Dune: How Denis Villeneuves VFX Team Created Desert Power for the Sandworms and Ornithopters


Denis Villeneuve was adamant about “Dune” being as naturalistic as possible, especially on the desert planet Arrakis. That’s why he shot in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and the desert terrain of Budapest using the IMAX format with cinematographer Greig Fraser. This extended to the elaborate VFX as well. Achieving believable desert power was essential.

“The visual guide that included the visual effects was contained in very precise artwork,” Villeneuve said at a recent Q&A. “All the detail of light, of contrast, we made sure that it was as precise, as final, as possible. Why? Because I didn’t do that on ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and I suffered.”

“We knew we had to come up with certain techniques to capture what it’s like being in the desert,” added Paul Lambert, the Oscar-winning VFX production supervisor from DNEG (“Blade Runner 2049” and “First Man”). “One thing we were adamant about: we were never going to try and produce daylight inside the computer. You just can’t get that kind of brightness and intensity when trying to shoot something in a studio.”


“Dune” Sand Screen

Warner Bros.

One of the innovative techniques was the invention of a sand screen for use on Arrakis. Rather than using a blue or green screen DNEG devised a sand-colored screen. “The idea being that because we knew that any background plate or computer-generated environment was essentially going to be sand colored, the foreground live action would already be immersed in the same colored environment,” Lambert said. “This helped enormously with the integration of the different layers.”

This enabled the viewer to extensively see outside from interior sets, with a white sun-bounced backing maintaining the relative exposure levels. Compositing made it possible to realistically add blended imagery to these plates with all the nuances of a brightly photographed desert background. A great example occurred during a scene shot at the backlot of Origo Studios in Budapest, when a gardener explains to Paul (Timothée Chalamet) the importance of watering palm trees to keep the dream of Arrakis alive.

The flying dragonfly ornithopter shots needed a more complicated use of sand screen. The VFX team used actual helicopters as placeholders before completing the CG versions. This allowed them to violently disturb the dust when landing or taking off, which often found their way into the composited shots. “SFX made two 12-ton ornithopters, which we took to Budapest and to the Jordanian desert,” Lambert continued. “These machines had a fully hydraulic ramp to open and close and were lifted by cranes for take off and landing. CG wings were added in post.”


“Dune” Ornithopter

Warner Bros.

For the interior ornithopter scenes, rather than trying to replicate sunlight in a studio, the VFX masters found the tallest hill just outside Budapest and placed their ornithopter buck on a gimbal and then surrounded it all with a 360-degree circular, 20-foot-high sand-colored ramp called “the dog collar.” “On a bright day, that sun would bounce off the sand-colored ramp and bounce into the ornithopter,” Lambert said. “It looked like you were in the desert, which then blended with the dog-collar footage. This was a far more realistic composite because you’re keeping the lighting and reflection from the plates and just adding in some more textural detail.”

Arrakis was also home to the immense sand worms, which created the valuable spice mineral that extends human vitality and is crucial for interstellar travel. These CG creatures displaced the sand as they moved around the desert, and simulation tests were begun during pre-production. The challenge was achieving the proper scale and speed of the worms interacting with the dunes. When the worms were close by, SFX built a vibrating plate, which was buried under the sand. As this vibrated, the actors sank into the sand signaling the approaching worm. The effect was a “Jaws”-like game of peekaboo.

“Denis wanted something quite simple: a prehistoric creature that was very agile [with lots of scales] and just roamed the desert, taking a big radius to turn,” Lambert said. “But he didn’t want this huge beast to be over-animated, and the way it travels through the desert was a bit like a whale sifting through the water trying to catch the krill. It’s the same idea: the worm is passing through the sand and sifting through all the nutrients to produce spice in the desert.


“Dune” Sandworm

Warner Bros.

“We came up with a vertical motion [using Houdini], crashing through sometimes, or just moving through the dune. We spent more time working out the animation around the worm than the worm itself [with its large mouth and teeth]. You see the destruction that it creates. We spent time trying to find references of how sand can be displaced so we could copy that.”

The ideal solution for that kind of violent sand displacement would’ve been for SFX set off a series of explosions, but it wasn’t feasible in that part of the world. “We didn’t have the computational power to do a simulation for every grain of sand, but we came up with compromised techniques to speed up the process and break it down into sections,” added Lambert.

“There are times when you see the worm from a distance and then a lens change happens and you see it coming closer,” Lambert said. “But you use the same simulation for the two shots. It’s rising and collapsing in different areas because of the shape and movement, and it leaves a cavernous area behind it. You wanted to convey that this was a grand beast.”

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