Oscars: ‘Lion’ Cinematographer Greig Fraser Captures a Beautiful, Emotional Journey

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Five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is separated from his family and travels thousands of miles on a train across India in Lion, an emotional true story directed by Garth Davis. Terrified and confused, he survives on the dangerous streets of Calcutta before being adopted and moving to Australia. Saroo grows up in a stable, loving household with his adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), but he finds himself suppressing his emotional need to reconnect with his past. Twenty-five years after his separation from his family, the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) finally returns to India to locate his first home. Cinematographer Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS, captured the beautiful story of Saroo and his journey to rediscover his past, earning Oscar and BAFTA nominations and an ASC Award for his achievements. Fraser took the time to speak with us about his captivating work on the film.

S&P: How did you first become involved with ‘Lion’?

Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS: The director [Garth Davis], who is a very old friend of mine, told me the story of Lion over the phone. I said, “Wow! This is amazing! And he said, ‘It’s true, too!’ And I said, ‘Which part of it?’ And he said, ‘The whole thing is true!’ It blew me away. I know the quality of the work Garth does because I work with him all the time. I knew the quality of the story and the people who were producing it, and I knew I had to do this film!

S&P: What interested you most about the film, especially from a cinematography perspective?

GF: It gave me the opportunity to film in a country I love, which is India, and it also gave me the opportunity to film in another country I love, which is Australia. I was born in Australia and I’ve traveled a lot to India, so this film gave me the opportunity to highlight both countries and represent them visually. I don’t think I’d ever properly represented parts of Australia, and the same goes for India.

S&P: How did you collaborate with director Garth Davis during pre-production?

GF: It was very much a two-way thing. If he went and did a location scout, we’d get together and he’d show me the pictures, such as the pictures of the village that he was thinking of using for Saroo’s village. We’d talk about how to best cover something — what worked and what didn’t work. I’d show him references I’d shot in India before — I’ve done quite lot of photography there. I was able to show him the quality of light I was trying to achieve, and together we just honed our skills. We talked about what he liked, what he didn’t like, and then when I traveled there and scouted, we went through my photographs and his photographs. We came up with the best solutions to problems [and] there was no one winner — if his angle was more appropriate then that was the shot we did, or if my angle was more appropriate, that was the shot we did, so it was a very collaborative process.

S&P: How did you decide on the color palette for the film, especially when establishing the different looks for Australia and India?

GF: I’d love to say we designed the way India and Australia looked, but frankly, I think hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary process helped us decide. Calcutta is represented quite firmly and properly in this film the way it is, with muted colors. There are very few bright colors, but when they do occur they are just stunning. They stand out but they’re never garish. The Indian aesthetic is that they don’t have garish colors — they like beautiful reds, or elegant pinks, or lovely blues. They all tend to work on a palette of brown — the whole place is kind of a dust-colored faded brown, and 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.

S&P: Tell us about how you set up your camera compositions. Did you make extensive storyboards and shot lists or did you work more organically?

GF: We did both. There are certain key shots that we definitely did go out and preplan, sequences like running onto the high bridge. We planned quite a few shots, but a lot of the time we tried to allow the actors to be as organic as they needed and wanted to be — we kept the camera moving or gave it the ability to move. We kept it small and lightweight so I could pick it up and carry it if I needed to. We didn’t just do one style for the whole film. I do know that some DPs and directors like to storyboard a whole film and then they go out and make the whole film. We didn’t do that this time.

S&P: Tell us about your camera crew and how you set up your workflow on set.

GF: We had a camera crew from Australia because we were finishing in Australia. Then we hired some additional camera crew in India for our B camera. We also brought our DIT/colorist, Christopher Rudkin, from Australia. At the end of every day he’d set up a little dailies suite in a hotel room so we could reflect on what we shot during the day. That entire aspect, camera right through the DIT, we brought from Australia. The reason was primarily because we started in India and finished in Australia, meaning we needed to set up our workflows in India, where we got up to speed. If we’d have got up to speed in India and then returned to Australia and started again, it would have been a very disrupting process.

S&P: Can you tell us about your camera and lens choices?

GF: We used the ALEXA 35 and we used Panavision PVintage lenses. We also used the RED Dragon and Panavision Primos for some of the drone work in India.

S&P: What types of camera rigs did your operators use?

GF: To be able to move the camera in India we primarily used a gimbal MōVI rig. We had it hooked up to wheels so I could operate, and our rig operator [Brett Harrison] could put the camera in the right spot. He’s also very good rollerblader, so when Sunny [young Saroo] is running away from his captors in a tunnel, we just had Brett rollerblade after the boy and I could operate. I could point the camera and he could just concentrate on moving the camera.

S&P: What types of lighting did you use?

GF: We had a very small, nimble package in India. We had three Digital Sputnik LEDs, which were effectively all the power that we needed. There was one scene where we needed two or three 6K HMIs. But for the most part, I was really able to work in low light levels. This is partially because the ALEXA is so sensitive but also because these LEDs had so much punch. They’re color changeable so you don’t need gels, and they’re all controllable from an iPad, so you can sit at the camera and change the color to match what is naturally happening. Let’s say there’s naturally sodium vapor outside, so you can add sodium vapor inside to really wash across the actor’s face. Then you can match it on camera to make sure the colors are the same. It’s so fast because you’re not putting on gels — you just twist it on the iPad and you play with it, so it was quite a unique experience doing that.

S&P: How did you work with your gaffer on set?

GF: We had a gaffer in India and a different gaffer in Melbourne, and I’ve worked with both of those gaffers before. Ramesh [Sadrani], who was my gaffer in India, I’d also worked with on Zero Dark Thirty, so we’d talk about what the lighting required and he’d just get to work, and Adam [Kercheval], who’s my gaffer in Australia, would do the same thing. I’m very precise when it comes to lighting and I really know what I want, so I can sometimes be a little tricky to work with. I’m quite particular about getting realistic-looking lighting.

S&P: Can you tell us more about the shooting locations and how they affected your shot choices?

GF: We started by looking for the real locations, but sometimes those locations dropped out because they didn’t work for us technically, like if there was no light there, for example. There was one train station we chose where he [Saroo] first gets lost. It was a cargo station that is only used during the day and is completely free at night, but because of that, it has no lights in it. So we had to go and buy about 50 fluorescent fixtures and 50 tungsten bulbs, and the gaffer spent five nights rigging all of those lights up so we could use the station. If it was a bigger production we may have had bigger film lights for that location, but we just went to the local hardware store and bought cheap fluorescents and it did the job so well!

S&P: Were there any sequences that were particularly challenging to capture?

GF: The train scenes were always hard, because you never have a train for all the time that you need, and you never have access to the station for all the time you need. So from the point when he [Saroo] gets on the train to the point where he’s getting lost and being locked in the train, to the point where he gets out at the Calcutta station — that was really challenging because it had to be so well planned. We definitely knew what we were shooting at any given time, because if we had access to a moving train, we knew we had to get the scenes where the train is moving at a high speed. We knew we needed to be in a train that went a certain speed between certain tracks, so that was probably the most challenging because the railway system in India is busy. It’s the lifeblood of Indian commerce, so trying to stop a train or have access to train tracks or do anything that was train-related was always met with a very difficult reply, as in, “No, we can’t afford to stop trains.”

S&P: How did you work with the production sound team to make sure they could capture the dialogue that they needed?

GF: That’s always the challenge, especially when you’ve got a location like India that is so noisy, and you can’t stop traffic next to a bridge to do a dialogue scene. Remarkably, our Indian sound crew [Nakul Kamte, Gautier Isern, Ashraf Khan, and Jayesh Dhakan] had done it so often before. Garth said he was surprised by the quality of the sound out of India, because all you hear when you’re out there shooting is honks and beeps and people and cows and there’s just noise everywhere! He was ecstatic about the quality of the dialogue and the quality of the sound.

S&P: Can you tell us more about how you worked with Garth on location?

GF: I’m very respectful of a director’s vision. I quiz them and speak with them as much as I can in pre-production to try to understand and get into their head about what their vision is. So if I feel like maybe a decision they’re making is not the best decision, I might suggest an alternative. But, of course, if the director doesn’t agree then I don’t push it, because after all, it’s ultimately their vision. Garth’s very respectful of peoples’ ideas, so if there’s ever an alternative idea, then he would be always be receptive to it.

S&P: What did you enjoy most about working on this project?

GF: I liked working with my friend, Garth. He’s my best buddy, so I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed shooting in India, which is always incredible and filled with delight — it’s such a beautiful experience. And I loved shooting in Melbourne, which is my home town, so I got to see my mum. It’s a story about a guy finding his mother, and I haven’t lost my mum, thankfully, but I got to see her every weekend. By the time I had to return to Los Angeles, where I now live, she was really upset I had to go. So it was lovely being able to see her more than twice a year.

-S&P-
Images courtesy of The Weinstein Company

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