Bringing Planet Arrakis to actual life in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune

(Denis Villeneuvé, Javier Bardem, CREDIT: Chiabella James)

If you have not seen Denis Villeneuve’s Dune yet, you are missing out on one of the most epic and daring pieces of filmmaking to come along in some time. The Warner Bros. film is simply a marvel to behold. This jaw-dropping reaction can be attributed to the French Canadian Director’s design team.

Planet Arrakis is a vast desert world of infinite horizons and desolate beauty. To capture Villeneuve’s singular vision, his creative teams—led by director of photography Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette—worked to capture as much in-camera as possible. That meant foregoing a green screen and creating the director’s ideal Dune on Earth, on the soundstages and backlot of Origo Studios in Budapest, Hungary and on location in Jordan, with about a week in Abu Dhabi before wrap.

The sound stages in the Hungarian capital have been used many times before, but possibly never on a production so ambitious. Says Joe Caracciolo Jr., “The scale of the film is tremendous. I was quite curious how we were going to pull it off, but the way Patrice and Denis worked together in creating the look and how Greig—who is one of the most adaptable cinematographers I’ve ever worked with—shot it all, was fascinating.

(CREDIT: Chiabella James)

Though they had never worked together before, Denis and Greig had met years before through cinematographer Roger Deakins. Fraser remembers, “We had a fantastic chat, and then I realized that he had done some of my favorite films up to that point and I was quite star struck after that. But Denis is such a warm and welcoming character it’s easy to talk to him. A few years later, I had the opportunity to work with his designer, Patrice, and we got along like a house on fire. He’s forthright and passionate about his work and we got along so well. Of course, I was very excited about the prospect of coming aboard.”

(CREDIT: Chiabella James)

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“When I decided to make Dune, one of the first people I approached was Greig Fraser,” the director asserts. “I’m a big, big fan of his work—what he did in Zero Dark Thirty and Mary Magdalene, for example. He has a secure and powerful way of using nature as an ally. To embrace nature and to construct cinema through the structure of nature is something that was very important for me in this movie. Naturalistic sensibility, realism. I wanted the light to have that quality and I knew that Greig was the one who could bring that to the movie.”

(CREDIT: Chiabella James)

Villeneuve and Fraser quickly formed a close partnership as they began to collaborate on Dune. The director states, “One of the things we decided first of all was we would use the IMAX format for entire sections of the film, such as Paul’s visions, the dreams and the desert sequences. The rest we would shoot in 2:35 format. To maintain the visual impact of IMAX on audiences, it was also beneficial to step away from it from time to time. We also decided the desert scenes would be filmed with a handheld camera, but the rest of the world would be more like tableaus, so that’s the way we approached it.”

Fraser confirms, detailing, “We wanted to try and create that feeling of harshness Denis spoke broadly about. First and foremost, he said, ‘When I dream about this film, I dream about it in 4:3.’ That is a big-screen format, so we went down that path and threw around the idea of 2:35 versus 4:3 versus IMAX and how they might play out. After we bandied those ideas around we came to a general consensus.

“From a color perspective,” he continues, “we tried a number of ideas. Denis wanted Arrakis to be harsh and desolate, unwelcoming to outsiders. So, we tried to never make the sky blue. There’s lots of desert photography where there is yellow sand and blue sky, and we leaned away from that and went toward washed out sand and white sky.”

(CREDIT: Chiabella James)

Fraser says they also had early extensive conversations about whether to shoot digitally or on film. “Film is a beautiful format with an undeniable quality that’s stunning, and it’s analog and it has a certain humanity and warmth to it,” he relates. “But, in this case, we felt shooting on the Alexa gave us the warmth and the humanness the story required but without the nostalgia you get from film.”

However, Fraser says he did compromise a bit. “We then did another technique where we filmed out the digital, meaning one the film was edited, Fotokem, our lab, filmed it and then a negative was created. Next, they scanned that negative back in, so the film, which everybody sees, has been through an analog process. It’s a technique I’d been playing with for a little while but hadn’t actually applied to a feature film before.”

“Greig is one of the best DPs working,” states Mary Parent. “There’s no doubt about it, he’s incredible. The way in which he shot the film, the light and the detail… It is so tactile and so emotionally moving and visceral, but at the same time you’re never feeling the camera moves; nothing is self-conscious, it’s all in service of the storytelling and the characters and, in this case, of Dune itself.

“And what Patrice built in Budapest was like old Hollywood,” she continues. “That size of sets rarely exists anymore, everything is CG extensions, but for this film it all came down to Denis’ vision for making everything real and not relying on CG. So, in this case we built at a much larger scale than most modern films currently being made.”

Among the sets built at Origo Studios were the interiors on planet Caladan, where the film begins. These included the vast library where Lady Jessica and Reverend Mother Mohiam discuss Paul’s future and the residence where the Atreides family lives. They also built the steam bath on Geidi Prime, where the Baron Harkonnen is when we first meet him. Some exterior scenes, including the ornithopter landing on Arrakis, were also filmed on the backlot there. A team of some around 1,000 people made up the expert crew.

Vermette, whose collaborations with Villeneuve include Enemy, Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival, says working on the film was a dream come true. “We don’t make these types of movies in French Canada,” he offers, “so to be invited to work on a movie like this is beyond any dreams a 50-year-old kid could ever have! I’m very grateful.”

(CREDIT: Chiabella James)

“My goal was to approach the design with humility so that the deep, hardcore fans of Dune will recognize Frank Herbert’s descriptions, the way he depicts or describes everything—objects, furniture, rooms, building, the architecture, the light,” Villeneuve conveys. “I wanted everything to be as close as possible to the spirit of the book, and to be inspired by nature: the light, the wind, the feel of the dust. Dune is a monumental world that looks nothing like what we know and of course, I trusted Patrice to help me realize it.”

Vermette read the screenplay and immediately had a vision of how the film would look. “All of a sudden images came into my mind because the script was so well written and left a lot to the imagination,” he says

The designer began by collecting images for a mood board, ranging from photographs of countries as diverse as Egypt and Norway, to architecture he admires, and even images of the Afghan and Gulf wars.

The mood board was adopted into his book of illustrations, which eventually included pictures of every set, every prop and every costume; it was then distributed to every department. “It’s very important for me that we’re all on the same page,” he comments, “so if someone asks, ‘What is this supposed to be?,’ the answer is always, ‘It’s in the book.’ It’s very detailed.”

Vermette designed the color palette of Caladan to be primarily hazy autumnal greens, grays and blues, giving the impression of constant rain and humidity. Castle Caladan is built into a mountain representing House Atreides’ complete synchronicity with nature. Those mottled hues give way to the stark browns, ochres and arid reds when the story moves to Arrakis. Giedi Prime, meanwhile, is a place of industrial plastic matter.

Vermette architected the world to give a sense of overwhelming power: the sets are enormous, looming darkly over the actors, and the stark stone walls and floors form a harsh and hard background to the characters’ lives. Fortunately, the cavernous sound stages at Origo were big enough to accommodate Vermette’s enormous builds.

Set decorator Richard Roberts was keen to ensure that the interior décor created an atmosphere rather than stand out as a distraction. “The audience shouldn’t be looking at individual items of furniture; the décor should be creating a world they get lost in,” he says.

The furniture is very spartan. Everything was made to order, from the furniture and lights to the banner and carpets, which were made in Denmark and then, like the other props, were aged to appear well-worn.

“It’s always fun to try and sneak a carpet, drapes and a cushion into this kind of film,” says Roberts. “I’ve never made carpets this size or anything remotely like this. It was brilliant.”

Dune debuted with $40.1 million in ticket sales in its opening weekend in North America, marking the biggest opening for Warner Bros. during the pandemic and for Villeneuve’s entire film career. It’s well-deserved. The film is. currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.