With The Mandalorian, cinematographer Greig Fraser brought the beauty and staggering scale of Star Wars to TV, helping to develop a piece of virtual production technology that will play a major role in the future of cinema.
Created by Jon Favreau, the space Western centers on Din Djarin, a lone Mandalorian bounty hunter, who methodically hunts down criminals in the outer reaches of the galaxy. The game-changing technology Fraser cultivated, along with the teams at Lucasfilm and ILM, was The Volume, a massive LED soundstage projecting virtual environments behind the series’ actors, the lighting and geography of which could be altered on set within milliseconds. Offering The Mandalorian team complete creative control over their visuals, The Volume allowed them to travel to a galaxy far, far away without leaving Los Angeles County, also serving as a remarkable lighting tool.
A co-producer on the drama, who worked tirelessly to solve its unique set of creative challenges, Fraser takes pride in The Mandalorian’s innovations. “This is the beginning,” he says, “of something extraordinarily powerful.”
Below, the first-time Emmy nominee breaks down the process of developing The Volume, and his approach to lensing Favreau’s “modern Western.”
DEADLINE: You came to The Mandalorian, having shot Rogue One in 2015. But what was it that excited you about the prospect of tackling the first Star Wars TV series?
GREIG FRASER: It’s funny because Rogue One’s very related to this. We did a lot of the work of the spaceship stuff on the precursor to what is The Volume. Rob Bredow and I shot some tests on that, to see if it was feasible to actually use LEDs as the walls of the studio. Effectively, the thinking was that if it emitted light, then you could change it, and it could become any background that you wanted. So, that was what excited ILM about it.
But what excited me about it was actually what [the Volume technology] would become. This has become a very, very powerful lighting tool, and if you combine a really powerful lighting tool with a really powerful tool that creates backgrounds in camera, then you have basically the perfect recipe for a perfect storm of post-production, and pre-production and shoot.
That was 2015, when we shot that. But since then, I’d been keeping in touch with the team at ILM, and there was talk about the first TV show, that Jon Favreau was going to showrun. And of course, Jon has a really long history of being very innovative himself, in terms of the technology. So, it seemed like a really good marriage between the concepts that ILM, Lucasfilm and myself were talking about all those years ago, and bringing a live-action element in front of these screens.
DEADLINE: What were the greatest hurdles you anticipated, in terms of working with this new iteration of virtual production tech?
FRASER: I’d done a lot of thinking about this, in the ensuing years—and a lot of research, too—because now I knew that we were at the cusp of something that was very interesting, from a technological perspective, as did ILM, as did Lucasfilm. And whilst they were working away at figuring out how to make shifting perspective work, and 3D gaming engines, and all those fantastic things that make up the current-day Volume, I was working on how best to translate the production side of things. Because it’s all good and well if your background’s good. But if you cannot shoot on The Volume—if you’re on a day-to-day production and it takes too long to set every shot, or you’ve got to do lots of lighting in between setups—then you’re not going to make your days.
The trick of it was to try and create worlds and backgrounds—we call them “loads”—that would be really, really quick to change, and that would do a lot of the heavy lifting, in regards to the lighting, so that each setup was a relatively quick thing. Every time we turned around, every time we did a close-up from a wide, it would be nice and quick.
So, it was very much a great exercise in trying to be really quick off the mark, and frugal, when it comes to production. I’ve worked with various directors in the past, and various different types of material, but the one thing I always aspire to and try for is efficient filmmaking, [where] the technical is as seamless and quick as possible, so that the filmmaker and the actors have as much time in that limited window as possible.
DEADLINE: What did you most enjoy about working within The Volume?
FRASER: Emotionally, light very much influences, I feel, the audience. It’s not something that most audience members are conscious of, which is a good thing, because it means as filmmakers, we have the opportunity to gently control an audience into feeling a certain way.
On The Volume, because we have full control of the light, we’re not spending all that time trying to cut the sun, or trying to diffuse it, or trying to add negative fill. On the practical side, we’re able to move faster. But even more importantly, on an emotional side, we’re able to build the world that we’re wanting to in advance, knowing that we’re going to have an extended period of that particular controlled light.
It’s one of the worst things in the world when you’re outside and you’ve got to manipulate the bounce and diffusion, and this way, you’ve really got full control. So, for me as a filmmaker, it’s the emotional response to light that I get from The Volume.
DEADLINE: Can you recall one particular breakthrough moment when you suddenly saw the promise of The Volume coming to fruition?
FRASER: We did a little test volume about six months before we started shooting, and it was a proof of concept. We’d all decided that we wanted to do this particular methodology, but we really needed to test it, because it’s not a cheap process to build an LED volume. It’s really labor intensive and expensive, so we did this little test.
I mean, it was small, but very substantial. There is a lot of money and pressure riding on this. Most of the pressure comes from myself, of course, because this is Star Wars. I place Star Wars on such a pedestal, like many of my peers do, given that we all grew up with these stories. So, we weren’t prepared to settle for second best, just because of the fact that it was not a feature. We wanted to build worlds that were as good, if not better.
There was a bit of conjecture about whether or not this system would actually work. That’s why we did the test, and there were a couple of days there, when the perspective was all working, that I forgot the fact that I was in an LED volume. I was a camera operator, following this character around, exploring and having fun.
I mean, they were a couple of the most mind-blowing days I’ve ever experienced, because it not only met my expectations. It was like a meeting of the minds, and every single department came together, and it exceeded my expectations. From there, I got really pumped about what the possibilities were.
I feel like this technology, we used it really well on Mandalorian. I feel like it’s a fantastic place to start growing the technology, and I feel like it’s going to be a very important technology, over the course of the next however many years of filmmaking, because it’s going to grow and develop. More filmmakers are going to figure out how to use it, and they’re going to use it in different ways, and it’s a very exciting prospect. So, it was that series of days that exceeded my expectations, that made me realize that what we’re sitting on here is something beyond my wildest imagination.
DEADLINE: What was Jon Favreau looking for with The Mandalorian, on an aesthetic level?
FRASER: Jon’s really concise and clear with his vision, which is fantastic as a DP. He very much was referencing the old Westerns and samurai movies—which frankly, if you watch A New Hope, I believe that George Lucas also in his mind references, because there’s lots of beautiful, languid landscapes, there’s lots of long-lens pans, there’s slow movement.
He wanted the gunslinger—the guy coming into town, and everybody’s looking at him. He wanted that kind of feel, but he was also really open to the idea that we put it into this current century, and use techniques like handheld. We use things like shooting at times of day that they never could have shot at, on a Western—that twilight, with a fluorescent tube lighting. So, he was very open to the idea of creating a kind of modern Western, or a modern samurai, with the technology and the opportunities that we have.
DEADLINE: I imagine there was a creative tension on this project between remaining faithful to the established Star Wars universe and breaking new ground. How did you find a balance between the old and the new?
FRASER: I rewatched a lot of Star Wars when I did Rogue One, and the thing I learned was that as a young person, consuming Star Wars at the level that I consumed Star Wars, it kind of molds your visual psyche, so you see the world in Star Wars-ian fashion. So, by re-consuming Star Wars films when I was doing Rogue, it kind of reignited that visual language.
There is very much a visual language that exists in Star Wars, particularly in the first three—a very particular language—and as a filmmaker, I don’t necessarily draw upon any references directly. You often drawn upon your memory or your instincts about what they were trying to say through the camera, and that was always there. That served as the bedrock of my Star Wars understanding.
But then, of course, we didn’t want to remake A New Hope. That wasn’t the intention. It was to grow the characters, and to grow the world.
DEADLINE: You collaborated on The Mandalorian’s cinematography with your longtime second unit DP, Baz Idoine. What was that process like? What did you like about it?
FRASER: One thing that I realized early on in the development of the technology, and building the backgrounds for the show, was that I wouldn’t have a chance to spend as much time with the directors of each episode as I would’ve liked to. As a DP who mostly does features, I’m normally in a director’s pocket, 24/7. In this case, I was having to spend a lot of time building backgrounds, or doing scouts, so there’s a lot of things that I couldn’t get to.
Baz came in halfway through the prep, and helped me with that workload. I was also going off to do Dune with Denis Villeneuve, so I needed somebody to take over for me. What was great about the process was that I got to work closely with Baz at preparing backgrounds, virtually scouting locations with directors, and Baz would dip in and out of all those meetings. He would be like a co-DP, which was really fantastic.
As a DP, you normally work by yourself, and having that experience, being able to work with somebody who I’ve always admired as a DP, [that came in] to take over the series for me, but also to give it the respect and love that I thought it really needed at that point…Because it was such a fragile beast. Nobody had quite understood it properly, because we were still learning as we were shooting. So, he was the perfect person.
DEADLINE: You have an incredibly exciting couple of years ahead, between Dune and The Batman. What has it been like, working on these blockbuster titles?
FRASER: It’s an exciting prospect to be involved with both of them, and every day that I’m working on either, I’m pinching myself. As a fan of film, as a fan of science fiction, as a fan of DC, as a fan of all of those things, it’s of course a huge honor to be trusted to bring those things to life.