The lead designer of Dune on the inspiration behind the appearance of the film

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As production designer of the film, Patrice Vermette is responsible for the look and feel of Dune, building the world in which the characters evolve. He talks to Daniel Bennett about how you create a sci-fi world from the pages of a book.

Where to start with a fictional universe as big as Dune?

To create the world of the dunes, the head decorator Patrice Vermette and the director Denis Villeneuve were inspired by the bunkers of the Second World War, the work of the architect Nicolas Moulin (photo here) and the ziggurat architecture © Alamy

It could have been overwhelming. But I’m still looking for the angle of attack. It’s like going skiing. You can see the slope: it is very, very steep and you can either decide to go straight down or to slalom.

If you’ve read the books you’ll know there are enough descriptions to point you in the right direction, but again, that doesn’t dictate what the world should be so you can make it your own.

I started to collect research pictures, illustrations from books, the Internet, little bitches, etc. From there, I spoke with Denis [Villeneuve, the director], and we played tennis with our ideas.

Once we found the right tone, we started drawing and then hired concept artists who worked from the reference paintings. These moodboards give us the tone of where we want to go architecturally and in terms of scale. This can sometimes be an extremely bizarre collection of images. So we start very broadly and then we will zoom in on the finer details.

It’s great to work with Denis because once he agrees on something he likes, he never changes his mind, he will never go back. You are certain that you can continue to dig in one direction and it will be the right direction. This allows us to go deeper and deeper into design, we will never have to reinvent anything.

So what would we find on the Dune mood boards?

The first thing I remember Denis showing me was a Richard Avedon photography board, which was great for the sweetness of the atmosphere. And we shared pictures of WWII bunkers; images of ziggurat architecture from Mesopotamia; brutalist architecture of the former Soviet bloc and also Brazilian brutalist architecture. It was for Arrakeen [the main city in Arrakis, the planet on which Dune is mostly set].

We talked about how colonialism always tries to take hold in a landscape, which led me to the work of Nicolas Moulin and Super Studio in the 1960s, both conceptual architects who had these huge designs. human constructions protruding from landscapes, which were rather terrifying. I think the imagery resonated in what we wanted to create in the world of Dune: the sense of scale, and the sense of imposing oneself on a place, and the idea that these structures can show the power of a nation. It was very important to us.

After that, we started to think about the landscape itself and the natural elements of each planet in the book. Arrakis has winds of up to 850 km / h (530 mph) which would tear the pavement off the ground. So, I try to think like an architect or a town planner who builds this place. Oh yeah, and there’s this big worm …

You have to be faithful to the nature of things, to the elements of the planet. So I would start by laying the foundations of a city on Arrakis in a protective natural environment, which would probably be a mountain bowl. There you have protection from the wind, and the rocks would prevent the worm from entering. And then you create very angular structures so that the wind can just pass in front of the structure instead of crashing directly into those buildings.

Time was another thing that stuck from the start. Denis and I are French Canadians and we’re falling [autumn] is our favorite season. It is not too hot, it is not too cool. It’s the perfect weather. It’s change, it’s the end of something. We are heading towards the death of a year and the start of a new cycle. So for Caladan [Paul Atreides’s home planet] we felt it was the perfect weather. The perfect background.

A ziggurat © Alamy

Ziggourat architecture © Alamy

Which creation were you most excited to see as your final product?

First of all, I was delighted to see that everything worked together. I was afraid we had gone too far. But I’m so happy about it now. I think one of the biggest moments was when we landed the ornithopters [dragonfly-like spaceships]. They were built by an English company called BGI. Just like in [the film] Arrival, our approach is to be as physical as possible. We piloted two of them in the movie.

The ornithopter designed for Dune (2021).  It's a helicopter-like craft with wings like a dragonfly © Warner Brothers

The ornithopters were built by the British company BGI © Warner Brothers

What was the most difficult thing to achieve?

I think the ornithopters and the worm are part of the mythology and these are the things that fans expect to see. Fans will have their own interpretation. So you have to be careful what you do. They had to be realistic. For Denis and I, the approach has always been that to believe in something extraordinary, you have to anchor it in normality. That’s why we didn’t use green screen or blue screen.

We use other tricks, but we have tried to build as much as possible. The green screen takes people out of the present moment on set, so we created some new tips with the help of Paul Lambert, our brilliant VFX Supervisor.

For example, on the set we had to create the right light [without using a green screen]. So we built 20ft sets [six metres] high, then where the set ended, we spread it out with fabric, so that the light falls the right way [and the sets would feel realistic].

You have the original by David Lynch Dune hanging out in the background, which I guess was a bit of a faux pas for Lynch. Was it in your head when you made this movie?

For me, Lynch’s film resonated, but I didn’t recognize myself in it. But what I really liked was the production design.

After 2001: A Space Odyssey, the aesthetic of almost every sci-fi was derived from that movie, perhaps a little more battered or battered. Stylistically, 2001: A Space Odyssey outlines what science fiction should look like. But there have been a few films that have gone off the beaten track. Dune was one of them. So I liked the design, but didn’t want to do anything close.

Green screens have been avoided to make the Dune universe as real as possible © Warner Brothers

Green screens have been avoided for Dune the universe looks as real as it gets © Warner Brothers

You worked on Arrival with Denis, which was one of the best films of the last decade. And I would say it looked and felt different from mainstream sci-fi too. Aliens, their language, their vessel: all unique. Is that what you and Denis decided to do?

Absolutely, Denis takes advantage of it. It’s good to have references, but at some point you have to close the book and let your imagination guide us. There is nothing more disheartening for a designer than when a director says, “I saw this in this movie, can we do something very similar? It’s the most disappointing thing you can say to a designer. Let’s try to do something original, we might not get there but let’s at least try.

What science fiction has you anchored in what you love?

Well my mom doesn’t understand science fiction. She only sees the surface. For me, good science fiction is a way of thinking, of reflecting our society. “Détourné”, as we say in French. To simply talk about where we are as human beings.

I think Dune is the perfect book by the way because it talks about colonialism, about imposing ourselves on other cultures, our exploitation of natural resources and how we treat the planet and each other. When you see Giedi Prime [The home planet of the Harkonnens] that’s where we’re headed.

It’s entertainment, but at the same time if there’s a little bit of thought we can have about ourselves, science fiction is the perfect vehicle for that. It’s almost subliminal.


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