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Dune Was Shot on ALEXA LF, Transferred to 35mm Film, Then Scanned Back to Digital

The process of making Dune was pretty novel in terms of creating the imagery. The movie was shot digital (on the ARRI ALEXA LF and Mini LF), then was transferred to 35mm film, and then was scanned back to digital. All that to create the most accurate emulation possible, reducing the digital sharpness, and elevating softness. Read on about this fascinating process.

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DP Greig Fraser ASC, ACS during the shoot of Dune. COURTESY OF CHIA BELLA JAMES/WARNER BROS

Dune cinematography

Principal photography of Dune began in March 2019. Hence, DP Greig Fraser ASC, ACS, and director Denis Villeneuve used a prototype of the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF camera during the last months of shooting. According to resources, the film was shot for the IMAX format with an IMAX-certified ALEXA LF camera and an IMAX-certified Mini LF (the prototype), equipped with Panavision’s large-format lenses in the Ultra Vista and H-series lineup, with select scenes seeing the aspect ratio opened up to 1.90:1. It’s important to note that back then there were no ‘IMAX-Certified’ cameras, as the ‘Filmed in IMAX’ program was announced later on. Anyway, the film was shot in pure digital format (ARRIRAW).

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BTS of Dune. Greig Fraser with the ALEXA LF. Picture: ARRI

“Digital felt too crisp, and film looked too nostalgic”

For testing, Fraser tried many formats, focusing on film cameras. He shot 65mm, IMAX, 35mm, and film. Fraser admitted that he was eager to shoot Dune on IMAX film. However, the pure film was too nostalgic for a Sci-Fi movie, ad Fraser elaborated that film stock indeed looked a little bit dated for that kind of movie. However, on the other hand, digital looks too sharp. “We just want to use the digital look, but to create softness…When we projected film, it just didn’t give us the feeling that we were after,” he stated and described his feeling about shooting on film: “It felt, as Denis put it, a little bit nostalgic like we were watching something that has happened in the past…The digital, particularly when projected in IMAX, felt more contemporary, but it was a little too crisp”.

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BTS of Dune. Picture: Panavision.

Solution: Shooting digital, transferring to 35mm film, then scanned back into digital

While Dune was shot digitally, it then transferred onto 35 mm film which was then scanned back into digital. Thus, the movie that you see in the theater has undergone a process of emulation. It was derived from a novel technique that was implemented for the first time in a commercial feature. “It was an involved process that hasn’t really happened before in commercial films,” Fraser explains. “But it gave us the feeling we had been picturing a certain texture that’s painterly but feels timeless…The film has softened the edges of the digital. It gave us something that film acquisition couldn’t give us, and it gave us something that digital acquisition couldn’t give us” Fraser elaborated to the Go Creative Show (watch the interview below):

Transferring digital film into 35mm

The process of creating prints from original negatives is a costly one. However, dedicated technologies allow the privilege of facilitating the process, making it more affordable. Established in 2014 CPC London is the only Film lab in the world that solely specializes in producing affordable 35mm motion picture film prints for filmmakers, Using two extremely rare film recorder units, they are able to transform raw data into a brand new 35mm print, complete with soundtrack and subtitles as required (even in 3D). For a 90-minute film, the process from receiving the raw data file to completing printing can take as little as four hours.

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Digital to Film scanner. Picture: CPC London

Watch a video that highlights the process: 

Adding real grain (=emulation)

Here is an example of TrueGrain Scanning, which is a new technology that CPC London uses. As stated by CPC London: “Achieve the Authentic ‘Film’ Look by adding real grain and texture to your digital content without the need for any effects or filters! We can record your digital content on real 35mm motion picture film and re-scan back to digital to achieve the authentic ‘film’ look”. 

Watch the film below that implemented that methodology:

Final thoughts

At first, it seemed that the process applied on Dune was (is) a bit ‘Sisyphean’. Using digitally captured images printed into film and then scanned back seems like an unnecessarily complicated process. Why not just shoot on 35mm film directly, especially with a more than $150 million dollar budget? Nevertheless, Dune’s director and cinematographer have answered that. In most cases, when you are eager that your materials will look like the real thing (=film), you have many options like using film stock emulations. However, I’m not sure how those film emulators perform in the movie theaters. The process used on Dune allowed an imagery hybridization of analog and digital. Have you noticed that special look?