'Foxcatcher': Greig Fraser on Film, Formats and Focus

The film’s director of photography decided early in the preproduction process to use 35mm film to capture the story of 'Foxcatcher,' which takes place in Washington, Pa., in the 1980s.
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Based on true events, Sony Pictures Classics’ Foxcatcher tells the story of the unlikely and ultimately tragic relationship between an eccentric multimillionaire and two champion athlete-brothers. Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is struggling in obscurity and poverty when he is invited by wealthy heir John du Pont (Steve Carell) to move to his lavish estate to form a team and to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Schultz seizes the opportunity, eager to step out of the shadow of his revered older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a prominent wrestling coach and gold medal winner himself.

The dynamic between Schultz and du Pont deepens as Mark embraces his benefactor as a father figure, but du Pont’s mercurial personality and psychological gameplay begin to weigh heavily on Mark’s shaky self-esteem, undermining his abilities on the mat. When du Pont’s favoritism shifts to brother Dave—who possesses the authority and confidence both he and Mark lack—the trio is propelled toward a tragedy no one could have foreseen. Foxcatcher is directed by Bennett Miller.

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Greig Fraser (behind camera) shooting Channing Tatum in a scene from Foxcatcher.

Greig Fraser, the film’s director of photography (Zero Dark Thirty, Snow White and the Huntsman), decided early in the preproduction process to use 35mm film to capture the story of Foxcatcher, which takes place in Washington, Pa., in the 1980s. “Choosing the right cameras and other equipment for a film can be a rather organic process in some ways,” says Fraser. “When you read a script and discuss with the director what the mood of the film will be, I find it becomes rather self-explanatory as far as what lenses and format to choose.”

The director and DP deciding on the best aspect ratio to deploy often guides what lenses and other equipment should be tested and used, he says. “We decided to shoot in 1:85:1. Sometimes it’s hard to answer why exactly we choose certain aspect ratios, but it often comes down to a mood or a feel for the type of frame you think is best. The story will tell you what format it needs to be.

“We shot film on Panavision cameras—mostly Kodak 250D [daylight] and 500T [tungsten]—because, like choosing the aspect ratio and other decisions, film seemed like the natural choice for this particular production, which is a bit of a period piece even though it was only back in the 1980s,” says Fraser, who also shot film for Snow White and the Huntsman and has generally alternated between film and digital on other productions. “It’s a nice way to keep your film chops up and your digital chops up,” the Australian DP adds.

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Steve Carell as John du Pont and Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz. Photo by Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures Classics.

Fraser chose Panavision Primos and Panavision Ultra Screen lenses, which he says performed well in a variety of locations, including the large set that replicates the original Foxcatcher training facility, with its overhead array of fluorescent lights. The cinematographer says that it’s only recently that he’s seen a good substitute for on-set fluorescents. “I could argue that LEDs are a good substitute now, but they weren’t quite up to scratch when we started shooting Foxcatcher nearly two years ago,” Fraser says. “Were we shooting it today, I’d seriously have looked at using LED instead.”

All things being equal, Fraser doesn’t necessarily favor one format over the other. “Digital allows a bit more flexibility for low-light shooting, as we know, and being able to immediately see what you shot as you shoot it. It’s a bit more user-friendly. Film is a bit less malleable than digital. But as soon as the final film version of the [movie] is scanned, of course, it ends up in the same ‘digital space’ as all other digital.”