The power of filmmaking: How Denis Villeneuve created the world of Dune | Hollywood - Hindustan Times

The power of filmmaking: How Denis Villeneuve created the world of Dune

Mar 01, 2024 01:23 PM IST

Dune Part Two releases on Friday but before that, we relive the cinematographic masterpiece that was the first part.

One of the most revered texts in the canon of science fiction is Frank Herbert’s Dune. In 2021, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve took on this 'unfilmable' epic and the result was a blockbuster that enthralled audiences all across the world. Villeneuve now returns with Dune: Part Two taking us back to Arrakis and introducing us to new worlds in the Dune universe. (Also read: Dune: Part Two movie review – Denis Villeneuve's pacier follow-up is effective as long as it harnesses the desert power)

Josh Brolin and Timothee Chalamet in Dune.
Josh Brolin and Timothee Chalamet in Dune.

Much of the first movie’s success can be credited to the skilful adaptation of the complex and nuanced story, which eschews the crutch of expositional voiceover and adopts a “show don’t tell” approach. But Villeneuve’s visual world-building is just as important. His approach blends practical sets and real locations with stunning visual effects, while always serving the story and the characters.

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Production Design and Props

One of the most striking elements of "Dune" is its depiction of Arrakis itself. Filming primarily took place primarily in the deserts of Jordan and Abu Dhabi, which provided the perfect backdrop for the planet's harsh terrain.

Production designer Patrice Vermette speaks of grounding the movie in reality, making it easier for the audience to believe in the more fantastical aspects of the story. This meant practical sets for the actors to move through, and real elements within the sets for the actors to interact with. Whether it's the ornate interior of the Imperial Palace or the brutalist interiors of the Harkonnen home, every location feels lived-in and authentic, contributing to the overall sense of verisimilitude. For the “ornithopters”, two of them - one 75 feet long and another 48 feet long - were built in London and then shipped to Jordan.


Cinematographer Greig Fraser was obsessed with the idea of natural light and how that light would interact with the sand as well as the characters. For the first big scene with the sandworm swallowing the mining vehicle, Villeneuve hooked the ornithopter onto a crane and spun it 30 feet over the ground to simulate the flight pattern, using giant fans to create wind and blow sand everywhere.

The traditional approach to a scene like this is to go wide and capture the scale of the image at a distance. However, Fraser’s approach does the opposite, grounding the camera to the ornithopter so that the characters are fixed in relation to the sandworm and we see the action unfold as they do. This happens time and again even in establishing shots, Villeneuve always places something relatable and recognisable, usually a person, in the frame so that the audience can tell the relative scale of what they are supposed to be looking at.

Special Effects

Wherever possible, Villeneuve uses special effects to augment and enhance the existing elements rather than create something completely imaginary. For example, in the scenes of the ornithopters flying across the barren landscape, they first shot helicopters flying through those spaces kicking up sand and dust, which were then replaced in post by the computer-generated ornithopters.

Most importantly, the special effects team moved away from conventional blue and green screens and used ‘sandscreens’; screens with earthy tones that replicated the effect of natural light on the surrounding sand dunes. Techniques like these help provide a truer simulation of real, tangible scenery, making it easier for the viewer to accept the more fantastical aspects of the story.

Sound Design and Music

The last crucial element of Dune’s world-building is its use of sound and music. Composer Hans Zimmer’s score combines traditional western arrangements with innovative use of indigenous instruments and vocalizations, which further enhances the storytelling. In the case of sound design, one telling example is the way the ornithopters sound. The lazy fix would have been to use helicopter sounds, but the sound designers used a mix of cats purring and a beetle fluttering its wings to more closely approximate what the ornithopter’s wings should sound like. This approach makes Dune sound simultaneously organic and otherworldly, making it feel more alive.

Dune stands as a testament to the power of filmmaking in bringing epic tales to life. As audiences gear up for the continuation of the saga, one thing is certain: the world of Dune will continue to captivate and inspire audiences and future filmmakers alike.

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