A Life Aquatic: Diving Into the Story of Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau peers out of the porthole of SP-350 Denise diving saucer, 1960. (Credit: National Geographic/Luis Marden)
Jacques Cousteau peers out of the porthole of SP-350 Denise diving saucer, 1960. (Credit: National Geographic/Luis Marden)

Adventurer, filmmaker, inventor, celebrity and conservationist: the life of Jacques-Yves Cousteau is a rich tale for any documentarian.

From National Geographic, Becoming Cousteau tells the story of the French marine explorer who became a huge star on American television with his ABC series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which ran from 1966-1976.

It was that show that Liz Garbus remembers watching as a child and inspired the filmmaker to spend the six years gathering archive material for her new film.

“I was very familiar with him as a child who grew up watching his TV show, but that means I was familiar with a certain facet of him which was that outward-facing explorer,” she told Science & Film. “As we talk about in the film, his shows lost audience as time went on, as he became more alarmed and more committed to sounding the alarm about the environment he saw in distress.”

In 2019, after years of negotiating, the Cousteau Society granted Garbus exclusive access to 500 hours of archival video and audio footage.

Jacques Cousteau wears his iconic red diving cap aboard his ship Calypso, circa 1970s in director Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau.” Cr: National Geographic
Jacques Cousteau wears his iconic red diving cap aboard his ship Calypso, circa 1970s in director Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau.” Cr: National Geographic

“It was a long process; six years working with the Cousteau Society to get access to all of his archive, outtakes, notebooks, and journals,” Garbus explained. “Much of his work has been seen before on television and films, and that was widely available. But I really wanted to focus on the behind-the-scenes man to the extent I could and open up that archive to a generation of people who were unfamiliar.

“Cousteau himself said: ‘if one person has the opportunity to live an extraordinary life, they have no business keeping it to themselves.’ I tried to continue to refer back to his own words as I was working with the family to get access to the archives.”

READ MORE: Liz Garbus on Becoming Cousteau (Science & Film)

Calypso crew members dive in dark waters in director Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau.” Cr: National Geographic
Calypso crew members dive in dark waters in director Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau.” Cr: National Geographic

Cousteau co-created the Aqua Lung, won both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar for his 1956 film The Silent World, and became a world-renowned conservationist. Plenty of material to make a Ken Burns-style mini-series you would think.

“I wanted it to be a complete experience,” Garbus told Variety. “I also wanted it to be something that would introduce new people to [Cousteau] and for those of us who knew and loved him, it would be a walk through memory lane that ends up giving you more than you knew [about him]. So the doc needed to be a film you consume in one sitting.”

READ MORE: Liz Garbus on Her Toronto Doc ‘Becoming Cousteau’ (Variety)

Becoming Cousteau is directed and produced by Garbus (Oscar nominated for docs The Farm: Angola, USA and What Happened, Miss Simone?) and written and edited by Pax Wassermann.

“He was one of the early voices to connect the dots” on global warming, Wasserman told Deadline, “and to popularize that argument in a way that people could listen to.”

Cousteau also developed the first hand-held underwater camera and a form of diving saucer submersible. “He was very influenced by space exploration,” Wasserman noted. “He sort of fashioned himself as also being like an ‘astronaut of the sea.’ ”

July 1969: Jacques Cousteau communicates by radio with a crew member exploring the ocean depths in one of the Calypso’s diving saucers in director Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau.” Cr: National Geographic
July 1969: Jacques Cousteau communicates by radio with a crew member exploring the ocean depths in one of the Calypso’s diving saucers in director Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau.” Cr: National Geographic

READ MORE: “Astronaut Of The Sea”: ‘Becoming Cousteau’ Filmmakers On Incredible Marine Explorer-Conservationist Jacques Cousteau — TIFF Studio (Deadline)

Jacques Cousteau films an underwater shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea in 1943 in director Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau.” Cr: National Geographic
Jacques Cousteau films an underwater shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea in 1943 in director Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau.” Cr: National Geographic

IndieWire says Garbus’ feature will make you want to seek out the films that Cousteau himself made. Footage of 1930s trips contain “outstanding underwater cinematography that, at times, looks hand-tinted. Seeing a purple stingray glide under the water, and knowing the material is nearly a century old, gives everything a beautiful, eerie quality.”

READ MORE: ‘Becoming Cousteau’ Review: Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World Comes Alive in Liz Garbus’ Documentary (IndieWire)

Want more? In the video below, watch filmmaker Liz Garbus in conversation with TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers about the making of Becoming Cousteau in advance of the film’s premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival:

Jacques Cousteau in a diving suit, 1972 in director Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau.” Cr: National Geographic
Jacques Cousteau in a diving suit, 1972 in director Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau.” Cr: National Geographic

The New Old West: Mihai Malaimare’s Reinventions for “The Harder They Fall”

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Hulu’s “Dopesick:” Danny Strong’s Tragic Timeline of the Opioid Crisis

Richard Sackler begins to launch a powerful new painkiller, a rural doctor is introduced to the drug, a coal miner plans her future, a DEA Agent learns of blackmarket pills, and federal prosecutors decide to open a case into OxyContin. Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton), shown. (Photo by: Antony Platt/Hulu)
Richard Sackler begins to launch a powerful new painkiller, a rural doctor is introduced to the drug, a coal miner plans her future, a DEA Agent learns of blackmarket pills, and federal prosecutors decide to open a case into OxyContin. Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton), shown. (Photo by: Antony Platt/Hulu)

As author Beth Macy says in her 2018 book, “Dopesick,” “When a new drug sweeps the country , it historically starts in the big cities and gradually spreads to the hinterlands. But the opioid epidemic began in exactly the opposite manner.”

The new limited series Dopesick from Hulu dutifully tells the story of Michael Keaton’s small town doctor, Samuel Finnix and his creeping realization, through his patients, that something really bad was happening.

  • Rosario Dawson as Bridget Meyer in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Peter Sarsgaard as Rick Mountcastle and John Hoogenakker as Randy Ramseyer in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Phillipa Soo as Amber Collins in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Samual Ray Gates as Jermaine Spellman in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu

Tim Stevens from The Spool describes the series’ set-up: “The opioid crisis in America is a harrowing slow-motion car wreck of human misery that we remain very much mired in as we speak.

“It’s yet another entirely avoidable self-inflicted wound on our national psyche prolonged by government inaction, corporate malfeasance, and our ongoing addiction to regionalism that allows us to ‘other’ problems until they’re literally on our doorstep.”

READ MORE: Dopesick is a painful, important deep dive into the opioid crisis (The Spool)

  • Kaitlyn Dever as Betsy Mallum in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Sackler in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Gena Shaw as Jennifer Ramseyer and John Hoogenakker as Randy Ramseyer in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Will Poulter as Billy Cutler in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu

In its eight episodes, the story is told from various perspectives: Michael Keaton’s Dr. Finnix is being pushed to prescribe the drug; a young coal miner (Kaitlyn Dever) starts taking it to deal with the pain of on-the-job injuries; the US attorneys (Peter Sarsgaard and John Hoogenakker) and DEA agent (Rosario Dawson) investigating its effects. Then there’s Purdue Pharma and the ultimate owners of the drug OxyContin, the Sacklers.

Writer Danny Strong, however, didn’t find his initial guidance from Macy’s bestselling book, but his direction slammed in to a parallel attempt to tell the story, as he told Vanity Fair. “It didn’t start with the book for me. I was approached by John Goldwyn to write and direct a movie about the opioid crisis, and after researching it, I thought, Oh, this should be a limited series, this is way too big for just a movie.

“I came up with this whole pitch, which is what the show is. Then I went and I sold that pitch to 20th, my studio. Then the sister studio at the same company, Fox 21, not knowing that I had sold this pitch, went and bought the book ‘Dopesick’ in a bidding war.”

The teams subsequently joined up and the book’s author, Beth Macy, joined the writing team.

  • Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Sackler in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Rosario Dawson as Bridget Meyer in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Sackler and Andrea Frankle as Beth Sackler in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Catherine Lellie as Strung Out Woman in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu

The next problem for Strong was how to tell this story, as he explained to KCRW. “When you start reading about Purdue’s crimes and the extent of their lies and how they misbranded and manipulated, peddled influence, you just can’t believe it. You just can’t believe what they did.

“The whole story is so shocking, I just had to figure out how to get this told in a mainstream way.”

  • Michael Keaton as Dr. Samuel Finnix and Will Poulter as Billy Cutler in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Greg Lee as Federal Agent in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Kenneth Tigar as Arthur Sackler and Walter Bobbie as Mortimer Sackler in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Kaitlyn Dever as Betsy Mallum in “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu

READ MORE: To create Hulu’s ‘Dopesick,’ Danny Strong fell down the Purdue Pharma rabbithole (KCRW)

Strong also explained his narrative construction problems to Vanity Fair: “First and foremost, I was most interested in the origin story. I found [it] quite Machiavellian. Then there was this US attorney and their case. Their investigation began in 2002; the case settled in 2007.

“So I had all these things that I wanted to do, but they were in different timelines. So what do you do? Do you do it linear, or do you do something that is going in and out of time? You’re investigating something in a present-day timeline, as you’re seeing the crime being committed in the past, and it’s all going back and forth.

  • Michael Keaton as Dr. Samuel Finnix and Glynnis O’Conner as Barbara Lee in episode 3 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Will Poulter as Billy Cutler and Phillipa Soo as Amber Collins in episode 3 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Will Poulter as Billy Cutler and Phillipa Soo as Amber Collins in episode 3 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Phillipa Soo as Amber Collins and Will Poulter as Billy Cutler in episode 3 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu

“The biggest fear of it was that it was going to be confusing and not work… but then there are times where it’s quite compelling to all of a sudden jump ahead or jump behind based on a piece of information that we’ve just come to understand in a different timeline. It was a lot of me telling Hulu, ‘It’s going to be great.’ Then I go back to my computer, like, ‘Oh, god. I hope that works.’ ”

READ MORE: With Dopesick, Danny Strong Confronts an American Horror Story (Vanity Fair)

Something that helped Strong compartmentalize his fictional build was a quote from Aaron Sorkin. “He has this phrase that I think is so perfect, where he says, ‘It’s not a photograph, it’s a painting.’ That’s what we’re up to here. This isn’t a documentary, it’s definitely a work of art — which I hope doesn’t sound too pretentious, but that’s what it is.

  • Samual Ray Gates as Jermaine Spellman and Rosario Dawson as Bridget Meyer in episode 3 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Rosario Dawson as Bridget Meyer and Raul Esparza as Paul Mendelson in episode 3 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Rosario Dawson as Bridget Meyer and Raul Esparza as Paul Mendelson in episode 3 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Phillipa Soo as Amber Collins and Will Poulter as Billy Cutler in episode 3 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu

“At the same time, it’s one that is quite accurate and one that even in dramatization, there is a universal truth to what you’re doing so that it’s fair, it’s appropriate.”

The story is so far-reaching that Netflix is preparing it own version based on another book and article. The New Yorker article, “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” by Patrick Radden Keefe, and the book “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Barry Meier, serve as underlying material for the series, with Keefe and Meier on board as consultants.

  • Peter Sarsgaard as Rick Mountcastle and John Hoogenakker as Randy Ramseyer in episode 4 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • John Hoogenakker as Randy Ramseyer in episode 4 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Kaitlyn Dever as Betsy Mallum and Nicholas Logan as Walt in episode 4 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Rosario Dawson as Bridget Meyer in episode 4 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu

In Netflix’s Pain Killer, Uzo Aduba will play Edie, an investigator leading the case against Purdue. Matthew Broderick will portray Richard Sackler, scion of the billionaire Sackler family and senior executive at Purdue Pharma. Production on the six-episode limited series will begin this year in Toronto.

READ MORE: Uzo Aduba & Matthew Broderick To Star In ‘Painkiller’ Netflix Limited Series About Opioid Crisis; West Duchovny, Dina Shihabi & John Rothman Also Cast (Deadline)

But even though Purdue Pharma was dissolved recently in a bankruptcy settlement that cost its owners, members of the Sackler family, $4.5 billion, Strong still feels that there is an apparent injustice. “The story never ends, and it feels like they always get away with it. They just always get away. They have been publicly shamed in a way that is staggering. I don’t know any family or individual in corporate America that has gotten the publicity and the backlash [they’ve gotten].”

  • Samual Ray Gates as Jermaine Spellman and Rosario Dawson as Bridget Meyer in episode 4 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Benjamin Perkinson as Chase and Alayna Hester as Elizabeth Ann in episode 4 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Linda Powell as Karen Moles and Rosario Dawson as Bridget Meyer in episode 4 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu
  • Will Poulter as Billy Cutler in episode 4 of “Dopesick.” Cr: Hulu

Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” Is A Lot. Here’s How He Did It.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

It must be a less stress-inducing experience, doing press when you know the reviews of your film are good. Or better than good, in fact. Dune still has to do the numbers at the box office, but director Denis Villeneuve seems to have conjured a film that even fans of the book will love.

Villeneuve prepared to take on Frank Herbert’s gargantuan and seemingly impossible to film mythology of power, ecology and geopolitics by first making a worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Director Denis Villeneuve and Timothée Chalamet on the set of “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

The massive themes of the book have daunted filmmakers. They range from the impact of colonialism to planetary ecosystems. Villeneuve — who studied science at college with an eye to becoming a biologist — was clearly touched by its environmentalism.

“I discovered the book in my teenage years and I remember being totally fascinated by what it was saying about nature — the true main character of Dune,” Villeneuve says in the film’s production notes.

He added, “To me, Dune is a psychological thriller, an adventure, a war movie, a coming-of-age movie. It’s even a love story.”

“Harkonnens. Messiahs. Deadly, insect-like hunter-seekers. A secretive all-women order of spies, nuns, scientists, and theologians that’s bending history to its will. A spice harvested from an arid desert that enables space travel. ’Thopters. Interstellar war. Giant sand worms,” writes Alissa Wilkinson.

“The world of Dune is a wild one, a tale spun by Frank Herbert in the tumultuous 1960s that mixes fear of authoritarian rule and environmental collapse with fascism, racism, and hallucinatory imagery. The 1965 novel, which eventually garnered widespread acclaim, was followed by a universe of sequels for its rabidly devoted fans. The trappings of its imagined, distant-future world feel wondrous, unfamiliar, and strange,” she continues.

“Or they would, if we hadn’t been steeped in Dune fever for so many years, even prior to the recent arrival of Denis Villeneuve’s extraordinary and resolutely abstruse film adaptation. Even the most Dune-averse person can hardly avoid the long tail of Herbert’s saga, whether they realize it or not.” Read the full article here.

READ MORE: Denis Villeneuve’s new big-screen adaptation underlines why generations have been fascinated by the story.

Given all that, Villeneuve’s masterstroke may have been to cut the book in two. Rather than trying to cram all the themes, characters and plot lines into one bum-numbing movie, this is in fact Dune: Part One with a sequel already far advanced.

Dune, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival to stellar reviews, cost $165 million to produce, and stars Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Stellan Starsgard, Zendaya and Javier Bardem.

Perhaps the Canadian’s only misstep has been to call out Warner Bros. for its plan to stream the movie on HBO Max day-and-date with the theatrical release.

“With this decision AT&T has hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history,” Villeneuve wrote in an open letter published at Variety. “There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here. It is all about the survival of a telecom mammoth, one that is currently bearing an astronomical debt of more than $150 billion.”

READ MORE: ‘Dune’ Director Denis Villeneuve Blasts HBO Max Deal (Variety)

Interviewed recently by The New York Times, he seems more emollient — but not much.

“It was for my mental sanity [that I wrote the letter],” he said. “I was so angry, bitter and wounded.”

The director said he understands the pressures of the pandemic, but had made Dune as a love letter to the big screen in the mold of Lawrence of Arabia.

  • Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides and Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Director Denis Villeneuve and Javier Bardem on the set of “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

“The decision to stream the film seemed to Villeneuve symptomatic of threats to the cinematic tradition itself, which he sees as fulfilling an ancient human need for communal storytelling,” writes interviewer Helen MacDonald.

Dune is a passion project for the director who has harbored dreams of adapting it to screen for decades. A huge part of his creative vision was to film it on location and to give those desert vistas maximum cinematic impact.

The location sequences were shot in Jordan (in the Wadi Rum desert, where David Lean filmed portions of Lawrence of Arabia), in the UAE, and on huge sets at Origo Studios in Budapest — the same space which housed Blade Runner 2049.

Like No Time To Die, Dune was shot pre-pandemic and that’s significant as these epics could be among the last of this scale shot in traditional fashion on location.

  • Zendaya as Chani in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

The movie’s cinematographer, Greig Fraser, ASC, came to the project straight after working on the virtual production stage of The Mandalorian. It would stand to reason that, were Dune shot today, virtual production would come into play to reduce production costs and for COVID safety.

According to the Times, when Fraser offered the technology to Villeneuve, the director declined, saying he wanted to shoot the movie in real desert landscape, “for my own mental sanity, to be able to inspire myself to find that feeling I was looking for of isolation, of introspection.”

READ MORE: The Man Who Finally Made a ‘Dune’ That Fans Will Love (The New York Times)

However, in an interview with IBC 365, Fraser said that in fact the technology at that time (in 2019, between March and July) wasn’t yet ready to be used on anything other than the highly bespoke setup at ILM for Disney. However, he suggested that virtual production could play a role mixed with location work for the Dune sequel.

READ MORE: Behind The Scenes: The Mandalorian’s Groundbreaking Virtual Production (IBC 365)

  • Executive producer Tanya Lapointe and director Denis Villeneuve on the set of “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Mohiam in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

Like No Time To Die, Dune also features sequences shot using IMAX cameras to enhance the spectacle. Unlike NTTD, however, Dune was shot digitally. Paul Atreidis’ visions, dreams and the desert sequences are shot on IMAX-certified Alexa LF cameras, with the rest shot in 2:35 format on the Alexa LF with large-format Panavision Vista and H-series lenses.

Nonetheless, Fraser says he did compromise a bit. “We then did another technique where we filmed out the digital, meaning once the film was edited, Fotokem filmed it and then a negative was created. Next, they scanned that negative back in, so the film, which everybody sees, has been through an analog process. It’s a technique I’d been playing with for a little while but hadn’t actually applied to a feature film before.”

  • Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Chang Chen as Dr. Yueh in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

Again, as befitting the tactility of the film’s aesthetic, many of the effects are shot in-camera. This included building a big platform under the sand in Jordan which were able to be vibrated by ten engines to simulate the earth-shaking movement of the worms.

Another unique technique was the invention of a sand-colored screen rather than a blue or green screen. VFX Supervisor Paul Lambert (DNEG) explains, “Because we knew that any background plate or CG environment was essentially going to be sand colored, the foreground live action would already be immersed in the same colored environment. The bonus of this technique was that if you invert the sand color during the compositing process, you end up with a blue color, which then acts like a blue screen, allowing you to then do a more traditional matte extraction.

“Obviously, there are some issues with that — skin tone and similar sand colors will be a little more problematic — but you end up with a far more natural looking visual when you are compositing an image that has been extracted from a color similar to what the final color is going to be. It’s a straightforward technique but very effective for this movie, which is all about sand.”

Kudos must also be given to editor Joe Walker, ACE, who has cut the director’s last four pictures. Walker and Villeneuve are not just collaborators but friends: they even shared a Christmas with each other’s families.

As the pair began work on the sequel COVID-19 necessitated remote working which Villeneuve found taxing. “It’s not the same,” he told the NYT. “It’s like playing music. There are so many ideas that Joe and I have, I don’t know if it’s his idea or my idea — it comes from the addition of us both being in the room. Which is by far my favorite thing about cinema.”

Again, the most sensible decision Villeneuve and the film’s producers have taken is to treat the book with respect for its complexity and not bite off more than they can chew.

“It was by far the biggest movie I’ve ever made, the most challenging,” he says. “Dune is an appetizer for the second part still to come, which is the main meal.”

  • Zendaya as Chani in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

Cinematographer Greig Fraser’s Visions/Visuals for “Dune”

Zendaya as Chani and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
Zendaya as Chani and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

Star Wars cast a shadow over both movie versions of Dune even before a frame had been shot. 1984’s Dune was directed and subsequently disowned by director David Lynch due to problems with a promised final cut. But while he was still attached to the movie Lynch removed anything from it that even reminded him of George Lucas’ iconic family-friendly space saga; this was a more serious epic.

Dune 2021 was shot by Greig Fraser who also had to go through his own kind of Star Wars cold turkey regime. Fraser had shot Rogue One: A Star Wars Story back in 2015 and The Mandalorian last year and had portrayed both with his inherent love of the original films. A love he had to expunge as soon as director Denis Villeneuve asked him to shoot the new version of Frank Herbert’s tome.

  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck Atreides, Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

Fraser told IndieWire, “There were some similarities like the deserts. I mean listen, ultimately, I’m positive George Lucas was inspired by Dune when he made Star Wars. I don’t know if that’s sacrilegious to talk about, but there are a lot of similarities in some areas, so you could tell he was definitely influenced by that. So I had to be careful doing both — Dune and The Mandalorian — and not to repeat myself. Also not just for the sake of the movie, but for fun. I hate to do the same thing twice.”

READ MORE: ‘Dune’ Cinematographer Says Film Is a ‘Fully Standalone Epic’ Despite Two-Movie Plan (IndieWire)

Fraser, by his own admission, draws in references from movies he watches almost subconsciously, which is why he has a rule not to watch anything unrelated while he is shooting. He told The T-Stop Inn podcast about the time he watched SkyFall while shooting the movie Foxcatcher. Roger Deakins shot Skyfall and used his 32mm lens throughout. The next day Fraser was on-set and asked his assistant for a 32mm lens even though they had been using at least a 40mm prime for everything up to that point. Subconsciously he had taken on Roger Deakins’ shooting plan.

READ MORE: Greig Fraser ACS ASC– The Mandalorian & Dune (Newsshooter)

But Dune 2021 was to be a movie on the largest canvas, with an hour of it shot in IMAX. When the action moved to Arrakis, the IMAX format took over without any LED volume backgrounds. The Dune desert scenes were photographed in Jordan, where Fraser had shot Zero Dark Thirty.

Fraser told The Hollywood Reporter how director Denis Villeneuve had always envisaged the film “He’s such a man-child with this story, he loves the material, he’s incredibly passionate about it. I listened to him for hours. He dreamed his film in 4:3 [ratio], which initially was an unusual thing to hear because 4:3 doesn’t immediately make me think of a big epic.

“But when I saw how we were shooting it for IMAX, I saw Dune how Denis saw it. The story is big. It’s epic. You can’t really get bigger from a scale perspective. But ultimately, it’s about this boy, Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet) [and] about Paul’s journey with his family. It wasn’t dissimilar to the movie Lion, where we had to view the world from Paul’s eyes.”

  • Zendaya as Chani and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Mohim in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Zendaya as Chani in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Zendaya as Chani and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

Quite simply, Fraser and his director composed Dune as a series of wide shots, showing the sweeping landscapes of the desert planet Arrakis (Dune) where most of the movie’s action takes place, with extreme close-ups for the many intimate moments between the characters.

The DP told Variety that Villeneuve felt the film should “feel extraordinarily intimate to the characters. We didn’t talk about the scale, because that goes without saying.”

Fraser had to be careful not to lose the inherent “coming of age” narrative within Dune and tuned any changes in camera movement and lens choice to supporting the human story. “Any decision I made about lens or movement, I fell back on the character,” Fraser explained. “That meant keeping individuals in the center frame unless we were showing them in amongst the landscape. More often than not, the landscape was secondary to them, and their coverage.”

  • Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides, Zendaya as Chani, Javier Bardem as Stilgar, and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet Kynes in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Javier Bardem as Stilgar in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat, Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides, Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, and Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

READ MORE: ‘Dune’ Cinematographer Greig Fraser on Making the Expansive Film ‘Feel Intimate to the Characters’ (Variety)

Fraser shot Dune on the Alexa LF, ARRI’s large-format digital camera, but Villeneuve then transferred the image onto 35mm film which was then scanned back into digital.

“So the image you see on screen has been through an emulsion… it’s a beautiful melding of digital and analog,” noted Fraser. “Where Denis is super smart is in being open to the idea that you can easily combine digital and analog and sometimes you can use that to get a result you have never seen before.”

  • Director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Dave Bautista as Rabban Harkonnen in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet Kynes in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros
  • Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet Kynes in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros

Dune 2021 is being shown in theaters in both IMAX and standard formats, as well as HBO’s streaming service HBO Max, but Fraser urges viewers to watch the film in theaters in order to get the best experience. “Of course, you can watch it on a TV and have your ice cream and put your feet up,” he quipped, “but there is something about the theatrical experience for this movie.

“I saw it in an IMAX theater and I could barely contain myself. With the soundtrack, the acting, the color grade, and the design. It all adds up. It was like being on a rollercoaster.”

READ MORE: How ‘Dune’ Cinematographer Greig Fraser Created the Look of Denis Villeneuve’s Sci-Fi Epic (The Hollywood Reporter)

  • Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Cr: Warner Bros