Why 'Dune' Was Shot on Digital, Transferred to 35mm, Then Scanned to Digital

Dune Digital Film Process
'Dune'Credit: Warner Bros.
All for a movie that most people will watch on an iPhone (just sayin')...

If you ever wanted a perfect illustration of just how wild this world of hybrid digital and analog filmmaking has truly become, we have to only look at one of the biggest blockbusters of our modern age. 

As we’ve covered to a great degree here on No Film School, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a triumph in modern filmmaking. And while it might not be a perfect film to everyone, it’s certainly been successfully received by both the box office and critics alike. 

However, as recently revealed in podcasts and the continuous PR following the film’s release, its production through post process has been quite fascinating. And as bonkers as it is to say, in terms of how films are shot, processed, and edited by today’s standards, its digital-to-film-to-digital process actually kind of makes sense.

How They Shot Dune

So, let’s start with the actual production process for the film. According to reports, Dune was shot on a couple of different cameras. To shoot for the IMAX format, Dune cinematographer Greig Fraser, ACS, ASC, used an IMAX-certified ARRI ALEXA LF camera along with a prototype of a MINI LF.

The film was shot with Panavision large-format lenses from the Ultra Vista and H-series lineup, with a few scenes even opening the aspect ratio up to 1.90:1. All to say that the film was shot in pure digital format (ARRIRAW) and not on film…

Which leads us to the uniqueness of this whole process.

Dune’s Digital-to-Film-to-Digital Process

“It was an involved process that hasn’t really happened before in commercial films. 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 said.

As you can hear in the conversation above with cinematographer Fraser, the team chose to go with an unusual, but quite clever, approach of transferring the film to 35mm film before scanning it back to digital.

Thoughts on the Overall Process

Overall, Dune’s digital-to-film-to-digital journey is truly a hybrid digital and analog approach that could be justified and make sense today. However, it might be a bit hard to explain the logic to someone in the past or in the future.

Still, for anyone interested in digital filmmaking or film emulation, it’s fascinating to think about how these two worlds have merged together as well as still seem to work against each other.

For your projects, you’ll always have the choice (but perhaps not the budget) to shoot either on digital or on film, however, it’s up to you to decide just what you want your look to be and how much you want to tinker with your overall process.

How do you feel that Dune’s digital-to-film-to-digital process worked out? Curious to try something similar yourself, or would you prefer to stick to one format altogether?

Let us know in the comments below!     

You Might Also Like

Your Comment

12 Comments

“It was an involved process that hasn’t really happened before in commercial films." - Are we forgetting about 28 Days Later? (2002) Danny Boyle had the film shot on a Canon XL1 DV (sd tape) camera and then transferred to film and back again for distribution.

December 8, 2021 at 1:19PM

0
Reply
Beau
Internet video cinematographer
81

That was a very interesting look! But the sensors were small and low resolution compared with the ones now.

December 9, 2021 at 1:51AM

0
Reply
avatar
Javier Diez
Filmmaker
283

There is no way negative can compare to new sensors and electronic sensitivity (Quantum Efficiency). Just the impressionistic look of the grain. So much investment in this cosmetic look that most of people watch in a TV or phone.

December 9, 2021 at 1:50AM

0
Reply
avatar
Javier Diez
Filmmaker
283

That's a long way round to give yourself some grain nostalgia alongside some resolution loss, was it too sharp?....or did they simply have too much money?

December 9, 2021 at 3:35AM

6
Reply

Any part of the process involving film at this point... "nobody will know... nobody's gonna know..."

December 10, 2021 at 8:52AM

4
Reply
avatar
Chris Santucci
Cinematographer
336

Would love to see a film grain filter of the same footage to compare... The cost of transferring seems so high so I'd like to know in what formats this has a noticeable effect.

December 10, 2021 at 10:43AM, Edited December 10, 10:43AM

0
Reply
Karl Mochel
User Experience Architect
74

I buy it, as people are forgetting that shooting film is about a 30-1 ratio of what's never used and ends up on the cutting room floor. With digital, that's all practically free. Making a film print is only about $4000 each for a feature. So that's a really small amount spent to goto film. And they probably didn't do all the inter-negatives, inter-positives, and then film print, which is about 5 steps from the original negative to print process. They scan digital films to film all the time as the world market oversees has lots of theaters that still only show film so it's a normal process to make a film print. Probably every film made still has film prints to play in those theaters unless it's a streaming only release. In truth it's all not a big deal.

December 10, 2021 at 6:46PM

0
Reply
avatar
Hunter Senftner
Director/DP/Editor
297

nice

December 10, 2021 at 9:59PM

0
Reply

Label me a cynic or skeptic since it seems excessive and very expensive to shoot in the digital to film to digital flow. It's difficult to imagine there isn't a colorist or editor who couldn't achieve the same look in all-digital. Were theater viewers overjoyed and stunned by the visual appeal of Dune in the same way that Technicolor attracted moviegoers to The Wizard of Oz? There's no question that Dune enjoyed a comfortable level of financial success basically doubling its margin. It would interesting to know the cost of injecting film into the post production process.

December 11, 2021 at 7:07AM

3
Reply

I hate to break this to ya'll, but the process of digital to film transfers have been done many many times before. It's nothing new. They did it on episodes of 'House' filmed with the Canon 5D to get the same effect. They did it on Zodiac because they filmed on viper digital cameras, and on many many others...

December 12, 2021 at 7:34AM

3
Reply
avatar
Devin Pickering
Cinematographer/Editor/Composer
250

OMG, sometimes I just want to ask, did you really do it?

December 13, 2021 at 11:04PM

0
Reply
avatar
Henry Mosley
Writer
79

There is a very practical reason to transfer all digital to film, beyond the aesthetic choice: archiving. It's still kind of up in the air how long digital files last and once corrupted, even if it's just a portion of the file, you're likely to lose the whole thing.

Film can be stored for a very long time and if a part of it is damaged, you don't lose the entire movie. The infamous Toy Story 2 debacle where a simple keystroke almost destroyed the entire movie is reason enough to transfer to film.

Compare just about any movie from the 90s to a movie from the mid-2000s onward and you can see that film texture gives depth to a movie that digital has a hard time replicating. The difference is narrowing all the time but resolution between film and digital is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a low resolution film but that gives it a kind of raw texture and quality perfectly fitting for its gritty, horrific subject matter. Low resolution digital just looks like garbage.

That is not to say that digital photography is inherently inferior. David Fincher has and his amazing cinematographers have practically defined themselves by the amazing work they've done on digital.

December 24, 2021 at 5:48PM

1
Reply
avatar
David Patrick Raines
Actor/Writer/Director
584