They call it “sandscreen.” Out in the deserts of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, where director Denis Villeneuve shot much of Dune, everything is varying shades of beige. To match it, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert did something he’d never done before: turned his greenscreens brown. Sandscreen meant Villeneuve could get all his beauty shots out in the desert and Lambert could easily add whatever he needed to in post-production. All he had to do was swap out the sand color for whatever building, background, or beast he wanted. It allowed every shot to look as natural as possible—and also let them create one of sci-fi’s most iconic creatures.
We’re talking about sandworms, of course. As described by Frank Herbert in Dune, sandworms are massive creatures that live in the vast sands of Arrakis and produce “spice”—the most valuable substance in the known universe. For the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, they also serve as transportation. Fremen hook reins into their scaly exteriors and stand atop them as they slither through the desert. Sandscreen meant Lambert could film an actor on location “riding” a sandworm—essentially a platform on a moveable gimbal covered in beige—and then add the worm below him with CGI. It gave Lambert the ability to create a seamless VFX shot (there were more than 2,000 of those on Dune), and Villeneuve the ability to have a movie that looked as natural as possible. “I’m never a supervisor who is going to say to Denis, ‘Look, if we just make this all blue screen … ’” Lambert says. “I don’t work in that particular way.”
Designing the worms themselves was another feat. Villeneuve started working on Dune right after he finished Blade Runner 2049 in 2017. “I needed a lot of time, and [the studio] gave me time,” Villeneuve says. “When we started the prep, everything had been mostly designed, the art concepts were done.” Working with production designer Patrice Vermette, he spent months trying to get the design of the worms just right—their size, their texture, the strength they’d need to move through tons of sand.
“Obviously, there’s such a big fan base on Dune that if you go on the internet—Google, like, ‘Dune sandworm’—there's so many different versions,” Vermette says. “And Dune has been such an inspiration for a lot of science fiction lovers and movies that have been made. In Star Wars there’s a sandworm. So, we wanted to do something quite original, and terrifying.”
The sandworm design they came up with was something Lambert calls “prehistoric.” It’s gnarly and covered in scales and appears to be hundreds of feet long. One of the best templates was the whale. The sandworms’ big, gaping maw, which Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) confronts head on, is full of baleen; its movements below the surface had to be very cetacean. Lambert’s team used all of these ideas when building the worms digitally, rendering their texture in Clarisse, animating them using Maya, and then compositing each shot in Nuke.
Then there was the matter of the worm’s namesake: the sand. The creatures themselves get a few money shots in Dune, but a lot of the time they’re spotted by their movements underground. Those ripples on the surface of the dunes, which Herbert called “wormsign,” also had to be created digitally. When he was on location in the desert, Lambert wanted to get some idea of how to visualize the massive sand displacement the worms would cause by placing explosives underground, “but in the Middle East it’s probably not the best thing to be doing that.” Instead, he created a simulation of moving sand using Houdini software, based largely on water movements.
Which brings us to something else unique about the sandworms: their audible effects. In addition to shaking the ground, Fremen in the desert of Arrakis—and audience members in the cinema—should be able to hear a worm’s movement. Sandworms also follow subterranean sounds, almost like sonar (again: whales), which is why Fremen distract the creatures using “thumpers” that constantly hit the ground’s surface. This meant Dune’s beasts needed to have their own noises—a job that fell to the sound team of Mark Mangini and Theo Green. The pair had worked with Villeneuve on Blade Runner 2049 and in that process came up with a philosophy that carried over to Dune: “All of these sounds should feel like they live in a universe we recognize,” Mangini says. Villeneuve “was very keen on everything we heard feeling organic or acoustic.”
To practice that philosophy, they came up with another new concept: fake documentary realism, or FDR for short. The idea was that Dune needed to sound like a documentary made by a crew sent to Arrakis. Not too “sound design-y,” Green says. So for the sandworms, the pair defied monster movie clichés and made a “fluttery” sound for wormsign—something that signifies danger in a distance. They took hydrophones—underwater microphones—to Death Valley and recorded the sound of sand moving. For the sound of the worm’s mouth opening, they made a “gunk-gunk-gunk” tone by layering scores of processed human and animal noises. (The pair are reluctant to give examples. “I don’t think there was anything particularly exotic,” Mangini says.) Sandworm movement also uses sounds of creaking tree bark and twisting vines. The noise it makes when it swallows a spice harvesting machine whole? That’s Mangini with a mic in his mouth sucking a lot of wind.
The result is something that’s hauntingly sparse, like Arrakis itself. It’s also very different from the whiz-bang of most sci-fi movies. “Something I’ve noticed about Denis is that he has never once given me something from another movie as a reference,” Green says. “He uses other movies as examples of what not to do,” Mangini adds. Sandworms, then, are unlike any of the monsters in those films. More than fear, Villeneuve wanted people to feel reverence for the worms when they appear on screen, telling Mangini “it’s more god than Godzilla.”
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