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Shutter Angles

Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

“Obviously, We Couldn’t Get Three Sandworms for That Day”: DP Greig Fraser on Dune: Part Two

Two white men crouch in a cave.Denis Villeneuve and Greig Fraser on the set of Dune: Part Two (Photo by Niko Tavernise)

Dune: Part Two picks up directly following the events of its predecessor, with young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) taken in by the Fremen after being marooned in the desert of Arrakis. However, cinematographer Greig Fraser was not content to merely continue where he left off.

After winning an Oscar for the first film, Fraser shuffled his tool bag by adding the Alexa 65, an assortment of colorful new glass and an infrared sequence set in a gladiator arena on Giedi Prime. It’s not surprising considering Fraser’s history of experimentation, which includes pioneering virtual production work on The Mandalorian and reintroducing film back into the pipeline in a new way on the first Dune with a film out/scan back process.

With Dune: Part Two now on disc, VOD and, as of this week, streaming on Max, Fraser spoke to Filmmaker about his latest explorations.

Filmmaker: You shot the first Dune on the Alexa LF, but for the sequel you added the Alexa 65 to the mix as well. The sensors are pretty different in their orientation—the 65 is approximately a 2:1 ratio and the LF is closer to 1.43:1, more of an IMAX ratio. What did you use the 65 for?

Fraser: The Alexa 65 was used in a myriad of ways, because it allowed us a bit more flexibility for shots that were designed to be a little bit wider than higher, like when we’re in the Baron’s bathtub room. So, the ratio of the 65 worked for that scene better than 1.43. There were times where we mixed and matched the cameras. The good thing about the Alexa 65 is that we can always shoot in sort of an LF mode. So, it became more of a Swiss Army knife and that was primarily because we didn’t use any anamorphic lenses on Part Two [unlike in the first film].

Filmmaker: You also used the new Arri Rental Heroes series of lenses this time—the 57mm Look lens and then a T.One lens, which takes its name from its 1.0 T-stop. I don’t know much about these yet, other than that the basic idea seems to be that they’re small specialty sets that emphasize the quirkiness of the lenses.

Fraser: What I love about what Arri is doing is that they’re building out their à la carte lens package. Most rental companies do sets of lenses, except for Panavision, which used to do a lot of lenses à la carte, where you could choose lenses for a particular look or a particular part of a movie to make it feel a bit different. Arri has been doing a few [à la carte] lenses recently that are really beautifully built and with a really good aesthetic and fall off, and that’s what these Heroes lenses are. They’re T1, yeah, but you don’t choose them just because they’re T1. It’s the way they fall off. Whatever donor glass they’ve used in them and whatever way they’ve tuned those lenses means that there’s a great fall off.

For most of Dune: Part Two we used the Arri DNA/Moviecam lenses. I was super happy to help Arri build out that set a few years ago. I shouldn’t really say “help,” because I just gave them my opinion on the lenses that came my way as they were rehoused, but I ended up using a lot of those DNAs on a film called Mary Magdalene. When we decided to go with all spherical glass for Dune: Part Two I talked to director Denis Villeneuve about Mary Magdalene and said, “We can probably get a similar lens package to what we had on that one and augment it with things like the Heroes and with Iron Glass and a few zooms here and there.”

Filmmaker: That 57mm Arri Look lens has an interesting feature that is essentially a “look” ring. So, it’s got a focus ring and an aperture ring like normal, but then there’s also this “look” ring where you can dial in the amount of flavor you want.

Fraser: We used that lens a little bit on the show, but didn’t use it all the time because it definitely goes from sort of mild to pretty extreme. It’s quite great having the three dials on a lens, though, just purely as an experiment. It was fun playing with the iris as it relates to the [look ring]. If you stop down but then increase the look dial, it’s quite unique. It’s a cool lens.

Filmmaker: There’s a scene in a garden between the emperor (Christopher Walken) and his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) where the background swirls like a Petzval lens. Is that the Look? 

Fraser: That was actually not the Look lens. That was the 58mm Helios lens from Iron Glass. That scene is very much within the emperor’s head, and it felt like the perfect lens to get in his head [as the audience]. We didn’t do the close-up with that extreme [of an effect], but the mid shot felt like the right time to use it, almost like the plants are eating him.

A bald white man holding a knife stands over a naked dead man he presumably just killed in a black-and-white arena.
Austin Butler in Dune: Part Two

Filmmaker: We saw some of the Harkonnen’s’ home planet of Giedi Prime in Part One, but in the sequel we experience the planet in daylight exterior for the first time. You went with an infrared look for those exteriors. Tell me about how you achieved that look. The Alexa comes with a built-in filter that cuts the infrared light before it can reach the sensor and only allows visible light to pass. I know you removed that filter, but what did you replace it with? Did you swap in a new OLPF that only allows near infrared light to pass, or did you use some sort of front-of-lens filter that you’d just put in like the matte box?

Fraser: We used a visible light cut filter. If you hold it up to your eye, it just looks like it’s a black filter. It’s strange because you can’t see anything through it, but if you hold it up in front of the camera then it looks totally clear, only in infrared. So, you get rid of all the blue, green and red and only end up with the infrared. And because the sun consists of mostly infrared, you end up with this really bright, translucent look where it’s almost like your characters are glowing. 

Filmmaker: How did that translate to the sand in the arena, because a bright sky can become dark in infrared and something darker—like trees—can became bright?

Fraser: We tested it and the sand itself stayed white. You’re right, though, it can make things go different colors, which is why the costume department had a real tough time with it. At the beginning when we sort of announced, “Hey, we’re going to shoot that scene in infrared,” they went, “This will just be normal [for us].” Then we did the tests, and they went, “Oh my lord!” So, [Feyd-Rautha] actor Austin Butler might have had three different materials on his costume, and it might have been that [in infrared] his belt and his pants were white, but his top was black, which was not the look that everybody was after. So, there needed to be some revisions in the thought process about how his costume looked in order to make it work for both the non-IR scenes and the infrared scenes. 

Filmmaker: Along the same lines of what you were saying about holding the infrared filter up to the sun, infrared lights can be trippy to deal with too. You can blast an actor with a huge light that’s a few feet away from them, but if that unit doesn’t contain the infrared spectrum it won’t register at all on camera. Conversely, you can turn on an infrared lighting unit and point it at an actor and you can’t see the effect of the light at all with the human eye. It only reads on camera.

Fraser: We tested a few different ways of shooting those scenes. One idea that I had just to experiment with was to shoot in a black studio exactly because of what you just said. When you film somebody that’s inside in the dark with infrared light the image looks bright [to the camera] but [the actors’] pupils are dilated because [to the human eye] it’s pitch black inside. That can create an interesting look. As a test we ordered, I think, five infrared security lights from online shopping, and did a little test of what that scene would look like in really low light and also total darkness. We found that the look wasn’t as good, and also it was just very hard to stage a fight in blackness. Even in low light, it just wasn’t quite working as well as shooting it in bright sunlight.

Filmmaker: There are a few shots that shift from color to the black-and-white infrared look when a character moves from artificial light to sunlight. You used some sort of rig designed for 3D, where two cameras are arranged at a 90-degree angle to each other so that the images line up.

Fraser: The only way of doing that transition was with two separate cameras. When I did Rogue One a few years ago, we did a number of VFX plates on infrared where you could light parts of the set [with infrared units]—like, for example, when we did face replacement on Tarkin and Leia. A lot of the time, Tarkin was in quite a dark space. So, we were able to light him with infrared and then shoot him with an infrared camera so that it would see all the [tracking[ dots [on the actor’s face]. We even discussed using a 3D rig to be able to create a key. You could light just the background with infrared and have it white, then suddenly you’ve got an alpha key. There are ways to use infrared in a really interesting VFX manner.

Filmmaker: One of the aspects that I think makes your two Dune films so immersive is the way they blend the practical elements with the VFX elements. There’s a wide shot in the gladiator arena from a high angle where half of the battlefield is in sunlight and half in shadow. When you cut in tighter for the fight sequence, the characters are now moving through those areas of light and darkness, and it ties the pieces of that scene together beautifully.

Fraser: That’s partially because we have a very clever director and a very clever visual effects supervisor. That’s number one. Also, it’s partly because of the place that we shot the scene. We shot it outside between two stages at Origo Studios in Budapest and part of the day was in shade and part of the day was in sun. So, we couldn’t really shoot the entire scene in sun, because then we’d have only been able to shoot three hours a day instead of eight or ten or whatever. So, it was important that we were able to shoot it in a way that married into what you just spoke about, where there were aspects of it in shade and aspects of it in the sun. It was a head scratcher to try and shoot it like that, because then you can’t really shoot it in order then, can you? You have to shoot it in parts according to which pieces are in the sun and which are in the shade, but it was a really effective way to do that scene.

Filmmaker: What can you tell me about the God’s eye point of view shot where Paul walks through a crowd of Fremen and the people part like the Red Sea as he passes?

Fraser: We were fixed on a crane arm. There was only a certain height that we could get in the exterior where we shot that at Origo. We definitely had a lot of extras that day. I can’t remember exactly, but we must have had hundreds. The beauty of this movie is that it so seamlessly blends live action and VFX that even I have trouble telling what we did, and I love that. I watch the film with the keenest eye of anybody, because I lived it during the actual shoot, which means my last memories of that image before I go into the color grade is the couple of hours we spent staging it, working on it and framing it. So, when I see it in the grade or the first cut, and I don’t notice where the seams are, that’s when you know it’s a really good, well managed VFX shot.

Filmmaker: I’m sure you won’t have any trouble remembering which pieces of this next shot are practical and which aren’t. Tell me about the wide shot of the three sandworms emerging in the distance with enemy soldiers in the foreground. I never question that the sunlight hitting the VFX worms is the same sunlight falling on the soldiers. Why does that shot work so well?

Fraser: I think it begins with the concept. It begins with Denis, because he visualizes a lot of those shots with his storyboard artist, Sam Hudecki, previous to the shoot. Then, during prep, I have the chance to visualize with him as well. So, with a shot like that, it comes from a good idea to begin with. 

The second thing is that the scene is shot in real sun. It’s shot in the real light on real sand. Now, obviously, we couldn’t get three sandworms for that day because they were busy on another film [laughs], but we’re trying to shoot as many elements as possible for real. Our VFX supervisor, Paul Lambert, was always really good about supporting that desire. On something like that scene, we lined up the shots for real, imagining there were actual sandworms coming out of the sand dunes in the background. That’s how I would do it again if you asked me to do that shot again. Find the biggest sand dune we can, which was pretty easy in Abu Dhabi, then get the action correct in the foreground while imagining what’s going on in the background. Then it’s up to some extraordinarily talented effects artists to integrate and improve it.

Filmmaker: For years you were a big fan of using Digital Sputnik lights. Do you have any new favorite units you’ve discovered lately?

Fraser: In the last seven or eight years, technology has moved along massively. I still love the Digital Sputniks, so that hasn’t changed. On Dune: Part Two we used Creamsource Vortexes, which were a godsend for us in the desert. There’s a lot of sand, dust and wind on our movie and those lights just absolutely took a battering and survived while still giving me the punch of a light like the DS6. I still love the DS6 and its versatility, but now I also love the Creamsource Vortexes. Aputure has also been making some amazing lights recently.

Filmmaker: I think of Aputure as being pretty affordable.

Fraser: Yeah, they started out in the prosumer world, and they’re now edging themselves into the professional world. I don’t really get into the cost so much. Obviously, I have to account for the budget and if I’m able to get 50 units of something instead of 25 of something, that’s good for me. So, friendly on the pocket is a good thing. The technology is getting better and better every day. I just recently did a test of 20 or 30 new lights that are all out there that I hadn’t used before. The quality of almost everything on the market is really fantastic. There’s lots of these little companies doing some great light sources, like Kelvin, who makes a small little pocket light called the Play.

Filmmaker: You did the film scan back process again on the Dune sequel, where you essentially do a film out and then rescan that back into the digital workflow. How different was that process this time around?

Fraser: We pretty much did it the same. The only difference was we also did a version where we output at the end to 15 perf 70mm film. Other than that, we found that the same process was really successful. We were quite diligent about our testing process on Dune: Part One and felt that we would keep that aspect of things the same. We didn’t feel like we needed to evolve it. Now, if I get the blessing to do another film with Denis in the future, I’m positive we’ll be testing further processing or even cross processing or printing differently.

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