Greig Fraser went into “Dune” knowing the size of the story and its reputation. Much like the planet Arrakis, “Dune” hadn’t yet been conquered on film. Frank Herbert’s world of intergalactic ambitions, byzantine politics, and religious plots within plots has such epic scope that adaptations have so often been the graveyard of empires. Or at least of Dino De Laurentiis. That Denis Villeneuve called his sci-fi epic “Dune: Part 1” shows just how far his ambitions reached and the film’s cinematography is a huge part of the reason why that confidence has paid off with a sequel order from Legendary and Warner Bros. Hearing Fraser talk about his and Villeneuve’s approach to constructing the world of “Dune” is to get as close as possible to a filmbook crash course in creating an immersive world on screen.
Fraser and Villeneuve had the whole of an IMAX canvas and a lot of the country of Jordan at their disposal and deliberately tried to find simple compositions that nonetheless got to the emotional heart of the scene. “You don’t want your audience spending too long looking at the corner of your frame,” Fraser said as part of his conversation on the Fillmmaker’s Toolkit podcast. “We tried to simplify the frames as much as we could, or I did particularly also with my lighting as well, to try and simplify frames as much as I could. By doing that, we’ve been able to give the viewers that absorption of story and experience.”
For Fraser, that simplifying of the frame wasn’t just crucial to audience absorption, it was at the heart of how the story works.”For me, the story centers around singular characters together and apart from each other and as a group. So every decision that we make sort of stems from that, and the world that’s outside, that just happens to take place,” Fraser said. Villaneuve’s approach to that outside world was one, Fraser said, that “if you didn’t know it was set in the future and you would almost deem it to be set in the past in an alternate universe, where they could fly spaceships in the 19th century, 18th century or 17th century. Like, it potentially could have been a throwback.”
The throwback nature of some of the iconic shots in the film, however, wasn’t something that Fraser said was conscience on the part of the filmmakers. “It becomes a bit of a subconscious thing. Like I think that there are decisions [that are made] through communal knowledge of film and cinema,” Fraser said. “You know, we didn’t talk about ‘Apocalypse Now’, for example. We never talked about ‘Apocalypse Now’, but I’ve heard some similarities [the introduction of the Baron has] to Kurtz, and that’s really interesting because [it’s right.] But we never looked at those as references.”
What Fraser really looked at was how to translate Villeneuve’s vision of Arrakis to the screen, and that meant a rigorous modulation not only of composition but also of color. “We tried quite hard to make sure that it all sat within a certain tone,” Fraser said. “It never sort of peaks beyond a certain level. And, you know, I think that’s a bold move for a filmmaker. Again, I go back to Denis’ boldness and applaud him for that because it allows us, when certain colors come in… the color pops and it’s a beautiful respite. It’s a beautiful adjunct to this kind of mutal tonal world that has been set up in advance.”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.