How the VFX and Dune sound teams made sandworms from scratch

They call it “Sand screen”. Outside in the deserts of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, where director Deni Villeneuve shot much of Dune, everything is in different shades of beige. To match it, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert did something he had never done before: he turned his green screens brown. The sand screen meant that Villeneuve could take all his beauty photos in the desert, and Lambert could easily add whatever he needed to the post-production. All he had to do was change the color of the sand for whatever building, background, or beast he wanted. This allowed each frame to look as natural as possible – and also allowed them to create one of the most iconic science fiction creatures.

We are talking about sandworms, of course. As described by Frank Herbert in Dune, sandworms are massive creatures that live in the vast sands of Arakis and produce “spice” – the most valuable substance in the known universe. For the Freemasons, the natives of Arakis, they also serve as a means of transportation. The free ones hang the reins in their scaly exteriors and stand on them as they glide through the desert. The sand screen meant that Lambert could film an actor on the spot riding a sand worm – essentially a platform on a movable gimbal covered in beige – and then adding the worm beneath it with CGI. This gave Lambert the opportunity to create a seamless VFX frame (there were more than 2,000 of them on Dune), and Villeneuve’s ability to have a film that looks as natural as possible. “I’m never a supervisor who says to Dennis, ‘Look, if we just do all this on a blue screen,'” Lambert said. “I don’t work that particular way.”

Designing the worms themselves was another feat. Villeneuve began to work Dune as soon as it’s over Blade Runner 2049 in 2017. “I needed a lot of time and [the studio] give me time, “says Villeneuve. “When we started the preparation, everything was mostly designed, the artistic concepts were made.” Working with production designer Patrice Vermet, he spent months trying to get the worms’ design exactly – their size, their texture, the strength they would need. to move through tons of sand.

“Obviously there is such a large fan base Dune that if you go online – Google like, ‘Dune sandworm – there are so many different versions, says Vermet. “And Dune is an inspiration to many fans of science fiction and movies that have been made. There is a sandworm in Star Wars. So we wanted to do something quite original and terrifying. “

The design of the sandworm they came up with was what Lambert called “prehistoric.” It is thick and scaly and looks hundreds of feet long. One of the best patterns was the whale. The large, gaping mouth of the sandworms that Paul Atrides (Timothy Shalame) confronts is full of balites; its movements below the surface must have been very cetacean-like. Lambert’s team uses all of these ideas to build worms digitally, presenting their texture in Clarissaby animating them with Mayand then composing each frame Nuke.

Then there was the worm’s namesake: the sand. The creatures themselves receive several blows for money Dune, but most of the time they are noticed by their movements underground. These ripples on the surface of the dunes, which Herbert called “worm sign”Also had to be created digitally. When he was in the desert, Lambert wanted to get some idea of ​​how to visualize the huge displacement of sand that worms would cause by placing explosives underground, “but in the Middle East it’s probably not the best thing to do.” Instead, he created a simulation of the use of moving sand Houdini software, largely based on water movements.

Which brings us to something else unique to sandworms: their sound effects. In addition to shaking the earth, Freeman in the Arakis Desert – and members of the cinema audience – must be able to hear the worm’s movement. Sandworms also follow underground sounds, almost like sonar (again: whales), which is why Freemasons distract creatures with the help of “tupers”, which constantly hit the surface of the earth. That meant DuneThe Beasts had to have their own noises – a job that fell to the sound crew of Mark Mangini and Theo Green. The couple worked with Villeneuve Blade Runner 2049 and in the process came up with a philosophy that carried over to Dune“All these sounds should feel like they live in a universe we recognize,” says Mangini. Villeneuve “was very interested in everything we heard, to feel organic or acoustic.”

To practice this philosophy, they came up with another new concept: false documentary realism, or FDR for short. That was the idea Dune it was supposed to sound like a documentary made by a team sent to Arakis. It’s not too “sound design,” Green says. So with regard to sandworms, the couple opposed the clichés of monster movies and made a “fluttering” sound as a sign of worms – something that means danger from a distance. They took hydrophones — underwater microphones — to Death Valley and recorded the sound of moving sand. For the sound of the worm’s mouth opening, they made a “gunk-gunk-gunk” tone, layering a multitude of processed human and animal noises. (The couple are reluctant to give examples. “I don’t think there was anything particularly exotic,” says Mangini.) The sandworm’s movement also uses the sounds of the creaking bark of trees and the twisting of vines. The noise it makes when it swallows an entire spice picking machine? This is a Mangini with a microphone in his mouth that sucks a lot of wind.

The result is something terribly scarce, like Arakis himself. It is also very different from the hit of most science fiction movies. “One thing I noticed about Dennis was that he never gave me anything from another movie as a reference,” Green said. “He uses other films as examples of what not to do,” Mangini added. Then the sandworms do not look like any of the monsters in these movies. More than fear, Villeneuve wanted people to revere worms when they appeared on screen, telling Mangini that “this is more of a god than Godzilla.”

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