INTERVIEW: VFX Oscar Winner Paul Lambert

(Brian Connor, Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles and Gerd Nefzer, from left, accept the Oscar® for Visual Effects during the live ABC telecast of the 94th Oscars® at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood in Los Angeles, CA, on Sunday, March 27, 2022. redit: Blaine Ohigashi / A.M.P.A.S.)

Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert won the Oscar for “Best Visual Effects” on Sunday evening for the critically acclaimed film Dune. Having won the Oscar in 2018 and 2019 for Blade Runner 2049 and First Man, Lambert snagged his third Oscar to date after recently taking home the BAFTA for Special Visual Effects and the VES Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal feature for Dune

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and released by Legendary and Warner Bros., Dune is based on the groundbreaking sci-fi saga from author Frank Herbert. The WylieCo. team was charged with completing close to 500 post visualization shots for the evolving edit, as well as completing 900 finished visual effects shots for the film. Watch below a video from Wylie and Company that showcases their work on the film.

Reel 360 had a chance to chat with Paul about the win and the work that went into Dune. Below the two geeked out.

Paul, congratulations on your Oscar win!

What an amazing evening. Congratulations to all the VFX facilities involved but a special thank you to the team at Wylie Co. The creativity and technical know-how of everybody involved really made the post-production on Dune seamless. Can’t wait to do it again!

How do you even begin to approach a huge project like Dune?

I wanted to do things a bit differently because Dune was such an expansive production. I wanted to have artists close to the director (Denis Villeneuve) and myself. We took about ten artists into Legendary and quickly mocked up all the shots for the director’s cut. So, Wylie touched every shot in the film in a post-viz scenario. I was so taken with how everything worked out that Wylie actually went on to do hundreds of the final shots. They did the hologram sequence, which they were credited for.

The hologram sequence was amazing!

It was really cool. I was a little bit apprehensive about doing a full-on CGI version of Timothée (Chalamet), because I’ve been down the route of trying to make virtual humans before and it can be done, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of money. I wanted to try and find different ways to do it.

So, I actually came up with a great idea where we actually used an old-school projector to actually project light onto Timothée. And we took the CG hologram bush and cut it into hundreds of cross-sectional slices and then we would project each slice onto Timothée.

We then had a real-time tracking solution for Timothée who was on the set. When he shifted position, we would then project a different cross-section onto Timothée. As he moved, we got a series of projections animated on Timothée and it felt as if he was moving through the bush.

That gave us the perfect interactive light, which then in post, we were able to add the holographic bush in front and behind him. And because we had the best interactive light and didn’t have to resort to doing a CG version of it, it just felt the result was more believable.

There are so many amazing sequences in Dune, do you have one that stands out?

They’re all my favorites. Each one was done in a very slightly different way and it goes to the philosophy that we wanted to come up with the best procedures to be successful in post. And that meant coming up with all sorts of tricks and things for the shoot.

We had a lot of different techniques peppered throughout the film. For example, when it came to the exterior, rather than shooting the scene against the green or blue screen in a studio, we actually found the highest hill outside of Budapest.

For the aerial shots, which we shot in the UAE, we rigged a gimbal with a sand-colored ramp. The idea is that on a hot, sunny day, we can bounce light and as it hits the ramp, it would then go into the cockpit so you felt as if you were already flying over the desert.

We spent a lot of time trying to get the lighting to be correct, as it just made the visual effects in post-work a lot better. It felt as if like you are out in the desert.

So, it was very much the philosophy of the shooter to try and keep everything as grounded and as real as possible.

I’d love to hear more about Sand Screen.

It’s a very simple idea. Denis isn’t a fan of Blue Screen or Green Screen. It is kind of depressing to be on a set where it’s just blue because it doesn’t add very much to the world and nature around us.

Nature will always supersede the storyboards which supersede the previz. With the Sand Screen, he can get to set, take in the environment and then start changing things up based on the feeling that like he gets from the setup and also from the actors being in a natural environment.

Now, obviously, as a Visual Effects Supervisor, it scares the bejesus out of me. Things can change out there, but it’s also very thrilling as well to try and think on your feet knowing that this is going to happen anyway.

The idea was that because we knew certain sequences, especially on Arrakis, we knew would compensate for any background changes. You’re out in the desert, it’s going to be sand-colored or urinary. For colored sand, we use gray screens, but then for Arrakis, we used sand-colored screens.

But suddenly they were immersed in this in this brown sandy world so that when you go into post, part of the job is done for you because they already feel integrated into the set.

Now, a bonus of the Arrakis work was that we learned if you inverted the sand color, it actually turned blue. I kept that to myself until later on in the production, when we covered the backlot in Budapest.

And in essence, it was a great big Blue Screen. Now, obviously, there are issues with skin tone and that kind of thing, but at least it gave you a start on like trying to extract the foreground to then place on the background.

So yes, that was one of the more innovative things that we came up with on the journey.

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That’s really incredible to me because I see all the big effects, movies and popcorn. That’s my jam. Dune took me back to like being a kid when I saw Star Wars because so much it was so practical in the desert. And Dune just felt more practical and grounded than say, if I’m looking at 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow which was a CGI fest.

Visual effects has become very much a post thing and yes, we can do anything in post-production. Give me any piece of footage and I can put anything behind you and I can turn you into anything like we are in that process.

But if you shoot something and the lighting in the foreground doesn’t have the same intent as the new background which you’re putting, there isn’t much you can do about it. Yes, you can push and pull the grade around, but it will never quite sit as well as something where like you know what the foreground is? Yes, we’ll just fix it in post because yes, we can fix it in post. But if there are different ideas in post, there isn’t much you can do about it.

Tony had spent about eight months with the production design. I joined and then we went into six months of discussions as to how we were going to shoot this thing. But prior to that Tony had of all these drawings and amazing concepts. So it really helped that we knew what some of the backgrounds were going to be. And we were never in a situation where we said, “why don’t we try this impulse? Why don’t we try that?” We were so enamored with all the work that had been done. We stuck to it religiously.

Like Patrice (Production Designer Patrice Vermette) built those sets. Just like in the concepts. The virtual was just like the concepts. We knew what we wanted to do from the very beginning. And that doesn’t mean that there weren’t changes here and there. But like there was generally more of a focus that, OK, this is what we’re doing. We’re taking a place and this is what we do.

I can’t talk to you and not ask about a very big part of the film – the sandworms. The way they worked and just flowed into it reminded me of Jaws.

That was very much a conscious decision. And it was something we didn’t want to reveal until later. We would indicate that they are around as you would see a dune collapse or rise or the ground shake. But you never get to see the full worm full on. You know, I’m a worm and I’m going to eat raw. It’s always immersed in the sand and trying to come up.

They had designed the worm and that had been bought off really early on, but we had to try and make it move. So, that was a journey in itself because, from the initial work which the animators did, they tried to reference how an earthworm or snake moves. And what we found, was that things became very biological and very clinical.

It wasn’t cinematic at all now. One of my biggest fears, when I joined the production, was that I knew that these words were going to be displacing a whole bunch of sand. So it was my concern that I’d try to displace that amount of sand in computer graphics is going to be really expensive, and it takes a long time.

So, I actually started early on. It was a full year of R&D to get to a point where the guys and girls were able to turn round shots from the edit pretty quickly. But it was an iterative process to try to get this to work. But during those initial tests, what we found was that the actual worm started behaving like they were in water. The animators began to make progress with the worm and rather than a sandworm, it became more of a sand whale.

It felt very organic.

The way they crested and smashed through the sand and dune became like water. I think it was a very fitting kind of description of how these worms actually travel through this arid desert. It’s more of a worm traveling through the sea.

Another standout for me was the spice. It was so detailed. The reflections!

You know, like when Timothée first scoops some sand on the ground? That’s actually just glitter. But what we did is copy it for any of those dreamy sequences where you see all the spice rushing around.

But also what you see in some of the desert shots, where you just get to see patches of light, different colors in the desert, that’s actually the real deal out there. In the United Arab Emirates, you actually get patches of light and different color sand. When we were out there scouting a site like this, we would say, this could play as spice. And that’s and that’s exactly what stuck. So even though we shot out in Jordan and the UAE, it’s all based on a particular look from the actual desert out there. And that like it’s got like certain red tones and certain brown tones.

So what’s it like working with Denis?

Denis has a very happy set. There aren’t any egos. He’s such a visionary that you talk to him and he describes certain things that he wants. You’re like this is why you’re the director and this is why you’re the director that you are. It’s just an utter joy to actually work with somebody like this.

When do you actually get involved in the process with someone like Denis?

I joined six months prior to the actual shoot start. And so basically like what entails is that we go into pre-production and go through cameras and discuss how we’re going to do certain things and we try to plan, plan everything out.

I joined pretty early along with the DOP (Oscar winner Greig Fraser) and the production designer is one. But then the special effects supervisor comes on at the same time as me and costumes, so we all come together and then try to figure out what the heck we’re going to try to do to actually get Denis’ vision.

Sometimes the cinematographer will come back towards the end of post-production, but basically, I’m there during pre-production, during the shoot, and then in post-production. So I was actually on Dune for two and a half years. I get to see it, you know, until it’s that that the last shot in the day is ready and it gets conformed, then it goes off to the cinema.

How did you fall into VFX?

Oh my goodness. I literally fell into it. I took a very strange path. You couldn’t go to school when I was first starting out, you had to learn on the job. I had a degree in aeronautics. This was at a time when light education was still free in the UK. What I found was that it just wasn’t for me.

I then decided to go to art school because I had this burning desire to be creative. I wanted to learn how to sculpt. Now, obviously, I needed a job too, so I was doing part-time work as a courier in London, and it was during those courier times that I kept doing the same delivery to Pinewood Studios.

That’s kind of what sparked my interest because up until then, I never thought that even though I loved watching movies, I never thought you could actually work in the movies.

It’s always what other people do.

Totally. Once I realized what was going on and there was this thing called “visual effects,” which was starting to get big, I realized it was a mixture of something highly creative and highly technical. This is something which I want to do. So, I quit art school. I quit my job. I took a week-long course and then spent six months trying to get a job in the industry. I was getting to a point where I was thinking of having to go back to my career because the money had run out. And then I got a job at Ad City site and once I was in, I never looked back.

Paul has begun working on the Dune sequel and we cannot wait.

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Colin Costello is the West Coast Editor of Reel 360. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @colinthewriter1