From Gotham to Arrakis: Greig Fraser’s Massive Year
By Josh Chaskes
It’s rare that a cinematographer can say they’ve worked on the most beautifully shot film of the year, let alone two consecutive years; however, after his tour de force in 2021 and 2022, Greig Fraser is one man who might make that claim. The Batman and Dune cinematographer won fans’ hearts with the latter and won an Oscar for the former, creating two entirely different, captivating worlds; but, he didn’t become a success overnight.
Fraser seems to have found a pocket recently with Star Wars: Rogue One, Dune, and The Batman, but he’s worked on a wide variety of films over his career. His resume lists fairy tale adaptations, science fiction and war movies, biopics, and indie dramas, but his strategy when lighting all of them is the same: authenticity of environment.
“For me, it’s about honesty with my lighting choices, with my lenses, with the compositions and movement of the camera — it all has to be grounded in a truth,” said Fraser in an interview with American Cinematographer Magazine. “The cinematographer bears responsibility for the audience’s subconscious reaction to the imagery. We’re responsible for helping them feel and experience the story, and I feel it’s a critical part of the job to be as honest in that as possible.”
Fraser’s honesty has gotten him far. He started his career working as a janitor in a photography studio, thinking that was the career he wanted to pursue, but eventually found the collaborative aspect of filmmaking to be more fun. He began working with young directors in his native Australia, which eventually brought him into contact with friend and multiple-time collaborator Garth Davis. The shorts that Fraser shot with Davis served as a launching point for his now-illustrious career, which saw him work with directors such as Jane Campion, Matt Reeves, and Kathryn Bigelow, but the pair’s reunion for Davis’ 2016 film Lion proved fateful.
The film follows the story of an Indian boy who gets lost on a train and transported far from home, eventually being adopted by a couple from Australia. In typical Fraser fashion, his goal was to display the settings of the two countries without being overly cinematic or unrealistic.
“The Indian aesthetic is that they don’t have garish colors — they like beautiful reds, or elegant pinks, or lovely blues,” Fraser told Sound and Picture, “Australia is the opposite. It’s got bright greens and bright blues that are from the ocean or the grass or the sky, or yellows of the sand. So we made sure we just didn’t try and play that up too much — we just went with what was there naturally. Of course, scenes were controlled and the gaffer and the designer and myself chose colors to be excluded, but for the most part we were trying to be honest to what the truth of those environments were.”
The result was stunning, and earned Fraser his first Oscar nomination. Though he didn’t win the award, Lion’s sparse, grounded look and lack of forced aesthetics earned him recognition throughout the industry.
He shot Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) with Gareth Edwards, worked with Davis again on Mary Magdalene (2018), partnered with Adam McKay on Vice (2018), pioneered revolutionary digital sets on The Mandalorian, and then was entranced again by the magic of a faraway galaxy when Denis Villeneuve approached him about shooting his massive adaptation of the classic novel Dune.
Unlike Villeneuve, Fraser was new to the world of Dune, not having read it in his youth, but the two quickly clicked, and between them worked out a very specific look to bring the audience into the world of the bleak desert planet Arrakis. Fraser and his team used moderate colors and softer lighting, striving to create a more moderate, dusky look.
“We tried quite hard to make sure that it all sat within a certain tone,” he told IndieWire, “It never sort of peaks beyond a certain level. And, you know, I think that’s a bold move for a filmmaker.”
With this bleakness of color and a digital/film hybrid shooting technique, Fraser and Villeneuve managed to capture the desolate, austere landscapes of Arrakis, and ensure that when sharper color did appear on the screen, it was immediately a change and a spectacle, punctuating the story beats of the movie. His work was a key component of the best-received Dune adaptation to date, and it was so beloved by critics and fans alike that Fraser was honored with his first Oscar during the 94th Academy Awards in April.
But immediately after Dune, Fraser went to work on a project where the lighting was anything but moderate. He got a call from Matt Reeves, who wanted to reunite with him for The Batman. Fraser was all-in on the character and Reeves’ desired gritty approach, but the film presented its own challenge for him: lighting a character whose entire persona is based on darkness.
He couldn’t make the frame too dark to be visible and obscure an A-list actor in Robert Pattinson, but he also couldn’t shed too much light on the titular character and rob him of his mystique and imposing silhouette. Ultimately, Fraser found a compromise: light the eyes.
“You can’t see too much of this guy — he loses his frightening appeal if he’s too exposed,” Fraser continued, “The approach is that you’ve got to see into his eyes. When Rob is wearing the Batsuit, I worked to make sure that I pushed light into his eyes, while keeping it mostly off the cowl. There was a perfect sweet spot for the key light that would reflect off the eyes, but not hit the cowl or jaw too much.”
Through specific, targeted beams of light, as well as a variety of lamps and other practical sources, Fraser managed to create a believably noir Gotham city, with pockets of light amid the darkness, and deliver a film that fans have praised widely as the best Batman movie since The Dark Knight.
Even with Fraser’s impressive year, it’s far from over for him. The sequel for The Batman has already been greenlit, and he’s reuniting with Gareth Edwards for the upcoming film True Love. The plot is currently unknown, but we do know that the film will feature an all-star cast, including John David Washington and Gemma Chan, and if Fraser does his job as per usual, a true and authentic use of light.
As he goes forward in his career, no one can say what projects Fraser will tackle next, but it’s clear that he’ll remain unwavering from his central principle: a respect for his audience and a desire to create the most realistic– while still visually appealing– environment for them to watch.
“I’m a firm believer in the fact that we, as humans, have evolved to understand light,” he said to American Cinematographer Magazine. “We may not all be able to verbalize it — like my mom might not be able to tell me why an image doesn’t feel right, but she knows, intuitively, if it isn’t right.”
As long as Fraser is behind the camera, that shouldn’t be a problem.