The Contenders: Cinematographer Greig Fraser on ‘Lion’

Interviewed by Lesley Coffin

Australian born cinematographer Greig Fraser got his start work as a photographer and cinematographer working on commercials, documentaries and features (including Bright Star, Last Ride, and The Boys are Back). He’s been a name in Australia for nearly 20 years, but since 2011 he’s also become an international known cinematographer, working on big Hollywood productions (Snow White and the Huntsman, The Gambler), critical hits (Killing The Softly, Let Me In), and Oscar nominees (Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher). 2016 proves to be another banner year for Fraser, as cinematographer for two of the most talked about films of the year; the intimate, based-on-a-true story Lion and mega-blockbuster Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Lion, the story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian born child adopted and raised in Australia after getting lost, was a labor of love for all involved, and reunion for longtime friends Fraser and director Garth Davis (making his feature film debut). Fraser spoke about how he approached Lion, the value of real locations, and working on two films made on such dramatically different scale.

Did you know Garth in Australia before working on the film?

Garth and I have known each other for over 20 years, he might actually be my oldest friend…besides family. And we knew each other as 20 year olds, when I was a photography student and he was a design student. And we tended to work together off and on, working on all different projects. We made commercials together and documentaries. He rang me when he got the project, told me some of his plans, and I just said “I’m so in.” I was excited to work on this project and to work with him.

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Greg Fraser, Rita Roy, Sunny Pawar, and Director Garth Davis on the set of Lion

Did you talk about the overall look for the film or thematic design concepts?

I don’t think we talked about it terms of an overall look. We weren’t talking about it in terms of other movies we were inspired by or wanting to ape. We approached all the visuals in terms of how they would relate to the emotions of the boy. The locations were vital, because we needed to find specific, real-life locations which would make as strong an impression on a little boy as it would the adult audiences. And taking that approach, it forced us to stay honest.

You were intimately involved with the location scouting?

Garth did more than I did, but we definitely went out together to develop the palette that would be the journey of this little boy.

Were there specific colors or tones you wanted to bring out in those different locations?

Not intentionally, but during our scouting we found that there are specific colors that stuck out or seemed dominate to specific locations. The train station and Saroo’s village seemed to predominantly have the color blue, that’s the paint they use. Calcutta’s very dusty and seems very brown. The thing about India is, the buildings are so old they all seem to have this faded, dusty color. So people take great pride in having brightly colored, clean clothing. The brightest color in the film is worn by Saroo’s mother, this beautiful red is the brightest color, and it’s probably the brightest color in the entire movie.

And then you had to photograph Australia, and show just how drastically different it would look to this little boy.

I’d love to take credit, but the locations we had were just as they were. I just had to use them to their best advantage. In another movie you’d say, this city is dirty and dusty and overpowering, and this place he goes to, his new home, is warm, sunny, and open. But that’s the locations we had at our disposal. A lot of areas of Calcutta are just hazy and dusty. Beautiful but the air can be very thick. Bollywood movies use brightly colored costumes and paint settings that way as a reaction to the very real atmosphere. Unlike a lot of western films which often try to desaturate and remove the brightness inherent to their location.  And parts of Australia can be very harsh too, but the locations we had were much cooler and softer.

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Did you use different technology to suggest the passage of time?

That’s something we talked about, and it is a popular approach right now. I know it’s been used by Wes Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel and by Danny Boyle on Steve Jobs. But we eventually felt it would be counter intuitive to use that approach on Lion. The two link so closely in the edit, if we suddenly had a dramatically different look, because we changed aspect ratio or technology, it would stand out too much. We wanted the opposite. We wanted the audience to always feel comfortable when he thought back of India, and it would have been too jarring to use a different technique. When we were filming in Melbourne, and he became a bit more maniac during his search for home, we did use a more close-ups with anamorphic lens. Those lens seemed to help us feel like we were getting into his brain.

Was it hard staging and setting up the shots with a child as young?

We found ways to accommodate for that, my commercial work probably helped. One of the things we had to do was conceive the shot before we were actually on set. Thinking, how will the sun be shining through, what angle makes the most sense? We had a few stand-ins to help us with that. And often, Sunny (Pawar, the 8 year old actor playing Saroo) could just be brought in and do exactly what we asked. When we asked him to lie down and fall asleep, he did it right away. And because he’s a child we kept a very fluid set to capture some candid moments. So everyone knew that if they were on set, the cameras could be rolling. We didn’t call action or cut very much, because we wanted him to be as natural on screen as possible. To allow him to just do what he does, we tried to make a set that was 360 degrees as often as possible, and so my goal was to give them as much flexibility as possible.

Was it more challenging to film in new locations in India or find new ways to film Melbourne, Australia?

I know Melbourne like the back of my hand, so I don’t find it as interesting as I did India. But that’s strange, because it’s all perception, because it could have been more interesting knowing the locations which are underused by other filmmakers. I just don’t because I spent my childhood growing up there and years as an adult roaming the streets. It’s like Parisians passing the Eiffel Tower every day. So when I was in India I was so amazed by things. We filmed on the Howrah Bridge, and just thought that looked so amazing. But people from there might be like, “really, you filmed there? That’s so boring. We have better bridges than that one.” So the benefit for filming in Melbourne was, we didn’t have interest in filming the known landmarks we were so impressed by, we wanted to find locations that had personal meaning. So it might have helped me to film in a location I’m so familiar with.

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Comparing a film like Lion, which is mean to feel so intimate, and something as big as Rogue One, did you find you preferred one approach to the other?

No, I think they each have their merits and it’s about finding the right scale and approach to fit the story you’re telling. There are other types of films, like animation, which aren’t given the credit they deserve in my field. I find them not only all valid forms of cinematography, but all important. Beyond the technical side, I love watching movies, and I love watching all different types of movies. So long as the audience is enthralled, the film’s accomplishing its goal. The unfortunate thing about this industry is, people get pigeonholed by our last jobs. Especially the technicians. And I tried very hard to avoid that. It’s not that I want to avoid doing another thriller, another movie like Zero Dark Thirty, but I don’t want people asking me to do the same thing I did on a previous film. At the end of the day, all films, no matter their size or genre, every film needs to accomplish two things to be successful…entertain and provide an emotional connection for the audience.

Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)

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