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🎬 #68 Making The Unfathomable, Fathomable.
It's no secret among my friends that I deeply love Denis Villeneuve, maybe even more than Chris Nolan. Not only does he seem like a very lovely man, but he also has a unique ability to lend grandeur and a sense of importance to even the smallest shot choices or moments within a scene. He also has that rare ability to create huge-scale stories that feel personal to him. There's a tendency that, as a film gets bigger, you can feel the touch of the filmmaker less, but no matter how big his pictures get, Denis' sensibility is never diluted. What's even more impressive is his ability to bring the impossible onto the screen, as he did with the follow-up to Blade Runner, which he nailed, and with Dune, which until now seemed un-filmable. And even more so than the former, he brought a sense of scale seldom seen in modern cinema with his version of Dune.
This week's newsletter is entirely dedicated to the use of scale in Dune.
2021 Dir Denis Villeneuve
Dune is the type of film that really transports you to the environments it's set in. Seeing it in IMAX really enhances that experience. Afterwards, it feels like you've been immersed in alien cultures and experienced the vastness of space and the harshness of Arrakis.
If you don't believe what you see, if it doesn't seem real, you won't get that immersive feeling as quickly or as fully. Denis achieves this transportive feeling by crafting a world that feels completely real. He puts us there through a number of techniques, but chief among them is his use of scale. If we can see how vast these places are, we can be in them, and we can sense the power and brutality of the environment that houses these gigantic machines and beasts as if they were nothing.
From the very opening of the film, Denis establishes scale relative to things we know, such as the rough height of a human figure. He smartly uses this as the beginning of a kind of scale comparison chart. We can see the spice harvester in the background in this shot; it looks far enough away, yet it still dwarfs the figures in the foreground closer to the camera.
Next, we see the harvesters in relation to each other and a little sliver of the planet's environment. There are hundreds of them spaced out before us. The sheer scale of these worlds we're dealing with overwhelms us - we're intimidated by its power and at its mercy.
The same is true of the shot of Paul in the foreground before he leaves his home planet - in the background, we see a huge ship rising out of the water. We can see how it roughly compares to a mountain that’s at least analogous to mountainous cliffs that you and I have seen on Earth. He has taken a foreign world and made it relatable - and by showing us scale through things we can relate to, we believe it more.
Now that we've seen the scale of this ship next to an environment we can relate to, he puts it in a place that we haven't been: deep space. What looked like a huge ship next to Earth-scale cliffs now seems like a pinhead next to a mammoth piece of teleportation technology, itself made tiny by the planet it orbits above. He's gradually steeping us in the forces at work in the world we'll be spending the next couple of hours in.
Time and time again, Denis is not afraid to hold on to a wide shot, really letting us take in the view. He takes his time to present the scale of Dune as something approaching god-like, a presence to be respected - immense, enigmatic, and brutal.
TL;DR Why should I spend 2 hours and 35 minutes of my precious life watching this? Dune is the culmination of Denis' lifelong vision to bring Dune to the screen in the biggest way possible - a masterful take on a novel that was deemed impossible to bring to film.
*Available for free on HBO MAX and for a small rental fee on Apple, Google Play, YouTube, and Amazon in the US. Available to stream on Sky and to buy on Apple, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play in the UK.
Fact: Two cinematographers, Roger Deakins, who worked with Denis on Blade Runner, and Greig Fraser, who worked on Dune, won Oscars for their back-to-back collaborations.
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