look they create can be completely the opposite, and they're the same head, the same light just being used in different ways. Natasha Braier (The Rover) used the same lights on The Neon Demon (2016) to create a completely different effect. Also, and it might be slightly off topic, but you also have to remember the new types of cameras we are using with these lights. The world is evolving and in turn you are seeing the introduction of a 65mm Digital camera which we are now using. It is rated to go up to 3200 ASA and the sensor is three times the size of Alexa sensor so you've got grain the same size but ultimately it's a lot smaller when you put it on the screen, three times smaller.
AC: The beach planet on Rogue One looks very glary and overcast. How did you keep that look consistent?
GF: Yes the beach planet, Scarif, it is the classic thing as a cinematographer where you want to be able to control sun and clouds every bit of the day. That planet was modelled after the Maldives, except the Empire was set up on it. We couldn’t have gone to the Maldives to shoot an entire battle sequence in the Maldives. What we did in the UK was build a beach and a landing platform, so the ship could land. We used a helicopter which we then superimposed a CGI ship. We also had interior mockup which we had on a construction crane. We could shoot from the inside as we lowered the mockup onto the stage.
There are no construction cranes in the Maldives, so we could never do that there. We built some of the beach, some of the land, and some of the bunker on location in the UK. Whilst you might say the UK is the least appropriate place to shoot a sunny planet believe it or not we're shooting a lot of lovely sun. The great thing is, after the battle starts use we had licensed to darken things. There was a discussion with the Director (Gareth Edwards) and we agreed we didn't want it to look like a beach movie. We thought about what if we want to make it look more like Apocalypse Now (1979). In order to do that we put as much water-based smoke out there. It took a lot of work. I was reminded of the bad old days where they would burn tires to produce a similar effect.
AC: What was your relationship like with those involved in post? I noticed the plates you shot were really funky, with lots of artefacts.
GF: We had a lot of things going for us on this film. The Director had been involved in post-production in the past on Monsters (2010) but also in charge of visual effects was John Knoll. He and I had a really important conversation about lenses on this film and lighting. One of the concerns that he had, and he showed examples from other films, about issues that have come up for lighting exterior daytime on a stage. We discussed what was good and what was not good. We concluded if we were going to do day for day, we need a better lighting strategy. This is where these RGB LEDs came in again. The Creamsource Skylight were used on stage which looked so convincing for daytime. I was really keen on the lenses which we picked, which I took great care in, would be understood well by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in terms of their chromatic aberration.
A lot of visual effects people will try to convince a cinematographer to work with clean lenses. But Knoll really respected what I was going for. There is a shot in the trailer of a Star Destroyer coming out of the shadow of the Death Star which totally features some really exciting aberrations, ones which mimicked those found in our lenses. They kept the artefacts from what we had originally shot. The chromatic aberration on the highlight part of the white of the front of the Star Destroyer as it comes out of the shadow. It is exactly the same as what my lenses would do. It’s a bit blown out, but it’s exactly what my lenses were doing.
AC: The original films were shot with models, on film. Here you are using a digital camera, digital models. How did you go about approximating that look?
GF: We did discuss the possibility of going with models on this, having a models unit. We would have loved to have done that. If there is a way we could have done it we would have. It just wasn’t practical. There is so much work in space. The economics of it weren’t great. Science-fiction you can get away with a lot. Most people haven’t been up into space so they don’t know what it is like. But you also have the chance to reinvent the wheel. There are multiple suns in Star Wars universes, so you can have multiple shadows. We wanted it to look honest and real while we were in space, like Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014).
AC: Was Gravity and influence?
GF: No, not directly. The work above Scarif could look a bit like Gravity. But of course every step forward which we make as filmmakers, we also evolve collectively.
AC: There is in impressive shot in the trailer of sun shining through the window of a spaceship and creating a flare on the lens. Can you talk about that?
GF: We shot the ship against an LED screen. It was like a cyclorama, 180 degrees around the ship and above and below a bit. ILM programmed into that the visual and light of above planets, entering and taking off from planets, going into hyperspace, and so on. They built these worlds. Whatever we were going to shoot, having to pre-light for each scene, instead we just programmed the world and the lighting would pop up on the screen. Of course we used an HMI on a crane to stand in for the sun.
AC: My understanding is there was a connection between the cinematography in Rogue One and The Hateful Eight (2015)?
GF: At Panavision I ran into Gregor Tavenner who was the AC on The Hateful Eight, which was of course shot with those amazing 65mm lenses. We figured out how to re-house them in such a way that they could be put to use on our film, even though much of what we were doing was based around a handheld approach. We didn’t use all of the lenses they used, some of which were quite bulky. We got them small, we got them fast. It ended up being quite a small package we had.
AC: On The Force Awakens (2015) there was a debate on how retro it should be in terms of style. How retro did you go on Rogue One?
GF: The story of Rogue One leads into Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977). We all know what happens in A New Hope, so it seemed counter-intuitive to shoot it like reportage, like a Paul Greengrass movie. Yet, we love his style. It feels immediate, unplanned. It is emotionally really rewarding. Edwards and I both love that. But we also love the classic Lucas and Spielberg films from our childhoods. There are certain filmic cues which play out because you are watching a 1970s film. For us it is like shooting a 1970s film in 2016. The balance we found was a really good one. We referenced Star Wars filmmaking, how Lucas shot the original, we could reference those. We got to ‘steal’ techniques from 1970s filmmaking.
We were influenced by Apocalypse Now, but also The Hurt Locker (2008). How will it come out? How to avoid it being a mess? Well you have to carefully discuss which scenes you want to be more controlled, which you want to be more loose.
AC: What was the situation with re-shoots on the film? Where there aesthetic changes made to the film?
GF: Not at all. I can assure you that nothing was changed in terms of the style which we were going for. There are serious misunderstanding about the re-shoots, I feel. Even while we were shooting we were reading these incredibly inaccurate reports on what was going on. With Star Wars, people get very passionate. People always assume re-shoots mean something is wrong. To me, additional shooting is just part of the process. It is such a healthy thing. I think films are evolving, and that this new process is wonderful. Why deny the potential to improve the movie? We were always going to go back and do pick-ups. Nothing changed photographically.
AC: Why did you choose to film in 6.5K?
GF: Given the weight of the choices we had – film, the Alexa, so many different format and lens combinations – we had the chance to test many formats on the sets we had. One concern we had with 65mm was that it was going to be too clean. It would have been a bit too scientific for what we were doing. That proved to us that the lens choice had to be very specific.
AC: You could have gone to 5K on a Dragon?
GF: I think whilst the ‘K’ is relevant, it is not as relevant as people think. My iPhone shoots a higher resolution than digital films shot ten years ago. There is a certain minimum resolution you need, with current distribution. You want to push for 4K deliverable. Beyond 4K it maybe isn’t the most important thing, at this point in time. The Alexa records like a medium-format camera. If you look at a Nan Goldin photograph, the quality, versus large format photographs, the quality of the image is incredibly different. Not just the sharpness, but the field of view. The size of the sensor, when it allows you to approximate natural human vision, is really of paramount importance.
AC: On Killing Them Softly (2012) you had a very shallow depth of field…
GF: Yes, and I loved that, I love those lenses. I would have loved to have shot that on a larger format. Rogue One and those lenses was a natural progression to me. Killing Them Softly did have an effects lens. It was ‘effect-y’! Rogue One we didn’t want to draw massive attention to the lenses. We wanted it to seem like a classily-lit and shot drama that happened to be set in a galaxy far, far away… using techniques perfected in the 1970s.
AC: On Lion you lit through window very much like in Zero Dark Thirty…
GF: Yes. Its rare for two directors to have identical needs, but often directors do make similar requests from me. To them the drama is more important than the ‘perfect’ lighting. If lighting is too perfect it can feel inappropriate to the story. In those instances, it wasn’t Katherine Bigalow’s style to wait to light. She wanted to block and shoot quick. So I had to have all my ducks in a row. How would I deal with being prepared, and at the same time really flexible. It is a chess game, thinking 5-7 steps ahead. You have to make sure there is no equipment in the spot you need to shoot, or let an actor move into. That is the way that the directors of both Lion and Zero Dark Thirty wanted things to be in terms of flexibility, but luckily that is also just the way I like to work. If I am covering an actor, and the camera is on my shoulder, and the actor moves behind me to sit in a chair, I am not going to yell cut, I am going to keep shooting. My camera is magnetised to the actor!
AC: What is also quite amazing is how you chose to shoot Nicole Kidman who is the adoptive mother of Dev Patel in Lion. She looks just like a suburban, middle-class mum…
GF: Absolutely. We could have easily overlit her, but no, we lit her as was true to the character, to who she was, and Nicole certainly went along with that as it was appropriate for the story.
AC: What was your format on Lion?
GF: It was 35mill Alexa, Panavision Superspeed on that.
AC: Did you stop up or stop down?
GF: We find what the stop is for the story. Lion was around 2.8. For the new film I am on we are finding the stop is 2.8 and a half. Rogue One was 2.5, 2.66. That was our hero stop on that one. You kind of come up with the right feel for each project. People think T-stop is just a device, to make things brighter or darker, but I think T-stop has a major impact on the feel of your narrative.
Lindsay Coleman is a writer, film-academic and an ongoing contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.