Working on “Lion” seemed like more of a passion project than a job to Greig Fraser.
The cinematographer got to shoot in his home country of Australia, as well as in India, where he’s worked dozens of times and where his wife runs a charity. And he got the opportunity to work with his best friend, director Garth Davis.
Despite — or perhaps because of — that comfort level, Fraser won recognition from his peers when, on Feb. 4, he took home the American Society of Cinematographers award for theatrical release. A few months earlier, he had copped the top prize at the Camerimage cinematography film festival in Poland.
“Lion” — a true story adapted from the book by Australian Saroo Brierley about the author’s long journey to find his birth parents in India — has been nominated for six Oscars, including one for cinematography.
Fraser had a concrete vision of the look of “Lion” as he came on board.
“I had a very strong visual idea of what [it was going to be],” he says. “The juxtaposition of India and Australia is such a great one to explore.”
The DP tested both film and digital formats prior to production, and ended up using the Arri Alexa XT camera. “We used vintage Panavision lenses because I found that we wanted to keep a consistent look throughout the movie,” says Fraser, who’s had a busy three years while filming “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Foxcatcher,” and “The Gambler.” He’s collaborating with Davis again for “Mary Magdalene.”
“India and Australia are worlds apart visually,” he says, “and we explored the idea of shooting one format for India and one for Australia, but we decided it was simpler to let the locations do the work and let the format take a back seat.”
However, Fraser had to change his shooting style for each place in one significant way: “In India we were filming a 5-year-old boy who is three-foot-four,” he explains, “and in Australia we were filming a six-foot-tall adult.”
Fraser took each actor’s height into account — Sunny Pawar in India and Dev Patel in Australia — for moving the camera. “With Dev, we used Steadicam,” he says, “and with Sunny, we were on a MoVI stabilized gimbal rig,” which lets everyone be nimble as they move about.
In one scene where Pawar is in a trash dump, Fraser and Davis sent the young actor wandering off around the built scene on his own.
“It was just Sunny, the camera operator, and the boom swinger looking for stuff in the trash,” he explains. “I was able to have control over the camera movements and hone in on those little moments that make the film so visually special.”