Greig Fraser ACS ASC brings his eye to the darkly satirical, political biopic Vice, the story of the remarkably powerful and uncharismatic former Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney.
Interview by Darcy Yuille.
AC: Tell us how the project came about. Was there a particular element that hooked you?
GF: The subject really fascinates me. I love politics. I love sort of dry, theoretical subjects, and this is funny because its subject. Dick Cheney, as a character, is interesting and complex because history has constantly reviled this guy.
I don’t know if you remember being in Australia when we went to war in Iraq, but the media was crying, “it’s because of the oil”. All the information pointed to weapons of mass destruction and nuclear yellowcake coming from Africa. There were all these bits of information that we, as Australians, were being sold. We were included in that whole process of going to war in Iraq, which turned out to be totally false.
When I read the script it was great to be able to see where that false information was coming from, and to be able to disseminate how it happened. What we’re learning now, and what I learnt through reading the script, it was like watching a fantastic little documentary, you go “oh yeah, connect the dots” this happened, then that happened. I loved it.
AC: Did you have a handle on the character of Dick Cheney before reading the script?
GF: We, Australians, knew nothing about Dick Cheney before 11 September 2001, or important topics of discussion like the Patriot Act. The guy didn’t turn up from nowhere, he was already a seasoned politician that had his finger firmly on the pulse of how to get things done in Washington.
Cheney made some serious changes to the constitution of the United States, and ultimately sent the world into war. He was able to achieve that because of his skills as a politician. He’s incredibly talented in that respect. Whether or not those things were good or evil is a matter of opinion, but regardless you cannot discount the talent this man had as a politician.
AC: Had you worked previously with the film’s writer/director, Adam McKay?
GF: I hadn’t met McKay before. I love a good comedy and Anchorman (2004) is one of the greatest, silliest comedies. I was a massive fan of The Big Short (2015) given that I loved the book. So I was a big fan of McKay. We had a great initial conversation. I gave him my thoughts about how the Vice should look and feel. We agreed on many things and started a very lovely relationship as a director and cinematographer.
AC: Vice was shot on a mixture of Super 8, 16mm and 35mm film. Was this part of the initial vision?
GF: I generally don’t think about the format until well down the path of discussion, because to me the format is a sideline conversation; like the ratio or is it blue or is it green, or is it slightly warmer. It’s a discussion to be held later.
One of the things about Vice is it spans a lot of time, it covers about forty to fifty years. The good thing about film is it instantly registers with a viewer and can take you to a certain time, visually. I wouldn’t say it’s nostalgia because it’s not the right word, but it takes you to a place of memory.
I had strong thoughts about it, and McKay is a huge film lover. He pushed me towards film and I pushed him towards film. We were each other’s partners in crime for that whole idea. The 35mm was the mainstay for the through line of the story, but the other stocks allowed us to jump around into different timelines and textures.
AC: Have the film stocks improved or changed?
GF: Stocks are still the same, but what has changed since I last shot with film on Foxcatcher (2014) is they have reduced the range. My favourite stock was the 5230 and they’ve killed it, so there’s only 5219. The 5230 was a low-contrast, desaturated stock. It was fantastic and I remember I was one of the first ones to use it on Killing Them Softly (2012). I think we were one of the last ones to use it on Foxcatcher too. Just beautiful and creamy. We shot with 5219 for Vice, which I rated around 320-350.
AC: Did shooting on film have an effect on the production design?
GF: I do recall the days of “What’s this colour going to look like on film?” so there were a couple of colours that we tested. Some whites of the walls at the White House because we wanted white walls; but did we want them to be bright white or off white? We discussed the range and then did a test and looked at it together. The same thing happens on digital but it’s more immediate.
AC: There’s a lot of prosthetics in the film, was this a similar concern?
GF: The film is a double-edged sword with the prosthetics. With Vice, we got really close. We did some full face close-ups where Christian Bale’s face is forty-feet high on the screen. We found that the prosthetics reacted to light on film in a different way to how it looked to the eye, so there were times when the prosthetic pieces were visible, even though they weren’t visible to the eye. We discovered this during camera tests and we were alert to and aware of it during the shoot. With digital, you’d be alert to it the second that you shoot. So the double-edged sword is that film has a granularity and a lack of inherent sharpness which helps prosthetics. The other side is you don’t know the true result to the next day.
On set I would shoot a digital photograph on my Canon 5D and zoom right into the pixels. With the makeup, we would pick the hell out of any seams or nets or appliances, anything we saw as being a problem. We’d deal with it on the day. When we got to post-production there were very few things we needed to fix.
AC: This was a first time collaboration with production designer Patrice Vermette. How did you develop that relationship?
GF: Vermette is French Canadian, and what I discovered is that the French Canadians are actually very much like Australians. There’s a very big similarity there; a certain brutal doggedness. Australians can sometimes be not the most tactful bunch of people in the world, and I say that in a very positive way. In this case, there was a true meeting of the minds and a meeting of the spirit as well. As an Australian I’m very dogged in protecting what it is I need to protect on a movie and Vermette was the same.
This was a film that isn’t fantastical, it isn’t extreme. It is very much based on reality. The White House is the White House and the West Wing is the West Wing, so the discussion with the production designer mainly comes down to a lot of technical refinements. Do we need ceiling pieces, or what ceiling pieces need to float, or what wall pieces need to float. There’s a huge technical element that needs to be discussed. They need to know what your shot plans and storyboard ideas are so they can build accordingly.
Vermette’s attention to detail is incredible. The White House, for example, is a fairly well shot location, so rather than build it from scratch we got one from another show. Vermette put it up, and he wasn’t really happy with the quality that it was going to give us. I remember they stripped it back and did a lot of work on getting it to the level of quality where it should be. That was a struggle, because everything costs money, and money that probably hadn’t been budgeted, He probably had to pull from other areas, so it was a bit of a coup that he was able to do that. Having a production designer that is as dogged, and as passionate and as dedicated as you is a real bonus, because you serve that story of the director a lot better.
AC: It’s been a few years since digital has become the norm. Were there any adjustments from the cast or crew side to working in analogue?
GF: The actors had to understand when we ran out of film. But none of the actors stood there and said “Damn you, how come you missed my best take!” because you ran out of film. Actors are actors, they know what their getting into and ten years ago there was no debate. You know if you have a long scene you put the longest piece of film on the camera and you do your best to give them the longest run possible.
It definitely means there are less options in the edit, but the hardest thing is there are less qualified people who know how to load now, and we were shooting in Los Angeles! That’s the reality now. I wouldn’t say we had a hard time finding people to load, but… we had a hard time finding people to load. If you’re in some kind of provincial centre, like a state of the US or in Australia where there is no professional lab, there just aren’t the qualified crew because no one shoots film anymore.
The film gear itself hasn’t really improved, and the grips and gaffers had all been through the transition from film to digital, so it was relatively easy from their side. Although we did use an Oculus head, a brand new head at the time so we had to look at our configuration for that.
AC: You are known for your embrace of LED lighting, both for environmental and practical reasons. How did this translate to the shoot for Vice?
GF: I would never want to be the holier-than-thou dude that says to all cinematographers “You must save energy,” however I personally do feel quite responsible for wasting energy.
The thing is, LEDs, up to a couple of years ago, were okay. They were just okay. I remember I used them for the first time on Zero Dark Thirty (2012), they were from Creamsource and they were great. But they weren’t bi-colour, they were just one colour. Then, the bi-colours came out and they were punchy and so good. Then the colour ones came out. Unfortunately, through every step, there are times when the quality is not good. I know cinematographers that don’t love LEDs. I go “oh, you should try these LEDs” and they say “Nah, I got burnt a few years ago” because LEDs have a weird spectral range. They are tricky, they are an unusual spectrum.
AC: Did you have a colour meter on set?
GF: With digital, a calibrated monitor is often the best medium to see colour. LED and colour is not fool-proof. With film you rely a little more on testing, and the eye. Flexibility is the thing. We did a lot of the lighting on Vice with Digital Sputniks and with Light Gear. They were a great combination. We did some stock and lighting tests before we committed to those, and they were great, they were so natural. We’d put lights out during the day, and ordinarily you go “the lights wrong, the colour’s wrong”. If you put an HMI out, automatically the intensity is wrong or the colour is wrong. With the LEDs you just tweak the colour and change the intensity with the flick of a switch so they become a very useful tool to create good quality light.
AC: So no gels?
GF: The last time I saw a roll of gel was the last time I pulled out an HMI. Diffusion, sure, but no gels.
AC: The behind-the-scenes footage and promotional stills are surprisingly devoid of large lighting fixtures but a lot of negative fill. Was this a conscious choice?
GF: There were about eighty to ninety sets over a period of fifty days. We were often moving fast between sets and locations. It’s also how I learned to shoot in Australia as a young cinematographer.
When you are a young filmmaker in Australia, you get the tiniest amount of lighting equipment, but you get lots of solids so you can often shape the light through negative fill. I watched a lot of cinematographers in Australia, particularly people like Graeme Wood (The Dish), who is a fantastic Melbourne-based cinematographer. I watched him work a lot; he would use a lot of negative fill. It’s a very efficient way to create shape but still use the integrity of the natural light. The second you put up an electronic light, you’re fighting it. You’re already fighting something that’s there, it looks wrong. The colour is wrong, the intensity is wrong, the softness is wrong. It takes more effort to make light look natural than it does to make natural light look shaped. To me that’s the preferred methodology of lighting.
You can see in the scene where George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asks Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) to be his Vice President. The lighting is very minimal, a large black negative fill wrapped around the side of the scene, and no lights at all.
AC: Was there an ethos in the progression of the film? With the lighting or the operating?
GF: The film has an underlying thread, which is the story between Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). I wanted to be a little bit more conservative in the way we shot their story because next to their story at every point along the way there was flash-backs and flash-forwards. There were little musical numbers, a little this or that, so I wanted to make sure there was an underlying solidity to the cinematography. Then when we did cut to a dance number, or a Bolex camera shot in Vietnam, that the audience felt that they were going to come back into a warm house. The idea was it’s quite nice being outside and different, but if you know you have somewhere safe to come back to, it makes it good to be out there in the rain or snow.
I wanted to make sure the audience weren’t left wondering where they were emotionally or narratively and I wanted them to know they had a soft warm place to come back to.
AC: How did your appreciation for the film change as it went through the edit?
GF: After you finish shooting a film, you lose control. In the sense that it becomes the editor’s film. Our fantastic editor Hank Corwin ACE (Moneyball, The Big Short) loved to take little offcuts; times where the camera is floating and shouldn’t have been, or when the camera is sitting on a grip’s knee and they’re rolling. He loves to use those things and I love it as well. My first feeling was I definitely did see some shots in there where I went “Whoa, not sure I would have put that in there,” but the thing is, this is where you have to trust the skill of an editor like Corwin and the taste of a director like McKay. Together they use the best of the material in the best way they can and I think they’ve cut a great film out of a very complex story.
AC: The thing that occurs to me though our conversation is you have a great understanding of story. Sometimes cinematographers can get caught up in getting through the day or achieving a look. How do you stay focussed on a story?
GF: I’ve had the chance to work with amazing people like Glendyn Ivin (Last Ride), Jane Campion (Bright Star) and Scott Hicks (The Boys are Back). Every day on set with a director like that is a learning experience that I don’t think you could ever get from film school or watching movies. I just try and stay open to that idea, knowing I have a natural tendency towards story over visuals. A picture paints a thousand words, so rather than an actor saying a thousand words, if I can tell it in an image, I’ll offer that up. If you have an amazing script, director and actor and amazing things to shoot, sometimes the best shot is the least fancy. It’s about coming up with ideas with the director to create that. I like to pride myself on the fact I’m story first.
AC: What surprised you about shooting Vice?
GF: For the first time ever, because of the way we were able to light the Oval Office with all the light panels and the Occulus heads, to me it was the most like being outside I’ve ever experienced. In the studio we were able to get entire ceiling panels of Light Gear’s LEDs and when you stand inside those offices, Rumsfeld’s and the Oval, just walking through there, it’s like you’re in a real office. When you’re shooting until midnight on a stage it’s a bit of a strange feeling to walk outside and see it’s really dark. It’s the most realistic studio lighting I’ve ever done. The greatest compliment I can get from any non-film person, is “I didn’t notice the cinematography in that film” I would kiss the ground they walk on. Because the ultimate goal is, if my work is not seen but felt, then I have succeeded.
AC: Can we expect you back anytime to shoot in Australia.
GF: Lion (2016) was the last Australian film I did. I love doing work there.
AC: So what’s next?
GF: I’m in Los Angeles for a few weeks, currently prepping a film with Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Bladerunner 2049) and shooting in Budapest. He’s in LA, I’m in LA, and we’re just kind of doing a bit of prep here. I travel to Budapest in a couple of weeks. It’s Dune, the Frank Herbert sci-fi remake. It’s really cool and I’ve got a great Aussie connection; I rang my friend Kent Sang in Budapest, and he’s like, ”Hey man, I’ve got this Aussie assistant who was working at ARRI in Budapest, and now he’s working with me.” He was this young guy from Melbourne who used to work at Lemac and he went travelling, and now he’s my assistant on Dune in Budapest.
Darcy Yuille is experienced in all facets of film production, from loading to directing and everything in between. He runs a production company, Rooftop Film Co. in Melbourne
Vice was released in cinemas last year.