‘Dune’ Is the First Time Denis Villeneuve Shot with Multiple Camera Units: ‘Not the Best Way to Work’

"I love to work with one camera...But I didn't have a choice. I had to do it this way."
Denis Villeneuve, Timothee Chalamet on "Dune" set
Denis Villeneuve, Timothee Chalamet on "Dune" set
Chiabella James / © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

Just how big is Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” adaptation? It forced the Oscar-nominated director to use more than one camera unit for the first time in his career. Villeneuve revealed as much in a conversation with Christopher Nolan for the DGA’s “The Director’s Cut” podcast. The production requirements for “Dune” outweighed any of Villeneuve’s previous directorial efforts, including “Blade Runner 2049.” The only way Villeneuve could tackle a film of “Dune’s” size was to accept multiple camera units.

“For the first time of my life, I decided to work with more than one unit because otherwise I would not be here…it was too much work to do in too little time,” Villeneuve told Nolan. “For the first time, I had to learn to direct multiple units and that’s not the best way to work. I love to work with one camera, one tripod. But I didn’t have a choice…I had to do it this way.”

In an interview published last year by Collider, two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins and James Ellis, his wife, and close collaborator, revealed that the line producer on “Blade Runner 2049” expected Deakins and Villeneuve to use nine camera units to film “Blade Runner 2049.” They refused and stuck to their one-camera unit policy.

“We kept saying no, no, we don’t need that. And the line producer didn’t believe us,” James Ellis said. “The same thing with ‘Skyfall.’ They said, ‘Don’t you need five or six cameras?’ I know they didn’t believe we could do it with one camera.”

“It’s always like that,” Roger Deakins added. “They say, we need a list of the four or five camera crews you want because we have to get all these shots. I said, what four or five? No! I thought that was strange to ask that on ‘Blade Runner’ as we worked with Denis before, quite successfully I felt. But it’s always like that with production. The bigger movies, if someone says, ‘Oh, we’ll put six cameras on it and get the scene.’ No thanks.”

In that same interview, Deakins said it’s “sloppy” to make movies by relying on various camera units and he said he filmed “Blade Runner 2049” predominantly with one camera. A time Deakins made an exception to his second unit rule was during the production of “Skyfall.” A second unit camera team traveled to Turkey without Deakins to shoot footage, but Deakins only allowed it because he was able to heavily storyboard the shots he wanted along with director Sam Mendes. As Deakins said, “It wasn’t just a second unit going out and doing their own thing.”

“Dune” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

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