Dune: Blending Practical and Visual Effects to make Sci-Fi Believable

Dune Wins Best VFX; Rendering an Entire Planet Without a Single Greenscreen

June 15, 2022

Why does CGI look worse now?

The Marvel effect is something that has affected popular films worldwide – giving everything a humorous, lighter angle to mould even dark concepts and imagery into easy-to-swallow frames safe for children. It’s not just cheesy one liners; even CGI is tailored to have a glossy, cartoonish look that resembles a high budget computer game. But Dune took a significantly different direction and managed to bag the Oscar for best special effects, without using a single greenscreen.

Why did Dune win an Oscar?

Where other films rely more heavily on their digital animation, Dune director Denis Villeneuve only used them when absolutely necessary, blending both practical and visual effects seamlessly to deliver its relentlessly gritty tone. By playing with the boundary between reality and fantasy, the result was one that felt recognisable enough to be believable while exciting the imagination with science fiction. Achieving this is no small feat of engineering; the complex interactions light has with different surfaces are a near impossible feat to replicate exactly. Coupled with the sheer rendering power to mimic the movement and reflections of each individual grain of sand, in a film set on a desert planet, is no small task.

“One of the things we came up against early on was getting that essence of scale... In simulations, each grain of sand is literally the size of a pixel, which means we needed huge volumes of sand, and that turned into petabytes of data.”  -Paul Salvini, CTO of Double Negative Visual Effects (DNEG).

But one that the movie pulls off masterfully. By utilising practical effects, such as a helicopter in the place of an ornithopter, that was then computer generated into the sci-fi vehicle, show a creativity in tackling every challenge. In place of greenscreens were ‘sandscreens’; screens with earthy tones that better replicate the natural lighting of surrounding sandy dunes. By breaking away from the conventional green and blue screens, the director was able to provide a backdrop for the special effects that was a truer representation of real, tangible scenery, marrying the unbelievable with the relatable. 

The scariest sci-fi movie monsters

This style pertains even to the monstrous visual centrepiece of the film, the giant sand worms. By modelling their movement through the sand to imitate a baleen whale moving through water close to the surface, the effect was one that mirrored a natural scenario one might find forced out of their comfort zone in. Paul Lambert, the VFX Supervisor at DNEG commented “We had a fantastic animation department at DNEG. They spent a long time trying to find reference as to how a worm or snake moves, but what we found over time was that as things became more scientific and biological, it wasn’t very cinematic. It didn’t look good on the screen. That’s when we transitioned to the idea of a whale going through water.” 

Through innovation and taking a step back from the traditional method of approaching cinematography, like the greenscreen, Dune was able to go beyond the norm and achieve a more visceral and grounded execution. And this didn’t go unnoticed by cinema goers and critics alike.

Harry Coombes