The Sandscreens of Arrakeen:
An interview with Paul Lambert, Production VFX Supervisor on Dune.
by Paul Hellard
Following the success with the Oscar and BAFTA-award winning Blade Runner 2049, DNEG has once again teamed up with director Denis Villeneuve for the highly anticipated science-fiction epic, DUNE.
Previous versions of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction novel have struggled to capture the scope and nuance of the source material, which focuses more on the politics of humanity than on the technology of the future. The fairly adventurous Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky tried and failed to bring DUNE to the screen. His was to be a ten-hour experience that starred Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger. David Lynch’s 1984 DUNE movie is often dismissed but it’s worth a look for its attempt at telling such a story.
Led by Production VFX Supervisor, Paul Lambert, himself a VFX Oscar-winner for Blade Runner 2049 and First Man, DNEG was joined with Wylie&Co. and RodeoFX and MPC created Previz for the DUNE production. From simple extensions, digital creatures, digital humans, massive FX simulations to 100% CG shots, the goal of the VFX team’s work from the outset was to keep everything as grounded and believable as possible.
Under the charge of Paul Lambert, VFX Supervisors Tristan Myles, winner of an Oscar for First Man, and Brian Connor, DNEG worked on close to 1200 VFX shots out of 1700 in total across 28 sequences, focussing on special effects, environment and compositing. Given the dystopian narrative of the film, key technical and creative challenges included capturing the large-scale environments and vehicles and complex FX simulations. DUNE is set in 10191AD, in the House of Atreides, a family that is assigned leadership over a planet named Arrakis by the sovereign ruler of the known universe.
DNEG created the vast Arrakeen Space Port including a monolithic control tower. There were Atreides spaceships, Spice Harvesters and Ornithopters. The Space Port was suitably populated to support the pomp and circumstance of the House Atreides arrival. The team was also responsible for crafting huge sections of the Arrakis desert planet environment.
The locations and environments were designed to blend seamlessly into the background to help tell the story of the two character’s escape while being constantly pursued by the Emperor’s elite Sardaukar.
Paul Lambert had landed in Budapest in October 2018, early in pre-production. Ahead of him was a healthy five or six months of prep work before principle cinematography. The DP Greig Fraser was onboard early as well, with a view to blocking out the challenge ahead.
“There were a lot of things to work out, based on the concepts, as Greig was forming the blocks,” Lambert says. “We needed to work out what needed to be built, either physically or virtually. The spaceships and the worm, they had a look already. Backgrounds were the main challenge. We knew we would be shooting Arrakeen, an extension to the desert or the spaceport, so the common point out of all of that was that everything was sand-coloured.”
During filming of DUNE at Origo Film Studios in Budapest, Paul had brought along with him, a couple of really talented in-house VFX artists Mag Sarnowska and Joel Delle Virgin who could whip up visuals quickly. “I needed to have a visual ready for Denis very quickly,” says Paul. “I also had Previz from MPC. The idea of having the artists out there was to come up with ideas to inform the crew to shoot in a particular way, to ensure we were successful in post.” One of these ideas was that sand-coloured screens were used, instead of blue or green screens. “What we did was, we selected the best type of blue-screen for a key, then inverted it,” says Lambert. “That gave us our sand colour. This new extraction technique, ‘Sandscreen’, negated the use of distracting blue and green screens onset and added to the realism of the practical sets allowing the cast to concentrate on their roles.
So, if they shot something up against the sand-coloured key, brought that into NUKE and inverted it and keyed it, this would work. It gives you a basis to extract those fine details but with a lot of pluses and minuses and blends.”
On the soundstage in Budapest, the crew prepared a fresh cement floor for the Arrakeen spaceport and surrounded the entire thing with ramps that were sand coloured. “Also, there wasn’t ever that sentiment of set, that any problems would be figured out in ‘post’,” explains Lambert. “The Director of Photography, Greig Fraser and I worked so closely together. He loved it because we were on the same side of avoiding problems, instead of fixing problems.”
Traditionally, a set’s background is built up to a certain height and then the blue or green panels are set above that point. “I came from a compositing background, and I can’t tell you how many times I received that kind of work and the blue or the green just isn’t lit correctly, perhaps because it would interfere with the foreground action. So, being in Arrakeen, the background was always going to be a variation of a brown,” explains Lambert. “It turns out to be a more straightforward solution to generate something that is believable.”
There actually was a massive LED screen built for a scene that eventually didn’t make the cut, but that was the only virtual lighting rig built for the production.
In what is called the hunter-seeker scene, the character Paul [played by Timothée Chalamet] is watching a holographic scene in a room where different aspects of Barrackus are being described. A digital 3D bush is being shown to Paul in the story and some hunter-seekers come in to the room after him. To escape, he has to hide inside this holographic display of a thick bush. Now, Paul Lambert could have just made the laser interact digitally with his skin, showing all the subsurface glow etc. He knew it could be done, but it was expensive and it takes time. But he was also keen to do something practical, on set, without having to create a close-up digital double of Timothée Chalamet.
DNEG came up with a way to interactively track the character on set. “Timothée Chalamet had markers on him, and the location was rigged up as a MoCap set, with readers up on all the rigs, so we knew where he was going to be as he played through the shot,” explains Lambert. “The holographic model for the bush had been signed off by Denis, so we sliced the bush into hundreds of thin sheets of light. We’d project just one of those slices onto Chalamet, depending on where he was. The system was set so as he moved forward, the slice would change to the next slice of the bush. As he moved around, it looked like he was penetrating into the bushes. And because we had this tactile interaction from the actor to the lighting, this became a real live part of the scene. Timothée could see the light of the bush change on his skin and this became a tactile in-camera effect.” The VFX studio Wylie&Co then comped in the rest of the bush in front and behind the character to further hide him from the hunter-seeker and fill out the shot.
The arid desert climate set the stage for the creation of huge sandstorms, replicating real arid weather. These simulations were meticulously detailed and created to illustrate the large scale and power these storms produce on the planet. Huge FX simulations were created for the Sand Worms were shifted around as they traversed the desert dunes, both under and over. A special technique had to be developed to bolster these simulations to have even more fine sand cascading off the worms and surrounding sand dunes.
Gerd Nefzer also had his supply of practical sand to blow around the set as well. “18-tons of it in fact,” quips Lambert. “He had so many wind machines and propellers. In Budapest, he even had a V12 tractor with a massive fan on the back. We would blow all this sand everywhere. In Jordan, it would be everywhere. There were days when I’d get back to the hotel and I’d be covered head to foot. I much prefer a practical dust storm to a virtual layering. Yes, I know it makes for a harder composite, but it also makes for a more believable end result.”
The Ornithopters were built in CG but built in VFX upon the bodies of practical helicopters. But the production had two 12-tonne Ornithopters made, and these were both shipped out to Budapest and to Jordan, in order to be used as photographic reference, background and to allow landing and take-off shots to be based on practical downwash. They were huge, and at times used as interior sets, as the Sandscreens and dunes of sand were handy just outside the window.
The Sandcrawler vehicle scenes were going to be shot in a bit of desert which was a military zone in Jordan. “The whole Sandcrawler vehicle had six tracks, and you’d only see the whole Sandcrawler in CG. We needed at least some part of one to be out in the desert, and these were huge pieces,” explains Lambert. “Patrice Vermette, the Production Designer at Origo in Budapest had built just one of the tracks of the crawlers and shipped it out to Jordan. Again, these were huge. When we got there for these shots, we found Greig and Patrice had them at the location, lined up precisely on the east-west angle, so the sun would always be at the same angle along the camera side. Of course, we also had a handy supply of Sandscreens to key out the background.”
Thankfully, most of the live action work had been completed for DUNE, before the world closed up into pandemic-mode. Paul Lambert found himself in the studios in Burbank, which is a legendary studio lot in California. The inhouse team from Wylie&Co were also there with the DNEG team. But it only took DNEG about a week to get back up and running after the lockdown started. “It actually was really impressive. Back up within a week,” exclaimed Lambert. “What happened was that myself and the VFX team would be in constant contact via Slack, with a dedicated audio and video channel. And with that, we’d set up the reviews and dailies every day, with either DNEG or Wiley&Co., and RodeoFX brought their work in as well, booming in from Vancouver, Los Angeles, Mumbai and Montreal.”
“We’d planned a moCap shoot for a particular shot to do with a dream sequence where Timothée Chalamet’s character is in the future and he’s fighting everybody, there were I guess, about 15 people there,” Lambert describes. Then on the day the emergency was declared, Paul Lambert went back to his place in Studio City, Denis left for Montreal. The DNEG studio and Wylie&Co. also completely dispersed. They eventually did get back together again and the scene was completed in the Fall of 2020, with the 13 or so stunt people, “all wearing masks, jumping about doing crazy athletic things,” says Lambert. “They needed rest-breaks every five minutes but it was the most bizarre visuals I’d ever seen on a MoCap stage. Denis couldn’t be there, so over the top of it all, we had Denis’s face on an iPad, directing the whole thing from Montreal. We made it work, which was most important. We made it work.”