‘Dune’ cinematographer Greig Fraser on playing with scale

“I don’t like to repeat myself,” admits “Dune” cinematographer Greig Fraser. That much is clear when looking at his body of work, which includes the tense “Zero Dark Thirty,” the science-fiction/western atmosphere of “The Mandalorian,” and intimate dramas like “Foxcatcher” and his Oscar nominated work on “Lion.” “I do like to basically reinvent the wheel as much as I can,” reveals Fraser. His ability to revitalize his style was paramount when bringing director Denis Villeneuve’s highly specific vision of Frank Herbert’s novel to life. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

SEE Denis Villeneuve interview: ‘Dune’ director

“The visual change I make on each picture is based primarily on the discussion with the director,” explains Fraser. So, plenty of time was spent getting inside Villeneuve’s head to discover the film that the director had wanted to create for decades. The pair believed that shooting on film would be the key to unlocking the movie’s signature visual style, but test shoots didn’t produce the results they were looking for. Film wasn’t quite right, but the digital shots were too sharp. They realized that combining digital and film was the only way to produce the type of image they were looking for. “By going back to film, which is an analog tool, we managed to get some of that analog-ness back.”

Many of the scenes captured through Fraser’s lens were shot on location in harsh conditions. Real deserts serve as the stand in for the sand dunes of Arrakis, with many scenes shot under the scorching sun. “It’s all the challenges you can imagine,” jokes Fraser. Though similarly to the unique digital/film transfer process, the natural world also gives the film an indescribable emotion. “There’s something about those elements that actually brings a lot to the picture,” suggests the cinematographer. “Mother nature starts to give you something… Mother Nature has an opinion in this film.”

SEE Hans Zimmer interview: ‘Dune’ composer

While the sequences captured in the natural world are frequently epic in scope, Fraser contrasts those sweeping shots with lingering extreme closeups of the actors. “To fully ram home the point of the film, to tell the drama, we needed to be in close to our actors,” he explains. Fraser believes that switching between wide shots and closeups in a single scene can further the drama and scope of a moment. He specifically points to the “sand harvester” sequence as a prime example: Intimate shots of Paul (Timothee Chalamet) in an ornithopter give way to a larger harvester on the ground, before establishing additional scale when a giant sandworm appears in the distance. “I love playing with scale in films,” he admits, “I love feeling and seeing scale.”

After tackling a science-fiction epic, it’s easy to wonder what type of project this master of reinvention will search for next. “When I take films, I generally take them if I can contribute something greater than the sum of my parts,” suggests Fraser. He then gushes, “I’ve never done a musical!” thinking back to the fun he had crafting a musical sequence for “Vice.” We probably shouldn’t expect Paul Atreides to break into song and dance during “Dune: Part Two,” but it’s exciting to think about what Fraser could do with a new genre.

Fraser scored Oscar nominations for his work on “Lion” and “Dune.” He is an Emmy winner for “The Mandalorian.”

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