Australian DP Greig Fraser is the toast of the cinematography world, having earned the Theatrical Award for best cinematography at the recent ASC awards in LA for his work on 'Lion'.
Fraser, who’s also nominated for an Oscar, has had a whirlwind twelve months in which he’s shot three films: 'Lion', Disney’s 'Rogue One' and 'Mary Magdalene'. 'Magdalene' saw him reunite with 'Lion' director Garth Davis on a film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara.
IF chatted with the cinematographer, whose credits include early shorts by David Michôd and Nash Edgerton as well as features such as 'Killing Them Softly' and 'Bright Star', on the phone from Mexico City.
What are you shooting in Mexico?
I’m doing a commercial for PlayStation, the second I’ve done down here in Mexico City. I did one a few years ago with a director by the name of Rupert Sanders. He just went off and directed Ghost in the Shell in New Zealand. I did Snow White and the Huntsman with him a few years back.
Were you in Mexico when you found out about your Oscar nomination?
I was in my hotel room, getting ready to scout, and I get a barrage of messages and emails going congratulations. It was unexpected. You never do a project to garner attention or awards.
Did you start working with Garth Davis on commercials?
Actually earlier. I did a documentary with him a long time ago called P.I.N.S., a documentary about parking inspectors in the city of Yarra in Melbourne. So I’ve worked with Garth on a lot of stuff. It’s great to work with him; we work in the same way as we did back in Melbourne making documentaries. Garth has such a strong attention to detail and story, and he’s a quiet achiever. Just gets on with it. There’s no fanfare, he doesn’t build himself up. I’ve been fortunate to work with some incredible directors in my career and he is up there with some of the very best I’ve worked with.
Did you start making features off the back of shorts like Jewboy and Crossbow?
Everything was happening kind of at the same time, but yes. I’d done a feature called Out of the Blue in New Zealand. While back in Australia I was doing shorts with Dave [Michôd], shorts with Nash. That whole era [was] a really fun time. I remember reading Nash’s scripts for Spider and for Lucky. We just set about making it. It was that classic thing that Australians tend to do; heads down, bums up, start doing it. We were pulling favours and working for very little and borrowing equipment and really working our butts off to try and get these things going.
How did you decide which projects to work on?
You just try to look for scripts you have a real affinity with, and also [it’s about] working with people whose process you know you can add to. That’s really important. If you as a DP feel you can’t add anything to what they’re doing, there’s kind of no point. But when it feels like everybody can build something together to a higher standard, that’s when it gets exciting.
Are you living in the States now?
I am. I was doing a lot of backwards and forth and a lot of work around the world. Based in Australia, but I was doing a lot of commercials in Europe and South America and North America. There was a point in time where it just seemed like everything I was doing was overseas, and that makes sense. Australia is unfortunately a small market, so the work was happening overseas. So I made the jump to LA about eight years ago, 2009. I’d had a really big year with Last Ride and The Boys Are Back. And as soon as I wrapped The Boys Are Back we jumped on a plane and went to America and figured it out from there.
Did you get work quickly once you made the jump?
It’s hard to quantify. I was always working, always shooting something. I remembering going over to shoot a commercial in Ukraine when I was based in LA, and my wife went back to Sydney for a month or two and then we went back to LA. So we were getting set up in America, but I still did shoots in Australia. I remember doing a commercial in Victoria in February 2009, and I’d already moved.
It must be gratifying to have two films, Lion and Rogue One, enjoy great success in the one calendar year. How did you do both?
You can never pick the timing of these things, especially in my role. There was a period of time where Lion and Rogue One were sitting over each other, in terms of the schedule. And it moved in such a way that I was able to do both projects. And do both projects well, I should add. I wasn’t going to do either project half-arsed. But I got to do both and it’s funny. In the same day I received the nomination from the Academy [for Lion] I got an email from Alan Horn at Disney, congratulating me and all the other people on our film for grossing a billion dollars. Quite an interesting day (laughs).
What were the technical challenges of those two films? I’d imagine they were very different experiences.
Yes and no. You’re always trying to make every single dollar look like two dollars on screen. In India I took three small little LED lights and I lit the entire India portion of Lion with three small LED lights. Whereas with Rogue, we had considerably more than three little LED lights. But you’re trying to make sure the production with three lights doesn’t look inferior to the one with more. On the flip side, you don’t want to make the one with more resources look or feel artificial. You need the reality of both films to feel real and immediate and human.
Did you shoot each on the same camera?
No, Lion was shot on the ALEXA 35mm. And Rogue was shot on the ALEXA 65mm. The 65mm camera wasn’t actually out when we were doing Lion. They were in R&D, testing it, and I’d send the guys at ARRI images of some of the locations in India and say, hey guys, if you’ve got a camera, even if it’s just a trial camera, I can make it look great because I’ve got these great locations. Unfortunately it wasn’t feasible at the time. But when Rogue started, the cameras had come online and they’d had enough time to test them. Straight after Rogue, we did Mary Magdalene, which we just wrapped in December. It’s another beautiful drama, and we found much beauty in that 65mm format.
What other gigs do you have lined up?
My wife has been so supportive over the last couple of years. It definitely wasn’t ideal from a family standpoint to do both Rogue and Lion because it means doing back to back films and me being away for a lot of 2015 and subsequently 2016. So I’m trying not to sign up for any films away from home for most of 2017. Ironically I’m speaking to you from Mexico. But it’s a week-long commercial, so I’m only away for a week as opposed to three or four months, which is not unusual for me to be away from my three small children and wife.