Rogue One is one of the fill-in Star Wars films but is now seen as one of the best. DOP Greig Fraser tells us how he used his inner ten-year-old to achieve a special look
If you haven’t seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, you’re in for a treat and this is from someone who isn’t normally a fan. This is the best Star Wars film I’ve seen and on a number of levels – especially the look. Technically the series has already been the centre of some brave and memorable decisions. George Lucas chose not to shoot film again before anyone had seen the prequels – the diehards weren’t pleased. His pursuit of a digital camera for the films arguably catapulted Sony to the forefront of digital cinematography at the time, but the jury is still out on the results of the digital capture.
For Rogue One, DOP Greig Fraser pushed the envelope again and chose a camera that was brand new and thought by everyone, including the manufacturer initially, to be a plate camera or if you were really lucky, a second-unit tool. But the ALEXA 65’s a camera with a sensor that’s bigger than a 5-perf 65mm film frame. A Star Wars gig doesn’t come around very often and Greig wanted to do it justice. “Why can’t we use this camera for the whole thing?” he asked the powers that be in his Aussie free-thinking way.
The camera was very new but Greig had already done some tests. “At the time I was doing two films, Lion and Rogue One. Lucasfilm know what they are doing well in advance and they have lots of time for development and preparation,” Greig says. “So back in late 2014, as The Force Awakens was wrapping up post-production, we had the good fortune to use some of their sets. The general consensus was that we were going to go film because that’s how the originals were shot. J J Abrams had just been very successful with it on the previous movie.
“Everyone agreed that film was the way to go – myself, the director, the producers, everyone. Just before that happened ARRI had introduced me to this ALEXA 65 camera, as a second unit or plate camera. So I threw that into the mix and thought about doing the aerials on the 65 or the plates. But as soon as I got into thinking about that I wondered about doing the entire production with it.
“There were things against it. It only did 29fps at the most and could only deal with 512GB mags, which is around 12 minutes of footage. I figured that these weren’t massive problems. It actually sounds like the ALEXA XT which only goes up to 48fps, but very rarely would you ever go to that, 1000ft film mags only contains ten minutes. From what I know about what lenses exist in the world – and I know a lot about what Panavision lenses are doing – my question then was, why can’t we make this the production camera?
“We tested the ALEXA 65 with other lenses just to make sure that we liked the look of it. Then I went to LA and shot some film tests with some of the Anamorphic lenses which are coming down the pipe. I thought the lenses were fantastic but they weren’t all appropriate to us as we knew that we wanted to do a run-and-gun-type film. We wanted to keep our camera loose; we had some Technocrane stuff and some dolly stuff for sure, but for the most part we needed a loose camera. This was decided from discussions with the director quite early on. The default camera position became handheld.
“I said to ARRI and Panavision that I reckoned we could do the entire movie on this format, so they worked out a solution between them. I presented the tests to the producer Kathy Kennedy and she thought it was the best digital she had ever seen. I think it’s a different, original look and you can sum it up by saying the look isn’t just for big films because I’ve used this format, the ALEXA 65, on a film called Mary Magdalene, a small independent film shot in Italy. It was so amazing for that; it was just so character absorbing with the beautiful landscape. The format is something that I’m quite passionate about, especially in conjunction with this new LED lighting technology. As a filmmaker, I just think we’re entering into this new world of very interesting technology.”
Another word for iconic
Greig has an unflappable nature and you get the feeling he’s a vital part of a set’s dynamic force. For the movie Zero Dark Thirty he had to combat extremes with the weather and how to film a raid on a dark, moonless night when the director didn’t want any augmented lighting. His answer was to push the exposure even lower, with the safety net of a nearby hotel-based digital lab to check the shots.
How was it working on a Star Wars movie; is it bigger? we asked. “I guess so, it’s just more days really,” he laconically answered. “Everyone goes ‘it must be a significantly different departure from what you normally do’. Compared to a film like Zero Dark Thirty, we’re on a similar kind of gimbal rig, we went to a similar number of locations, it’s mostly just considered so different to other films because of the subject matter. It’s the great thing about this job, I get to shoot a real-life episode with that movie and then a different planet with Rogue One. We went to Jordan for all the exteriors for Jedha, including all the aerials.
“In fact we did a lot in Jordan, but we built the Jedha town on the backlot. We were also in Iceland for the opening sequence of the movie. The thing we found with Iceland is that everywhere you go it’s so stunningly beautiful, so we had to simplify our palette. For a location, we decided on this plain of black sand with this green strip of plantation; the green was so incongruous because it didn’t seem to belong there. No one was growing anything there, but it’s there as a government directive to help stop the black sand running onto the road. It just looked classic Star Wars for us, a little bit twisted to what we understand being right.
“One thing that interested me and the director was that a huge part of our early visual influences come from Star Wars. It was one of the first things we watched ad nauseam. He probably wore out his cassette more than I did, but I knew all the characters and the names of the incidental characters in the bar, for instance. I knew the names of characters that never get named in the film that you learn about with subsequent material that gets released and the toys. You process all this material then invent a backstory.
“There were certain decisions made by George Lucas and the way he shot scenes and showed scale in both A New Hope and Return Of The Jedi. It’s funny, as when you’re standing on a set, say, in Zero Dark Thirty, you’re not aware of where your inspiration comes from directly. Talking about the helicopter crash in that film, you don’t know where the inspiration comes from to put a camera in that position to watch it from that shot. Which is why filmmaking is such fun as I would do it differently to another DOP, who would do it differently to any another DOP. We all have different influences.
“What’s great about doing a Star Wars film is that I didn’t have to hide my influences. Say, for instance, there was a crash I needed to shoot, I could directly reference a crash from The Empire Strikes Back. In another film I might want to move the camera because it looks like something else I have shot and I recognise my own references. But for Rogue One it looked a bit like A New Hope and it looked a bit like The Empire Strikes Back. There were certain decisions made; the classic example is when Jyn shoots the window out to get into the data vault in Scarif. We discussed this for ages, wind or no wind? You’ve got to do wind as that’s totally Star Wars! There’s been wind on loads of scenes that logically wouldn’t have it, even the ‘I am your father’ scene. It’s a classic Star-Warsian vision even when your reasoning says no.
“This also translates directly to the visuals. There are certain things where you are underground in Scarif that you just recount Obi-Wan’s journey through the Death Star. You remember him hearing the footsteps of the stormtroopers in the distance and you say to yourself, ‘this is a classic moment to reference that vision’. So when you ask, were you limited, you absolutely are within certain parameters – but at the same time those parameters are awesome!
“The exciting part is that you can then break out of those parameters and do an Apocalypse Now-style war film. Although none of us went into the film to make anything but a Star Wars film, I was pleased that there is darkness there and grey morality. It was brave of Disney and Lucasfilm.
“Along with the movies we also have memories of the movies as well. You have to put your ten-year-old glasses on to remember what the Star Wars movies were. The word iconic is much overused; there are a lot more symbolically shaped visuals. The round Death Star, for instance, and the X-wings, it’s a very simple visual world but incredibly layered with each layer beautifully done. The amount of detail on an X-wing is remarkable; it’s so beautifully complicated and so textured. The detail is there if you want it.”
At the time of the ALEXA 65’s launch key technology partners were IB/E Optics for the lenses and Codex for the workflow solution. The 50-110mm Zoom 65 and the eight Prime 65 lenses, ranging from 24mm to 300mm, used high-performance, Fujinon-manufactured optics from Hasselblad HC lenses, rehoused in robust lens barrels co-developed with IB/E Optics. A Vintage 765 lens range had also been adapted for use with the ALEXA 65. Greig also looked to Panavision with its Ultra Panatars and Hawk anamorphics.
“We had a couple of lenses in the kit that were quite fast like T2.2; they performed best at around 2.8 but this was part of the thing about riding the edge of performance. We wanted a lens that would resolve but wasn’t too sharp. I tried really hard to make the right decision on T stops. The decision between 2.8 and around 2.66 was big; at 2.8 it was maybe too sharp so I had to open up. Not too sharp as in ‘in-focus’ too much but maybe resolved too well. This is the thing with 65mm; if you don’t quite nail the resolution factor of it because it resolves amazingly well, you need to do a little more to mess it up. So we ended up with the Panavision Ultra Panatars, which I think are the most beautiful lenses in the world; on second unit we had a few of the new Hawk 65mm lenses. They were really great even though it’s early days.”
At launch ARRI predicted that there would be only 30 ALEXA 65 units available and then only for rental. Now there are 60 cameras available through ARRI Rental, as well as ten ALEXA IMAX cameras. Those cameras are a customised version of ARRI Rental’s ALEXA 65 system that were developed in partnership with the IMAX Corporation.
“Including the second unit we used a total of five ALEXA 65s. On the main unit, for the most part, we mainly shot with single camera. Obviously some of the explosions and battles needed more than one camera but a lot of the drama we shot single camera. Gareth (Gareth Edwards, the director of Rogue One) is a real stickler for doing single-camera work; he likes to operate the camera himself and he’s good at it. As a DOP, when you hire an operator you want one who is going to please the director and yourself and give you the images that you want. It was an interesting dynamic actually. He very much operated handheld on the action and I would stand back and light, whether it was a ship interior or interior set or something. I would work with the gaffer and light as we were rehearsing on camera, but I’m also running the set; an operator usually runs the set. It was interesting and really fun, I love mixing it up and changing the way I work.”
“Up until a couple of years ago, LEDs were good for eye lights, good for augmentation and as strips of lights. They weren’t that good as projection lights or to bash through windows or create walls of illumination. But two companies came out with lights that suddenly could light spaces. One was Digital Sputnik, who make really good output lights, and then there’s Creamsource. Between those two companies I knew we could do this entire movie with just LED lights. These are colour-changeable LEDs. With tungsten, if you want to change the colour you have to gel them; if you want to dim them down at a certain point you still run into issues. With these new lights suddenly that went out of the window. When I did the camera tests I did lighting tests as well and found we could absolutely light this entire movie with just Digital Sputniks as the main lighting source and Creamsource as our secondary light.
“We used some 18K but only on one or two sets that needed them. In the scene in the Scarif control room where Krennic watches the explosions we bounced 18Ks to create the daylight coming through. I could never have done that with LEDs, but for the most part all of our lights on every set were LEDs. We also ran an ARRI SkyPanel as they had come out in the meantime and I hadn’t tested those in my initial test. These lights were faster to set up as you didn’t need to gel; if you’re on set and you’ve got a choice to wait two hours to put gel on a light or not to do something, you’ll often do the latter.
“Gareth didn’t want to come to a pre-light and lock down all the shots. He wanted to keep it loose because he thought it would help the performances and the actors to find their characters. We shot when we rehearsed and I lit when we rehearsed. Obviously I spent a couple of days pre-lighting to make sure all my ducks were in a row. So if I wanted to change something, I could change it quickly; if I wanted an effect I could use a bank of Digital Sputniks. There’s a scene when the characters are coming down the elevator from the data tower in Scarif, and the light is moving up and over them. To create that we just put a wall of Digital Sputniks outside the window and then sequenced them as if there was a variable light moving up through the scenes. It looks like a moving light but nothing is moving.
“Technically, why I like these new light sources, I don’t know. Trust me, I’ve studied them, their spectral qualities and the CRI, but it just comes down to what you respond to. You put them in front of the camera and you go ‘wow, I really like that’. They just had this kind of earthiness to them and that’s not something I thought I would say about solid-state LED lighting as tungsten is known to be ‘earthy’; daylight’s an earthy light, fluorescent is an earthy light.”
“Codex was supplying the media and I know that system like the back of my hand; we knew there was going to be a lot of data. I wanted to shoot Rogue One on ALEXA 65 which was a big deal; but Pinewood Post said that they could handle it. They not only exceeded my expectations, but probably their own. They dealt with it beautifully and then took on Assassin’s Creed and Doctor Strange, both of which were doing 65mm.
“Looking back on Rogue One my first thoughts were, ‘I can’t do this film if there’s a chance I might balls it up’. I think we did a good job. Everything was beautiful because it was honestly beautiful and everything was dark because it was honestly dark. I just tried to augment that. The DOPs and directors of these next films will have the same responsibility as we did.”