Interviews · Movies

A Conversation with Oscar Nominated Cinematographer Greig Fraser

The cinematographer behind ‘Lion’ and ‘Rogue One’ talks story, emotion, and paying it forward.
Greig Fraser Rogue One
By  · Published on February 17th, 2017

When Greig Fraser first got the call to work on Lion, it didn’t take him long to make up his mind about the project. “When [director Garth Davis] explained the story to me over the phone, I was in tears hearing about it,” Fraser told me last week. “Like I was in tears,” he repeated. Fraser’s emotional response colors every frame of the film, for which he just won the ASC’s Feature Film award. Now the protean cinematographer is a favorite for the Best Cinematography Oscar, a fitting cap to what has surely been a prodigious year of work.

It’s easy to see what Fraser responded so strongly to: Lion tells the powerful true story of Saroo Brierley, who at the age of five was separated from his brother in a Calcutta train station. After being adopted by an Australian family and growing up in Tasmania, Brierley set out 25 years later to find his lost family. It’s a worthy subject for a film, no doubt, but one that in different hands could have descended into easy sentimentality. Thanks in large part to Fraser’s grounded, honest imagery, the film instead turns out to be one of the year’s finest ‐ a subtle yet sweeping fable about home, family, and wholeness.

Lion’s aesthetic, which might best be described as a kind of poetic naturalism, is the result of more than twenty years of collaboration between Davis and Fraser, who first met when both were working in menial jobs at Australia’s Exit Films. “I know Garth probably better than I know anybody else,” Fraser told me, “except perhaps my wife.” Fraser’s first film as a cinematographer was Davis’s first as a director ‐ a documentary called P.I.N.S. ‐ and the two have maintained a firm grounding in realism ever since. Fraser’s work with other directors, including Zero Dark Thirty with Katherine Bigelow and Foxcatcher with Bennett Miller, bears this same signature of reality.

But what distinguishes Fraser’s work is the way in which each shot, regardless of the apparent naturalism, conveys a precise psychological impression. In Lion, for instance, the decision was made to have visual continuity across time (Saroo’s childhood and adulthood) and space (India and Australia). The result is a film that feels like an organic unfolding of one character’s psychology. “We don’t have to shoot [in a] different style because, remember, the film isn’t…just a linear story,” Fraser explained. “There are flashbacks, there are imagined sequences…we didn’t want to go sepia-toned with it or make it feel like a forced event.” Because Saroo experienced everything in the present, be it a memory or a real event, Fraser and Davis take the audience through the film in the same continuous way.

Not every story calls for such rigorous subjectivity. On Foxcatcher, for example, the approach was characterized more by austerity and objective remove. The uniqueness of Miller’s approach, his way of “observing a story rather than telling a story,” is part of what attracted Fraser to the project: “When…I accept to do a film, it’s because the director is wanting to do something different, or in a way that I think would be really positive for the story…it felt like [with Foxcatcher] there needed to be just a little bit more space around the characters and around the experience.” The distinction makes perfect sense when one considers the subject matter. Lion is about the suspense of whether Saroo will reunite with his family, and about his elation when finally he does. Saroo’s journey becomes the audience’s journey. Foxcatcher, by contrast, has the shape of Greek tragedy ‐ events unfold inevitably, with an emphasis on observing causes and effects, characters and situations. Part of Fraser’s brilliance as a cinematographer is his ability to adapt to different stories, allowing subject matter to dictate intention. Even with Foxcatcher’s somber detachment, he explained, “there’s a reason for every movement, non-movement, lens choice.”

When preparing a film, Fraser’s process breaks down into two parts: “I first try and understand the story arc, and then I try and understand the emotional arc.” Both are integral to informing the visual approach, at the level of the film as well as the level of the scene. On Lion, this meant creating “emotional maps” in collaboration with Garth Davis so as to precisely plot Saroo’s psychology. “Sometimes it takes a quiz to a director,” Fraser said, “Is he doing that because he is ready to collapse emotionally or is he doing that because he is on the way back? Like, where is he at with his emotional journey?” Understanding scenes in this way, at the micro-level, helps Fraser and his director pare down the functionally infinite number of ways to shoot a scene. “The camera needs to, I wouldn’t say mimic, but it needs to enhance his journey,” Fraser explained. “It needs to run with him, move with him, scream with him.”

At the macro-level, though, emotional maps help Fraser to pin down the more elemental qualities of a story, allowing him to find the universal in the specific. At the heart of Lion is an almost mythical, spiritual story about a young boy’s reunification with his mother. And because Fraser was working on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at the same time, he was able to draw parallels between Saroo’s story and Jyn Erso’s separation from her father. “Everybody sees Rogue One and Lion to be really different films,” he said, “[but there are things] I learned off Lion that I added to Rogue.” Fraser used scale on both films, for instance, to convey both the power of his characters and their defenselessness. “We tried to make Sunny [Pawar, the actor who played young Saroo] feel big and feel impressive and feel powerful because he was the lion, you know, he is the lion. But at the same time, we needed to show his vulnerability and the fact that he was…tiny in this massive landscape. In the same way you’d do with an X-Wing or a TIE fighter [relative to a Star Destroyer].”

Fraser has a series on Instagram in which he compares shots from the two films, a gesture he feels is part of his responsibility to engage with up-and-coming filmmakers. A film school reject himself, Fraser said that he “would put down everything that I know to the openness, generosity, and skill and care of other filmmakers that have allowed me to understand my craft.” The commitment to paying it forward runs very deep for Fraser, whose rapid ascension has impressed upon him the obligation to share what he’s learned with the rest of the filmmaking community:

“Nothing annoys me more [than] when filmmakers close shop and really lock down and stop trying to open up the world because I think there’s a karmic thing that goes on. It sounds very hippy, I’m sorry, but like if you put something out to the world, you’ll get the same thing back plus more…Filmmaking’s an art, filmmaking’s a craft, and we really have the opportunity as filmmakers to expand the horizon of other filmmakers.”

We were honored to learn from Fraser and look forward to tracking his continued evolution.

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Writer, filmmaker.