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Greig Fraser has always let fear been his guide.
“I don’t take on projects I don’t get nervous about, fear is always a part of it,” the Oscar-nominated cinematographer (Lion, Zero Dark Thirty) says, explaining why he decided to take on the challenge of shooting Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune.
“You don’t want to be the guy who screws up the photography on Dune,” Fraser quipped, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter‘s Carolyn Giardina on Friday’s live video session for TIFF Visionaries, part of the Toronto Film Festival’s industry conference.
Dune, from Legendary and Warner Bros., premiered at the Venice Film Festival last week and will have its North American bow at TIFF on Saturday. THR is the official media partner of the Visionaries discussions.
“I get nervous with every new project I take on,” said Fraser. “I hope that’s natural and I hope it never goes away.”
Fraser, by his own admission, has lead “a very charmed existence” as a cinematographer. “I’ve worked with the people I’ve dreamed of working with,” he said, citing Villeneuve but also his long-time collaborator Garth Davis (Lion) and Gareth Edwards (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and projects including Disney+’s The Mandalorian, for which Fraser won an Emmy for outstanding cinematography for a single-camera series, and Matt Reeves’ upcoming superhero tentpole The Batman.
Having started as a photographer, Fraser said he didn’t plan to become a DP and initially considered becoming a director before working as an assistant director for fellow Australian Davis gave him a new perspective: “I thought I knew what a director was. I knew who George Lucas was because I was a big fan of Star Wars. I’d hadn’t know cinematography was an option.”
“I worked with cinematographers and I saw what an incredible job it was,” he said. “To work with these great directors and actors and to be able to focus purely on what I wanted to do, and what I think it is I do best. Which is to make images.”
While Fraser’s images can be epic — as seen in Rouge One, The Mandalorian, and now Dune — he has proven to be adept at capturing intimate moments, whether in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler or in Davis’ Lion, which uses a run-and-gun, near-documentary approach to capture the story of a lost Indian boy who, after being adopted by an Australian couple and raised hundreds of miles from home, returns to find his family.
“Our approach was very much to be with this boy, to be at his height, in his head, to see the world through his eyes,” Fraser said, explaining the approach that led to an Oscar nomination for best cinematography in 2017. “We tried not to let technology or the process slow us down.”
Technology, of the cutting-edge variety, was very much at the center of Fraser’s process for shooting Dune.
“With Dune it just started by listening to Denis [Villeneuve],” Fraser explained. “He’s such a manchild with this story, he loves the material, he’s incredibly passionate about it. I listened to him for hours. He dreamed his film in 4:3 [ratio], which initially was an unusual thing to hear because 4:3 doesn’t immediately make me think of a big epic. But when I saw how we were shooting it for IMAX, I saw Dune how Denis saw it. The story is big. It’s epic. You can’t really get bigger from a scale perspective. But ultimately, it’s about this boy, Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet) [and] about Paul’s journey with his family. It wasn’t dissimilar to Lion, where we had to view the world from Paul’s eyes.”
Together with Denis, they composed Dune as a combination of wide shots — showing the sweeping landscapes of the desert planet Arrakis where most of the movie’s action takes place — with extreme close-ups for the many intimate moments between the characters.
“You can do a film just as a series of mid-shots, there’s a whole school of cinema for that but here it was a natural tendency to do wides and close-ups,” he said.
Fraser shot Dune on the Alexa LF, ARRI’s large-format digital camera, but Villeneuve then transferred the image onto 35 mm film which was then scanned back into digital.
“So the image you see on screen has been through an emulsion…it’s a beautiful melding of digital and analog,” noted Fraser. “Where Denis is super smart is in being open to the idea that you can easily combine digital and analog and sometimes you can use that to get a result you have never seen before.”
Warner Bros. will be releasing Dune in the U.S. both theatrically and on its streaming service HBO Max, but Fraser implored everyone to see the film on the big screen.
“Of course, you can watch it on a TV and have your ice cream and put your feet up,” he quipped, “but there is something about [the theatrical] experience for this movie. I saw it in an IMAX theater and I could barely contain myself. With the soundtrack, the acting, the color grade, and the design. It all adds up. It was like being on a rollercoaster.”
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