How ‘The Batman’ Cinematographer Greig Fraser Reinvented the Dark Knight’s Big Screen Presence

The Batman
Jonathan Olley / © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

Greig Fraser’s first conversations with Matt Reeves began before the director ever signed on to the comic book film. While in post-production on his “Planet of the Apes” movies, Reeves talked to the cinematographer about being approached by Warner Bros. to helm a new film adaptation of the Caped Crusader. “There was no job offer there, for him or for me, actually,” says Fraser. “It was more about ‘Ah man, could you imagine if Batman did this?’ I was loving hearing his take on what he thought Batman should be.”

Eventually, “timing worked out,” says Fraser. And in the cinematographer, Batman has found a match made in comic book movie heaven. Through his lens, Batman is more brutal than moviegoers have ever seen before, pummeling Gotham’s criminals to a pulp in his quest to deliver perceived justice that Fraser points out was intended to be “murky.”

That “The Batman,” shot under strict COVID protocols and forced to navigate a complex production around its main star testing positive, should look even half as impressive as it does is a testament to Fraser’s skill behind the camera. In talking to the cinematographer, however, he is quick to acknowledge the work of his team: “We worked our butts off. I’m super proud of my crew. We worked through a very tricky time in history. They’re just incredible.”

Here, the Oscar-nominated director of photography breaks down his approach to reinventing the Dark Knight’s on-screen presence, detailing how he shot major action setpieces and all the thought that went into one of the film’s spine-tingling reveals.

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©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

First off, congratulations on your Oscar nomination.

Thank you, man. It’s been a wild ride in the last year or two. It’s nice to have it all come to fruition at a similar sort of time. It’s wonderful to be talking about “Dune,” but it’s also wonderful to be talking about “Batman.” If you want to put two films down that look totally different to each other, but are actually a combination of my learning, it’s those two films.

I found your work in both to be mesmerizing on the big screen, but I wanted to ask about your approach to lighting Batman. He’s this notoriously dark character and literally calls himself a shadow in the film.

This is the Dark Knight. You can’t walk him through a supermarket or a pharmacy and see him in his all of his glory. Finding the right balance between darkness and lightness for him was the real challenge. Because we had such a beautiful suit and such an amazing actor inside that suit, we did not want to underlight him or take too much away from those elements. But we also wanted him to remain an enigma.

Particularly in the opening montage where we see these criminals running around Gotham and it’s cut with the Batsignal, it’s great visual storytelling. In terms of economy of shots, it communicates so much. What was making that sequence like?

Matt’s a very wonderful writer. I love his writing because I can read it really easily, in the sense that it kind of reads like a storybook. You can feel when the [camera] pushes in and the high angles are [in Reeves’ script]. It was quite well conceived in the script stage from a dramatic perspective, but we really needed to make sure that there were dense black shadows. If you notice in the movie, for the most part, we don’t have dense black shadows, except for the opening. And that was the point we wanted to make: he’s lurking in those shadows. It’s not common for this movie to have complete pitch blackness. The only other time that I can think is probably during the hallway shooting.

Right, and darkness is used to great effect in that scene. He’s only lit by those muzzle flashes for a split second.

Yeah, exactly.

In that moment, what I felt was being communicated was a kind of comic book panel, a little bit of action perfectly composed.

This film was probably the most complicated lighting job that I’ve ever been involved with, for obvious reasons. I was putting together a bit of a style guide of all the frames. I’d sit there and I’d flick through the frames half a second each, maybe less. But if I could tell what was going on, then I feel like we succeeded in our quest for simplicity of the frame. So I’ve watched this movie a number of times now flicking through on my iPad. It probably takes about five minutes to watch the whole film.

To that point, the action and fight scenes in this movie are all captured in these really long takes. I feel like audiences are used to comic book movies with a lot of cuts. Can you talk about your approach there?

I’m maybe showing my age a little bit here, mate. I hate to say this, but I kind of have a bit of a short attention span, or I have problems when things become too flashy. Maybe it’s not an age thing. Maybe I am the conscious version of an audience member’s subconscious. I believe, and this is if you want the Gospel according to Greig, when an image comes up on screen, it takes you half a second, subconsciously, to work out where you are, what you are, who it is and what you’re doing. If you’ve got edits that are one second long, then it’s distracting you from actually telling the story properly. I feel like you need to simplify the image, so that when it flashes on the screen, you read it as fast as possible. And that doesn’t necessarily mean no production design or no feeling or no mood. It just means you’ve got to have focus and simplicity to the image.

Just being able to see Batman beat up some guy for a sustained period of time gives it a different flavor as well.

In modern filmmaking, often there’s a tendency to go a little bit “Bourne” style when it comes to handheld [camerawork]. The “Bourne” films were legendary when it came to action and set pieces, so there’s a tendency to go in that direction. But we actually went the other way. We went, “let’s try and see this in as few shots as possible.”

The camera placement and movement is so precise. When I think back on the shots that stick with me from the movie, they’re all locked off, kept in one spot. All the movement is very motivated.

Yeah, 100%. There’s a reason why you feel that, and that’s because we were very diligent about making sure that we only move the camera when we had to, because it didn’t feel like we had to, to be frank with you. We had such great sets. We had such great actors. It’s such a great script. I would ask the question, why do you have to move the camera for no reason? … If you’re moving the camera for no good reason, I feel like you’re doing all of your parts a disservice. I learned this a long time ago watching a film called “Ratcatcher.” It’s a series of stunning stills, but they move the camera really delicately and only when they had to. When the camera moved, it took my breath away, because they chose the right time to move the camera. And I hope that we did the same thing with this film.

I wanted to talk about the car chase. It’s filled with these incredible shots, like the Batmobile jumping through the flames, but we’re looking at it in the mirror of Penguin’s car.

We were very lucky in the sense that we had a great previz. As in, we had the opportunity to previz a lot of these things. Matt is a very visual director. He likes to lead from the front when it comes to helping come up with the images in the movie. So having him as a partner there is really great. I’ve been fortunate in my life to have worked with some very visually competent directors. For me, it’s wonderful, because it goes back to the whole thing of the collaboration between filmmakers, that one plus one equals more than two. It’s more than the sum of its parts.

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©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

One specific shot that got a huge response from my audience was the Batmobile reveal.

That car reveal was talked about a lot. Trust me. Batman’s iconic, but also the thing that he drives is pretty iconic as well. If you notice in the movie, you may see that Batmobile, but it’s covered in the Batcave. So we’ve never seen this car until this point. We made sure that when we shot it, we used the old technique of a silhouette. We created a kind of backlight through the exhaust. You see these little headlights, these little puffs of flame in the front grill. We worked really hard at revealing this Batmobile. It wasn’t just happenstance that it looked cool. We worked our butts off to reveal that properly.

The use of red in the film is so interesting. We see a lot of it in the Iceberg Lounge, how that color bounces off of the Batsuit.

Red’s a powerful, emotional color. A lot of the colors in this movie are very urban, very sodium vapory, very fluorescent. There was an opportunity to inject certain key reds and certain key cyans. I love the cyan that we often used for Catwoman. During the early camera tests with Zoë, I was trying different colors on her and I found that cyan worked so beautifully for her. I felt that it just bounced off her skin and made her glow and jump out from the screen.

I wanted to talk about something I pulled from the movie as an audience member. The film opens on the Riddler’s perspective, looking through these binoculars. Later on, we see a very similar shot from Batman’s perspective. So as a viewer, we go beyond asking ourselves “how are these characters similar” to asking “how are they different,” all because of those shot choices. It seemed to work thematically for the story about these two characters.

Absolutely. Obviously, Matt and the actors are better qualified to talk about character, but I can tell you that one of the things that became really interesting when Matt and I first started talking about “The Batman” was the thin blue line theory. What separates good from bad when it comes to law enforcement? What separates good from bad when it comes to deeds? What separates a good person from a bad person if a bad person does good for a bit? It’s a very murky area from a character’s perspective. What I think Matt did beautifully in this, was he blurred the line between these characters, Riddler and Batman. They have very similar backstories. You walk into a Batman film going, “we know who Batman is,” but we actually wanted people to go “I’ve never seen Batman like this.” This is what is beautiful about this film: even though Batman doesn’t kill people, his violence and his vengeance is kind of debatable, morally.

Some of these characters like Batman are so ubiquitous in pop culture through cartoons, comics and toys. What was it like to be stepping into Batman’s sandbox?

I’m super excited to be a part of it. I’m super proud of it. I’m super proud of Matt. He’s given his heart and soul to this film, as have my collaborators. And I think that it’s great to have made a Batman film that we’re proud of. Fingers crossed we get asked to do another one, I guess.

Do you have ideas percolating for a potential sequel?

I reckon I probably can’t answer anything in regard to that. But I can tell you something that is not related to a sequel in any way, shape, or form. There are thousands of stories to be told about this character. This is why Bruce Wayne and Batman is such an enduring character. And we’ve told a story. And I’m positive there is more to be told. Batman will outlive all of us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.