Sand. Lots and lots of sand. If there’s one thing that people immediately envision when they hear the title Dune, it is the infinite landscape of brown/orange sand. Also, the giant sandworms. And, of course, the futuristic vehicles and other worldly environments and objects.
All these were first described in the 1965 science-fiction novel by Frank Herbert and then later brought to life on both the big and small screens, first in David Lynch’s 1984 feature film and then in John Harrison’s 2000 three-part television miniseries and, in 2003, with the sequel miniseries Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, based on the author’s second and third books in the series. All were extremely ambitious projects. And while the miniseries was well received, the feature fell short with audiences. Not so with the recent Dune (2021).
Director Denis Villeneuve reunited with two-time VFX Oscar winner Paul Lambert on this latest project. The two worked on Blade Runner 2049, and Lambert served as overall visual effects supervisor for this new film, which incorporates 1,700 VFX shots, most of which were created by Dneg.
“We touched on the full gamut of visual effects, although a lot of the work involved the set extensions and CG vehicles,” says Lambert.
Even with so many VFX shots, the intent was to achieve as much in-camera as possible.
“Obviously this is a sci-fi movie, so you’re only going to be able to [physically] build things to a certain extent,” Lambert explains. “But, we tried really hard to at least have a basis in the camera so the visual effects artists could copy that and extend it out, rather than just leaving everything to post, where you can spend a lot of cycles, i.e. money, trying to get something to look believable. Whereas if you know exactly what you need to do because you have a basis in the plate, it’s a lot more straightforward to get something to look more believable.”
Dune was filmed in a number of locations, including Budapest, Norway, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and California. Large sets — “absolutely enormous” as Lambert describes them — were devised by production designer Patrice Vermette, in conjunction with Villeneuve. Then, those sets were built in the real world inside the various studios.
Despite the size of the sets, visual effects had to extend them even farther, which meant virtual extensions.
“Denis was adamant that he did not want to deviate from this,” says Lambert of using CGI as a tool, rather than driving the story.
Without question, the inspiration for the VFX was realism, as Villeneuve wanted all the digital imagery to be grounded and as photoreal as possible.
“Even though we were making a sci-fi movie, Denis never wanted any of the work to take you out of the film,” says Lambert. “He never wanted the blue eyes of the Fremen to be so electric that each time you turned to character, you’d think, ‘What the heck?’ And it would take you out of the story. He never wanted any virtual camera work that you couldn’t shoot with an actual camera. He never wanted you to get too close to one of the CG ornithopters. Things like that. He wanted to keep things as physical as possible, so everything was weighted with a certain amount of believability.”
At a production cost of an estimated $165 million, Dune: Part One was an ambitious project, although it brought in a reported $387 million (and counting) at the box office, even with a simultaneous limited streaming release on HBO Max. Already green-lit, you can bet that Part Two will be just as ambitious.