A Q&A With Greig Fraser, Cinematographer on Zero Dark Thirty

With Kathryn Bigelow’s extraordinary action thriller Zero Dark Thirty opening wide tomorrow across the country, viewers will have a chance to see this picture’s tale of the CIA’s decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden. One of the most talked about scenes of the year (arguably, of the new decade) is the spectacular, harrowing final raid on Bin Laden’s compound, all shot using night vision technology. Bigelow spoke about her “tremendous” cinematographer’s handling of that crucial set piece in a recent New York Times interview. We spoke with the man himself, Greig Fraser, who recently won the New York Film Critic’s Circle Award for Best Cinematography, about working with Bigelow, shooting film vs. digital, and lighting that final nighttime raid.

The Credits: How did you come to work as cinematographer on Zero Dark Thirty with director Kathryn Bigelow?

GREIG FRASER: It’s always an alchemy of reasons; I can’t give you one definitive reason for that. Kathryn had maybe seen some work I had done, and she’d known some people in common that I’ve known. But I do know that ever since I heard about the project, I was incredibly interested in it. It’s an insanely fantastic story, and I always kept my eye on it, and my ear to the ground. When she became available to speak in regards to the film, I was really excited, because, even though I hadn’t read the script at that stage, I knew the story was something I’d be interested in discussing.

Did you and Kathryn discuss an overall visual concept for the look of the film in terms of the lighting and the camerawork you were both trying to achieve?

Ultimately yes, but that came maybe second or third to discussing the feel or the mood we were trying to create. It’s a procedural film, and it reads like that as well, it reads exactly as it plays on screen. You’re sitting on the edge of your seat while you’re reading the script, and when you do that, you know you’re reading a good script. You know that it cuts from one office here to one office there, which could be potentially quite bland, but the way it was written, and the way that Kathryn and Mark [Boal, the screenwriter and producer of the film] put the story together, it was anything but bland. It was gripping–it was edge of your seat exciting. So never before had I ever wanted so badly to shoot in an office, to another office, to another office!

How do you create a visual idea out of that emotion you get when you’re reading a script for the first time?

You first and foremost need to be honest with the script because you don’t want to do anything to screw up the basic fundamentals of the story. You don’t want to create anything overly dramatic when you don’t need to, and you don’t want to create anything less dramatic than necessary, either. It’s about walking a very fine line of being true to the subject and source material, and also having enough confidence in what you’re doing to realize that if you don’t do anything fancy with the camera right now, it’s actually going to improve the story. Or, if there’s a time when you feel like you can be more dramatic with the camera, like during the scene taking down the character of the courier Faraj in the park, or the raid at the end—you add those little visual flourishes. When you’re making a film, from every department, from the cinematography to the editing to the production design, you’re just trying to bring out the underlying flavors of the original ingredients [the script], that’s the fine line that we walk as technicians. If it becomes all about us, then suddenly we’ve got a very fancy looking peacock, when instead what you really want to have is a very solid film that basically make its techniques invisible.

This is your first feature shooting digitally as opposed to your previous work on 35mm film. Did you explore shooting this movie on film? And what are your thoughts on digital vs. film shoots at this point given the advances in digital, with cameras like the Arri Alexa camera with which you used to shoot this film.

Well that’s a conversation that needs to happen over about seven hours. It’s such a broad topic now. But yes, I’ve shot practically everything I’ve done on film. And yes, we did test film for this, and yes, we liked film for this, but we also realized there are flaws with film. One of those of flaws was that we were away and we didn’t know where we were going to be at any given time, which hadn’t been our plan of course, but we were on a mission. We weren’t sure how long we were going to be shooting in India, or how long in Jordan. But we also had a loose plan, in that if tomorrow we wanted to shoot an interior night scene because suddenly a location had become available to us, maybe we would have run out of film stock at some point shooting a previous scene, and I hadn’t ordered the right film stock for that new location and suddenly the tail is wagging the dog, and we can’t shoot what we want to shoot because we don’t have what it takes technically to do that. One of the advantages of digital is that there was no shortage of hard drive space. We really could shoot what we wanted, when we wanted, how we wanted to. We travelled like a little mini circus, we travelled with everything we needed, and using film, we would have been travelling with more film than we needed and would have been bogged down with that.  So we looked at the two comparisons and thought what’s better for the film, ultimately? What’s better for the film is that we have freedom and the ability to do what we want when we want.

Kathryn mentioned at the New York press conference that she loves storyboarding and did some of the storyboarding on this film. How do you integrate that into your work process, especially with some of the multiple camera set-ups, like the take down of the courier Faraj in the park?

Storyboards can inform people about what you’re trying to do, but they can also be very limiting. Kathryn had storyboarded the raid at the end and some of the key scenes. For me as the cinematographer, it means I can start getting into the director’s mind a little bit. Kathryn’s very instinctual, and the shoot was very instinctual. These sets were built 360 degrees, so we could, at any given time, spin around, and sometimes we did, and we shot the other way than what we had originally planned.

Given that the sets were built 360 degrees, how did that influence your lighting, with regards to boosting built in practical sources vs. traditional standing or hanging movie lights?

We had very few standing or mounted lights. The second I put a stand up or “lighting rig” up, we’re going to be looking straight into it. More often than not if it was a day interior scene we’d light from outside, and try to hide our lights out through windows, and maybe have one little light inside to act as an eye light, and perhaps a frame or two. But I’d rarely light from inside. Obviously the [Bin Laden] compound at night was different. That was built, so I had carte blanche to build in there any form of lighting I could.  But one point to make is that it was built pretty much to scale. I didn’t have a lot of headspace to light from. In a different world we would have built the rooms with double the amount of height to have all the room up in that ceiling to light from. But if you start looking up and don’t see a ceiling or see a lighting rig than we’re screwed. We had the fine balance of not building the floors any higher than they needed to be, otherwise the whole building would have been twice the height it was and looked wrong.  The challenge for me was in trying to incorporate the limitations of the mandate of “we build to scale,” which is something Kathryn wanted to do, and we all supported that idea to give the film great realism.  When you stand in a hallway of a building built to scale [unlike a soundstage with fly-away walls and high ceilings], with 14 burly Navy Seals, four cameras, a boom man, and a director, we’re literally standing like in an elevator. What that gives you is a form of realism, it makes you feel like you’re there. You go through a little bit of pain to get that, but you actually end up with something visually that is unquestionably real.

In the darkest hour of the night, elite Navy SEALs raid Osama Bin Laden's compound in Columbia Pictures'  ultra realistic new thriller from director Kathryn Bigelow, about the greatest manhunt in history, ZERO DARK THIRTY. Courtesy Sony Pictures

You’ve spoken elsewhere about lighting the final raid’s point of view shots with a small infrared light mounted on the camera coupled with a night vision device jerry rigged to the Alexa in a PL lens mount. But how did you achieve the incredible moonless night look of the wide exterior shots of the Seals as they approach the compound?

The idea was that it was supposed to be very impressionistic, it was supposed to not make you feel like you’re watching a Hollywood rendition of a Navy Seal raid. We used construction cranes, and we put big soft boxes on them, with Kino Flos in them at really low output power. Instead of putting one Kino in the sky 100 feet up, we put like 30 of them spread over a 40×40 foot box, all with one tube bending down to create a big source. With the big source you’re basically recreating what’s happening with the stars. With stars at night there is no ambience, but there is light, stars put out light, but very little. We shot that with a combination of techniques. One of the techniques was the large soft boxes, another was to shoot dusk for night, and dawn for night, particularly with some of the helicopter stuff, and another was to try to avoid showing sky in some of the shots. We had some help with our friends at Image Engine who did the CG on the helicopters, and also created some dusk and darkness for us.

It seems many cinematographers now are going back and using an older set of lenses, which are slower than modern lenses, but also perhaps don’t have the modern coatings and have more character or personality.

Yes, that’s been going on for years, but it’s become more prevalent now to revert back to an older series of glass because you have these digital sensors that are absolutely flawless. Directors will often come to you, or they used to, and say “I want to use a really fast [film] stock, I want lots of grain, I want a lot of character for the image.” If you put yourself on a modern lens with a modern camera, one thing you’ll not get is character. That itself is a flaw, because even though technically everything is perfect, directors will always want character in their images. You used to be able to get that character with film stock, but in fact to be honest, we haven’t been able to do that for years, because the film stock now is so good, it’s hard get the grain that filmmakers used to be able to get for ages and ages.

It’s an interesting conundrum, that the technology has gotten so good and yet some filmmakers are trying to work against that perfect, sharp look.

But you know the really exciting part about that argument is, if this is what we are working with, how do we make that work for us? Filmmakers are a pretty crafty bunch of people, and they generally make whatever medium they have work. Film’s a flawed medium too, it scratches and fogs, but it’s a format we’ve all loved and enjoyed for a hundred years. Since film was invented filmmakers have used film to their advantage.  It started with slow film, and then it got faster, and then they started pushing it, it was an evolution.

And everyone adapted to what the technology was at the time I guess.

Completely. And this I think is what we’re seeing with digital. Digital is also a flawed medium. Data can get wiped off drives, sensors can have issues with them during the take. But filmmakers are starting to evolve with it. Take Roger Deakins and Skyfall, he’s a very crafty fellow, he’s going make whatever format he get’s given look extraordinary. Give him an iPhone and he’ll make it look extraordinary.

Featured image: Cinematographer Greig Fraser on the set of Columbia Pictures' thriller ZERO DARK THIRTY. On-set photographs by Jonathan Olley.


Matthew Steigbigel

Matt Steigbigel is a freelance writer working in NYC. He's published pieces on film for a variety of publications, including Playboy and Giant Magazine.