Dune’s Epic Sandworm Shots Are Thanks to a Simple, Yet Effective Twist on Existing Tech

Dune’s Epic Sandworm Shots Are Thanks to a Simple, Yet Effective Twist on Existing Tech
Gurney Halleck and Paul witnessing a sandworm devour a spice-mining carrier. (Screenshot: HBO/Warner Bros.)

In every iteration of Dune — including director Denis Villeneuve’s — the political conflicts that fuel the war between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, and push the Fremen of Arrakis to fight their colonizers, become insignificant afterthoughts whenever the movie’s sandworms are on-camera, or even about to show up. Curiously, how Villeneuve’s version came to life was simply by turning the industry’s traditional greenscreens a different colour.

Mind-killer that fear may be, Paul Atreides and Dune’s other players vying for power can’t help but be swept up in overwhelming terror whenever Arrakis’ desert landscape begins to rumble rhythmically, as it’s one of the sure signs that a gargantuan sandworm is on its way to swallow whole whatever moving (presumably living) thing it’s sensed on the surface. The handful of sandworm-focused scenes that punctuate Villeneuve’s Dune are some of the film’s most thrilling because of the acute danger it puts various characters in as they battle for control of the universe’s spice production.

While the creatures play a somewhat poetically monstrous role in Dune’s story, they’re also meant to embody the natural power and majesty of Arrakis, something the movie’s creative team ended up incorporating into how they brought the creatures to life. In a recent interview with Wired, Dune production designer Patrice Vermette spoke about how, because so many elements of the movie’s lore have popped up in other sci-fi classics inspired by Frank Herbert’s original novel, conceiving of a new spin on the worms was something of a challenge. “Obviously, there’s such a big fan base on Dune that if you go on the internet — Google, like, ‘Dune sandworm’ — there’s so many different versions,” Vermette says. “And Dune has been such an inspiration for a lot of science fiction lovers and movies that have been made. In Star Wars there’s a sandworm. So, we wanted to do something quite original, and terrifying.”

Image: HBO/Warner Bros. Image: HBO/Warner Bros.

Unlike Star Wars’ sarlaccs, which become stationary and grow to the size of massive pits after reaching maturity, Dune’s sandworms retain their mobility throughout their lifespans and are known to move beneath the surface of Arrakis’ vast deserts the way marine life swims through water. At multiple points throughout the story, Paul and other characters witness sandworms racing through the desert and breaching the topmost layer whenever they detect other creatures moving about. Creating these shots wholly on a soundstage would have been a potential option, but because it was important to Lambert to emphasise the natural beauty of the locations in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates where the movie was shot, he developed a set of “sandscreens” — basically a brown background — to use as an alternative to traditional greenscreens. “I’m never a supervisor who is going to say to Denis, ‘Look, if we just make this all blue screen,’” Lambert said. “I don’t work in that particular way.”

Wired explained how it worked: “Sandscreen meant Villeneuve could get all his beauty shots out in the desert and Lambert could easily add whatever he needed to in post-production. All he had to do was swap out the sand colour for whatever building, background, or beast he wanted. It allowed every shot to look as natural as possible — and also let them create one of sci-fi’s most iconic creatures… Sandscreen meant Lambert could film an actor on location ‘riding’ a sandworm — essentially a platform on a moveable gimbal covered in beige — and then add the worm below him with CGI. It gave Lambert the ability to create a seamless VFX shot (there were more than 2,000 of those on Dune), and Villeneuve the ability to have a movie that looked as natural as possible.”

There’s a lot more about the sandworms’ creation — including their mouths and unique sounds — at Wired. Dune is in theatres in Australia on December 2, 2021.