Production design of "Dune" by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Production design of “Dune” – interview with Patrice Vermette

April 10th, 2024
Production design of "Dune" by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome back Patrice Vermette. In this interview, he talks about productions that he’s been working on since we first talked in 2016, making it through the global pandemic, and the potential impact of generative AI on the industry. Around these and more, Patrice dives deep into his work on the magnificent “Dune: Part One” and “Dune: Part Two” that are reshaping the landscape of cinematic sci-fi storytelling.

Patrice Vermette on the set of “Dune”, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: Welcome back, Patrice. We spoke back in 2016 about your work on “Sicario”. How were these last eight years for you?

Patrice: 2016 was the year that “Arrival” was released. The movie was a success, earning 8 Academy Award nominations including 1 win for sound and provided me my second Oscar nomination.

Between then and now, I also had the opportunity to work with different directors. Nash Edgerton on “Gringo”, Hany Abu-Assad on “The Mountain Between Us”, and Adam McKay on “Vice”. It’s great working with different people. It gives you a different perspective about film making and it puts you outside of your comfort zone – which is great.

In early February 2018 Denis asked me if I’d be interested in working on “Dune” with him. We embarked on this amazing year and a half journey.

Shortly after, I was given the opportunity to collaborate with Alejandro G. Iñárritu on “Bardo”, but when we were only three weeks from the camera to roll, the pandemic hit, and we were sent home. It was quite heartbreaking, but it was obviously nothing compared to what was going on in the world.

The world had changed overnight. It was a question of reinventing ourselves, learning new technologies, trying to understand how we could go about doing our work. I was already accustomed of doing distant work during soft prep but this time it was a question of being able to manage it for a greater period. During the pandemic, I was extremely fortunate to be able to work on the development of different projects while staying home with my family. “Tron: Ares” was one of them. I met Garth Davis through this experience. We had a lot of fun, but unfortunately, it did not go further than three months.

After the Tron adventure, Garth Davis asked me if I would be interested in continuing our working relationship on a smaller project which was “Foe”. A beautiful film shot in Australia. Soon after the release of Done Part 1, Part 2 was greenlit and I was off on a new journey, reuniting with Denis Villeneuve.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: There’s so much material that is packed even into the first book of the “Dune” series, and for a long time the series has been considered unadaptable to the screen, or perhaps uncontainable in a sense that there’s so much in there. How do you choose which parts to focus on and which parts may be less important in this adaptation?

Patrice: The book “Dune” was a fantasy project of Denis Villeneuve. He had read the book when he was 13, and had done some storyboards with his best friend when he was 15. So we approached “Dune” with his vision of the book.

From the get-go it was obvious that there’s too much in the book to fit in one movie and Denis took the decision to split the book in two movies quite some time before I got involved in the project. It’s really Denis’ cinematic adaptation. He worked with the scriptwriters on distilling the elements from the book to make it easier to understand for the viewer. Some elements needed to remain in the book. That was all Denis, the scriptwriters, and the producers.

When I started working on the film, I started by reading the book again. I had first read it when I was a teenager as it was quite popular back then. I understood the responsibility I had towards the material but also towards Denis as it is such an important book to him. I wanted to go back to the source, and by doing so, I took notes and found some interesting elements that gave me clues on how I should approach the design.

Those clues are not necessarily mentioned in the script, but it’s there in the book. Frank Herbert doesn’t give all the answers. Even though you have the lexicon with all the terms used in the book, it doesn’t go much into details. As an example, it describes ornithopters as ships with wings that flap like birds. You really need to go through the book and distill the little clues before approaching how the things should look and be designed.

Everything in the design of the film is a reaction, a conversation with the natural elements of the planet, the economics of the planet, how those people live. It’s what makes up a culture and how I approached it. For Denis and I, design for design cannot exist. Design needs to support storytelling, inform us of the past as well as the future. Working with him is such a pleasurable experience because we have a shorthand. There’s no hurdles. We move forward all the time, and that allows us to go deeper into the details.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: It’s a fantasy world, but it’s different from the traditional sci-fi. Yes there’s space travel, yes there are laser guns, but it feels much more grounded in reality. A lot of other sci-fi universes seem to be so detached from the physicality of their worlds, but here on “Dune” so much is driven by the weather of each planet and how those environments affect and shape the societies living there.

Patrice: Our approach is always to make things believable. You need to take it out of the fantasy and anchor it to reality. The actors have method acting where you put yourself in the position of the character you’re playing, and here it’s method designing.

The founders of Arrakeen had to deal with the wind that goes at 550 miles per hour. Would you build anything up straight? Of course not. You’d build everything at an angle, so the wind sweeps over the buildings. Then you have the sandworms. Vibrations send sandworms into a killing spree. Building a city in the open on the sand dunes would be crazy. You would probably find an area in a mountain bowl where it’s safe to build, because that is natural protection. So that’s your start – angled buildings and mountains.

And then there’s the element of heat. You would build everything out of blocks because there’s no water on Arrakis. Sometimes people think it’s concrete, but it’s actually rock which has been carved in quarries. Same principle as for the pyramids. Those blocks are very thick to contain humidity and coolness inside of the housing. Then you would never have direct sun because the sunlight is heat. We thought about creating a system of light wells to distribute the light inside. All of that was taken into consideration while designing.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Building references for Arrakeen came from a multitude of sources. Ziggurat, Egyptian, Brazilian brutalism, Mayan, Aztec as well as Carlos Scarpa for the intricacies. The idea to use brutalism was also to underline the show of force of the colonizer towards the local population. The same way the USSR used it during the cold war. It fit the storyline. The people that built the city are colonizers that came to exploit the natural resources of the planet. The book also mentions that the residency is the biggest residency ever built by humankind. That gives you the clue about scale. Everything needs to be super big, to be super impressive – so it diminishes human beings.

The same design concept goes for Caladan. It’s a planet full of water and forests. The book description made us think of the North-Western region of Norway. But there’s also a medieval aspect to it. Their economy is based on fisheries, rice, and wine. So, the architecture accounts for those realities. The castle is built on a mountain top overlooking the ocean. Houses are built on steps that channel the water running down to the ocean. Caladan’s atmosphere has a high level of humidity, and it reminded me and Denis of Canadian fall which is our favourite season. For us it’s romantic, the seasons mirror the cycles of life. Fall suggests that we are moving towards the end of something and a new beginning. This idea supported the story arc of House Atreides. We also love the colors of the Canadian coastal autumn, the grays of the sky, the yellows of the leaves, the green of the pine trees.

The moon gate shape doorways also symbolize birth and renewal foreseeing Paul Atreides’ future.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: What about Giedi Prime where you only have black and white? I was rewatching the first movie, and then also watching the second one in the theater, and what strikes me is that nothing on that planet seems to have sharp corners. Everything exterior and interior has these alien-like, or maybe insect-based shapes.

Patrice: Giedi Prime was a lot of fun to design. It’s a planet that has been over-exploited by the Harkonnens. When we think about our world on planet Earth, global warming, over exploitation of natural resources, we also think about our dependency to oil. It has this black viscous quality to it. Denis always had in mind a black molded plastic world. References to brutalism and post modernism are also very present but has a twist to them.

One day, while I was driving on a country road outside Montreal, I came across this field full of septic tanks. They were all made of black plastic. It was kind of an epiphany. It all made sense. Septic tanks and their molds have quite interesting shapes. And besides that, what do you find inside septic tanks?

Giedi Prime has a black sun, it was Denis’ idea to have a colorless atmosphere. When you’re inside the buildings, you see the natural skin color, but for the exterior settings, that black sun suppresses colors. Denis and the cinematographer Greig Frasier were using black and white infrared camera, and that’s what gave that disturbing and unique look.

Within the Harkonnen culture, there is also the influence of insect morphology for their vehicles. As an example, their harvester design is inspired by the shape of a tick that sucks up the natural resources of Arrakis.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: You mentioned the size of the spaces, and it’s everywhere, on the outside and the inside. They walk and walk and walk just to get to the next room, and the room is the size of a whole palace. How was it from the design perspective and from the practical perspective of building those sets that dwarf every single character in them?

Patrice: We used multiple tricks. Some of the sets were relatively straightforward to build because they’re quite contained. Others, due to their sizes were limited by their cost. To keep those sets immersive, we determined to build them as high as 24 feet, above that line, we would then use fabric to complete or continue the sets. We kept the volumes by creating frames that we wrapped with fabric and painted the fabric the average/general colour of the set. This way, when you’re in a medium shot or close up, everything behind is real. And when you’re a wider shot, you have the fabric set extensions that help the shot on a couple of levels. The lighting department has the correct physical areas to project light, the shadows will fall in the right physical spots. There will be no light contamination that you would get if you used traditional green or blue screens. It was a tight collaboration of the art department with the cinematographer Greig Fraser and Paul Lambert our VFX supervisor.

Still a couple of the sets were limited by the size of the soundstages, we then used exterior spaces between soundstages and backlots where we applied similar set extension techniques and obvious help from Paul Lambert and his VFX team.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: How much time did you spend to find the right sand, the right dune, the right rock to convey how the whole planet of Arrakis looks like?

Patrice: When Denis and I started on the Part 1, we did a lot of Google Image research to find the best desert to convey the idea of Arrakis. We then made a short list of the ones that we felt had the most potential and eventually sent location scouts to gather more specific images.

Denis had previously shot the movie “Incendies” in Jordan and remembered visiting Wadi Rum. He suggested that we should investigate the possibilities of shooting there.

After gathering the images from the different countries, we reduced our list to the countries which also made the best logistical sense with our production being based in Budapest. Along with our line-producer Joe Caracciolo, Denis and I went on a ten-day location pre-scout that took us to Jordan, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Morocco.

We realized that the outer-worldly rock formations that Wadi Rum had to offer would be our anchor to portray Arrakis but since Jordan does not have endless sand dunes, we still needed to find that important part of the landscape that we found in the Liwa desert of Abu Dhabi. The sand colour was also a perfect match.
Then it was a question of finding the perfect specific spots for the setting of each individual scenes. Many months went into this for both movies.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: Fremen are not just fighters, and they create beautiful art. The first movie showed it a little bit with the frescoes inside the Arrakeen residence and some carvings in the eco station, and there’s more of it in the second one when they go into the sietches. How much of that was physical and how much was digital?

Patrice: It was important to create a Fremen culture. Regarding specific percentage of physical sets versus digital set extensions within the sietches, I would say probably around 85% was physical, as these are huge sets. The idea of those frescoes is about survival, about identity. It’s about showing a culture that is in survival mode daily. That’s why they need to write their stories on the walls of the sietches where they live. We also showed that there’s sand seeping from everywhere and that it’s a constant fight against nature to survive.

There’s another cave next to Sietch Tabr called Cave of Birds where they retreat after being attacked by the Harkonnens. It communicates the same idea about the need to tell your story as people, as a culture, to hope that someday, if you don’t survive, someone will find a proof that you were there. For this set, instead of writing words or doing drawings, the general sculpted motif was inspired by fingerprints. Fingerprints represent unique identity.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: You read the books and you have sandworms, these gigantic creatures roaming the world and striking fear into the heart of the man, almost the emperor of that world. What kind of visual references did you have in mind?

Patrice: The emperor of the world is the perfect definition of what it is. Part One showcases a worm fresco in the hallway, and I wanted the representation of the worm to have the sun come of its mouth, almost like a deity. You shouldn’t necessarily fear it but respect it. The mural projects the idea that Shai Hulud has a divine power, like a God.

In the early stage of developing the sandworm, Denis had whales as a conceptual reference.

Spinning from this, came the idea of metaphorically using the sand dune landscapes as oceans. The different rock formations as islands. Fremen would never travel from point A to point B in a straight line. They would go to the nearest rock for survival and make their travels less risky, not unlike native cultures of the southern Pacific. When they needed to travel between islands in their small boats, they know the ocean is dangerous, so they would try to limit that time on the ocean.

Kirill: Another big structure that you did in the second movie is the hutment attached to the emperor’s spaceship when he lands on Arrakis. How much time did it take to construct it compared to other sets?

Patrice: About 22 weeks. The sietch took 24, and on average we spent 16-18 weeks per set.

The book mentions they bring along this imperial tent. So, I started thinking. How would it be transported? It must be folded, dropped as a small package from the imperial ship and then hoisted back up with pulleys from the ship so it unfolds in its erected form. The idea of collapsible armored metal plates is not dissimilar to metal wristwatch strap.

The interior appearance inside has big panels with hinges to communicate the idea that the imperial tent can be folded and unfolded.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: How tall did you build the interior? Did you have any architectural references from religious buildings?

Patrice: It was 42 feet tall. The interior is designed to have a pyramid inside a pyramid and meant to be a physical representation the hierarchy of emperor’s government structure. The emperor is on top. The next step is the other important, and then a little lesser important people, and so on as you go lower. Looming above the set, serving as a ceiling piece, there’s a cube which is separated in four equal square parts by cross shaped slits. The light projects through the slits projects a cross on the set floor below.

Kirill: And that light cross falls right on the throne.

Patrice: Exactly. Religious colonialism.

Kirill: How many ornithopters did you build?

Patrice: We built two full Atreides thopters, except for the wings. We used the same ones to play for Harkonnen ornithopters but we had VFX takeovers to modify their exterior appearances so they would look different. We also had an extra cockpit of this model. It was set on a gimbal for the inflight interior scenes.
We built two of the smaller model. We called that one the bush ornithopter. It’s the one that Chani rides to the Makers’ Temple. That’s a full build, again except from the wings. It was also used in Part 1 as they escape Kyne’s lab and for the crash.

For Part 2, we built a new ornithopter for Rabban which we called the beethopter. We built at BGI all the interior and part of the exterior. We also had a lighter version made to be suspended from a crane for the fight between Rabban and the Fremen. For Part 2, we also designed a spotter Harkonnen thopter for the Harvester attack scene but that one was mainly CGI.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: What about the harvesters? Did you build the bottom parts for the fight sequences?

Patrice: For the fight sequence where Fremen attack a Harkonnen harvester, we built the underside for when they cross from one side to the other and we also built two 44 feet high legs that were attached to excavators and puppeteer by the Gerd Nefzer’s SFX team so they could be moving to create the right shadows on the sand when Chani and Paul are trying to escape from the Harkonnen ornithopter shooting at them.

Kirill: Overall, how much time did you spend on these two movies?

Patrice: Between Part 1 & 2, it represents about 4 and half years. On Part One, I spent 7 months working with my team of concept artists and illustrators before we started pre-production. There was a whole world to create. In September 2018, Denis and I presented what we call the visual bible to the studio, which at that time contained about 130 key frame illustrations. That bible then evolved through the pre-production, with more work and more illustrations. Pre-production was from September 2018 to February 2019. Principal photography took place from February 2019 until August 2019. Then it went into postproduction, with some additional shooting taking place in the summer of 2020 during the pandemic.

For part two I did three months of soft prep between November 2021 until the end of January 2022 before heading to Budapest where we started pre-production. That went from February 2022 until July 2022, and shooting went until December 2022. I worked a bit on the post-production from January 2023 till May 2023.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: I look at “Arrival” and the two “Dune” movies, and it feels that they’re going to age very well into the next few decades in terms of their visual language and execution. It’s sci-fi, but it is anchored in the physical reality, as we discussed earlier. Do you think about designing for longevity, or do you only work for the current year?

Patrice: I design thinking about the longevity, and that’s something that Denis is also quite aware of. There’s a lot of movies that look really cool when they come out, and then they age bad. I think it’s a mistake to be trendy and use elements or styles that are too much of the essence of the year they were made in. Whether it’s design, technology, lensing, editing or music. But on the other hand, there are movies that really mark the era in which they were made and have become a tribute to their times.

Kirill: The first movie came on streaming the day of theater release. How painful was it to see people not experiencing it on the big screen?

Patrice: Everybody involved in the making of Part 1 and 2, are perfectionists. We put so much love and passion into it. There’s so much detail that you can’t see on a small screen. While we were happy that the movie was being seen, watching it on a big screen is a completely different experience. So, yes. We were disappointed when they announced it was going to be released on the HBO Max platform simultaneously. It was a different world, and the pandemic was strong, so we understood but it was sad.

Kirill: Were you concerned that the theater exhibition business might not survive it financially? The theaters were closed for so many months.

Patrice: It was a big and scary concern. Watching a movie collectively, sensing the audience reacting to the filmmakers intentions at the same time. It’s part of the human experience, just like going to a theater or going to see a live band playing.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

Kirill: Do you find yourself worried about the potential impact of generative AI? Maybe not today, but maybe in the near future you would type a couple of prompts and eliminate of lot of human creativity – without necessarily creating something new. Does that worry you?

Patrice: It does. AI trawls the Internet, scrapes everything that is in there. Prompts create mashups of what already exists. It sometimes creates interesting results, but it cannot produce the image that you have in your mind. It will always be faster to sketch the idea you have instead of playing guessing games with AI, unless you don’t have any ideas to start with. But that’s another debate.

“Spatial creativity” is a process that needs to be an individual response to the script and a director’s initial brief. It should be a response to human feelings and a dialogue with other creative people in the team.

You need the human factor to process all the information and to come up with the solutions that will reflect your creativity in relation to the realities and/or multiple production concerns. I don’t think AI can work within this reality.

What makes me afraid is that some people will want to use AI as a money-saving device, and that will be sad – not only because consequently people are going to lose their job, but also when you take the human out of the equation, you lose human sensitivity, and stories should be told with human sensitivity because it’s addressed to humans.

Kirill: What would your advice be, perhaps to your younger self when you were just starting out, or maybe to somebody who is right now at the very beginning of their career in this industry, about what you should not worry about? What was something that worried you a lot in the beginning, and turned out to not be as important after all?

Patrice: I would say, especially when you start, don’t worry about making mistakes and don’t be shy about asking for help. Filmmaking is a team effort, and when you need help to do something, there’s people who are willing to help. Nobody wants you to fail. Do not be afraid to do that. Don’t be afraid to try. Don’t accept the status quo.

Production design of “Dune” by Patrice Vermette, courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

And here I’d like to thank Patrice Vermette for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design. “Dune: Part Two” is playing in the theaters. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.