Greig Fraser is an Academy Award-nominated cinematographer whose next film Vice stars Christian Bale and Amy Adams and will be released on Christmas Day, and who was recently announced as the Director of Photography (DP) for the highly anticipated upcoming adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Greig’s past adventures include Lion with Nicole Kidman, not to mention a trip to a galaxy far, far away through the visuals of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. By the grace of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), I recently had a chance to speak with Greig to discuss virtual worlds, Digital Sputniks, and the Death Star.
Q: On Lion, what was your process in working with the director during preproduction and then during production?
Garth Davis and I have known each other for a very long time and because of that, we have a very well-developed shorthand. Garth will often go to a location and scout without my being there, so then he can come back and I can see a lot of these images fresh. I find that to be really useful because then I can offer him insight into the script but being fresh, without having seen any of the logistics of those locations. And then from there we go and scout the location together, we’ll take his initial scout images and we’ll grow upon those and come up with some ideas and some places. We’ll come up with some places to solve some script problems or some location problems, such as which train station we can completely control, that we can put a train into, that we can have no one on. That can be a very hard thing to find and so we would go backwards and forwards, where I would often go out and scout and he would see the images from my scout and we would then collaborate on the process.
Q: What are some of the technical and artistic differences between shooting digital versus film?
The debate of digital versus film has been around for quite a while now, and often people have a belief that one is better than another. Film people tend to look down on digital and digital people tend to look down on film as being an antiquated medium.
I believe that both mediums have a really strong place in our vernacular, in our vocabulary. Technically though, there are differences. Film is a little bit less sensitive than these newer digital cameras and so with the digital cameras often it’s the case where you need less light in order to be able to get an exposure. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to light less but you often can have less light. This can also be a hindrance, because on film you might add some lights in order to be able to get the exposure and get a nice aesthetic image but when you’re in position with a very sensitive digital camera and you’ve got too much light, sometimes in an urban or suburban environment it’s actually quite hard to take that light away. Sometimes it’s easier to add light to a location than to remove it, so that’s one difference.
Technically, with digital cameras we are able to shoot longer takes. So if we’re shooting with a 5-year-old boy that means the less disruption to his takes the better. And so the less time we’re reloading or the less time we have to get marks for the focus puller, the better the young boy’s reactions and his performance are going to be. And so in that respect, I think that digital helps and improves the overall film.
Q: What were some of the factors in your decision to use the ARRI Alexa 65 for Rogue One?
For Rogue One we had tested quite a few formats: we had tested film, of course, we tested 35mm film and 65mm film, we tested all the digital formats, but it wasn’t until we happened upon the Alexa 65 that we found something that was quite unique. We knew that we wanted our camera to be small and hand-holdable and nimble and fast, we didn’t want to have the limitations of a big, bulky camera. So because the Alexa 65 was of a very similar size to the normal Alexa 35, it meant that we could do a lot of handheld, we could do a lot of rigs that would be a lot more complicated with film, we could do them on the Alexa 65.
The Alexa 65 created a look that was interesting; it was actually more about the look and the feel. With 65mm film rather than form factor, as filmmakers in the past understood with Lawrence of Arabia ad Ben Hur, 65mm has a certain depth to it, a certain substance to it. The size of the sensor has a real special quality to it, since it’s a larger sensor then the depth of field will be different. The way that it sees the world is very different. It has a really interesting perception; it’s a bit more like the human eye than 35mm. We were really impressed by that, whenever we referenced how we remembered Star Wars: A New Hope that was how we remembered it, with that level of depth and quality. And so it seemed like a really natural progression for us to choose that. One of the other big factors were the lenses, we had access to some really great Ultra Panatar anamorphic lenses. And so because of these two factors together with the perception and the lenses, it meant that we could come up with a look that we were really excited by.
Q: What are your experiences working with the Digital Sputnik LED lights?
We tested many types of LED lights when we were doing the initial technical testing for Rogue One. We tested all the LED lights that were available at the time and all the RGB lights as well. I had worked on a film called The Gambler and we used a lot of light ribbons, which are RGB and you can change all the colors, all of the spectrums from bright red through daylight at 12000 Kelvin. I like that changeability, that ability to alter on the fly, and I knew that there were some lights coming through the process, coming down the pipeline that were RGBAW. Some of these were the Digital Sputniks and when I used them, what I found was that they were so well tuned in to the digital sensors. I did test them on film and I found that they were good but I tested them more on digital and I felt that they were so well tuned to digital sensors that I could get really good skin tones.
For the first time ever, I felt like a light had been designed for the recording mechanism, as opposed to the lights being designed for motion picture film. For the first time, these LEDs were being designed for the digital medium in which we were planning on shooting and so I felt a little bit like it was a no-brainer to choose the Digital Sputniks. That they were color changeable and color tunable was incredibly important since it meant that at any given time I could make small tweaks that might not be perceptible to the people on the set but that changed the color just enough to make the palette feel quite beautiful.
Q: What are some of the factors in the decision to go with virtual cinematography versus practical at various times?
On a film like Rogue One, there was quite a lot of virtual cinematography because there were a lot of scenes set in space or around the Death Star, places that we physically couldn’t get a camera. There was also virtual cinematography in the sense that there were virtual characters on Rogue One. Virtual cinematography has reached a point now where there are certain things like objects that are better recorded digitally; they give you more flexibility when you record them digitally. They give you the ability to change the shot at any given time, they’re giving you more detail and depth than you could ever build or could ever light.
If you’re dealing with a massive set that you just don’t have any control over, that you just don’t have enough lights in the world to be able to light then it’s a much better option to go with virtual cinematography. It’s very relevant for a cinematographer to stay on top of that virtual cinematography, because the people in post-production are just as able to disrupt the work you’ve done on set as anyone else because they’re coming in and they’re making lens choices for you. And so to be a part of that process is very important. John Knoll was the visual effects supervisor on Rogue One, he and I would constantly talk about lensing. John would constantly be quizzing me about my decisions for lighting and he’d be constantly quizzing me about my decisions for lensing on Rogue One. I understood why when we were on set and then when I saw the final film, I totally understood and got why that was.
John Knoll and his visual effects team had to decide on lenses and lighting for every single thing they did, including for things we hadn’t shot and so he had to fill that void. John Knoll is an incredibly talented visualist and so we were in really good hands. But if someone who is not a strong visualist takes that role, it can be a little daunting for a cinematographer, because you’re handing over the rest of the movie to someone who may not share your vision. And so providing a really strong brief and a really strong guide I think is the key, and one of the best things that a cinematographer can do to make sure that the cinematography is maintained.
Q: In general, what is your process for coordinating in-camera effects with digital VFX?
You have to shoot so that the visual effects people can do their work well. There’s no point in your doing a really pretty shot if the digital effects team can’t work on it. There is a point though in making sure that a cinematographer fights for the correct lighting quality and the correct lensing quality.
One of the really great things with John Knoll and ILM was that they were very open to me to making sure that I had the right lenses and the right lighting. There were times where our lenses were a little characterful, they were a little blurry around the edges, they were not consistent across the image plane, they were not technically perfect lenses but they were visually perfect lenses. John and ILM really encouraged us to shoot what we thought was right, how we wanted to shoot it, and then they were able to work on it. And in doing so, the links between the final results for VFX and the cinematography were much closer than they ever would have been had we shot it all with perfectly clean lenses, perfectly lit bluescreens, perfectly backlit characters. We shot it how we felt it should be and they worked really well in helping us with that.
Q: In terms of social technology, you’re using Instagram to engage with DPs and other creatives?
I’m quite a late-comer to Instagram, back in the early days of Instagram I used to see people’s dinners and people’s holidays and I’d wonder why do I need to see that, why do I want to encourage that, I had no interest in it. Of late though I’ve been watching some really great work develop on Instagram. I’ve been watching the work of some other DPs, some younger DPs, other photographers, younger photographers, and just being really inspired. For the first time in a long time I’ve been really inspired by seeing other peoples’ work and by seeing things that are contemporary and current and instant. Not having to wait until something gets published on someone’s website, until something gets published in someone’s reel. I’m enjoying that as an instant photographic gratification, as a constant inspiration. I’m enjoying watching how other people are filming and shooting, they’re shooting on different cameras and iPhones.
One could argue that there’s almost too many ways to communicate with people now, there’s phones and email and Instagram and Facebook and the amount of access and information that exists now can sometimes be overwhelming. If you’re trying to make sure that you don’t lose email messages, that you reply to people on Instagram, it can be very tough and particularly when you’re in the middle of shooting and you’ve got your brain focused somewhere else, but I do love that kind of communication and finding out what people are using, what new technology people have come across. It was only through someone’s recommendation that I got to play with Digital Sputniks and now they’re the only lights that I’ll use.