Denis Villenuve’s “Dune” is a visceral epic, propelled by practical and visual effects that shape the destiny of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) following a vengeful plot that kills his father, Leto (Oscar Isaac), on the spice-producing planet Arrakis.
The approach for visual-effects supervisor Paul Lambert was to avoid “fixing something in post” but to find ways on set that provided the “best base” to create any necessary elements. One such moment is a stirring scene in which Paul and Leto visit a spice harvester only to be attacked by a terrifying sandworm.
The sequence was a massive collaboration among the behind-the-scenes artisans and starts with the characters flying an ornithopter, a dragonfly-like helicopter, which was practically built from blueprints by production designer Patrice Vermette.
To film moments inside the aircraft it was placed on a hilltop outside Budapest where cinematographer Greig Fraser embraced the glimmering, natural sunlight. A sand-colored screen was then built around the ornithopter in place of a blue screen background.
“It felt like you were in the desert already having this brown look to it,” Lambert tells Variety. “Then instead of a traditional extraction and completely replacing the backgrounds, we were able to blend the beautiful plates we shot for those frames which allowed us to keep all the original reflections of the cockpit glass. It was a beautiful blend of the two.”
For the approaching sandworm, VFX treated it like a prehistoric whale creeping beneath the desert — the sand around it churning like ocean water before it attacks the surface.
“Denis wanted to come up with a signature moment for when it’s approaching,” Lambert says. “Our special-effects supervisor Gerd Nefzer designed a vibrating 8×8 foot steel plate, which we buried in the sand. Turned on, the vibrations make these beautiful patterns in the sand and what we found is when you’re on top of the plate, you start sinking. So when you see Paul running away from the spice crawler and fall over, his hands and knees sink into the sand. That’s all practical. Then we copied that physical effect so it became a bigger area right underneath him.”