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DP Greig Fraser ACS ASC’s sumptuous cinematography creates a sensory experience for Dune: Part One

Feb 16, 2022

Including Q&A WITH DIRECTOR DENIS VILLENEUVE  

Greig Fraser ACS ASC • Dune: Part One

By Iain Blair

Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser ACS ASC has shot projects both small and large, including Bright Star (2009), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Foxcatcher (2014), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Lion (2016) (which earned him Oscar and BAFTA nominations, and the Camerimage Golden Frog), Mary Magdalene (2018) and Vice (2018).

“Dune: Part One is one of the most challenging movies I’ve ever done”

And with the sumptuous and intimate visuals he created for Dune: Part One, Fraser’s name is in the awards spotlight once again, with Oscar, BAFTA and ASC amongst a great many other nominations.

Copyright: © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Dune: Part One has been described as an overwhelming sensory experience, and the DP candidly remarks it was “probably the most challenging movie I’ve ever done, if just in terms of its sheer scope and scale. I don’t take on projects that I don’t get nervous about. Fear is always a part of it, and you don’t want to be the guy who screws it up.”

“You don’t want to be the guy who screws it up”

He’s not kidding. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049), and based on Frank Herbert’s seminal bestseller of the same name, Dune: Part One features alien worlds, monsters and wars set thousands of years into the future, as it charts a mythic hero’s dangerous journey across enough sand to make a trip to the Sahara look like a day on the beach.

Copyright: © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Chiabella James
Caption: Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

With an all-star cast including Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Zendaya and Dave Bautista, it tells story of Paul Atreides (Chalamet), a gifted young man propelled by fate into an intergalactic power struggle on the remote planet of Arrakis, where he has to battle intense heat, hurricane-strength sandstorms and monstrous sandworms.

Production on the Legendary Pictures/Warner Bros. movie, using ARRI Alexa LF and prototype Alexa Mini LF cameras, took place between March and August 2019. Sets for the production were built at Origo Film Studios in Budapest. Locations encompassed Wadi Rum in Jordan, Stadlandet in Norway, as one of the settings for planet Caladan, plus the vast, rolling sand dunes of the Liwa Oasis in the United Arab Emirates, which formed a key backdrop of the planet Arrakis. 

Copyright: © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Chiabella James
Caption: Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Kynes in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Here, Fraser talks about the challenges of making the ambitious epic, and his approach to the cinematography and lighting.

Please tell us about how you and Denis started finding the right looks for this epic story. What were your reference points?

Denis was incredibly passionate about this film, and had been wanting to make it since he was a kid. Whilst Dune was grand and epic in scale, he also wanted it to feel extraordinarily intimate to the characters. So we designed the film as a combination of wide shots, depicting the sweeping landscapes of the deserts on planet Arrakis where most of action takes place, together with extreme close-ups for the many intimate moments between the characters. That meant keeping them in the centre frame, unless we were showing them in amongst the landscape. More often than not, the landscape was secondary to them, and their coverage, and we chose not to romanticise things.

“Whilst Dune was epic in scale, Denis also wanted it to feel extraordinarily intimate”

We didn’t actually look at films per se. We looked at some photography, and I listened to Denis for many hours about what he wanted and the mood he was trying to evoke. There were some instances where we looked at a LUT and tested it, and there were a few times we went down the road of a skip bleach bypass, which gives you a very high contrast look, but that wasn’t quite the right look either.

Copyright: © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Chiabella James
Caption: Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary release.

So we pulled it back from there. Ultimately it was more a voyage of discovery, playing with lenses to feel out the look, and I often find that that process of feeling it out gives you the best results. Every film is framed through a different prism. Denis had a vision for it, I had a vision for it too, and I was able to make it all tangible through lens tests, camera tests, film tests and output tests.

How long was prep and what did it entail?

I was in the middle of shooting The Mandalorian (2019, 3 episodes) when Denis and I began talking. We did a couple of tech scouts while we were trying to figure out stuff like: how much can we shoot on a backlot? How much needs to be shot in a real desert? What kind of desert and where? They are aesthetic questions, but they’re also technical questions. We also had to consider how many days could we realistically be moving a crew to Jordan, and then back to Hungary, knowing there’s far more infrastructure in Budapest than in Jordan?

Copyright: © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Chiabella James
Caption: TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary release.

So we made several trips and I went back-and-forth to Budapest. We scouted in Jordan and found the place where we were going to stage all the sandworm scenes. Prep took place from October 2018 through to March 2019, and then we began shooting and wrapped in August 2019.

Did you and Denis decide to shoot digitally on ARRI Alexa LF cameras rather than on film right from the start? 

No, and we were really unsure, so we went out to the sand dune desert, south of L.A. near the Salton Sea, where they shot some of the desert scenes in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return Of The Jedi (1983, dir. Richard Marquand, DP Alan Hume BSC) and shot a ton of tests – everything from 35mm film to the large format Alexa 65 and IMAX in Anamorphic and spherical. We basically ran the gamut of options to test of how the movie would feel.

Copyright: © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Chiabella James
Caption: (L-r) Director Denis Villeneuve and Javier Bardem on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

We then we went to the IMAX theatre in Playa Vista and projected it all and compared all the looks, and it was funny to see Denis’ reaction. This why as a DP I always try to keep an ear close to the ground and an eye on a director’s first instinctual reactions and then their intellectual reactions.

There are a lot of crucial choices made when you shoot a film, and it’s not just what looks best necessarily. There are knock-on effects. I thought we’d shoot film, and fully expected Denis to love IMAX film or even 35mm Anamorphic. But celluloid film did not overwhelm Denis as much as I thought it might have. He felt it had a nostalgic quality which, despite being beautiful, wasn’t what he envisioned Dune to be. On the other hand, although digital felt more contemporary, it didn’t feel organic enough.

Last time we talked you said you’d been developing a process and a ‘look’ that combines digital with the warmth of analogue?

Yes, it’s something I’ve been working on for a few years before Dune came along, and so I suggested we look at it and try this technique as the next step. In theory and in simple testing it works like this: you basically shoot the movie digitally, give it a quick grade, output it to film, and then you grade the scan of that. So you get the best out of digital and the best out of film, and we found it to be a really interesting process. Essentially, the final image you see on screen has been through an emulsion. It’s a beautiful meld of digital and analogue.

Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures
Caption: (L-r) REBECCA FERGUSON as Lady Jessica and TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

You shot tests of this process, right?

We did. We shot a setting sun and projected it. On the left was pure digital, on the right was the digital/film process, and the sun, having been output on film, had this richness to it, this three-dimensionality that the digital image did not have. So that proved to me it worked. It looked like we’d acquired it on film and it had that look film gives you when you shoot highlights.

“The final image you see on screen is a beautiful meld of digital and analogue”

Look, I’m sure people will disagree and tell me we could have got that look in a computer, but for me the ‘analogue-ness’ of it gave it an amazing look, and I’ve pushed to use the same process on a few projects I’ve done since.

Copyright: © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Chiabella James
Caption: (L-r) Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides and TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary release.

What cameras and lenses did you use? Please also talk about the decision to shoot IMAX for all the desert sequences?

We used the ARRI Alexa LF 4K and Alexa Mini LF with Panavision H-series and Ultra Vista lenses. We decided to shoot IMAX for all the desert sequences as it shows this whole new world through Paul’s eyes, and we went for a much looser, handheld style with the big impact of IMAX. We’re encouraging everyone to see it in IMAX if possible, because it’s been envisioned in IMAX. 

Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures
Caption: (L-r) JOSH BROLIN as Gurney Halleck, OSCAR ISAAC as Duke Leto Atreides and STEPHEN MCKINLEY HENDERSON as Thufir Hawat in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

We deliberately went for an unsaturated look. Our skies aren’t blue, our rocks aren’t red, our sand isn’t golden. We designed our LUT to take away the blues of the sky and so on. We actually used several different LUTs and our colourist Dave Cole, and lab, Fotokem, were able to combine the elements of highlights and shadows to create a LUT that worked for us. They were very much partners in creating the look, partly because they have a lab at their disposal.

We shot all of the rock desert scenes in Jordan and then all the desert sand dune scenes in Abu Dhabi. And the way I saw it – probably simplistically – was that Arrakis was Earth, and the rocky parts are like countries, and all the sand is like our oceans, and to get from landmass to landmass you need to go over the ocean, and that’s where it’s most dangerous, with the sand worms and all the harsh elements. Then we shot all the other stuff in 2:35:1 format, as a contrast to the IMAX scenes.

Did you have a DIT on-set?

Yes, Dan Carling who’s done quite a few of my films including Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Mary Magdalene. We worked very closely on Dune as it was so crucial that we got the right images and graded them right way.

Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures
Caption: TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

The other thing that was a very big factor for us was dealing with all the lighting on the stages. I’ve been quite passionate about trying to find LED lighting with the most amount of target. Effectively we had stone-coloured walls that very easily could have become monochromatic, or just really drab-looking, if we hadn’t got it right. So it was very important to me that I was able to light them with the most amount of colour-depth possible. I really like using Digital Sputnik LEDs, because they’re a clean source and I feel they have the best colour rendition.

We used a lot of studio lights for all the interiors, but we shot with a lot of natural light for all the exteriors. I backlit the actors during the exterior moments, in an effort to avoid dark ‘panda’ eye sockets caused by the bright and contrasty sunlight in Jordan and Abu Dhabi. It’s not hard for the sun to look super harsh. Trying to find that balance and stay cinematic was still a challenge to ensure the shots weren’t badly lit.

Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures
Caption: (L-r) ZENDAYA as Chani and TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary release.

We only had one exterior set-up at the studios, which we called The Nexus. That was a big attack scene and we just used natural sunlight for that sequence.

Did it turn out the way you envisaged it?

It did. I saw Dune in an IMAX cinema and I could hardly contain myself. With the soundtrack, the acting, the colour grade and the design, it was an incredible, epic experience, like being on a rollercoaster. Working on Dune was a great collaborative experience with a great team led by Denis, and I’d love to repeat it.

Q&A WITH DUNE: PART ONE DIRECTOR DENIS VILLENEUVE

Why did you choose Greig and what did he bring to the project?

I chose Greig because I love his camerawork. He has such a great eye for where to place the camera, the composition and the framing. At the beginning we went for a more formal, classical look that emphasised very solid tableaus, but then the more the movie evolved, the more the camera left the tripod and it became like a documentary in style, with Greig doing much more handheld shooting in the desert. So the more Paul’s world gets stripped away, the freer the camera gets.

Copyright: © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Chiabella James
Caption: (L-r) Director/co-writer/producer Denis Villeneuve and TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary release.

This was your first collaboration with Greig. Tell us how you worked together?

I wanted a DP who was very flexible and spontaneous, which Greig is. I also like how he embraces nature and natural light. He doesn’t try to control nature, but dances with it, and he can move very fast. That was very important as we were shooting with the main unit, and at the same time I was directing a splinter unit and we were supervising a second unit. I’ve never done that before. Greig is a master at juggling all this stuff. I’ve never seen anyone else do what he can – answering a call on his phone about another unit while he’s in the middle of shooting and watching another monitor. 

Years ago I interviewed David Lean and he talked about making Lawrence Of Arabia (1962, DP Freddie Young OBE BSC ASC) and how Wadi Rum was the most magical location he’d ever shot in, partly because of the light. But your scenes shot there look very different. Talk about the colour palette you and Greig went for and why.

Of course, I was very aware of the look David Lean gave Lawrence Of Arabia. But for this, Greig and I wanted a far more desaturated look, to really emphasise the harshness of the sun and the desert.

“I wanted to capture the violence of the sun”

Everything is faded and bleached, and I wanted to capture the violence of the sun. I wanted nature to be powerful and abrasive, not beautiful. It seemed like the best look was to capture the brutality of the planet and cut-out any sense of romanticism about the desert.

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