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October 26
2021

ISSUE

Fall 2021

DIRECTOR DENIS VILLENEUVE MAINTAINS A GROUNDED APPROACH TO EPIC SPACE SAGA DUNE

By KEVIN H. MARTIN

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures. 

The Atreides’ ornithopters incorporate the articulated wings described in Frank Herbert’s novel. Production opted for the flapping wings to flutter like an insect in flight.
The villainous Harkonnens arrive at Arrakeen, their ships offering a distinct contrast to the Atreides’ Ornithopters in both configuration and flight mode.

After failing to secure interest from 20 book publishers in his epic Dune, novelist Frank Herbert managed to convince the car manual gurus at Chilton Press to get his book into print in 1965. A science fiction novel dealing with concepts ranging from the nature of messiahs to ecological concerns, Dune rapidly burgeoned from underground cult classic to a huge and sustained success worldwide. Even so, the property resisted adaptation to the big screen for some time, despite attempts by Arthur P. Jacobs, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott. Ultimately a theatrical version directed by David Lynch debuted, but proved to be a critical and financial failure, foiling partially-written sequels. 

Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve was a fan of Herbert’s landmark tome and when the possibility of a new and decidedly more faithful adaptation of Dune arose, he committed to it, bringing along with him a number of his past collaborators, including Production Designer Patrice Vermette, Editor Joe Walker, Special Effects Supervisor Gerd Nefzer and Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Lambert. 

An Oscar-winner for Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, Lambert recalls that even before pre-production began in earnest, an enormous design phase had been undertaken. “Dune is such a massive project, with so many worlds to visualize,” he acknowledges. “So Denis and Patrice spent the better part of a year coming up with concepts. Usually that process just serves as a springboard for the final designs, but Denis was so happy with the initial artwork that it really served as a template for other departments. The work was just so strong, with such defined ideas – there were some tweaks down the line, but really it was very close. Sets were built with these same colors and textures, and visual effects created and executed these images in a similar faithful way.”

While the Lynch film had featured rather grand and ornate production design by Tony Masters, this project reflected the filmmaker’s own tastes. “Having worked with Denis previously, I knew that things had to remain grounded,” confirms Lambert.

The Atreides’ ornithopters incorporate the articulated wings described in Frank Herbert’s novel. Production opted for the flapping wings to flutter like an insect in flight.

“[Director] Denis [Villenueve] was so happy with the initial artwork that it really served as a template for other departments. The work was just so strong, with such defined ideas – there were some tweaks down the line, but really it was very close. Sets were built with these same colors and textures, and visual effects created and executed these images in a similar faithful way.”

—Paul Lambert, Visual Effects Supervisor 

“No wild pullbacks and moves that didn’t have some basis in how cameras are actually moved, and we tried to build as much as possible on most of our sets rather than encasing actors within a blue box. Trying to keep things grounded, we didn’t go for a big showy effect. We tried to avoid anything too FX-y, even when the ships fold space. In fact, the shield effect is based on past and future frames in the same shot, plus some color changes, so it isn’t like we’re adding or inventing, just using what was actually there. While there wound up being around 2,000 visual effects shots, realism was the word throughout.”

While the majority of work was handled at DNEG Vancouver and DNEG Montreal, an in-house crew, overseen by WylieCo, was also formed for the production. “I think it is very valuable to have offices close to the director,” says Lambert, “as it facilitates the fleshing out of ideas, which in turn affects and improves the shooting process. The in-house unit wound up doing hundreds of the simpler shots, plus we did a few shots with Rodeo FX up in Montreal. They have Deak Ferrand, a fantastic artist who is one of the fastest conceptualists I’ve ever seen. He’s also a good friend to Denis, having worked on Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 as well.”

When production began in Budapest, Lambert assigned a scanning crew from OroBlade to LiDar parts of Wadi Ram, where later location shooting would take place. “That helped with the wides of Arrakeen,” he reports. “Our beautiful wides of the city are actually from helicopter views scanned into the computer. We built that CG world around those real terrain elements.”

For backlot work in Budapest, sand-colored screens were used instead of blue or green, allowing a more naturalistic Arrakis-desert coloration to reflect onto the performers. Natural light was employed whenever possible. “For some massive interiors, we had to come up with creative ways to light the scene,” Lambert reveals. “We connected two separate studios with a tarp across the roof, which had a specific shape cut into it allowing sunlight to come down into part of the set. We could only shoot at a certain time of day with this tarpaulin because the hole permitted sunlight to illuminate the interior just right for a couple hours only, but it really sold the reality of the environment with natural lighting beaming down into our stage sets.”

Close collaboration between VFX, camera and art departments led to a unique approach for interiors requiring set extensions. “Because of the scale involved, the question was often, ‘how high do we build this?’ Traditionally, you would have green or blue up above, but that compromises the lighting for the whole view. I suggested that we consider what the actual tones and shapes would be going up in frame when we did the VFX. So during the shoot, we’d place a particular colored form up there. If there were structural elements, like crossbeams, that were supposed to be up there, we’d represent them simply as well. DP Greig Fraser loved this, because he was able to light it like he would a fully-built set. We’d build a very cheap version, through which he could light as he desired.”

A 400-ton crane was used to fly the larger 13-ton ornithopters in the desert. For landings, separate concrete pads had to be poured for the 12-meter mockup and its somewhat smaller cousin. CG wings were added for takeoffs and landings.

For scenes involving the many aircraft seen in the film, a mix of full-scale vessels and CG craft were created. “Seen from a distance, the ornithopters look like insects,” says Lambert, “but as you get closer in, you can feel the power of these flapping wing aircraft. The Atreides’ dragonfly-like craft is a thing apart from the others. When the Harkonnens strike at Arrakeen, their ships come down looking like they have inflatable wings, and sport a very intricate and detailed look. For some of the shots of full-scale craft shot on location, we might add CG wings, but most of that was actually captured in-camera.” 

SFX Supervisor Gerd Nefzer had his teams begin prepping long before shooting in order to have time to transport huge containers holding the ornithopters and supporting equipment to Aqaba. “The containers for Jordan arrived slightly late, so that made it very tough to get everything ready for each shooting day,” Nefzer acknowledges. “It was a huge challenge to get the ornithopters ready. Altogether we had two large ornithopters and a smaller one on location in the desert. The big one weighed maybe 13 tons and was 10 or 12 meters long, so making it look as if it could maneuver took a lot of power. We had one scene with the big ornithopter landing in the desert and then taking off. That needed a 400-ton crane, so a special road had to be built to accommodate transport.” 

Nefzer used various gimbals, plus an overhead flying rig hung from a crane. “Our two computer-controlled motion bases had to function on location,” he says, “because our DP needed real sunlight and could not create that look on stage. That meant pouring a concrete pad for the thopter. Then we had to invent a drive file in order to maneuver the ship to follow the path of the sun in the sky for continuity. The large base was rated for 20 tons and the smaller thopter used a six-ton base for sandstorm scenes. We tented the smaller base with wind machines and tons of dust flying around in there, including soft stones, so that the view through the cockpit would really look like it was flying through a sandstorm. It could rotate 360 degrees so that the actors could be upside-down. We had four six-wheel drive trucks from the military so we could mount and drive our big wind machines around into position. As always, Denis tries to get as much as possible in-camera, but on some very wide shots, there just weren’t enough machines. But the part of the shot that we could handle practically – the area around the actors, because you get such a greater sense of believability with performers having to lean into the dust as they move instead of just pretending against greenscreen – was the basis for how VFX went about completing things, matching to the look and density of our sandstorm. Paul Lambert always asked for as much practical as possible to have something to match – ‘even if it is just a few meters’ he said one time – and then he filled out the rest of the shot beautifully. I think this is the right way to make movies these days, instead of just automatically.”

To convey the sense that the mockup was really up in the air, the team used an idea also employed on The Rocketeer, choosing a high-up locale that allowed cameras to shoot down on the airborne object. “We found the tallest hill in Budapest and put a gimbal atop it,” says Lambert. “That gave us a horizon. We surrounded the gimbal with what we affectionately called the dog collar, a 360-degree ramp that went all the way around the gimbal, again sand-screen colored. Rather than extracting the characters and then matting behind them, we were able to just augment the properly-hued backgrounds using some of the tremendous aerial photography done earlier.”

The large backlot in Budapest was used for a crucial moment in the attack on Arrakeen when the palm trees burn. “Denis wanted about 25 palm trees in two rows,” Nefzer states. “With the shoot scheduled over two nights, we had to build the trees and their leaves so they could be burned over and over. We started by taking the bark off actual palm tree trunks, which wasn’t easy, since there are 20 layers. We cut a slot inside to get our gas/alcohol piping inside, along with fire protection sheets, and then reassembled it with the barks back on in proper order. We laser-cut 280 leaves from sheet metal, then added our gas pipes beneath. We had to bend all of them by hand so they looked real, then color them before connecting them to the trees. Nearly every leaf had its own control, so Denis could get various levels of fire, all controlled by 20 technicians. A pair of 1,500-gallon propane systems steamed the liquid, which utilized five miles of hoses.”

DNEG Vancouver and DNEG Montreal handled the majority of Dune’s 2,000 shots, though an in-house crew took on additional work, as did Rodeo FX.

In addition to the spice exported throughout the galaxy that is found only on Arrakis, the planet is best known for its massive native life, the sandworms. “The worms are dinosaur-like creatures that have been cruising through the desert protecting the spice for thousands of years,” says Lambert. “They are not very agile, taking something like a mile to stop and turn, with deeply textured looks. The design showed great articulation, kind of like an accordion. While it isn’t all that animated, the sandworm does have interesting textures, which include solid plates between the fleshy parts. 

The worm sifting through sand was difficult to get right. A lot of the time, we were seeing more the effect of the worm’s passage than the worm itself, as there’s not much existing reference for things that big in the desert. I did request that production detonate some explosions out there to see how the sand gets disturbed, but given that we were shooting in the Middle East, that kind of thing could be mistaken for an attack and was frowned upon!” 

Time-intensive renders for the sims used to produce the organic sand passages were just the nature of the beast for the sandworm scenes. “Even so, there’s often some aspect with simulations that doesn’t look quite right,” allows Lambert. “So occasionally there is paint involved, since otherwise there’d be days and days more waiting to run the simulation again. Fortunately, we started worm development straightaway, so there was time.” To sell the disturbance in live-action scenes, Nefzer built a 12-ft. square plate atop a vibrator. “When it was activated,” Lambert reveals, “you would actually start sinking into the sand. We used that for shots of Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and Gurney (Josh Brolin) when the worm attacks the sand crawler. This largely in-camera solution was what we then copied to extend out beyond the foreground to the rest of the frame, whenever they went wider.” 

Visual challenges ranged from epic ground battles to massive space-going vessels.

A year of close collaboration between director and production designer resulted in conceptual art so detailed that it could be used as a guide for construction by SFX, VFX, costuming and art departments. The Arrakeen city conveys both an expansive and realistic lived-in look.

Terrain surrounding the city of Arrakeen was based on scanned-in aerial plate photography from the Middle East location shoot

Partial sets erected on the Budapest backlot were often augmented with CG set extensions.

The worm ingests both vehicles and unfortunate humans. The sandworm design featured a mix of textures that included armor-like plating and fleshy segments, which facilitated a range of accordion-like articulations.

Conspicuous consumption of the local spice has the side effect of turning eyes blue over time. “The eyes were handled by our in-house unit, says Lambert. “The attention of a viewer automatically gravitates to the eyes, so when you have something very pronounced, it can become very distracting. We didn’t want super-glowy eyes, and strove to keep something of the original tones of the actors’ actual eyes. So if you had one actor in shot who had brown eyes and another who had lighter-colored eyes, the blue effect would be customized to look different for each of them. It wasn’t about a covering effect from the sclera to the iris either, there was a lot of fine detail, and it took a while before Denis approved an overall look with which we could proceed. Then, on occasion, the matter of going too subtle became an issue, because the look might be minimized depending on the camera angle and how light struck the eye. Denis did point out a few times whenhe couldn’t actually tell that the character was supposed to have the blue eyes, so we adjusted in those instances. Paul and Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are in transition for a large section of the movie, so the color had to change as the spice affected them more and more.” 

Looking back on the project, Lambert still marvels at the opportunity. “When I was first contacted, there was no hesitation on my part,” he laughs. “I mean, we’re talking about Dune here! And in the hands of someone like Denis, I have a very good feeling about how audiences will really feel transported to these worlds.” 


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