Dune 2 cinematography

The Cinematography of “Dune: Part Two”

Some films are shot in someone’s kitchen. Other films are shot on vast sets or the endless dune seas of Abu Dhabi and the pristine architecture of the Brion Tomb in Italy. It’s no disrespect to anyone to suggest that one of those represents an easier route to the silver screen than the other. Nonetheless, cinematographer Greig Fraser, ACS, ASC, has said that at least a few days on Dune: Part Two involved short hours and a small crew. It makes the high end seem shockingly accessible. And, given the film has surpassed $US600M at the global box office, it must be doing something right.

Beginnings are such delicate times

Normally, we’d begin with the technical spec to which a film was shot and finished. On Dune, though, that’s a little complicated. Big event movies are increasingly released in a lot of different formats. The IMAX brand has been associated with Dune: Part Two, and FotoKem struck several 70mm prints alongside the conventional digital release.

The result is at least three different aspect ratios. In conventional digital theaters, audiences see a 2.39:1 frame. From 70mm, the image really ought to be 2.2:1. That’s different enough that camera operators care. We’d hope that anyone entrusted with such a rare and valuable print would have screen masking adjusted to suit. A full-scale IMAX GT environment will be 1.43:1, which is a very different shape to the Cinemascope-style frame.

It’s so different that this is no longer a simple matter of comparing numbers. The whole idea of IMAX GT is that the image fills the peripheral vision of the viewer. It’s a frame which, viewed in full on a small monitor, often has a lot of negative space around the edge. A lot of Dune is framed like that anyway, making the characters deliberately insignificant against a vast desert, but for IMAX that’s business as usual. Most of the audience won’t be able to focus on the edges of the frame without turning to look. There’s an argument about whether those edges of the picture are part of the frame, or a sort of ambient theatrical effect.

Not what you might expect

Despite it all, Dune: Part Two was not shot at particularly high resolution. Fraser used Alexa 65 and LF. The 65 is capable of about 6.5 by 3K. There are mirrorless cameras which will do that. The 1.43:1 IMAX GT frame also represents a rather cruel crop, yielding an image not even 4.5K wide. Is that as sharp as a traditional 15-perf 65mm negative? No, it isn’t, but that kind of pixel peeping has been irrelevant for a long time.

What does matter, on productions like Dune and Oppenheimer, is that the choice of frame is never entirely canonical. Look at the monitors in the behind-the-scenes footage. Notice how many different frame lines are being used all at once. Shooting shorts for YouTube is a comparative luxury. We can pick a frame and stick with it. Diplomatic as they may be about the situation, it’s hard to imagine that anyone working on these big movies loves the need to compose for three frames at once.

But that’s not the only reason that the nature of Dune might look different for different audiences.

Fraser has been a fan of the “film out and scan back” process since at least The Batman. The process FotoKem calls SHIFTai (for “analogue intermediate”) is a formalization of something that has been done a lot in the past. Pretty much every film lab in the world has been asked to laser things out to film and scan them back, often on an ad-hoc basis. Color by DeJonghe in the Netherlands has offered it as a service for a while.

I was lucky enough to have visited the room at FotoKem in LA where The Batman (and very possibly Dune: Part Two) was graded. In that room, a big-screen comparison of the original photography and the scanned film version reveal that the effect can be subtle or bold. The film stocks used for the process are often specialist intermediate types which have very, very low sensitivity, compared to the film used in cameras.

As a result the grain can be so low, and the sharpness so high, that the effect is almost invisible. Some processes have deliberately reduced the image to use a smaller area of the negative. Others have used grainier film stocks intended for cameras. That can require modification of the laser film recorder, built for intermediate stocks, which would horribly overexpose camera stock. Improvising metaphorical sunglasses for one’s ArriLaser film recorder is an interesting way to spend a few days.

And not every version of Dune even did that. It would have been downright perverse to film out, scan back, then laser that out to the 70mm prints, so they didn’t. Film prints come from digital masters; digital prints come (in part) from film masters. There’s a certain symmetry to the process, but the results will not be identical. So, what the Dune sequel really is, at a technical level, depends how you saw it.

High fashion

It’s still filled with frames that would not look out of place on the cover of a fashion magazine—or at least a fashion magazine titled Alabaster Psychopath. Some of those frames are reliant on hundreds of background artists which would cost more than a student film budget just to feed.

Some involve towering overhead angles which should not be attempted by anyone without the relevant gripping experience. Others involve a visual effects effort that could be duplicated at home, though the average short filmmaker might want to leave that to the nine-figure blockbusters. In principle, it is possible to produce most of the effects seen in Dune using very accessible tools.

In practice, Blender users keen enough to attempt it are likely to be discovered months later, slumped over a keyboard, as pale and hairless as Austin Butler in the movie. That sort of visual effects work is a team sport. Still, there’s something much more prosaic to learn from Dune.

The film was actually shot in a fairly conventional manner—or at least, a manner that’s intended to look conventional. Lens-wise, it’s more straightforward than the first film, which made more use of anamorphic lenses (Panavision’s Ultra Vista). There is no bullet time. There are no Fincher-style trips through keyholes. There’s no Anderson-style rectilinear framing. There’s no slow-motion, Marvel-movie flights through crowds of tumbling stunt performers, though the opportunity was there. According to various statements from Fraser, he felt the subject matter was often so extraordinary that deliberately showy camerawork might just have highlighted the impossibility of what was on screen.

For context, compare the dubiously-received 2005 film Stealth (a princely 13% on the Tomatometer) and the recent Top Gun: Maverick (96%). Both of them are, to put it simply, fighter jet movies. Both of them include a lot of CG (yes, there’s a lot of CG in Top Gun). The difference is that Stealth has its camera hurtling around the aircraft at hundreds of miles an hour in a way no real camera ever could. Top Gun could have done the same. Instead, it shot most of its sequences with real aircraft as a reference, which would later be duplicated or even replaced.

It’s no secret which is more convincing. Dune: Part Two is much less a popcorn movie than either of those, but the principle is the same. When a sandworm crosses a valley, it’s a shot with CG elements. What matters is that it looks like a natural history unit had strapped a camera to an ornithopter in the hope a worm would slither by.

Low-budget moments

Achieving that on a complex production involving a lot of special and visual effects is tough. Even so, some of the most interesting images in Dune are much less reliant on telephone-number amounts of money. When the male and female leads take a quiet moment to sit at the top of a sand dune, the filmmakers took two actors and a small crew to a sand dune. And sat on it.

It should be no surprise that Fraser is also one of two people credited for cinematography on The Creator, which took very much this approach to shooting locations which feel real because they are real. Independent filmmakers might do better to eschew the latest camera, search eBay for a used DSLR, and spend the savings on airline tickets.

Apparently, no artificial light was used for those day exteriors; instead, they just waited for dawn and dusk. That approach is not as trivial as it sounds, demanding some hard thinking about scheduling.

James Friend, ASC, BSC, has talked about All Quiet on the Western Front and his need to shoot lots of day exteriors while avoiding uninteresting front light. The solution involved a carefully-arranged layout of trenches and a schedule which called for shooting eastward in the morning, and westward in the afternoon.

On Dune, by comparison, there was no option to decide where a sand dune would be. They form in somewhat parallel lines, at right angles to the prevailing wind, much like ripples on water (in multi-day time lapses, they move like water). There will not always be a dune at a photographically convenient angle to an attractive sunset.

Backlight fulfills a desire which goes all the way back to the realization that cinema is (mostly) a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world. It introduces separation and contrast, distinguishing objects and directing the audience’s gaze. Given backlight, we could add a bit of fill with a piece of polystyrene insulating foam, or we could rely on the warm, friendly light bouncing off the sand. We could let the skylight fill in the shadows, creating just a hint of coolness and the color contrast that has been in fashion for the last few decades.

The result is shockingly close to the sort of three-point lighting setup everyone learns during week one of camera school. It requires just a handful of people (two of them beautiful) and a sand dune.

Light and dark

The other sort of contrast is not between objects in a scene, but between scenes themselves. Here, the Dune sequel arguably gives something away compared to the original. Scenes on Arrakis are dominated by sand. Given humans are mostly shades of brown and people are mostly wearing brown, much of it is fairly monochromatic until someone with blue eyes turns up. Villeneuve’s first Dune contrasted all that tan, ochre and brown with its opening scenes set on another planet, one which deliberately contrasted both the color palette and terrain. The sequel does that less often.

There are books to write about color control in films, but there’s a reason the female lead wears a piece of blue fabric, and there’s a reason the film’s magical liquid is blue in a sea of brown. There’s more to it than just contrast and identifiability, though. Dune: Part Two seems to make warm light represent the good guys, and anything else the bad guys.

Scenes shot in temperate weather at the Brion Tomb represent planet Kaitain. Other scenes take place aboard a spacecraft that has traveled from there to Arrakis, bringing with it that cooler light. It remains cool until the spacecraft is boarded by outside forces,  whose mere presence somehow causes the ambient light to warm up. Talismanic, indeed.

The imperial world of Kaitain was filmed at Carlos Scarpa's Brion tomb. Image © Warner Bros.
The imperial world of Kaitain was filmed at Carlos Scarpa‘s Brion tomb. Image © Warner Bros.

And then there’s that famous infra-red sequence on Giedi Prime. Fraser has been quite clear that this was chosen mainly to create contrast between places. The sunlit sand of the Giedi Prime arena might otherwise have looked too much like the sunlit sand of Arrakis. Alternatives were considered, particularly the idea that the planet was simply bathed in an eternal night. Shooting in infrared was a bold choice, though one which is fairly accessible to anyone with a reasonably-sensitive modern digital camera.

Let’s first understand that infrared is a broad term. To put a number on it, the spectrum of light that’s visible to humans spans wavelengths from something like 700 nanometres (red) to 380 nanometres (blue). There is no formal definition, although anything redder than about 700 or 750 nanometres could be called infrared.

That’s very different to the sort of thermal vision used by militaries, which tends to operate in the thousands of nanometres. It’s a fascinating world, but definitely invisible to humans and requires specialist camera sensors using completely different, difficult, expensive technology.

Even now, there isn’t really any such thing as a high definition thermal imaging camera. One of the most competitive is Leonardo’s SLX-SuperHawk, which the company describes as a “medium wave infra-red” camera. It’s a big, heavy and wildly expensive device which just about achieves 1280 by 1024 resolution and has been used on natural history documentaries. Similar pictures, from FLIR, are seen in Sicario. The infrared shot for Dune is not thermal vision.

Human eyes (and normal cameras) become gradually less sensitive to longer and longer wavelengths. Radiation in the 700-plus nanometre range can be dimly visible under the right circumstances, and it’s certainly detectable by electronic imaging sensors. Trees look bright, since their leaves evolved to reflect infrared light in an effort to stay cool. Red wine looks like clear water, since it transmits infrared light.

Humans, even dark-skinned humans, look paler than they are. Dune built special versions of certain costumes because some of them looked so different in infrared.

Fraser shot with a camera stripped of the filters which would normally exclude infrared, and added a filter to exclude visible light. The result is like the sort of infrared shot at night by security cameras. Their priority is to resolve an image using any available light, so they generally don’t have any filtering on their sensors at all.

Less expensive consumer cameras often have less-than-ideal infrared filtering. Simply using a filter to exclude visible light (an infrared bandpass filter) makes it possible to approximate the Giedi Prime look with a common mirrorless camera. It’ll be necessary to wind up the sensitivity, because the camera is designed to reject most infrared, but it’s been shown to work on at least some cameras.

Whether there’s any realistic explanation for a planet which looks like that is another matter. Even if the local star emitted only near-infrared light, things would look a dull reddish-pink as opposed to ash white. Still, the word “unearthly” has been used to describe the results, and it’s hard to think what could be more appropriate.

Embracing the unconventional

We could call this unconventional spectrum photography. Infrared has been used before, particularly on the 1964 film Soy Cuba which was shot on infrared-sensitive film stock. Available until the late 2000s, the response of IR film isn’t quite the same as an unfiltered Alexa, but the white foliage and dark skies are very much in evidence. Mike Figgis shot the 2001 film Hotel on a Sony camera in night-shot mode, which mechanically retracts the infrared filter and achieves much the same result—in green.

More recently, Jarin Blaschke shot The Lighthouse through a deep blue filter to simulate the behavior of orthochromatic film stock. The term refers to film which can’t see red light, hence the red light in a traditional photographic darkroom. The results there were the polar opposite of Fraser’s infrared, darkening and bringing out the texture in skin.

That’s one effect which can be matched in a grade simply by duplicating the blue or blue channels, at some cost to resolution. One scene for Dune: Part Two was actually shot during a real eclipse—a shot of the eclipse itself reportedly made it into the movie. Fraser used a deep red filter.

But in the end, camerawork only gets us so far. Like any well-produced film, Dune: Part Two involves a considered choice of lenses. A choice that includes classic lenses, provoking attractive flares and glows. The sheer quality of the big-chip Alexas shines through. Choice of time and place is crucial. In the end, though, the camerawork is not overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be; it shouldn’t be, and it isn’t. It’s a production with all of the visual and special effects, crowd scenes and galaxy-trotting locations anyone could want.

So, like so many good-looking productions, Dune would have looked good on the day, in person. Because of Fraser’s interest in shooting all the spectacle as if it were real, it’s an object lesson in fundamental technique of a type that isn’t intended to draw attention to the camera. What makes it look good is the same thing that makes many big movies look big: unimaginably spectacular production design.

The Giedi Prime fireworks display which flashes through the windows of that corridor provokes one particularly memorable set of images. Those desert sunsets provide more. An environment where floating, glowing orbs follow people around at night is clearly something of a gift to the cinematographer. The grime and grit of the desert is wonderfully realized by the hair, makeup and costume departments, creating gritty-looking people in a gritty-looking environment. In these circumstances, cinematography is the finishing touch. It’s the omega, not the alpha.

Dune: Part Two is a vast movie, bigger by both budget and income (still spiraling upward), than its predecessor. One official trailer is nearly seven minutes in length, which seems like a lot until we realize the film itself runs close to three hours.

A longer path

That also means that the combined runtime of Villeneuve’s two Dunes is greater than even the longest assemblies of Lynch’s less well-received 1980s adaptation, to tell much the same amount of story. The comparison is interesting: arguably one of the most successful parts of Lynch’s none-too-successful movie is the production design and its lensing in the anamorphic style of the Blade Runner era. 

Dune: Part Two ends on a very clear cliffhanger for a Part Three. And it would appear that Dune: Part Three is in development—though not to be rushed. Considering Part Two did not simply recapitulate the cinematography of Dune: Part One, it’ll be interesting to see how a Part Three might look.

Story-wise, anyone who knows the books will have some inkling of what happens next. We won’t spoil, but it’ll be no surprise to discover that Greig Fraser’s access to amazing things to shoot seems likely to continue.

Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a cinematographer with over 20 years' experience in just about every area of production and post. He stopped working behind the camera because he was tired of eating lunch from a magliner, and has spent much of his time since lamenting that the food is the best part of on-set work.

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