To shoot the first hour of “Lion,” the true story of a young boy separated from his family in rural India and thrown onto the teeming streets of Kolkata alone, cinematographer Greig Fraser had to see the world through the eyes of a 5-year-old.
“He’s three-foot-something,” says Fraser of Sunny Pawar, the actor who plays Saroo Brierley as a child in the film based on Brierley’s autobiographical book, “A Long Way Home.” “We knew that early in the film that we needed to be at his level. It’s Saroo’s story.”
One particularly frightening sequence finds Saroo scrambling through Howrah railway station during rush hour. The tiny child gets swept up in the crowd as he struggles to avoid getting trampled.
“All he could see are people’s belts and knees, Fraser says. “If you’ve ever experienced being in an Indian train station as the train pulls in, even as a six-foot adult, it’s incredibly scary. You just have people storming at you, bumping around you, without any regard to your safety.”
Director Garth Davis was very specific about how he wanted Fraser to create the look of “Lion.” He told the DP to let the locations — in India, and later Australia, where Saroo was raised by an adoptive family — dictate the images.
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“I wanted the film to be an immersive experience,” says Davis. “I’m a big lover of locations. I wanted people to feel the sense of place. Memories of his childhood are important to Saroo. They’re the things that call him home again and the things that haunt him later in life.”
“Lion” was filmed on a tight budget on two different continents, with novice child actors taking on major roles. As Fraser worked to find economical ways to work with such challenges, he leaned on his long association with Davis. The two have been friends for decades, having met when both men were starting out as assistants in the Australian movie business. Since that time, they’ve worked together on several commercials, and are reteaming for “Mary Magdalene,” a religious drama, starring Rooney Mara, that Davis is directing.
“I can say unbiasedly that he’s one of the finest directors I’ve worked with,” says Fraser, who has collaborated with the likes of Kathryn Bigelow and Bennett Miller. “Garth has such an understanding of drama, such an understanding of soul, and such an understanding of humanity, that every time I’m on set with him, I’m →
Fraser shot “Lion” with Arri Alexa cameras, and used some handheld photography, which gives the film a jittery immediacy. He also deployed a gimbal rig for greater fluidity in certain shots, and used drones as a cost-effective way to get sweeping aerial panoramas of the Indian landscape.
The DP says he was surprised by how much he came to relate to Saroo’s story. He has a 5-year-old son, and found himself welling up at certain points during filming when he reflected on what it would be like to be separated from his child. One sequence, where Saroo’s mother searches for her son along the banks of a river, brought him to tears.
“Garth said to the actress who plays Saroo’s birth mother [Priyanka Bose], ‘Go by the water. Look for your boy. He’s in there.’ She’s so confident that one of the kids jumping into the water is her son,” Fraser says. “It left me a basket case.”
The second half of “Lion” unfolds with an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) trying to piece together memories of his early childhood, using Google Earth to retrace his steps back to the village he came from. Even though he was raised by a loving family in Australia, he still feels the tug of home.
“That one event didn’t just affect Saroo,” Fraser says, about the boy’s initial separation from his kin. “It was a whole family that was impacted. It’s mind-numbingly hard to think about.”
In addition to “Lion,” Fraser has another big project making its way to screens in the coming weeks. He shot “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” The only thing he’ll say about the sci-fi movie is that, in spite of its wider scope and special effects, he employed the same approach that he did with “Lion.”
“Despite what everyone thinks about science fiction, ultimately, at its best, it’s about human beings with human emotions,” Fraser says. “Whether you’re shooting in India or on the Death Star, you’re doing human drama.”