Dune, Frank Herbert’s beloved 1965 sci-fi novel, has proven famously difficult to bring to the screen. A complex mix of politics, philosophy, war, religion, fantasy and mind-expansion, the tale’s depth and breadth makes it unwieldy for adaptation. Director Denis Villeneuve was unafraid, saying that making the film fulfilled a lifelong ambition. He famously kept his prized copy of the novel – acquired at age 13 – at hand throughout the shoot. He says he made his decisions to please himself as a hardcore fan.
Director of photography Greig Fraser, ACS, ASC approached the project knowing that the complexity of the story needed to be balanced in the visual design. “We wanted the planet to be incredibly harsh,” he says. “It has to be – it’s written like that. There is literally no water there. We tried not to shoot at golden hour or to let things get too pretty. The desert itself is a very simple and powerful setting. And the sets that Patrice Vermette realized so beautifully were inspired by brutalism, which at its core is relatively simple and big. The palettes were very basic, thereby allowing the performances to shine, which is the most important thing.”
"I WOULD HIGHLY RECOMMEND SEEING THE FILM IN IMAX – YOU’LL BE RICHLY REWARDED"
The project reportedly had a budget of $165 million, and was shot in Jordan, Hungary, U.A.E., Norway, and Southern California. nextLAB, FotoKem’s on-set and near-set file management system, helped make the far-flung project run smoothly. The flexibility and efficiency of CODEX High Density Encoding (HDE) made the entire operation more nimble, and nextLAB’s integration with PIX, CODEX and other X2X technologies resulted in a successful shoot despite the immense logistical challenges.
Crafting a Visual Strategy
Long before that, however, the visual strategy began with Villeneuve’s idea to shoot in a squarish 4:3 aspect ratio. But the filmmakers were concerned that cinema audiences prefer to see a full screen. A battery of tests including film, digital, anamorphic and IMAX led to a unique conclusion. The film was shot with Panavision anamorphic lenses on the ALEXA LF, and when the audience is experiencing the overwhelming world of the spice planet, the frame expands top and bottom into the 1.43:1 IMAX ratio (or something close to it in other presentations).
“It’s a sight to behold,” says Fraser. “I would highly recommend seeing the film in IMAX – you’ll be richly rewarded.”
Fraser and Villeneuve both profess a deep love for film origination, but concluded it wasn’t the right choice for the project. Still, they found a way to incorporate film emulsion to perfect the look.
"SHOOT DIGITALLY, DO A QUICK GRADE, THEN FILM IT OUT AND SCAN THE FILM-OUT. IT GIVES YOU A BIT OF A FILM FEEL"
“It’s a technique that I started playing with on Vice,” Fraser says. “Shoot digitally, do a quick grade, then film it out and scan the film-out. It gives you a bit of a film feel, but not the same as if you had originated on film. It gives you some of the fantastic analog quality, along with the benefits of acquiring the source material digitally. The colors become slightly more filmic, and you get a bit more depth to the highlights, which are softened and rounded out.”
“People get very passionate about the film-digital debate, and I understand why,” says Fraser. “I love film. But to me, it’s not digital versus film anymore. Instead, we as filmmakers have these tools to help us realize our end goal. And if combining them in a certain way works, it’s fantastic. I want to do more of it. I’m sure some algorithm could be figured out, but there’s something about film that has grown with us over the past 100 years.”
FotoKem Senior Colorist Dave Cole agrees, saying “By using the scan-back process, we were able to really enjoy the flexibility of digital capture yet inherit all of the great qualities of a true photochemical process – that certain something extra that a completely unpredictable, organic process brings.”
The Tech Behind the Concept
Of course, this blended process also required extensive testing. In the final process, Open EXR 16-bit files were massaged for color consistency. An ARRI Film Recorder was used for the film out, and Scannity scanners captured the images from film. The goal was to ensure that what was put on film represented the digital color grade. Tight integration between color science and laboratory calibration was essential. And the richness of ARRIRAW image files was essential.
Freddy Goeske, general manager of production software at FotoKem, says, “ARRIRAW is the best recording format that the ARRI camera lineup offers. In essence, ARRIRAW means zero compromise, as well as access to the camera sensor data in the post environment. We have the ability to use the best software de-Bayer available to go from RAW to RGB, and RAW also offers the option of leveraging bit-exact CODEX HDE, which reduces the storage requirements by 40% or more with no quality compromise. So, with HDE encoded ARRIRAW, we get uncompressed quality, the best de-Bayer options, and a reduced file size.”
"ARRIRAW IS THE BEST RECORDING FORMAT THAT THE ARRI CAMERA LINEUP OFFERS"
FotoKem extended the power of the analog-digital combination in their LUT creation. The lab was able to take attributes from skip-bleach development and apply them to the highlights while applying other specific characteristics to the shadow tones.
Regarding the LUTs, Cole says, “We wanted to emulate the skip bleach process for most of the exterior desert scenes but to maintain a softer contrast in the toe and shoulder of the film – to have the burn of the desert coming through, but just shallowing out those extremes a little. This helped to take out some of the ‘pureness’ of the captured image. Also, by manipulating the top end, we were able to reduce the blue, which helped with skies as there is just no water, even in the atmosphere. For interiors, we went for a more traditional film emulation, but again managed the bottom end of the curve to reduce the fall-off to black. We wanted to make sure we could see into the shadows without them plugging up too much.”
The top-and-bottom frame expansion was accomplished digitally. FotoKem made sure that resolution and grain size were maintained on the output, which meant that some shots were filmed out twice – once at 2.39 and once at 1.43, thus eliminating the need for any post film zooms or scaling for composition.
“Because of the timelines and locations, we needed to ship multiple nextLAB systems around the world to support dailies,” says Goeske. “nextLAB has direct integration with PIX that allows our dailies operators to push media and metadata into the PIX platform with a simple right click from nextLAB. This makes things very easy and allows us to transfer all the rich production metadata from nextLAB into PIX along with the media, without any extra work.”
FotoKem was also providing services for VFX through production and post. “All of the nextLAB units synchronized their project information across our secure, proprietary file transfer engine to a central system, with automation servicing VFX EXR requests to vendors,” says Goeske. “The only real limitation was the amount of available bandwidth in certain countries. When physical production was complete, the camera source data was consolidated into our nextLAB automation for VFX and conform post production. Once the DI was completed, requirements remained, and we pushed the source data into Legendary’s cloud storage to continue servicing those requirements.”
"OUR INTEGRATION WITH ARRI AND X2X HAS OFFERED OUR FILMMAKERS AN INCREDIBLY HIGH-QUALITY PRODUCT..."
Tom Vice, co-COO of FotoKem, emphasizes that “Our integration with ARRI and X2X has offered our filmmakers an incredibly high-quality product with a 40% reduction in the overall size of the data set. This was extremely important as we were moving our nextLAB system to remote locations around the world in support of the movie.”
Dune premiered at the 78th Venice International Film Festival in September 2021, and was subsequently released theatrically and on HBO Max. As of early November, the film has grossed more than $330 million worldwide. A week after its release, Dune: Part Two was announced, with release scheduled for October 2023. Meanwhile, Fraser has gone on to photograph The Batman for director Matt Reeves.