Greig Fraser shot Rogue One and Lion using the same groundbreaking LED lights.
At first glance, Lion and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story couldn't be more different. The former, an indie drama, is the story of a boy who was adopted from an orphanage in India; the latter is, well, Star Wars. But to cinematographer Greig Fraser, the films share the same beating heart. That's why he decided to shoot them with the same lights.
"It boils down to the fact that you've got such great characters," Fraser told No Film School. "I was prepping and shooting Rogue One and Lion at the same time, and there were so many similarities...I tried to do really, really strong characterizations for both films."
Fraser is no stranger to diverse cinematic approaches. Previously, he lensed Foxcatcher, Zero Dark Thirty, and Snow White and the Huntsmen, each of which features a distinct approach to cinematography. Foxcatcher's aesthetic is characterized by a cool detachment, while Zero Dark Thirty is known for its run-and-gun, documentary-style imagery and innovative night shooting methods. Snow White, meanwhile, feels dark and dramatic, boasting the sheen of an $170 million budget.
"What I learned from Lion, I tried to bring to Rogue, and what I learned from Rogue, I tried to bring to Lion."
"What I learned from Lion, I tried to bring to Rogue, and what I learned from Rogue, I tried to bring to Lion," Fraser said. "It was a really great interconnected period of time for me as a cinematographer because I got to exercise different parts of my brain but also still be true to what I want to watch in a movie. I think both movies benefited from the experience I had done on the other one."
Prior to shooting Lion, Fraser was conducting tech prep for Rogue One when he made a startling discovery that would change the course of both films: Digital Sputnik's RGB LED lights, which we profiled at NAB this year, gave him unprecedented control over the range, quality, and color of light.
"They're killer," said Fraser. "They have three heads, and you can come up with three different lighting sources with three different colors. It's all iPad-controllable."
Digital Sputnik founder Kaur Kallas told us that his lights put a colorist's toolset into a cinematographer's hands. "You can literally start painting with light," he said. "Cinematographers really like that because they’re control freaks. If they can achieve the look that they desire on the set, it’s better than doing it in post."
The Digital Sputnik LEDs are the cornerstone of Rogue One's aesthetic. They figure prominently in nearly every scene, as Fraser used the D3 and D6 models for all the practical lighting and off-screen fixtures on set. For the rest of the look, he shot with the ARRI Alexa 65, the 65mm 6K digital cinema camera that made its striking debut in The Revenant last year. Fraser used Ultra Panavision 70 anamorphic lenses, also used in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, as they afforded him wide frames with which to depict the galactic warfare and intricate sets that give Star Wars its name.
On Garth Davis' Lion, for which Fraser won the prestigious Camerimage Golden Frog (next best to an Oscar for cinematography), the LEDs served a primarily utilitarian function.
"On a small film like this, I could sit behind a camera," remembered Fraser. "I could ask the gaffer and the guys to move the lights to where I wanted to, and then I could adjust the levels and I could change the color to suit back light, front light, fill, whatever it was."
The lights were also useful for their dexterity while shooting chaotic street scenes in India, where half of Lion is set. They allowed Fraser to be nimble and approximate the quality of India's harsh sunlight. "I used [the LEDs] in almost every shot, and that's pretty much all the light I used," said Fraser. "I think I used one M18 outside a window at night once to light a distant building, but you probably don't even see it. All the really close, beautiful, personal work was done with Digital Sputnik."
"Emotional maps are very important for shot-listing."
With a very limited budget, Fraser and his team managed to capture the essence of the country through five-year-old protagonist Saroo's eyes. To Saroo, who is separated from his family at an overcrowded train station, India is depicted as both a sweeping tapestry of humanity and a strange, hostile land that threatens to swallow him whole. In a particularly stunning sequence, a panicked Saroo tries to locate his family; frenetic camerawork reveals his desperation. But as the boy succumbs to his unfortunate reality, the camera surrenders, too, moving into fixed shots.
Fraser and Davis orchestrated this sequence by drawing emotional maps of the scene. "Emotional maps are very important for shot-listing," added Fraser. "It's normally how I start. The camera mirrors—or doesn't mirror, depending on what you're trying to achieve—what the emotion of the character is. If the character's freaking out, you'd have license to be handheld. If the character is exhausted and resigns himself to the fact that this is their lot in life, then the camera's probably a bit more slow."
To shoot the sequence, Fraser had to determine how to follow his small, consistently moving subject as he fought his way through hordes of thousands of people.
"It's very hard if you're on the street to just point a camera at an actor and not have it turn into a circus," said Fraser. "It's hard enough to do that in downtown Los Angeles, let alone in India; it's actually impossible. You need to be cunning and smart to make sure that people don't actually see the camera as much as possible. They need to think that real life is going on."
Frasier surveyed the train station for objects in which to hide the camera. He noticed an abundance of boxes—every train car in India carries both people and cargo—so he built a series of boxes on a moving rickshaw vehicle. "We put a camera in there and cut a little hole out, a bit like Candid Camera," said Fraser. "I could radio and say to the gaffer who was riding it, 'Hey, take me over near the boy now,' and I could get on a lens and be right next to him, but literally nobody would see the camera."
Fraser used an ARRI Alexa XT to shoot the portion of Lion that takes place in Australia. In India, though, he shot with an ARRI Alexa XT M on a gimbal. "The gimbal was a godsend for the moving stuff in India because it was the perfect height," Fraser said. "We could get it to [Saroo's] height, whereas Steadicam wasn't really a viable option at that height. And then we had a RED Dragon on the drone."
"I could say, 'Hey, take me over near the boy now,' and I could get on a lens and be right next to him, but literally nobody would see the camera."
"We all fought and worked really hard [for the India footage]," added Fraser. "It takes me back to my early days of shooting music videos for $1,000 and being ingenious."
Though the narrative itself is chronological, Lion moves fluidly from past to present as Saroo begins to excavate his memory for clues to his childhood origins. To illustrate this, Davis and Fraser maintained a consistent visual language; the camera does not differentiate between present events and flashbacks. "Even though it's a flashback, to [Saroo], it's not a flashback," explained Fraser. "He's there having a beer, or standing in the ocean, and as far he's concerned, his mother is still frantically searching for him, searching every boy that jumps on a pontoon in every river next to every train line in India. So it's important for the audience not to go, 'Oh, it's a flashback,' because it's not a flashback. In his mind, it's what's happening."
This careful attention to the character's interiority is what saves Lion from what, in other hands, may have played as a saccharine Hollywood story. Fraser acknowledges that this was a meticulous balancing act. "I knew that of all the people that could tackle the story, it would be Garth," said Fraser. "It sounds a little bit cliché, but he's a giver of light when it comes to stories. And when I watched it for the first time in Melbourne, I knew what was coming up—I knew all the twists and turns—but I was a crying wreck."
Fraser believes that visuals should foremost serve to augment the story. This integrity didn't escape him on Rogue One, either. "I didn't want the visuals to be gratuitous or outlandish or supersede the story," said Fraser. "I wanted it to feel real."
As awards season approaches, Lion continues to expand to theaters nationwide, garnering critical acclaim for its nuanced direction and cinematography. Today's Rogue One release will surely deliver one of the biggest box-office successes of the year. Meanwhile, Fraser has made his second most important discovery (after the Digital Sputniks): Instagram.
"I'm having really interesting chats with young DPs on Instagram right now," he said. "I can't say I feel like I'm in any position to offer advice, but I love to answer questions."
The most common question Fraser gets from aspiring cinematographers is how he made it to where he is today, having lensed two of the biggest releases of the year. "There's no right answer to that," he admitted. "I was very fortunate to have had some really good friends that were shooting, and I was shooting for them, and now they're directing. But I also worked really hard on any project that I was given, and I worked really hard at finding projects to shoot."
"My advice would be to shoot as much as you can," he continued, "and only show people the very best of what you've shot, because I think you are defined by what people see of your work."
Communicating with up-and-comers is exciting for Fraser, who sees much potential in the democratization of his career. "I think there are fewer barriers to entry when it comes to cinematography in this day and age," he said, "and I'm excited to see what the young cinematographers who are coming up now will be doing. I think young cinematographers have a huge advantage over more established cinematographers. I used to shoot on film. Now you can go out and shoot on a 5D and you get amazing pictures."
As for Lion and Rogue One: "I'm really excited to see what people think of both movies," said Fraser. "I want people to have seen both and come to me and go, 'Right, that's what you were talking about when you said LEDs have changed your outlook on life, and, 'Right, that's why 65mm digital is the great new format right now."