What Filmmakers Can Learn From ‘Dune’ Color and Colorist David Cole

Color grading a large film is a complicated business.

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

Dunes, Denis Villeneuve’s space epic, is a story told on a grand scale that spans not only planet to planet, but also distinct extraterrestrial cultures. Much of this production was handled by Cole, who oversaw the project as supervising and lead digital colorist.

With a run time of two hours and 35 minutes, Cole and his team had a tremendous amount of work to do.

During an interview with the Filmmakers Academy, Cole interrupted his process at several key points in the film, including creating custom LUTs and overseeing multiple exposure formats.

But what can indies and low-budget filmmakers learn from Cole’s workflow? How can they implement these concepts in their projects? Let’s venture into the world of spices.


Arrakis is a desert planet vital to many powerful rulers of the Dune universe. It is incredibly dry and inhospitable to most life forms. Cole said in his interview that “there is effectively no water (on Arrakis), especially in the atmosphere. We didn’t want blue skies which might imply there is moisture in the air.”

To properly convey this sentiment in color quality, Cole and his team fabricated a custom LUT for Arrakis’ exteriors that “mimicked the skipped bleach film process.” With traditional film, this increases contrast, while colors are darker and more desaturated.

Arrakis from ‘Dune’Credit: Warner Bros.

“We actually put the film through this photochemical process, scanned it into digital format, and then scientifically compared it so that we had a true laundering emulation of film stocks that went through this process,” Cole said. .

He said that “once we had that as a basic building block, we softened the contrast a bit because we didn’t want it too harsh, let some air in the shadows, and then we manipulated the high end to not get much saturation in that part of the tonal curve.

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

Dune after the battle again
‘Dune’Credit: Warner Bros.

“It was decided quite early on that if the film was shot on an Alexa LF, then recorded onto an ASA 35mm negative 1 and then scanned, we could get the film characteristics we liked from a traditional 15-perf negative. 65mm with minimal grain,” Cole said. “The whole film release process was more about everything that the film brings to the table: shimmer, layer interactions, weaving, slight blurring and highlight haloing.

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

So what can we learn from this whole process? Well, this is not only a time-consuming effort, but it also puts a strain on the budget. But how can filmmakers use what we have just learned in their projects?

A budget solution

Developing the look of a project before it even hits the set has become much easier with modern technology.

With plugins for DaVinci Resolve such as Dehancer and Filmconvert, creatives can craft the look of their project with film emulation tools using a lookbook, camera picks 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 upstream of your project and to base it on elements of your story. When you need to convey a certain look, it’s best to begin your exploration before stepping 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 exposure.

Work in 3D

Dunes was released in both traditional 2D and 3D formats. When Cole and his team prepared the release prints for Villeneuve’s massive space epic, they had to develop different looks for each exhibition format.

Cole said, “When you’re working in stereo (3D), it’s not as simple as applying the same note to every shot, and you’re done. apart from the shapes that need to sit correctly in 3D space. You also have to deal with the different light level objectives of the exposure. »

Dune - Caladan Again
‘Dune’Credit: Warner Bros.

There was not just one format for 3D, but two, one for Xenon and one for laser.

“Just for IMAX, we create eight versions. There is also a Dolby Vision theatrical version in 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 different output printing that fine-tuned the visuals to ensure they were seen as intended.

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

Show your work

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

Independent projects planning to debut at festivals will need to think about what their film will look like on the big screen. If you’ve rendered your project for Vimeo or YouTube, that won’t be enough. Some changes will need to be made to create consistency between the different formats.

But what if you are a content creator?

This makes your job even more complicated, because 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 problem between brands.

Variables aside, the most important thing we can learn from DunesThe workflow is to focus on exposure at the beginning of our project. How we show our work matters and planning the road ahead will ensure your vision stays true.

If you’re planning on shooting a web series for YouTube, your workflow will be different if you’re just doing a theater run.

I love that a plan goes off without a hitch

The most important nugget of wisdom we can learn from Cole’s workflow on Dunes is to plan your project. Camera or lens choices, visual elements such as LUTs, and exposure formats all play a key role in the visuals 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 what you want it to sound like before you get on set. It doesn’t matter if you are the director, the colorist or the DP.

Even writers have to describe before they write FADE IN.


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