A lone gunfighter makes his way through the outer reaches of the galaxy, far from the authority of the New Republic. Cinematographer Greig Fraser ACS ASC steps into the unknown on The Mandalorian.
By David Heuring.
Greig Fraser ACS ASC burst onto the scene in 2011 with Bright Star, which helped bring him ACS Cinematographer of the Year honors. In 2012, he demonstrated impressive range with Snow White and the Huntsman and Zero Dark Thirty, and since then he has added more diversity with Foxcatcher, Mary Magdalene and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In 2017, he earned an Oscar nomination along with an ASC Award and the Camerimage Golden Frog for Lion – another complete departure in terms of tone and subject matter.
Now Fraser’s path has led to The Mandalorian, the first live-action web television series in the Star Wars universe. Created by Jon Favreau and co-shot by Barry Idoine, the Disney+ series, sometimes termed a ‘space western’, depicts a lone bounty hunter who operates far from any authority.
Favreau often works at the limits of technology (The Jungle Book, The Lion King) and The Mandalorian was no exception. He insisted on a game-changing approach. The LED-screen backdrops that Emmanuel Lubezki AMC ASC used to cast interactive light on Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013) had advanced to the point where they could be used for entire on-camera environments, as seen in The Lion King (2019).
The virtual production techniques depended on a 2.8 millimeter pixel pitch, up from the 9-mm pitch used on Rogue One, where the backgrounds were later replaced with higher-resolution imagery. Here, visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) worked with Epic Games to adapt their Unreal Engine to enable real-time display at resolutions sufficient to make replacement unnecessary. Interestingly, some of ILM’s original assets were brought out of the library and used, making a visual link to the earlier Star Wars imagery.
Fraser says that these decisions affected every aspect of the shoot, beginning on day one of pre-production. “Early on, it occurred to me that we were making forty or fifty decisions every day that were brand new and groundbreaking,” he says. “Of course you still have the standard general decisions that have worked their way through a century of filmmaking: What direction are we shooting? How do we stage this? But I was learning so much about the LED screen process, the manufacture, indoor versus outdoor, output, bit rates, dimming. The LEDs were merely one aspect. There are hundreds of factors that we were navigating daily. As adults, it’s rare that we are learning on such an intense scale. It’s a fantastic feeling. But this was extreme. Every day when I went home, my head literally hurt! We were essentially inventing a new process of shooting.”
The technology juggernaut behind today’s high-end filmmaking can be overwhelming. But an important part of the cinematographer’s job is to make sure that the tools don’t become an end in themselves.
“If you base your decision on the technology side of things, that’s the tail wagging the dog,” says Fraser. “The technology is purely there to serve us as filmmakers. So these tools often have to go through a process of adaptation. I want to be able to move the camera. I want to choose where the camera goes on the day – even in the moment that we’re shooting. Perhaps an actor does something different, and I do a little tracking to save the shot – and that becomes the magic part of the scene. So we can’t run it like a robot. It’s not just committing a storyboard to film. It’s an organic process; that’s the exciting part.”
Fraser says that a Star Wars tale was a perfect candidate for this treatment, in part because of its essential nature. “What we all responded to in the original Star Wars was the simplicity of storytelling,” he says. “Favreau, writer-director Dave Filoni and I love classic filmmaking. Favreau was also referring to classic Westerns and samurai movies,” says Fraser. “Often those were made with big, bulky cameras that were tricky to move. So when they did move, it made a very big impact on the audience.”
Fraser says there are multiple ways to move a camera, of course, but he thinks where A New Hope (1977, cinematography by Gilbert Taylor BSC) and particularly The Empire Strikes Back (1980, cinematography by Peter Suschitzky BSC ASC) got it very right is that they came at the tail end of a decade of incredibly mature filmmaking, the 1970s.
“George Lucas and the other people who were working in that era had learned their craft by watching movies made in the 1960s and earlier, and they created a really strong and cinematic storytelling base built on concise, well-constructed, simply told stories. That creates a bigger buzz than something that is overly complex. They found the right balance.” says Fraser.
In choosing lenses, Fraser wanted to ensure that backgrounds fell out of focus quickly. He knew he wouldn’t be able to control moiré by hanging thin diffusion, as he had done on Rogue One.
“That meant we had to stage people far enough from the screen so that the lens did not pick up any moiré,” he says. “We had to choose a format that was as large as possible that was also anamorphic; because to all of us, the look of Star Wars is anamorphic. The Ultra Vistas were lenses that Panavision had just come out with. I didn’t know about them until they were suggested during testing. I thought they were amazing. It’s a beautiful, creamy lens that falls off nicely and produces pretty skin tones.” Fraser went on to use them again on Denis Villenevue’s Dune.
The Ultra Vista lenses use a 1.65x squeeze. Paired with the ARRI Alexa LF sensor, they produce a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. “On the Alexa 65 with a 1.3x squeeze, you’re cropping left and right,” Fraser explains. “In the end it’s a wash in terms of resolution. The 1.65x and the LF was the right combination.”
Working with the LED volume brings control back into the hands of the cinematographer, according to Fraser. Since the dawn of the digital revolution, it seems, each step forward diluted the control directors of photography exercised over the image. Here, Fraser was able to work very closely with production designer Andrew Jones on every aspect of the backgrounds, not least the angle, intensity and quality of the light.
“The worst thing about being a cinematographer on a blue screen set is that you have literally no control over what goes on that blue screen,” he says. “You have to trust the visual effects supervisor and the director, and in most cases, of course, you do. But maybe somebody doesn’t understand framing, and they put a light post right behind the main actor’s head. You may not have shot something in a certain way if you had known what the background was going to be. But the LED volume restores visual power back to the cinematographer and the director, on their own set. To me, that’s the most powerful part of this.”
“It’s why I was so passionate about working with ILM on this, because it’s been brewing for a number of years. We did all the testing on Rogue One, and it was very much a conversation, could we do this with a real environment, and not just with ships in space? The answer was ‘not quite yet.’ We had moiré and other issues. Now it’s five years later. It was like a meeting of the minds. Jon was willing to risk writing the show based on the premise that we could shoot almost anything on the LED volume. It was a big step, and everyone put their reputations on the line. I can tell you it was one of the most beautifully stressful shows that I’ve ever worked on, because we were walking into the unknown.”
Although Fraser and Idoine are credited with specific episodes, there are plenty of examples where they worked across episodes. Season two is planned for October 2020, and both Favreau and Disney’s Robert Iger have hinted that there are spin-offs being considered.
Since wrapping season one of The Mandalorian, Fraser turned his attentions to Dune, a feature directed by Denis Villaneuve, and The Batman, which he is shooting for director Matt Reeves. That film is expected in June 2021.
David Heuring is a writer, known for his book ‘Advanced Filmmaking’ (2014).