Why ‘Dune’ Production Designers Built a ‘Visual Bible’ Before Day One of Shooting

TheWrap magazine: “You show that to every department, and they get where we’re going,” Patrice Vermette says

This story about the making of Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” first appeared in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Before any set on “Dune” was constructed, before anyone began VFX designs or the cinematographer began mapping out lighting, Denis Villeneuve worked with production designer Patrice Vermette on crafting a “visual bible” for how every bit of the film would look. 

Villeneuve had come to Vermette with some rough “scribbles” based on ideas the director had had in his mind for “Dune” since he was a teenager. Vermette then took those ideas and went to work for seven months of soft prep, creating the entire visual language of the movie. That meant reference points for every prop, basic ideas for costumes, locations and even the visual language and feel for every planet in the “Dune” universe, all of it crafted well before day one of pre-production.

“You take all these cues from the book, and you start creating,” Vermette said. “That visual bible, you show that to every department, and they get where we’re going. It becomes an easy conversation after that.” 

Vermette is a two-time Oscar nominee who has worked with Villeneuve on “Arrival,” “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” and he said you’d be surprised just how much of the visual-effects-heavy world was actually constructed in Hungary and Jordan and seen in lens. One set where soldiers descend from the sky was a circular dome built 20 feet high and draped in fabric to create the illusion of shadows cast in a spoke pattern on the ground. The room’s floor was even covered in sand that needed to be agriculturally controlled—and despite the enormous challenges of such a space, Vermette knew it was a design that was “crazy enough to work.” 

He and Villeneuve believe strongly in immersing actors in the world they’re inhabiting rather than having them play to an empty space. And rooting even a fantasy like “Dune” in the real world goes a long way in creating a lasting impact. For instance, while the grandiose, coastal views on the Atreides home world of Caladan have the gravitas of the shores of Norway, Vermette says there was something in their own home of Canada—the nostalgic feeling of the fall as something appears to come to an end—that needed to be conveyed in the film’s landscapes. 

“For Denis and I, the importance when we create a story is to anchor it in some sort of reality, even if it’s subliminal,” he said. “Afterward, they will believe in the extraordinary aspect of the story because it’s grounded. Denis approaches his movies as if they were documentaries. It encourages us to dig in and create worlds that make sense.”

Dune - Denis Villeneuve and collaborators
Left to right: sound editor Theo Green, cinematographer Greig Fraser, editor Joe Walker, sound editor Mark Mangini, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert, composer Hans Zimmer, director Denis Villeneuve, costume designer Jacqueline West, production designer Patrice Vermette, costume designer Bob Morgan

Read more from TheWrap’s “Dune” package here:

Making ‘Dune’ – Here’s How Denis Villeneuve and His Team Pulled Off Sci-Fi Epic (Video)

‘Dune’ Costume Designers Were Inspired by Everything From Balenciaga to Tarot Cards to Insects

‘Dune’ Cinematographer Still Finds Sand in His Luggage 2 Years After the Shoot

The Sound of ‘Dune’: The Giant Worm Was Hard, but the Magical Voice Was Harder

Why ‘Dune’ Editor Traveled to Budapest But Wouldn’t Go on the Set

Why ‘Dune’s’ Biggest Visual Effects Challenge Wasn’t the Worms But the Sand

‘Dune’ Composer Hans Zimmer Reveals the Note That ‘Tore the Enamel Off My Teeth’

Read more from the Below-the-Line Issue here.

Wrap Below-the-Line issue - Dune