Creating a cohesive look—and story—out of all the visual elements of a film or TV shoot isn’t easy, but it’s exactly what directors of photography like Greig Fraser do. Having worked on numerous films with their own unique and unforgettable visual styles—“Zero Dark Thirty” and “Dune” to name a few—Fraser is stranger to this task. He’s also intimately familiar with the galaxy far, far away thanks to his work on “Rogue One” and Disney+’s “The Mandalorian.”
In an interview with Backstage, Fraser discussed what he does, the skills you need to pursue a career as a director of photography, and how empathy plays an important role in his work.
What does a director of photography do?
We [walk] a very fine tightrope with our jobs because we’re the eyes of the director. We effectively take all of the elements the director has put together including the casting, script, production design, and costumes, and record [it all] so the people at home can watch it. That’s the most basic version of what we do. We’re also responsible for making sure there’s a consistent throughline visually. We need to come up with a visual language to represent all of these different elements. There are so many possibilities with different cameras, lenses, and coverage and ways to cover a particular scene that we need to be the consistent anchor so that when the audience watches it they’re not watching something that’s kind of all over the place style-wise.
On one hand, [we do] a quite technical job but we don’t need to be too technically-minded to do it because we have a lot of our own technicians and crew who are responsible for making sure that things are working properly. I don’t need to know the inner workings of a camera, for example, but I need to know what they can do and I need to know why I would make a choice about one particular light or one particular camera over another one. A little bit of technical understanding is a very good thing but having too much is not always necessary.
What’s your process when first approaching a project?
I read the script. I speak to the director. I try and get an idea from the director of what they’re trying to make. It sounds like a silly statement: “Isn’t it obvious what they’re trying to make?” No, it’s not sometimes. You might be reading a script and it might have a comedic undertone but the director wants to play it really dark and very matter-of-fact. I speak to the director in advance to find out what their thoughts are.
Some directors will come to you with a fully-formed vision of a movie. In their head, the story is lit, cast, shot, and edited. But then there are other directors, or even the same director on a different project, that might not have that fully-formed idea because it might be too early in the process for them, they might have just got the script themselves, or they might have just been given the job. Then you work those things out together. You work out are we going to shoot this hand-held? What sort of performances is the director aiming for? Are they completely and fully documentary-style performances? Do we walk into a room with two actors and film them on their first rehearsal? Or do we set up shots and do it in a very cinematic way? There are multiple ways to do the job but you kind of have to develop what that language is before you start.
A perfect example is “Zero Dark Thirty.” That’s the closest thing to reportage that I’ve done because a lot of that was shooting from the hip and found images and giving the actors a lot of freedom to explore the space and not have to repeat their actions twice and basically workshop on-camera. Other films that I’ve done, like “Killing Them Softly,” we did some amazing scenes in that movie with James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, and Ben Mendelsohn. The director on that, Andrew Dominik, really worked hard to fine-tune and finesse each performance.
How do you find work?
That’s a good question because there’s no one answer to that. Also, there’s no one answer depending on where you’re at in your career because early in my career, a lot of my buddies were directors and I’d work for them on projects and we’d do things together for free or music videos for very little money or charity commercials for no money. Then slowly but surely you start getting hired by other people to do commercials for some money. A buddy of mine, Nash Edgerton, had just done this music video called “Liar” by Eskimo Joe. I saw the music video and I’m this young 22-year-old and it blew my mind. I was like, “that is the best music video I’ve ever seen.”
I wrote him a letter and I included a VHS tape with my reel on it and said, “mate, I just saw this amazing music video. Here’s my reel, I know you’re up in Sydney (I was in Melbourne) but I’m up in Sydney all the time. Call me. I’d love to work together.” He called me for a job. It was probably a freebie and it was probably something that had no money but I drove to Sydney, put myself up in a cheap hotel, and shot this thing.
That was then. Now is a bit of a different story because I have representation, I have an agent. I also have contacts throughout the industry who I’ve worked with: producers, directors. So when there are projects that come up, I either get a call directly or my agent calls me. That’s how I keep getting work now. It’s less me sending VHS tapes to random directors. It’s more generally people contacting my agent about me.
What skills are important to have in your position?
Based on the name, one would hope to be quite strong visually. That’s one skill. I believe that skill can be learned—some people might get it faster than others, that’s the nature of things.
I think that the major things are empathy and understanding of the human condition because you’re in such a place of trust on the set where your camera is effectively the conduit so the world can see an actor’s performance. You don’t want that camera or your actions, anything that you do, to be a hindrance to what the actor’s doing and the performance that they’re putting out there. You’ve got to be empathetic with that person, not just the actor themself but you’ve also got to understand the character they’re trying to do so that you can help with that process. I’m confident that the wrong cinematographer on a project can very much derail the mood and the feeling on set when you’re trying to create a bubble of trust, effectively. So I would say that’s probably one of the most important things, is the ability for empathy.
What advice would you give aspiring cinematographers?
Just do it. It’s a very cliché advertising expression but there’s something to be said about doing rather than talking. The film business talks a lot. People talk a lot. There’s a lot of chatting. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes chatting. There’s a lot of talking before you go and do it. Being on set, dealing with that pressure, a 12-hour shoot, knowing what you can fit into that shoot—the more you can do it, the better off you’ll be. The more you can do it out of the gaze of judgmental people or judgmental situations, the better off you’re going to be when the situation is high stakes. When you’re dealing with a shoot day that’s costing somebody $300,000; when you’re responsible for making that day; when you’ve got a half-million-dollar stunt that you’ve got to make sure you cover properly. You don’t want to be doing that early in your career. You want to be making your mistakes when not many people are watching.
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