The new Warner Bros. film “The Batman” is a bona fide success, with critics and audiences alike raving about director Matt Reeves and star Robert Pattinson’s new vision for the Caped Crusader. But one aspect the fans are specifically praising – which is somewhat atypical for comic book movies – is the cinematography.
They have good reason to single out the film’s visuals, as Reeves reunited with his “Let Me In” cinematographer Greig Fraser, who has quickly become one of the most in-demand DPs with stunning work ranging from “Rogue One” to “Foxcatcher” to “The Mandalorian” — and he’s currently Oscar-nominated for his cinematography on “Dune.”
But when it came to crafting a new and somewhat darker version of Batman, Fraser was careful to ensure that the photography itself wasn’t unrelentingly black. “I wanted this to be more of an urban noir, and I wanted to make sure that there were pockets of light in every frame,” Fraser recently told TheWrap. “It’s definitely one of the most challenging lighting jobs I’ve ever done.”
Noir was clearly a significant influence on the approach, but Fraser said that early on Reeves hit upon the idea that this would be a “point-of-view-driven noir,” which speaks to the intimate and character-rich nature. “Everything has to have a base from Bruce Wayne or Batman,” Fraser added.
The cinematographer said that they only crafted shots with a motivation toward Bruce’s point of view, which is why one of the most stunning sequences – a car chase between Robert Pattinson’s Batman and Colin Farrell’s Penguin – is so thrilling. “We need to make sure that we were strapped to those cars,” Fraser said of the POV-driven approach to the sequence. “We need to be on those cars, in those cars, through the windshield, through the back window.”
Fraser came onto the film early, so while Reeves was writing the screenplay, Fraser was pioneering StageCraft technology that would be used to conjure alien backdrops in real-time using massive screens on a soundstage for the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian.” He was able to convince Reeves to put this technology to use on “The Batman” for certain sequences, most notably the sun-kissed sequences atop a half-finished skyscraper.
“The Volume at that point in time worked really well for soft light, late afternoon, early dusk, late dusk night and sort of larger geometric shapes, like construction girders,” Fraser explained. “So that’s where we ended up staging the scene, on a construction site.”
But while Fraser said the Volume was used for a few other sequences, he’s inclined to speak less about this technology going forward and let audiences give themselves over to movie magic. “From a discussion standpoint, I would love it just to fade into the background, because hopefully we never think about it. Hopefully, the audience doesn’t ever watch a movie and go, ‘Ah, that was the Volume,’” Fraser said, adding that the technology is “here to stay.”
Read on for our full interview in which Fraser also talks about specific influences on the cinematography, the difficulty of lighting the Batsuit, Colin Farrell’s makeup, shooting the big funeral sequence live with Paul Dano in another room near the set, and finding the right pitch of “darkness” for the movie.
Be aware that spoilers are discussed.
So what is your reaction when Matt first asks you to shoot a Batman film? Is there apprehension? Or is it just all excitement?
Greig Fraser: Well, what was interesting and fun actually was that it didn’t actually happen like that. He didn’t call me and go, “Hey, you want to come and shoot a Batman film?” I’ve been friends with Matt now for more than 10 years, since we shot “Let Me In.” So we regularly catch up, regularly text. And I think I caught up with him for lunch when he was posting on “War for the Planet of the Apes” and he said, “I think Warner Brothers wants to do a meeting about ‘The Batman.’” And I went, “Oh, interesting. Okay.”
At that point, it was kind of like Batman could go a number of different ways. Do they want to meet about doing another one in the universe? Or was it a hybrid? So we talked. He knew then the type of Batman film that he wanted to make, so there wasn’t any discussion beyond the fact that he was sort of like, “Well, now this is the Batman film that I could make” and he’s like, “I’ll just go and tell them.” And he did, and I guess they bought into that, and here we are.
So once you guys got into it, what were your early conversations like about what this film would look like?
So he wanted very much a point-of-view-driven noir, which is a thing that he has said time and time again, publicly and also to us. Everything has to have a base from Bruce Wayne or Batman. Everything has to be through his eyes, and not necessarily all POV. I mean, there are some POVs in the film, but it’s not about true POV from a camera perspective. It’s about the fact that we, as an audience, need to see the entire place and this entire story through the eyes of this main character. So that was his main draw. But if you watch all of his films, they’re very similar in that sense. Like, “Let Me In,” the Apes films, “Cloverfield,” they’re all very POV-driven. That’s just the way he sees the world.
That’s what was really stunning to me is this opening act where you have Batman doing his thing, you feel the tactile and intimate nature of it. The film feels epically intimate because as you say it’s entirely through Bruce’s point of view.
Yep. It’s exactly right. Exactly right. Nothing was gratuitous, in the sense that we didn’t do shots that didn’t have a motivation to that end. Everything had a point to that end. Exactly.
I’m also curious about the camera tests with the Batsuit and figuring out how to lens it. I know someone has said – and maybe it was you — the two hardest things to light are the Batsuit and the Darth Vader helmet, and you’ve done both.
Yeah, I said that. I told Robert that. I think I said it to him apologetically as I was adjusting an eye light a millimeter at a time. And the poor guy standing there with this big leather suit on. So I think I felt really bad, having to say, “Hey man, I’m so sorry. I really want to see your eyes.” But it’s tricky because getting the light into the eyes, yet not putting too much on the cowl, is the balance. It’s a really hard balance to strike because when you over-light the cowl — I mean, listen, it’s a beautiful costume, of course. But if you over-light that cowl, it can lose some of the power, you know? It can lose some of its menace, and it doesn’t then feel like it’s servicing that story as well.
Was there a lot of iterating then in the process of getting the costume right, working with a costume designer, figuring out how this was going to look on screen?
Yes. I’ve worked with Glyn [Dillon] and Dave [Crossman] who designed the Batsuit. I did “Rogue One” with them ironically, so talk about Darth Vader. I wanted to make sure that there weren’t too many considerations made for me. Because if they suddenly then started designing a Batsuit that made it easy for me, then that would not be as good a costume in my opinion.
So to that end, we definitely looked at tone. We tried to make sure that the tone of the costume was correct because we had the opportunity to make it deep black, mid black, light black, gray. We could have changed the tone of the whole costume. But then if we made it too light, then I put light into his eyes and the costume goes really light. So there was a bit of a balance struck in making a costume that was dark, but didn’t just lose all detail. Because part of the joy of that costume, if you look closely, that costume’s been through the wars. There’s scratches and slashes and bullet holes. He’s seen some action with that cowl. So I wanted to see it. I wanted to see that texture.
So then was it harder or easier to light the Riddler? Because it’s just an army jacket and a head covered in Saran Wrap.
Technically, it was easier. But with him, there was only a couple of scenes with him that weren’t on the phone. So there weren’t actually that many scenes of him doing his worst, you know? But no, it was a bit easier.
I’m also curious about the challenges of Colin Farrell and the Penguin makeup, which is incredible. I’m sure you saw the reactions when the trailer came out, when people are asking, “Where’s Colin Farrell? I can’t see him.” But I know for a cinematographer and for the makeup department, the wrong light can make it look horrible. So what was that collaboration like?
Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret, actually. I didn’t have to do anything that I wouldn’t ordinarily have done for an actor. The makeup was that good. I didn’t have to hide anything. It was so good. The makeup was absolutely incredible. Mike Marino and his team, I mean wow, it was fantastic.
There are these skyscraper scenes that are gorgeous. And I know you come from “The Mandalorian” where you pioneered this Volume technology, so I’m curious how that technology was used on “The Batman.” Were these exteriors, were they StageCraft technology? What’s the secret sauce that got these incredible shots?
Well, going back to what we spoke about first, Matt and I have been talking about this film now for a number of years. It wasn’t all just like six months out, let’s make a movie. So he was writing the film and I was making “Mandalorian” and designing the process of “The Mandalorian.” And as we were having success on “Mandalorian,” we kept catching up and having lunch. And I said to him, “Just consider something for a minute.” I said, “We’re about to go into a series called ‘Mandalorian’ and I think this technology could work for ‘Batman’ for certain scenes.” I described to him where the technology works well and where it works badly at that point in time. And so, he wrote scenes that lent into the power of the Volume.
So the Volume at that point in time worked really well for soft light, late afternoon, early dusk, late dusk night and sort of larger geometric shapes, like construction girders. So that’s where we ended up staging the scene, on a construction site.
Were there any other major examples where you guys use the Volume?
A few. I mean, I’m inclined to not talk about that too much though. I’ll tell you why. It’s just because I feel, not because I want to keep it a secret, but I personally want the technique of the Volume to disappear from a discussion standpoint. Not to say we shouldn’t discuss it now. But I think from a technology standpoint, it’s here to stay. And it’s fantastic and super powerful. But from a discussion standpoint, I would love it just to fade into the background, because hopefully we never think about it. Hopefully, the audience doesn’t ever watch a movie and go, “Ah, that was the Volume.”
I’ll be honest with you. I somewhat debated asking you about it because I wanted to know, but I also didn’t want to know which scenes were Volume and which were true exteriors because it’s so seamless.
Exactly right. And I think that it was great to be applauded during ‘Mandalorian,’ the whole technique of that. But from now, I feel like it’s — again, not to say you shouldn’t talk about it, of course, because it was used, it was totally used. But yeah.
Well, another stunning sequence in the film is this car chase with the Batmobile and Penguin, which is incredible. Tell me about the construction of that sequence and putting that together.
Warner Brothers is very clever in allowing Matt the space to do the film that he wanted to make. Matt has a very particular point of view. He sees the world in a certain way, and he wants to make films in a certain way. And so, because going back to that point of view driven film, we need to make sure that we were strapped to those cars. We need to be on those cars, in those cars, through the windshield, through the back window. But we also needed to be wet and hard to see and grimy and slippery. Yeah, we need it to be edge-of-your-seat, dangerous. And that was the kind of thinking was that we would cover this thing as much as we could from the actual cars themselves, and then only cut out of the cars when we had to.
Another great set piece is when Gil Colson drives into this funeral and you have the Riddler on the phone. I think Paul Dano he said he shot over 200 takes of him just trying different things on the other end of that phone, which was live. Tell me about putting that together and essentially having Paul direct himself over the phone.
We shot that on stage. We built that hall. James Chinlund, the very talented production designer, and his team built that hall on stage at a studio called Cardington which is in Northern London. It’s quite a famous stage. We shot Star Wars there. [Christopher] Nolan shot there. It’s a massive hanger for the old air ships, so it’s quite recognizable. So it was quite a large set and he was with us off to the side, in a soundproof room. So he could do his performance and the actors on our set could do their performance.
But what’s really interesting, and this is where I think Matt’s writing is so good, is that he doesn’t do anything simply. Everything has something to it. Like the news coverage isn’t just simple news coverage. It’s complicated. There’s video on the news coverage. There’s stills in the news coverage. There’s stills on the wall that are in the apartment. And this three-hander, him on the phone, Batman, Gil. It was this a three-hander, but it was complicated by the fact that we had the ticking timer. We had him on the phone. It wasn’t just a burn-in. I think we chose to do it, not in the most complicated way possible, but in the best way possible, which involved doing it real.
I also wanted to ask you about the finale, which I found very surprising. A lot of these films, they just go massive to the point of almost beyond comprehension in the third act, whereas this finale feels more intimate and surprising, again keeping with Batman’s point of view. Talk to me about balancing the spectacle with Batman’s emotion and point of view in the third act.
Yeah, I mean, I think that films have a tendency to try and just outdo each other, and I think you just said, like bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. And the question that I asked every time I walk out of a film like that was like, how big of a planet can we blow up? How many planets? Is it a bigger planet? Is it a sun system? How big can we actually go before it becomes just ridiculous? I mean, films are great in that you give over to it and you suspend the disbelief. You suspend the fact that there’s a guy walking around with the cowl. You suspend that disbelief because we want to bind into that world. But I think if you then make something that’s too over the top or too overt, that’s when I think you start losing your audience. So that’s where Matt’s very clever, because he rides that line really carefully.
Some people have drawn a comparison to the Arkham video games. I was wondering if that was a point of reference for you guys at all.
I’ve heard that and no, I haven’t seen them. I’ve not seen the Arkham video games. I’d love to see them. I should look those up.
What were some of your specific influences on the film? I mean, everyone’s talking about “Seven” and “Zodiac,” but I feel like there’s a little Gordon Willis in there.
I mean, listen, of course. You can’t do a film with darkness without referencing the master, can you? Matt and I love ’70s films. We love Gordon Willis’ lighting. We love “The Godfather.” We watched “Klute” a number of times when we were making “Let Me In,” and we reference “Klute” again on this, that dark underbelly of the city. It was like, how do you make that? We didn’t reference photographers or filmmakers per se. What we did is what we referenced the feel created by the work that they create. So yes, we talked about Gordon Willis. And yes, we talked about Pakula, and we talked about “All the President’s Men.” We didn’t speak specifically. We didn’t look at sequences and go, “It’s got to look like this.” You know?
Because what we did was we tried to use our remembered collective consciousness for what those did to our emotions. So we tried to harness those. So there are some photographers. I mean, I’ll use Todd Hido as an example. Todd Hido is a fantastic photographer who shoots stuff at night. I looked at some of his work. But we really tried to create our own world. That was the important part.
Speaking about that darkness, I mean, Batman is synonymous with darkness. I feel like there’s a temptation with filmmakers to go very dark with Batman. I think this film finds beauty in that darkness, beauty in the shadows. What was the conversation about darkness on screen and about a lack of light and using that to your advantage, to make these kind of gorgeous tableaus?
Well, we all realized that we needed to find a balance in darkness, because you can’t just go black with little detail. You just can’t. The audience won’t stand for it. But we also realized that this guy is an enigma. He lives in the shadows. He’s a shape that kind of moves. And there are examples of having done this in the past with slashes of light. You think about every noir film you’ve ever seen. And there are definitely examples of how this happens and how you could do it. But I wanted this to be more of an urban noir, and I wanted to make sure that there were pockets of light in every frame. That there was never just black on black on black, but there were pockets of light in almost every frame, and that you could harness into that light. You were focused on him, but maybe he’s in the foreground, whereas there’s light behind him. But even though he’s super dark, there might be just a kiss of light into his eyes or around his cheek. So it was a very, very fine balance. It was definitely one of the most challenging lighting jobs that I’ve ever done.
I also wanted to ask about the Joker scene at the end. Tell me about putting that scene together and keeping Barry Keoghan hidden a bit.
I can’t comment on who it is, but this Gotham is a bubbling cesspool of crime, isn’t it? So giving a little kiss or an introduction of who else may be living in this prison. I mean, what a fantastic opportunity to do that. And again, going back to the adage of you don’t want to see too much. You never want to see too much. Sometimes seeing too much can distract from some of the beauty or joy of watching films.
If Matt called you tomorrow and said, “Let’s do another Batman film,” would you be down?
I mean, I loved it. I loved the process. I love Matt as a director. So I mean, you can take whatever you want from that. I mean, there’s more stories to be told in this place. You know? There’s more things to do. There’s more opportunities there. This is why it’s such a fantastic world to be in, because it’s a great opportunity to explore this world.
“The Batman” is now playing exclusively in theaters.