Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is nothing if not a showcase for virtually every craft in the filmmaking arsenal. Image and sound meld together in a singular vision as the director of films like Arrival (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and Blade Runner 2049 continues to leave an auteur’s stamp on large-canvas cinema.
One sequence in particular from his latest work serves as the perfect illustration for how Villeneuve sees visual storytelling at such a scale. At its heart, in the simplest of terms, it’s a rescue sequence. But of course, positioned in the vast and alluring world of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic, it takes on a whole new complexity.
Deep in the rolling sand dunes of the planet Arrakis, a massive hunk of machinery—a “spice crawler”—inches across the landscape, violently harvesting the most precious of resources that carpets the planet: spice. A newly arrived planetary vassal, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), takes a scenic trip via ornithopter with his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and faithful man-at-arms Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) for a bird’s-eye view of the process. The danger to the crawlers is immediately apparent: sandworms. The gargantuan slithering beasts that traverse the desert like an ocean seize on the crawlers’ rhythmic vibrations. The lumbering crawlers often must be para-lifted to safety at the last moment, but this time, things don’t go according to plan. Leto lands in a hasty effort to evacuate the crawler’s hardworking personnel, setting up a lengthy, trance-like escape sequence.
Tasked with bringing these dynamic visuals to the screen were, among others, Oscar-nominated director of photography Greig Fraser (Lion) and Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert (Blade Runner 2049, First Man).
While the production had gathered hours of footage of exquisite rolling sand in the United Arab Emirates and Hungary, Fraser explains, the main “sand unit” had set up shop in Jordan for most of the Arrakis exterior work. But that didn’t quite have the necessary landscape for the full sequence.
“There are very few beautiful sand dunes in Jordan,” Fraser says. “They have incredible other things, but what they don’t have is, like, oceans of sand. But what we found, and what we were given access to, was a fantastic little area that was between the main highway and the Israeli border. We had this sandpit, effectively.”
In this large-scale sandbox, if you will, the crew placed a practical ornithopter (one of the story’s dragonfly-like flying machines), a construction crane to lift it up and down, and plenty of billowing Ritter fans in order to capture the on-the-ground race to rescue the spice workers.
The next step was to add the rolling dune landscape beyond, which would of course be important for the dramatic arrival of the sandworm. Enter Lambert and his team, along with visual effects artists at DNEG, Wylie Co. and Rodeo FX.
The actual design of things like the worm itself, which is treated as a tip-of-the-iceberg tease in the sequence, and the ornithopter, which in this bit was a practical build augmented with CG fluttering wings in postproduction, came from Villeneuve himself. The director collaborated with production designer Patrice Vermette and Rodeo concept artist Deak Ferrand in conjuring them on the page. But it was up to Lambert and company to bring them to life.
This sequence happened to be one of the few that had been heavily storyboarded, which included a significant previsualization element in preproduction (courtesy of Moving Picture Company). Lambert also got a start on things uncharacteristically early himself, because he saw a notorious visual effects hurdle on the horizon: moving volumes of particulate, whether it be water or, in this case, sand.
“I knew it was going to be basically a trial-and-error process,” Lambert says. “The key for me to a good visual effect is having a reference in nature to actually work from, like something which you can base your research on, something which you try and match to.”
He had the thought of setting off explosions under a sand dune to see what the effect might be, but that seemed dicey, given the region. No, what made it finally click was actually a special effects gag being used in the sequence. When Chalamet and Brolin make their sprint from the ill-fated crawler to the ornithopter, backgrounded by cascading waves of sand indicating the worm’s approach, they stumble and fall to the ground. Just then, their hands and knees begin to sink, as if the sand were being sifted from underneath. This practical effect was achieved by an industrial-scale vibrating plate buried under the sand by special effects supervisor Gerd Nefzer, and it was a light bulb moment for Lambert.
“When he cranked it up, the actual sand would start to produce these beautiful patterns, which Denis loved,” Lambert says. “So we then used that as the signature for when the worm is approaching. We replicated that particular look to make it far, far wider.”
While Lambert and Fraser of course collaborated hand-in-hand on set during production, both of them lament the fact that the DP-VFX relationship doesn’t often carry into postproduction. Villeneuve and Lambert did bring Fraser in for a couple of scenes where they had some issues with the look of the sky and couldn’t quite figure out why. Fraser was able to highlight the problem instantly: directional sunlight. The sun was in one spot in the background VFX plate and in another on the foreground plate. Visual effects photography can only benefit from the input of someone like Fraser, who spends 12 to 16 hours a day looking at light and its meaning and effects.
“The photography in the VFX used to be completely separate to the main photography,” Fraser says. “What happens is the cinematographer starts on a day, does their prep, shoots, goes home, comes back when you [color] grade. It’s so old-school that it’s embarrassing to even say that that’s the way it is. In this day and age, someone, some organization, should have the foresight to say, ‘Well, actually, you know what? The photography in the VFX is as important as the photography in the shoot, because it makes up half the movie now. So therefore, the cinematographer needs to be involved in the visual effects.’”
Lambert agrees, adding, “In an ideal world, you have the DP being able to check in on the movie. Because things happen. Like, suddenly you may have to do a virtual camera or a virtual piece of animation, and it’s so good to have the input from the DP. But sometimes they just go on to other projects and there just isn’t time.”
For the overall look of the project, Fraser did his homework and glanced at just about every desert film you can think of. He even came with his own lessons learned on Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which featured a riveting third-act raid sequence filmed in the desert in the dark of night. Ultimately, he credits a partnership with Los Angeles film laboratory FotoKem in finding the signatures of Dune. Similar to Lambert, he calls the process one of trial and error as he experimented with and moved on from different cross processes, including the same bleach bypass method employed by cinematographer Roger Deakins and director Sam Mendes on the 2005 Gulf War film Jarhead. The whole journey was necessary to inform Dune’s unique aesthetic.
Now, with the finished film behind him, and the as yet unfulfilled opportunity to finish the two-part epic lingering still, Fraser jokes that he thinks he finally has the hang of it.
“That’s always the way. The last 20, 30, 40 days of a shoot, you’re always like, ‘Okay, got this now. We know what we’re doing,’” he says. “This is why I’m pumped, because if we get a chance to do a second one, I feel like we can just cruise into the film and grow. A part two can be like the culmination of all of our preproduction on part one.”