Sunday 7 April 2024

Dune movie scenes shot in Near Infrared

One of the big cinematic releases at the moment is the second part of Denis Villeneuve‘s interpretation of Frank Herbert's SF Epic Dune.

Cinematographer Greig Fraser decided to use near-infrared (NIR) imaging to show the weird environment of the planet occupied by the film's uber-villains, the Harkonnens. He had used the technique before, on Zero Dark Thirty in 2012 and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in 2016.

While the Australian movie BRINDABELLAS | edge of light in 2016 (see below) had used RED cameras configured for monochrome IR, Dune used an ARI Alexa camera but the basic premise is the same. The usual infrared blocking filter was removed and replaced with a 'black' infrared-pass filter.

The idea with Dune was to show the unreal environment the Harkonnen's inhabited. The first film had only shown interiors but the second part required exterior shots. One significant result of this technique is the surreal look of the characters, since NIR penetrates a few millimetres into skin (and the characters are hairless) and there is the well-known look of people's eyes and the inherent high contrast.

[Photo: Dune: Part Two Infrared Copyright © 2022 Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.]

I can point you to the following for much more information: Variety, NoFilmSchool, Kolari and ARRI Rental.

This provides an opportunity to review some of the history of near infrared in feature films.

Infrared film was a useful tool in the motion picture industry as far back as the 1920s. Kodak had produced their first infrared ciné film stock in 1925 and by 1937 it was also available from Agfa and DuPont. Agfa's was the first of what was described as the modern infrared film in that it was not a panchromatic emulsion pushed into infrared sensitivity. The new films were only sensitive to UV and blue and then to extreme red and infrared. This simplified the filter needed and a Wratten #29 (deep red) was the most common used. Sometimes infrared film was used in the making of travelling mattes (used to replace backgrounds in shots) but more often it was used in black and white movies to allow night-time scenes to be shot during the day, a technique now known as 'day-for-night'.

Not all the artefacts of infrared images were welcome however, and special makeup (usually lipstick) and set painting often had to be applied. Sometimes foliage was sprayed with green paint to hide the Wood effect and prevent shifts in tone. Paramount even painted an entire back-lot 'Brownstone Street' in special blue-grey paint called infra-red blue so that it would look the same on both infrared and panchromatic stock. The 1941 DuPont film was welcomed by cinematographers because of its lack of Wood effect and the three apparently competing emulsions had actually found slightly different and complementary niches in this specialised application.

By the 1960s the movie industry was moving from black and white to colour and infrared's abilities for day-for-night shooting were obsolete. But occasionally infrared filming was used for artistic effect.

In the early 1960s there was a curious collaboration between the Cuban and Russian film industries resulting in an extraordinary movie called Soy Cuba (I am Cuba). The director was Mikhail Kalatozov, famous most probably for The Cranes Are Flying in 1957, and the director of photography was Sergey Urusevsky. The film is a cinematic tour de force, featuring several long single-take sequences which almost defy attempts to work out just how they were done.

Much of Soy Cuba was shot using infrared film, with characteristic bright foliage and dark skies. The film stock was actually manufactured for use by the Soviet military, so it was quite a coup for the production to access some of it.

More recently, movie-maker Mike Figgis has been experimenting with low light and infrared photography using consumer video cameras with Sony's Night Shot facility. His 2001 film Hotel includes scenes done this way, to such an extent that the actors in the scenes could not actually see each other during filming.

The director of 2006 movie Wristcutters (A Love Story), Goran Dukic, had intended to use Kodak Ektachrome Infrared extensively to provide the look of the film's afterlife for suicides setting. Kodak provided unique super-16 format stock for this purpose, but after shooting some tests Dukic decided to use post-production techniques rather than infrared film. Some of the test sequences were shown on the film web site and on the published DVD. The production eventually sold off their unique stock for $300 per roll.

In 2015 film makers Glen Ryan and James van der Moezel of silver dory productions in Australia released a movie to exploit the monochrome infrared abilities of the RED digital cinema camera, called BRINDABELLAS | edge of light. It was described as “the World’s first near-infrared feature” and was shot in 4k resolution. I wrote it up in a blog post at the time, and the movie is still available on their web site.

Since most NIR-converted stills cameras can now shoot movies as well, the scope for infrared movies has expanded greatly over the past century.