What Filmmakers Can Learn from the Color of 'Dune' and Colorist David Cole

Film Splicing Station
Credit: FotoKem
Color grading a big motion picture is a complicated affair.

Today, we take a look at an interview between Filmmakers Academy and colorist David Cole on his workflow for Dune to see what filmmakers can learn from his process.

Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s space epic, is a story told on a grand scale that hops between not only different planets but distinct alien cultures. A big part of this production was handled by Cole, who oversaw the project as the supervising and lead digital colorist.

With a runtime of two hours and 35 minutes, Cole and his team had a massive amount of work. 

During an interview with Filmmakers Academy, Cole broke down his process during several key moments in the film, including making custom LUTs and overseeing multiple exhibition formats.

But what can indie filmmakers, and filmmakers on a budget, learn from Cole’s workflow? How can they implement these concepts into their projects? Let’s venture into the world of spice. 

Arrakis

Arrakis is a desert planet vital to many powerful rulers of the Dune universe. It is unimaginably dry and inhospitable to most life. Cole stated in his interview that "there is effectively no water (on Arrakis), particularly in the atmosphere. We didn’t want any blue skies that could imply that there’s moisture in the air.”

To properly convey this feeling in the color grade, Cole and his team fabricated a custom LUT for the exteriors of Arrakis that “emulated the skip bleach film process.” With traditional film stock, this causes the contrast to increase, while the colors are darker and more de-saturated.

Arrakis of 'Dune'
Arrakis of 'Dune'Credit: Warner Bros.

“We actually put film through this photochemical treatment, scanned it to digital, and then matched it scientifically so that we had a true skip bleach emulation of film stocks that have gone through that process,” Cole said.

He said that “once we had that as our base building block, we softened the contrast a little bit because we didn’t want it too harsh, allowed air into the shadows, and then we manipulated the top end so that we didn’t get a lot of saturation in that part of the tonal curve.”

But the unique film-to-digital workflow also had an additional benefit. While Villeneuve initially wanted to shoot on 35mm film, it proved far too grainy and nostalgic for such a futuristic setting. 

Dune Post Battle Still
'Dune'Credit: Warner Bros.

“It was decided pretty early on that if the movie was shot on an Alexa LF and then film recorded to a 1 ASA 35mm negative and then scanned back, we could get the film characteristics that we liked from a traditional 15-perf 65mm neg with minimal grain," Cole said. "The whole film-out process was more about everything else that film brings to the table—flicker, inter-layer interactions, weave, slight blur, and halation of the highlights."

We recently covered the digital-to-film and back-to-digital process. Check it out here for some detailed nuggets of wisdom

So what can we learn from this entire process? Well, it’s not only a very time-consuming effort, but it also puts a strain on the budget. But how can filmmakers utilize what we’ve just learned in their projects? 

A Budget Solution

Developing the look and feel of a project before you even get on set has become a lot easier with modern technology. 

With plugins for DaVinci Resolve such as Dehancer and Filmconvert, creatives can fabricate the look of their project using film emulation tools by using a look book, camera choices, or references from other films.

While Dehancer only works with Resolve, Filmconvert works with Final Cut Pro X and Adobe products. 

The idea here is to think about your image early on in your project and base it on elements in your story. When you need to convey a certain look, it’s better to start your exploration before getting on set. You don’t want to end up in post-production and not be able to achieve your vision because what you shot is only “close enough” to what you had in mind. 

Speaking of post-production, let’s talk about exhibition. 

Working in 3D

Dune was released both in the traditional 2D format as well as 3D. When Cole and his team were prepping the release prints of Villeneuve’s massive space epic, they had to develop different looks for each exhibition format. 

Cole said, “When working in stereo (3D), it’s not as simple as just slapping the same grade on every shot, and you are done as apart from shapes needing to sit correctly in 3D space. You also need to contend with the different exhibition light level targets.” 

Dune - Caladan Still
'Dune'Credit: Warner Bros.

There wasn’t just one format for 3D, but two—one for Xenon and one for laser.

“For IMAX alone we are creating eight versions. There is also a Dolby Vision theatrical version in both 2D and 3D, standard theatrical 2D and 3D, and then the various home video formats including HDR,” Cole said.

All of these different formats required a different release print that fine-tuned the visual elements to make sure they were being viewed as intended.

But indie filmmakers and those on a budget don’t have to contend with that, do they?

Showing Your Work

While creatives with smaller budgets don’t have to deal with the mountain of release prints that Cole and his team had to make, there are still many variables to consider. 

Indie projects planning on making their debuts in festivals will have to consider what their film will look like on the big screen. If you rendered out your project for Vimeo or YouTube, that won’t suffice. Certain changes will have to be made to create a cohesive look between the different formats.

But what if you’re a content creator? 

That makes your work even more complicated, as not all devices are the same. Cell phones, tablets, laptops, and computers will all display your image in different ways due to differences in display technology and software color management. Televisions have the same issue between brands.

Variables aside, the most important thing we can glean from Dune’s workflow is to focus on exhibition early in our project. How we show our work matters and planning for the road ahead will make sure your vision stays true. 

If you plan on shooting a web series for YouTube, your workflow will differ if you’re only doing a theater run. 

I Love It When a Plan Comes Together

The most important nugget of wisdom we can learn from Cole’s workflow on Dune is to plan your project. The choices in cameras or lenses, visual elements such as LUTs, and exhibition formats all play a key role in the visual elements of a project. And a project is only as good as its plan. 

We all work in a visual medium. Focus on how you want to tell your story and how you want it to look before you get on set. It doesn’t matter if you’re the director, colorist, or DP. 

Even writers have to outline before they write FADE IN.      

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