Dune’s Cinematography – Staying True to the Artistic Vision

Dune’s Cinematography – Staying True to the Artistic Vision

Recently, the trailer for the highly anticipated “Dune: Part Two” went online and brought it back onto our radar. If you didn’t see its predecessor, directed by Denis Villeneuve, you should – at least, for the absolutely astonishing visuals. Interestingly enough, director of photography Greig Fraser had all the required knowledge to shoot the epic Sci-Fi drama on Volume but decided against it. In the ASC clubhouse conversation, he unveils some of the creative decisions for Dune’s cinematography, explaining why there are things you cannot (or should not) fix in post.

Dune“ is a cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s most beloved science-fiction novel of all time. Denis Villeneuve was not the first one to bring it to the big screen, yet his artistic vision was definitely the most spectacular. (No wonder Greig Fraser won an Oscar’22 for camera work on the first sequel). Even the people who didn’t like the complicated world-building or rather slow-paced story (I know some personally) agree that it turned out to be a visual masterpiece, and they are looking forward to the upcoming sequel. The expectations are high, but at first glance, the second part might even exceed the first one.

The journey of the young Paul Atreides (performed by Timothée Chalamet), who becomes the Messiah of nomads on the desert planet Arrakis, will continue on November 2023. While we wait, let’s explore some of the brilliant scenes from the first sequel and see how they were made. If you want to listen to the entire conversation with Greig Fraser, held by Mandy Walker, head over to

Dune's cinematography: the ASC clubhouse conversation with Greig Fraser
Image source: ASC / MZed

Director and DP’s collaboration on Dune’s cinematography

At the first meeting with Denis Villeneuve to talk about “Dune”, Greig Fraser gave the distinct impression that the director had been planning this movie in his head since he was 14, so he let Denis speak for 3 hours straight and articulate all his visions for the novel adaptation. As Greig points out: because in his childhood he wasn’t so passionate about this book, he wanted to be careful and respectful of the director’s artistic ideas, which were obviously important to him.

It was their first project together and their collaboration during pre-production was beneficial for both, growing into a partnership. They tossed some ideas around and tried to approach the creation of a visual style based on how it should feel, rather than how it should look. As “Dune” is a fantastic world, Denis wanted it to feel completely different from what we know. Arrakis is harsh, but not classical desert-harsh with blue skies and yellow sand. It’s not the same, as in, say “Lawrence of Arabia”. So, they excluded a lot of references instead of gathering them as moods.

Dune's cinematography: making of Dune
Behind the scenes on the location of Dune. Image source: ASC

Early on, Denis had the idea of framing “Dune” in 4:3, instead of classic Cinemascope, which was a surprise to Greig. But after some discussions, he understood that the director wanted to have a vast area of world exploration, so they ended up embracing IMAX with its 1:43:1. The aspect ratio on its own became an important storytelling tool for Paul’s journey. The protagonist’s mind opens up as he goes throughout the movie partly because of the spice (a valuable psychotropic drug that enhances vitality and awareness) and also because of the environment he is in. That’s also why film creators combined spherical Panavision H Series with Ultra Vista 1.65x anamorphic lenses (which Fraser had built with Panavision for his previous project).

Creating real and correct environments

If you are familiar with the original source material, you know the narration in “Dune” happens through long monologues inside Paul’s head. Filmmakers decided to avoid the voice-over and rely on visual tools instead. The created images had to speak for themselves and provide the feeling of intimacy and connection to the main protagonist as if the viewers would indeed see the world through his eyes.

Dune's cinematography: realistic reflections
Looking outside the ornithopter window. Image source: Dune, Warner Bros.

Look, for example, at the film still above. In this scene, Paul sees the desert through the windshield of the ornithopter, discovering vast landscapes and a new culture. It impacts him, transforms him, and we observe how the reflection of the planet takes its place on his human body.

To Greig Fraser, it was imperative to achieve such a level of realism in environments. So that we would watch Paul and feel, what he was feeling. Filming everything on the blue screen couldn’t become the solution for this careful approach.

Breaking down the technical side of the scene

So, how did they do it instead? As you probably know, a decent portion of film scenes, that unfold in Arrakis, was captured in the blistering hot deserts of Jordan and the Emirates. Though they couldn’t go there for every shot, otherwise, the film would become costly as the very one spice. For example, all the ornithopter interior shots (like the one we discussed above) had to take place in Budapest, at the Origo Film Studios. The production insisted on stage shooting, but the VFX supervisor Paul Lambert and Greig Fraser knew the light wouldn’t look good there. And no VFX people on the planet could fix bad lighting. So, they fought to have the real sky surrounding the beautifully built vehicle.

Dune's cinematography: the sky and the sand color in the windshield reflections are real
Realistic reflections of sky and sand. Image source: Dune, Warner Bros.

The solution they came up with was to put the ornithopter on the highest hill they could find in Budapest, and build the sand-colored screen around it, reaching the estimated shot horizon. That way, the sky reflections on the windshields looked correct, and the sand color added to the realism, so, not much VFX work afterward was required. “We were just replicating the real world, and it felt amazing”, Greig smiles. He is convinced, that as a DP you have to stay true to the artistic vision and take responsibility for each scene and make it look good. Kicking the problem down the road and saying the classic words “we’ll fix it later on” shouldn’t be an option at all.

Staying true to the artistic vision in Dune’s cinematography

Staying as true and correct, as possible, seems to be Greig’s motto for this epic movie. During the pre-production for “Dune”, he was still shooting the first episodes of the Disney+ show “The Mandalorian” (which, in case you’ve never heard of it, used a lot of virtual production and mixed reality). So, at that point, the cinematographer already gained expertise in working with Volume. Yet, even LED walls sometimes cannot help in creating a very special feeling or lighting.

Let’s take as an example the quiet Saurdaukar attack on Fremen’s abandoned research station where Paul, Jessica, Liet, and Duncan end up in the second part of the movie. The film’s production designer Patrice Vermette created magnificent visual artworks for laboratories and other facilities. Those were chambers, with floors covered in sand, and soft sunlight shining through the openings in the rocky ceiling. In the story, the Fremens built them as bunkers, hiding underground from the heat and desert dust.

Dune's cinematography: a film still from the Fremen's research lab
Inside the Fremen’s abandoned research lab. Image source: Dune, Warner Bros.

Greig knew, that no LED stage in the world could help create something of this scale. Also, no HMI source would be enough to cast these huge shadows on the bottom of the so-called Nexus where white-armored elite soldiers arrive. At the same time, Fraser wanted to treat Patrice’s creation with respect and light it accordingly. The only way was to use the sun as his lighting source. As he did, and the shadows you see in the following film still, are completely real:

Dune's cinematography: the use of real shadows in it
Saurdaukar soldiers inside the Nexus. Image source: Dune, Warner Bros.

Together with the rigging team, filmmakers constructed a huge gobo to put in front of the light source (the sun). It also had to be adjustable, so that when extreme wind or rain comes, they could put it down very quickly. Another impressive example of an outside stage, which brings the best possible result for the epic Dune’s cinematography.

Dune's cinematography: setting up gobo for the realistic shadows
Setting up the previous scene. Image source: ASC / MZed

And what about colors and LUTs?

Eager to learn more about the creative work on “Dune”? For example, how they implied a very special LUT which combined highlights from a skip bleach bypass and the shadows from another LUT supplied by Fraser? Then we recommend you watch the whole ASC clubhouse conversation on

In the meantime, we can only wait for the second part of the novel adaptation, which will depict the further journey of Paul Atreides as he finally unites with Chani and the Fremen and pursues revenge against the conspirators who destroyed his family.

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What do you think of Dune’s cinematography? Is there something particular you like, or dislike about it? Are you also impatiently waiting for the next part to be released? Let’s talk in the comments below!

Feature image source: Warner Bros.

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