Seeing Into the Darkness: ‘The Batman’ Cinematography Is Subtle, Masterful Work by Oscar Nominee Greig Fraser

Matt Reeves and Fraser discuss reuniting on their first collaboration since “Let Me In,” and their distinctly dingy, rain-slick, noir take on Gotham.
"The Batman"
"The Batman"
Warner Bros
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When cinematographer Greig Fraser reunited with “Let Me In” director Matt Reeves for “The Batman,” he quickly realized that Reeves’ take on the dark knight would share something in common with their earlier collaboration.

“He wanted to make sure that we were extremely focused on our main character,” Fraser told IndieWire in a recent interview. “Everything had to be driven by Bruce Wayne’s point of view, and that’s how we had approached ‘Let Me In,’ too. It was very much through the eyes of that particular child.”

Reeves had wanted to work with Fraser again ever since they made “Let Me In” over 10 years ago, but their schedules never lined up until now. “He’s a brilliant cinematographer and my experience with him on that movie was so special,” Reeves said. “I have a very emotional response to light and Greig is the same way.”

Both men were particularly careful with the lighting while using ILM’s StageCraft LED wall volume system, something that was new to Reeves but with which Fraser is intimately familiar with thank to his work on “The Mandalorian.” “One of the things that’s really hard in a VFX movie is getting the light to be correct in the foreground of what you’re shooting,” Reeves said. “And he said, “[StageCraft] will enable us to light it in a way that will feel completely believable.

Fraser’s longtime friendship with Reeves meant that the filmmakers started talking about “The Batman” years before they were actually on set, and that lengthy period of discussion and contemplation informed the movie’s precise and disciplined visual style. “The camera doesn’t move wildly,” Fraser explained. “If it moves, it’s for a particular reason, and it moves laterally. It doesn’t often move diagonally or pan and tilt.”

Fraser felt the rigid and controlled camera movement expressed the title character’s inner tensions. “The fun thing to me about Batman is that he has no super powers,” the cinematographer said. “He doesn’t have x-ray vision and he can’t fly. What he has is incredible determination and will and intelligence, so any camera movement conveying that has to be very considered and intentional.”

"the Batman"
“The Batman”Jonathan Olley

The rigor of Reeves and Fraser’s approach gave added dynamism to set pieces like a car chase in which Batman (Robert Pattinson) pursues The Penguin (Colin Farrell); the fact that the camera placement is so inextricably linked to Wayne’s psyche makes the sequence thrillingly kinetic. The reference point for Reeves was “The French Connection,” and he wanted the car chase in “The Batman” to be an extension of the title character’s obsessiveness, just as the one in Friedkin’s classic reflected the compulsions of Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman).

“I wanted to feel that kind of visceral chaos,” Reeves said, “so I wanted the cameras to be mounted, everything a hard mount as much as it could be. [The point of view] is totally subjective and hard fixed to this vibrating beast of a car driving through visceral elements of dirt and rain, and you feel like you’re sitting on that engine with him, and the car could come apart at any minute.”

Fraser’s biggest challenge going into “The Batman” was the lead character’s nocturnal existence and the darkness, both literal and metaphorical, engulfing both him and the city of Gotham as a whole. “Bruce Wayne lives in the shadows — he isn’t a guy who walks around shopping centers during the day,” Fraser noted. “This is a noir film, and most of it is set at night. My concern was that it might be hard to see anything, so I scoured the internet for images that were dark but easy to see, and I collected them in a document for Matt — and for myself — that I called ‘Dark but Light.’ Those references informed certain decisions, like making sure there were almost always pools of light or bright areas in the frame.”

"The Batman"
“The Batman”Warner Bros

Fraser worked closely with production designer James Chinlund to incorporate his lights into the sets, with the goal of realistically motivating all of the lighting in the movie. “I didn’t want any slashes of light coming from sources that you couldn’t explain,” Fraser said, adding that the complicated plot required a straightforward method of lighting to keep the audience oriented. “I felt that it would undermine the story if you had lighting coming in from outside the frame without knowing where it was coming from,” he explained. “I know that, consciously, people in the theater aren’t thinking about the lighting — they’re thinking about the story and the characters — but subconsciously I do think it makes a difference if your mind can explain where each light is coming from.”

The cinematographer felt that he could accentuate the subconscious effects he was going for by employing a technique that had worked well for him on Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly,” wetting the streets and sets in every scene as though it had just rained. “When everything is wet you subconsciously register that it’s constantly raining, that the city never dries,” Fraser explained. “It underlines that it’s a very difficult place to live in.”

And Fraser’s use of color fit right in with the urban noir aesthetic. “There is color, but it’s not as saturated as most movies,” he said. “I wanted the colors to be dusty and a little dirty.” For a pivotal scene in a diner, Fraser even considered going to all the local restaurants and offering to give them new fluorescent lights in exchange for their old fixtures, which he would then integrate into the sets. “Just debating that gave us a philosophy for the scene: that the lights would be a little old and dingy.”

“Killing Them Softly"
“Killing Them Softly”

Although there were discussions about shooting on film, ultimately Fraser and Reeves opted for digital capture on an Alexa LF, with custom-designed ALFA anamorphic lenses that Arri Rental built to Fraser’s specifications. “They were tailored to the look we wanted for the film, and gave Matt everything he loves,” Fraser said. “Large format, beautiful fall-off, and shooting digitally meant that we could always see exactly what we were getting and fine-tune the lighting really carefully.”

The cinematographer added that all the technical decisions were ultimately at the service of the performances, which he considers partially his responsibility as the person capturing them with the camera. “I am cautious not to make things too technical for the actors, because if I hamper them at my point in the process, then Matt isn’t going to get the best performances,” he said. “It’s critical that I set a tone with my crew that says that once the actors arrive, it’s their set. They’ll hear very little from us — in fact, hopefully they won’t even know we’re there. That’s my hope and dream.”

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