Greig Fraser: Shooting A Galaxy Far, Far Away…

May 26, 2020
Aussie cinematographer Greig Fraser has crafted stunning imagery for The Mandalorian and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Australia has a rich tradition of turning out world-class, groundbreaking cinematographers, from living legends like John Seale, Donald McAlpine and Dean Semler through to current industry leaders like Adam Arkapaw, Mandy Walker and Dion Beebe. Melbourne-born Greig Fraser is an essential local shooter whose gift for creating beautifully lit and artfully composed imagery has seen him chosen as a collaborator by some of Australia’s most talented and cutting edge filmmakers. He shot award winning short films for David Michod (Crossbow, Netherland Dwarf), Nash Edgerton (Spider), Glendyn Ivin (Cracker Bag) and Jane Campion (The Water Diary), before moving into features, working again with Campion on Bright Star and Ivin on The Last Ride, along with the likes of Scott Hicks (The Boys Are Back), Tony Krawitz (Jewboy) and Sandra Sciberras (The Caterpillar Wish).

Like so many before him, Fraser’s gifts were soon scouted internationally, and he decamped overseas to work with a long list of top-tier directors on a number of high profile projects: Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Matt Reeves’ Let Me In, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler, and Adam McKay’s Vice. He also brought the visuals for internationally based Aussies like Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly) and Garth Davis (shooting Mary Magdalene as well as the Oscar nominated Lion), and trekked to a galaxy far, far away with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. With one massive project on the way in Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the sci-fi epic Dune and another put on pause in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, the now LA-based Greig Fraser’s on-screen genius can currently be seen in the hugely popular Disney + series The Mandalorian.

Greig Fraser on the set of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Has this whole COVID isolation period given you a chance to reflect on priorities?

“It’s a consolation, isn’t it? It makes you realise what’s important in life and the people that you value. Obviously family, yes, but even professions. Doctors, nurses, definitely. I always thought teachers were undervalued, and this has proven to me that that is 100% the case.”

You would have been shooting The Batman right now with Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson if this hadn’t gone down?

“That’s correct, yeah. It took us a bit to work out what we were doing. And then, it all started to hit the fan a bit. Everyone just realised that they had to decant to their home because no-one was sure what was going to happen. Leaders were trying to make the best decisions that they could at the time given the information. And we weren’t sure what to do, and Los Angeles was home, so we just had to get home. We did land in the quarantine and we’re enjoying our time in lockdown in LA. It’s a great opportunity to be home.”

Greig Fraser on the set of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Looking at your filmography, technology obviously doesn’t faze you, and it’s something that you embrace. Are you coming up with creative ideas whilst in lockdown?

“I have been a proponent of virtual filmmaking for a very long time. I’m very fortunate to have been involved with some movies that fundamentally are really simply useful stories with human characters. I’m always looking for ways to simplify the filmmaking process and to make it easier. The elements are against you from the second that you put three words on a piece of paper. If you think about it in a negative way, the world is against filmmaking. I am looking out the window right now and it’s really windy. If we were outside filming under the tree that I am looking at, we wouldn’t be filming because of the danger. But that is also part of the joy. I remember being on a beach in Sicily on Mary Magdalene [2018] with Garth Davis, and we had massive winds, with waves pushing against the shore and it was just so dramatic and stunning. We never could have planned that. So, Mother Nature can be friend and foe. It’s usually about trying to balance the filmmaking process to allow the director and the actor to work together without being mired in the technical. Sometimes you need to front-end with the technical so that the actual important part of the process – which is actors and characters – can be free and flexible.”

You started off in stills photography, is that right?

“I did, yeah. I studied photography at RMIT in Melbourne, but I realised that whilst I loved making images, the business wasn’t necessarily my bag. It can be a little bit lonely at times as a photographer, and I love the social aspect of filmmaking. Through Exit Films in Melbourne, which was a photography and film studio at that point, I discovered a whole other world of filmmaking, and realised through trial and error that I could actually shoot stuff, and that I was pretty good at making pictures. I had a long history with directors as a director’s assistant, so I understood directors, and it felt like all roads led to me being a cinematographer.”

Grieg Fraser with director Garth Davis on the set of Lion.

Did you ever schlep around on a film set taking stills?

“Not as such, no. But when I was in second year, I went for a movie with a couple of other second-year students, as a film stills person, and I didn’t get the job. A great photographer named John Tsiavis got the job. It was a film called Head On, and John got the role and he was so perfect for it, and I didn’t and I was like, ‘Ah, that’s a shame.’ But it’s funny how things work. That wasn’t my future, but it was John’s future. I was able to then move into actually filming.”

Was this around the time that digital was emerging?

“Not particularly, but there was video. I shot a documentary in 2000 about parking inspectors in The City Of Yarra [P.I.N.S. for Garth Davis]. That was on mini DVD, so mini DVD was around. But anything that was serious, any music videos that were serious, were shot on film. I had a long history of exposing film because I’d shot thousands of rolls of film. So, exposing the film wasn’t a big deal Thankfully I had some very good people to assist me technically with the cameras, because I didn’t understand the cameras. But I also had great directors to work with. We could work through trial and error.”

Greig Fraser at work.

You’re a producer on The Mandalorian as well…how did that all happen? You shot three episodes?

“Well, herein lies the rub with virtual film production. Even though it says that I shot three episodes, there’s a lot of collaboration involved. And so, the traditional paths and measures that we’ve established over a hundred years about who does what on a film set don’t really apply. We were reinventing the filmmaking process with people that weren’t necessarily trained in that world. There was a lot of training on the job or retraining, with me included. But I was also training people how to light things like virtual backgrounds. So, there was a lot of training, retraining, and redesigning of the system.

This system didn’t just come out of the blue. We have been working on this effectively since Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. LED has been used since Gravity [2013] in a small way to light the actors’ faces. We used them in Rogue One in a big capacity to light spaceships. And ILM really pushed the limitations as they do, to say, ‘How do we take this concept of a volume of LEDs, and how do we shoot drama on it? How do we make this a viable option for drama? Really important drama?’ And so since Rogue One, I’ve been in constant contact with Lucasfilm and ILM about how this could happen. And as things come online, as you know, the pixel pictures get smaller and the computer processors get faster, and the gaming engines get more advanced. There was a point in time when things were just good enough to do something like this, and that’s when The Mandalorian was getting up.

Jon Favreau has a history of pushing the envelope as well, and it was a meeting of the minds. We all went, ‘Now’s the time that we might be able to achieve this.’ And what do we need to be able to achieve it? We need real-time tracking. We need in-camera finals, as in, it looks like the real thing, and it doesn’t need any work. We need the flexibility, and a big enough space so that when directors came in to do their episode, they weren’t limited by a little box.

That was when that credit came in, because it was very much a big picture conversation. And that’s why, even though I am credited with three episodes, the DP who is not credited on those episodes, Baz Idoine, did a lot of the work on those episodes too. He was on the floor shooting a lot of the time when I wasn’t. It’s a weird system of crediting, and it’s a bit old school. The work that he did far outshone the lack of credit that he got. And the work that I did on his episodes outshone the credit that I didn’t get. It’s so enjoyable though, because as DPs we’re used to collaborating with directors and designers, whereas on this, I was collaborating with Baz, and I was collaborating with post-production. It was very much a big picture collaboration, which was incredibly enjoyable.”

Greig Fraser with Darth Vader on the set of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

You’re a Star Wars fan from way back?

“Yeah, my childhood mate.”

The look of Rogue One brought something different to that universe though. How do you balance being true to the brand, and also moving it forward?

“It’s a constant thing. The technology is different now than it was in 1977. But George Lucas had made Star Wars after having been influenced by his peers, like Scorsese and Coppola, and the era of fantastic filmmaking in the ‘70s. He’d been influenced by all these other films, and he had limitations on Star Wars: Episode 1 – A New Hope. It was effectively an independent movie. It was an independent little sci-fi movie. And those limitations were what helped create the look of Star Wars, which is about small, slow-moving cameras, and simple, wide shots that can utilise plate photography or plate drawings.

So we had a strong visual base from which we could start working. We encouraged ourselves to steal ideas from George Lucas; had an obligation to do that because our film directly tied into A New Hope. It couldn’t be like we were making a different movie. This had its foundation in effectively what George had done. But then we were able to do other things, through modern day filmmaking and shooting in a digital form, which is something that I’m sure George would have done had he had the opportunity. We were able to take classic filmmaking and throw in a bit of spice. It was really enjoyable.”

Greig Fraser on the set of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

A lot of people really love that film and obviously The Mandalorian as well…

“I’ve got to look inside myself and ask, as a fan, what do I want to see? Now obviously as a DP, my influence is limited from a story and character perspective, even though I must say that I do like to have an opinion about those things, and I do. I look less at the technical and think more along the lines of, ‘I’m watching The Mandalorian, I’m watching a Star Wars movie…what do I want to see in a Star Wars movie? And how do I want to watch it?’ And, you know what? I think it’s a bit of a break. The Mandalorian is a bit of a break from modern filmmaking per se with its quick edits and crazy uncontrolled camera moves. That’s a valid way of making a movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a modern way of making a film.

With The Mandalorian, people responded to that simplicity. It was fantastic because it showed the world that you don’t need to keep doing bigger and bigger and bigger, and bigger and faster and more cutty. It was coming to a head, with films becoming more cutty and more colourful, and it didn’t need that. It just needed simplicity. Star Wars: A New Hope is the story of a farm boy who goes to save a princess, and then saves the day. It’s a basic story that I just told you in two sentences.”

The Mandalorian pulls back from all that stuff. Do you think that people may eventually look back on it for its contribution to visual language…

“I hope so, because frankly, I was getting a little tired of all that fast editing. I love a bit of suspense and shaky camera, but there’s a point where it’s like putting sugar on your ice cream. There’s a point where that’s distasteful.”

Speaking of less hectic filmmaking, your work on The Boys Are Back [2009] was amazing. Was that a good experience for you?

“Fantastic. Scott Hicks is an incredible director. I hadn’t moved to the US at that point, but the wife and I were definitely talking about where we want to be and all that stuff, and it was nice to do that. I did that straight after a film called The Last Ride with Glendyn Ivin. And they were both in Adelaide, so I spent half a year in South Australia and Adelaide, and it was wonderful. We built a beautiful house. It’s a great story, but it didn’t connect with audiences. I haven’t seen it in a while, but thinking back now as a father, I would probably connect more with it now. Scott brought a lot to that because he’s got a great aesthetic and he understands character.”

Timothee Chalamet in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, shot by Greig Fraser.

What was your experience like on Dune, which you just wrapped with Denis Villeneuve? He does things differently to most directors working with big budgets. How did you get that gig? Because of your interest in shooting in a different way, and moving things forward?

“You would need to ask Denis about why I got the job, but no, I don’t think it was for that reason, because there actually wasn’t much tech on Dune. We shot digitally, but it was very traditional in the way that we shot it, and there was very little process screen work. There were no blue screens, ever. We shot a lot of it practically. We went to Jordan and Abu Dhabi and Norway and then we shot a lot of it for real. There are visual effects, of course, but it was a little bit more lo-fi. That is its beauty. Denis is fantastic at distilling characterisations. That’s almost like a theme with me, with regards to directors that I enjoy working with and films that I like to do.

Despite the fact that Rogue One is a sci-fi film, it’s also a character film about a girl who loses her father and her constant search for her father. It’s a very beautiful story. And it’s the same thing with Dune; it’s a character piece, and you’ve got a plethora of such incredible actors. Every day, a new actor would come on set, and it would be one of my favourite actors. There was a dozen of my favourite actors on that film, and I’ve become very close to quite a few of them. They’re a really good bunch. Denis surrounds himself with really good people. Actors love him and he’s just full of love.”

Greig Fraser with director Andrew Dominik on the set of Killing Them Softly.

There’s currently a lot of discussion around quotas and the various initiatives in Australia to continue our local industry here. Do you have any thoughts on that?

“Australia has a strong film industry. Australia needs a voice. I have a very strong opinion about that because otherwise we could get trapped in an American voice, in an English voice. Australia needs a voice, and it’s good to have films funded. Unfortunately, the government often will need to do that in a loss-making venture to make sure that we retain our voice and that we develop our voice as Australians. And that definitely did right by me. I can work on Australian movies with Australian directors, and still do. My best buddy is Garth Davis, who I’ve done two movies with now. I’ve been to the Academy Awards with him. That’s as a result of the Australian film industry. I do feel sometimes that the Australian film industry, like the American film industry, can become a little bit closed to outsiders. And I feel like there’s a lot to be learned from other people. And I have the same problem, frankly, with the American system. The unions in the US are really hard; you just can’t come over and shoot a movie. You’ve got to get into the union and it’s hard. They’re protecting their people, and I get that.

In Australia, we should allow people from other countries in to educate us in a different way. A perfect example of that is Natasha Braier, the DP on a film called The Rover. I love Natasha’s work, frankly. I would have loved to have been a second unit DP or an assistant on that to learn about the way that Tasha does it. Because she does it totally differently. She’s from Argentina, and she’s had a different upbringing. She’s a different person to Australians, so I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall to watch how she did that and learned from it. There needs to be a bit of cross-cultural contamination between people that sometimes is not necessarily allowed because Australians are protecting jobs. It’s very easy for me to say that, because I’ve been in a very fortunate position to have a leg in both camps, and I can do both. I know that not everybody can do that, but I feel like it’s an opportunity to learn.”

The Mandalorian is streaming now on Disney +. If you liked this story, check out our interviews with fellow Aussie cinematographers Toby Oliver, David Parker, and Meg White.

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