The Color of Dune with David Cole
Master Colorist David Cole took some time out of his busy day at FotoKem to sit down and talk with us about the color of Dune. Part of this interview was featured in The Look of Dune, which we highly recommend if you’re curious about how Denis Villeneuve and his team pulled off their daring space epic!
David colored some of the greatest films that will forever stand the test of time. In the full interview below, he shares key insights about his process for Dune, touches upon some of his other work, and reveals valuable nuggets of wisdom that should excite all of our readers who want to learn more about what it takes to be a colorist.
Filmmakers Academy: Tell us about your role on Dune.
David Cole: I was supervising and lead digital colorist so I basically headed up all of the creative for the DI with the team. I had plenty of support, too. In editorial, Bob Fredrickson was the online conform artist, and Philip Beckner supported me on color. While he worked alongside me on the master 2D version of the film, he handled most of the 3D versions of the movie. The rest of the team included DI producers, film laboratory, color science, dailies, film I/O, engineering, and DRS.
FA: When did this process start, and how long does the color process take for a film like Dune?
DC: Well, because of the uniqueness of this film, in terms of how we actually executed it, we started talking about the whole pipeline including the film-out process way back while working on the camera tests for Vice, so that’s about four years ago. A year later camera tests were shot where Greig Fraser photographed on 65mm 15-perf, 5-perf, 35mm, Alexa LF, and Alexa 65. Greig went out to the desert and shot some footage there to get a feel for lighting on the dunes from day to dusk and then night, and also shot some pieces at the Sepulveda Dam. We then evaluated all of the material and also tested taking the digital files to film and then scanning those back, match grading to the original digital images, and finally comparing to all of the natively shot formats. For maximum flexibility in the grade, we film it out on to negative using a custom tonal format. It’s not a printable negative, but rather the negative is used as an optical data storage medium.
Once we had evaluated the material at Fotokem, we then visited IMAX in Playa Vista to screen it along with the core creative team and studio heads and it was decided what format was going to be used in production to capture the movie. Initially, Denis [Villeneuve] had thought film would be the way to go, but realized that the 35mm was just too grainy (especially for IMAX presentation) and that it felt too nostalgic – something that he didn’t want to convey – so it was discounted almost immediately. The 15-perf and 5-perf 65mm film looked great, but could bring a lot of potential issues to the filming because they’d been out in the desert. It’s not like films haven’t been shot in the desert—Lawrence of Arabia and similar epics were shot on film—but with limited lab access these days, getting the film out to be processed as well as just dealing with harsh climates and everything like that it was too great a challenge.
FA: The film was predominantly shot in Jordan, right?
DC: Jordan, Abu Dhabi, Norway, and Budapest. 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. 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 found that this hybrid approach of digital acquisition but including a photochemical process gave production maximum flexibility while aesthetically keeping all of the great characteristics of film.
Denis always wanted this film grounded in reality, but he didn’t want it nostalgic. That’s why he didn’t want it too grainy. He didn’t want to make it feel like Lawrence of Arabia, he wanted it to feel modern or futuristic but grounded. By having film as part of this process, it allowed the audience to suspend their sense of disbelief. There’s something about the film process that just allows you to go with it. It’s almost like subliminal permission to just say, “This is real”.
The camera tests occurred months before principal photography began and during that time we also created the lookup tables (LUTs) for the film. We knew that the story would take us to planets other than Arrakis including Giedi Prime and Caladan. On those other planets and the interiors of Arrakis, we wanted a more traditional filmic style LUT, but wanted the shadows to have a softness about them – we never wanted anything pitch black, we wanted to be able to read into the darkness.
For the exteriors of Arrakis, we created a LUT that emulated the skip bleach film process. As FotoKem is a full film laboratory, 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. 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.
Arrakis is one of, if not the driest inhabited planet, in the universe. There is effectively no water, particularly in the atmosphere. We didn’t want any blue skies that could imply that there’s moisture in the air so the LUT was tweaked to handle that and then further tweaked in the final grade.
Even though the palettes are muted, it’s not desaturated in the color grade. It’s only as desaturated as the skip bleach would do (in those exterior Arrakis scenes), along with the production design and wardrobe. When the colors need to pop, they do pop. For most of the visions or dream sequences, we had another creative LUT that we put in line that took us into a golden, surreal world.
That yellow world look was created during production but the other two looks were built in pre-production. Greig basically sent me a still that he’d found somewhere of this woman standing on a cliff overlooking a desert and he and Denis had agreed that’s the look. So, that was my one visual reference where we needed to go.
FA: Was this your second collaboration with Greig? Or, have you worked with him before?
DC: I have. We actually discovered probably about five or six months ago, that we had in fact worked together 20 years ago on a music video. I was listening to a podcast that [Greig] was on. They were talking about his early career and he said, “I used to work at this company in Melbourne called Exit Films.” He said he had shot some music videos with them and I knew that I had graded some for Exit too while working at Digital Pictures, also in Melbourne. I recalled that I had graded one called Pace It by Magic Dirt, and while I remembered the director, I couldn’t remember the DP. So I hunted it down on the internet and saw that Greig had shot it! I told him and he said that was his first-ever music video, and I think it was one of the first music videos that I’d ever colored.
So, our history, unbeknownst to us, goes back 20 or so years. And then we found each other again on Vice and continued our relationship since then. But this was the second major project that I worked on with him and we are re-teaming again on The Batman.
FA: Are you typically always brought into the project early? And how vocal are you allowed to be with someone like Greig Fraser? What does it typically look like for the colorist in making such suggestions, like tools, for instance?
DC: It’s not always the case, quite honestly. Sometimes the movie has been shot before I am awarded the job. It can be like, “Oh, you’re doing this job.” and two weeks later, I’m grading the film. But, when you can, you always want to be as involved as early as possible on a project so that you can do a lot of the heavy lifting in the R&D of look development, LUT development, technical workflow, and then oversee dailies. It’s great for the DP and core creative team to know that they can lean on you to check certain concerns during production.
They can say, “Hey, can you have a look at this and send it back to me?” It’s always fantastic to be as involved as early as possible on any project. And, obviously, with cinematographers that I’ve worked with before, that happens because we know we’re going to work together again. Usually on the initial one, it’s not always the case—but it was with Greig. On Vice, we did a whole lot of tests before production as well, particularly as the film spanned the course of 50 years and we wanted the look of the film to illustrate that.
In terms of my input on those tests, it’s like any relationship. You have to get to know each other. The DP usually chooses the colorist, so in those early days, I will follow the lead of the DP. And as the relationship grows, you can feel confident whether you can say things or if your input is relevant to the situation. A massive part of being a successful colorist, I believe, is really forming that relationship and bond with the key creatives be it the DP or director. Over time, that trust is built.
If I’m offering an opinion, there’s a reason why I’m relaying that point of view, and they’re willing to listen. You want people to learn to trust what you have to say. So having said that, by the time we got to Dune, we’d already done a movie together. Greig had already let me know that he trusted my vision, aesthetic and technical expertise. When we come to doing the camera test, he’s looking for all of the stuff that he needs to look at as a cinematographer – lenses, exposures, Iris settings, different camera formats, etc, and I’m there to help facilitate that. Lighting rigs, whether it’s Digital Sputniks or whatever— I can tell him if I’m seeing particular problems with color, or if certain parts of the bandwidth—the spectrum—are not being relayed or captured appropriately. I can show him where the problems are to help him make an informed decision.
He is leading it—absolutely, because he’s the cinematographer—and I will help out and voice concerns if I see things that could get us into strife down the road. Ultimately, I’m there to make the cinematographer’s images as beautiful as they can be and remove any latent technical issues that may come down. If you’re really in a true collaboration, all creatives on the film want to make the best-looking movie they possibly can. Once you form those relationships, then it’s a massively rewarding experience. It really is a team effort. But you have to build that relationship at the beginning.
FA: What was it like working with Denis Villeneuve, who’s arguably one of the biggest directors right now and coming off of the heels of Blade Runner 2049, which was beautiful and shot by Roger Deakins? This was your first collaboration with him, right?
DC: It is. As you know I’d had that rapport and relationship with Greig, but I didn’t with Denis. That was something that I had to build while working on the film, and I believe we’re very much of the same mindset and aesthetic. It was such a pleasure working with him, not only is he a fantastic director, but he is extremely collaborative, kind, and embracive of ideas, and everyone would bend over backwards to try to achieve his vision because he really is such a passionate, visual director, who is at the top of his game. You just want to give everything, and everyone felt the same.
FA: How did the pandemic affect this process? The editor [Joe Walker] edited this film from home, which is something that he had never done before. Did you find yourself in a similar position or were you able to work on-site?
DC: I work at FotoKem—so when we finished the movie, we were all at FotoKem looking on the big screen because you need to see the images in a projected environment to get as close to what the theatrical experience is. But, when everyone was locked down, Denis was in Montreal, Joe Walker was in LA, I was in LA, and everything was done virtually. I did a lot of work at home and then all the finessing was done in the theater. Likewise, all of the final visual effects reviews were done in the theater as you need to see these images at scale because you don’t want to discover that there are render hits or problems when you’re watching it in IMAX at the end of post-production. There was some work that obviously just could not be done at home, but a good portion of the key creative was done remotely.
FA: I know you started with Andrew Lesnie working on Fellowship of the Ring. At that time, you were one of the lead colorists, and that’s when they were starting to do Digital Intermediates. Considering your earlier films to now, what were some of the biggest challenges with Dune?
DC: Well, as an example, when I worked on Fellowship of the Ring, we were working on a very early version of what would become Lustre. It was basically created to do LOTR. We could have up to eight secondaries (meaning up to eight shapes and/or keys), roto by hand with a simple point tracker, and that was it. We could playback 2K renders at eight frames per second. So when it was getting to crunch time, the only way we could really QC the work was to shoot on to film and then screen the print to review. Obviously, technology has improved over the last 20 years.
Now working on Dune, we’re working on 4K files. For some of the visual effects shots, where we had to be able to frame for 1.43 as well as 2.39 and there was no way to get the composition right for both aspect ratios without a large zoom compromising one of those ratios, so there were a handful of shots —which we called mega frames- which were 7K files. In comparison, I’m quite amazed we did what we did on Lord of the Rings, considering the limitations that we had in the technology at the time. But of course, no matter how advanced you are in technology, it’s never enough. We will still push boundaries regardless of how fast our machines are or how great our bandwidth is.
For Dune, we had to create the distinct looks of all of these worlds, both interiors and exteriors. We wanted many of the interiors of Dune to have very low light levels because we really wanted to cause the audience to experience the harshness and the burn of Arrakis when you go outside on that planet. Exposure was quite down on the interiors, so your eye Irises-out. When you go outside, you then get blasted by the sun, and you Iris-down.
We also had to deal with multiple aspect ratios – 1.43:1 and 2.39:1. While IMAX allowed for the adjusting aspects of 1.43 to 2.39 (or 1.9 to 2.39 depending on IMAX exhibition type), the common theatrical version (and home video) was 2.39 so we needed to re-format shots created in 1.43 down to 2.39, making those framings right as well as dealing with the film-out scan-back process. Traditionally —like on Lord of the Rings— the movie was acquired on film, scanned, graded digitally, filmed back to negative film, and then it was printed—or, it went through a dupe process (so negative to interpositive to internegative and finally print).
What was unique about Dune, and Greig and I had discussed this idea for many years, was to photograph digitally, grade digitally, record to film, process, scan back, and then match grade back in the digital realm. This was the first time that we had done this process for a full-length feature, allowing us to get all of the characteristics of film but in a digital exhibition format.
The final reel of the movie – beginning when Paul explains to Jessica how to do the Fremen walk — was all shot with natural light. In the grade, we had to create that transition from nighttime to pre-dawn to dawn to day.
I had to, over the course of 18 minutes, get from A to B to C to D. Especially in the canyon, where they’re meeting the Fremen, it required a massive amount of rotoscoping—and really tight rotoscoping – to allow the audience to see what they needed to see. The audience had to be able to read expressions of the eyes, faces, sign language, reaching for weapons, etc. We needed to make sure that the scenes didn’t look lit or manipulated in any way and to convey what it actually looks like when you’re in the desert at night or predawn, where it’s only ambient or moonlight and no direct light. And that was a massive undertaking. Greig knew what would be needed while shooting the scenes so we were prepared early on for a lot of work in the DI.
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FA: Are there any highlights that you’re really proud of that you would like to mention? I mean this by way of personal career standpoint, as well. Were there any milestones that you hit?
DC: Just working on Dune is pretty amazing. I mean, it really is the science fiction film book that so many things have come from. It’s pretty cool to be able to say I helped to visually create these worlds.
I’ve been very fortunate to contribute to world-building on quite a lot of films, Lord of the Rings, Tron: Legacy, Life of Pi—even though it’s the real world, it’s a hyper-real version of the real world; King Kong both Peter Jackson’s and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ version on Skull Island, and now Dune; so, being able to create distinct worlds that the audience can immerse themselves in is very rewarding.
FA: There was the David Lynch film that was made prior. Did you spend any time looking back at that film at all for inspiration?
DC: I can’t speak for anyone else but I did not. It was all about discussions with Denis and Greig. Obviously, they had lots of creative development with Patrice Vermette, the production designer, and Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Lambert. Ultimately, this is Denis’ vision and that’s what we were trying to realize on the screen. It’s very different visually from David Lynch’s work.
FA: Tell us about the various versions of Dune that you had to create.
DC: Obviously, we do a lot of creative work in the coloring of a movie, and that is what you see on the screen. But on a film, especially one of this scale, we need to technically create many different versions depending on the viewing environment. For IMAX exhibition, we had the 1.43 version. That’s the true massive IMAX screen which intercuts between 1.43 and 2.39. We then have the more common IMAX, which is 1.9 to 2.39. We have to oversee it on both the laser and Xenon projection in those two formats. There is also 3D of those formats in Xenon and 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.
FA: Was it printed on film for IMAX?
DC: No, digital. There was no film print released but every 2D version has gone through the film process.
For making any film, you finish doing the creative, and then you need to fulfill all of the versions required for delivery. And thankfully, as I said earlier, I had Phil Beckner helping me so I could set some levels on the 3D as a guide for where we wanted the image to sit tonally, and he could then do all of the work to make sure that all shapes and secondaries worked in stereo (offsetting to place in Z space accurately) as well as working with the stereo conversion team to make the movie look great in 3D.
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. Your light level targets might include 3 ½ foot Lambert (ft-L), 7 ft-L, 11 ft-L, and a 14 ft-L.
It’s amazing (and maybe surprising to some), the sheer amount of work that goes into delivering a film of this nature, just from a technical side. So, just completing the number of versions of this film, especially during the pandemic was quite an undertaking. The support of the whole team at FotoKem—producers, editors, colorists, data wranglers, DRS, and engineering—was such an amazing collaborative effort.
FA: When you’re doing a project like Dune, and you’re working at FotoKem, are you just assigned to one project at a time?
DC: I was working on this film for over two years, but I’m not working on it consistently for that entire time. I’m involved in all the testing and the LUT creation and things like that, and then they go off and start their production. So during that time, I’m working on something else. When I get into the actual process of grading the film, the wish is always that I’m working on one project so that I can dedicate myself to it.
On this film, I had other movies surrounding it. For Clifford the Big Red Dog, I worked with the director, DP, producer and Fotokem colleague Mike Sowa on the color through completing creative and then Mike finished up as the final VFX for that film were delivered and I transitioned to Dune. After completing the theatrical version of Dune I worked on other films before returning three months later to grade and oversee all the home video versions. Depending on the delivery schedule, you may find yourself leapfrogging and jumping around. But when you’re on a film, you always try to be dedicated to the one film if the schedules allow. That’s where having a great support team can really help out, allowing me to supervise and maximize my creative time.
FA: Do you have to ever go to a location or anything with the cinematographer to see certain things?
DC: Yes, I do but I didn’t on this film. It’s usually based on if it’s helpful for the production and if my schedule allows. If I’m booked up, I can’t leave. A few years ago, I went to Cape Town in South Africa for Maze Runner: The Death Cure, and was there for a week overseeing from a post-production perspective the pre-shoot, the first two or three days of shoot, and making sure that the company that was creating the dailies was set up and calibrated, DITs and editors were all using calibrated monitors, and the color workflow was solid. So yes, going to location/set does happen but probably doesn’t happen enough.
Being around during at least part of the shoot is also about building confidence in the pipeline at that stage. On Death Cure, it was the first time I had worked with director Wes [Ball] and DP Gyula [Pados], so it was helpful in forming that relationship as well.
FA: How did the extra time that was a result of the pandemic factor into your work?
DC: While nothing about the pandemic has been good, the push of the release date gave us time to finish the movie in a manner that it deserved.
FA: Did you gain an extra year? What was the original release date for Dune?
DC: I can’t recall exactly if there had been an earlier release date than December of 2020, but the pandemic caused a push to October of 2021. This gave Denis and the entire production some breathing room, especially in regards to the edit and visuals, but the extra time really did allow us to really finesse the grade. So, that was fantastic. On a normal, non-pandemic era film, if visual effect shots are delivered late, say they’ve run over by a week, I generally don’t get any extra time to complete the grade. I don’t get an extra week to make up for that week – my deadline is still my deadline. And that can be really tough, especially when working on big visual effects films.
When grading a sequence, the look of certain shots might dictate where a scene needs to sit visually. While you may have graded all the clips around a missing VFX shot and the rest of the sequence is looking beautiful, the new visual effects shot may cause surrounding shots to not work as previously colored. This can mean slipping in new shots at the 11th hour can be quite difficult. And so, the saving grace of the pandemic was that there wasn’t that release schedule pressure of getting it done.
FA: Was Dune originally planned to have a simultaneous theatrical and HBO Max release?
DC: As far as I’m aware, the intent was that this was an exclusive theatrical event. We were in post during the middle of the first wave of the pandemic when that decision was announced.
FA: I’m assuming if you do a theatrical release more traditional, and then it comes out on Blu-ray and then VOD, you probably have some time to get prepped for that.
DC: That’s not usually the case. Typically, after I finish the theatrical and it gets creatively signed off, we go straight into home video. Traditionally, home video and VOD will come out three months or so after release. But as they have to localize for closed captioning, prep for streaming, etc, we usually can’t take our time to get those versions completed.
This film was a little bit different because we were in a pandemic. We were partially working around people’s schedules and availability. Even approving the home video was done remotely. Denis was in Montreal, so Fotokem sent a calibrated monitor to a local facility where he viewed the HDR and SDR in a proper viewing environment. While we were talking over Zoom, we were live streaming to that calibrated monitor in Montreal and making adjustments and tweaks interactively from Los Angeles.
FA: That’s really great insight. What advice could you share with our readers?
DC: It was just such a massive undertaking.
The other important thing that I’d like to say—and this is the case with any film—but regardless of all the technical stuff that I’ve spoken about, ultimately, everything that I did was to be as creative as possible and to tell the story in the best possible way. To not distract from the story or emotion of a scene, but to add to it. The technical side is a necessity of the job, but the story is first and foremost in what you see.
Every decision that I make while grading a film, both technical and creative, is all about telling a story – drawing the audience in with every frame to believe and connect with everything they’re seeing. While there’s lots of technical jargon in this interview, that’s just part of creating and telling a story. It’s not why you do something. You have to do that in order to do this—and so, it doesn’t matter how technical I am and how amazing that stuff might be, if I’m not enhancing the story in any way, then I haven’t done my job well, even if it’s technically perfect. So, that’s always the most important thing from the colorist’s point of view – to enhance and tell the story. And if we’ve done that and it’s seamless, then we’ve done a great job.
FA: With how rapid technology changes, how do you keep up and implement advancements into your process?
DC: Every single film we do is new – you can’t just do it how you did it before. It just doesn’t work like that and that’s why it’s such a tough job. Unless people actually do it, I don’t think they really appreciate how complex the role of a colorist can be. We can streamline workflows as much as possible, and learn from previous experiences, but every single job is different. And it will always throw curveballs at you.
For example, Dune didn’t have GoPro crash cams, but the next film might. So, how do we integrate that so it matches? Everything changes all the time and that’s what makes it exciting. You’re not just turning up to work doing the same thing every day. Everything we do is solving problems – from technical issues, to handling exposure differences, to look creation. And every job is different and brings a whole new slew of problems or things that we need to achieve.
And technology is one of those things. “How do we handle this new camera or this new codec,” or, “Hey, now we have this new tool that we can use? How can we utilize it efficiently?” There are so many changes and so many things happening, I try to keep up on it as much as I can. But of course, I’m coloring 10 hours plus a day. I don’t have the bandwidth to stay up to date on every new piece of tech. So, I try to keep myself informed. Then, when I’m working with something I haven’t had experience with before, I’m learning more about the technology as it relates to the task at hand. But that’s what’s great about having a really strong engineering team at FotoKem. They can be there on the bleeding edge technology advancements and find out the good, bad and interesting aspects of the new technology and what that means for us in the creative part of the process.
You’re only as good as the team that surrounds you. No one person can do everything, despite what you might hear. It is very much a collaborative team effort, be it a creative team like in a film with the DP, the director and myself and visual effects supervisor, or the company that you work for with all the technology and surrounding infrastructure. You cannot do it by yourself because there are not enough hours in the day, even if you were savvy enough to do it all. That’s why you need experts in many different fields to handle all of their fields of expertise, and then distill what is important to all the relevant people in the pipeline, so that they can do their job in the best possible way.
FA: What were the main tools used on Dune? Did you still use DaVinci to color everything?
DC: Yes. Using Resolve especially due to the pandemic, because of the remote nature of the film, we needed to be able to stream and control other machines. We have a lot of Resolves at Fotokem, so having editors working on it at the same time, along with other colorists, and then having the multiple versions and layers required for the IMAX version, was something that definitely suited itself to a Resolve workflow.
Every tool has its pros and cons. On every project, no matter which tool you choose, inevitably you go, “Oh, I wish I had this feature.” There is no perfect tool. That’s, again, part of the problem-solving nature of the job. I mean, I wish there was the perfect tool because I would use it. I have not found it yet. And even if you find it, there’s always going to be a new situation or problem that you have never encountered before that needs solving and leads to saying “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”. So, that’s part of the creative process. In a technical sense, you are always asking, “How do I achieve what I’m thinking with the tools that are given to me?” With every project, you discover a new way to combine different tools and techniques to achieve the ultimate goal.
FA: Dave, this has been extremely insightful. Thank you for sharing some of your experiences on such an incredible film like Dune.
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