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

TheWrap magazine: “We never fully nailed what we wanted to do until the last week of final mixes,” sound editor Mark Mangini says

This story about the sound in “Dune” first appeared in the Below-the-Line Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

When Denis Villeneuve told supervising sound editors Mark Mangini and Theo Green that he wanted “Dune” to blur the lines between sound design and music, it was a direction that they’d heard before. “I’ve lost count of how many directors have encouraged that, but unless you have somebody really forcing it to happen, it tends not to happen,” said Green, who began his career as a composer. “But Denis encourages cross talk.”

As a result, the sound team had sketches from Hans Zimmer’s score to work with as they planned the film’s intricate sound design. “In traditional paradigms, sound people aren’t supposed to make anything that’s melodic or tonal and composers shouldn’t be putting in explosions,” said Mangini, whose career in doing sound for huge movies began with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “Allowing us to blur the lines increases the size of our palette.”

For “Dune,” the experimentation included spending days in the California desert recording the sounds of sand — burying microphones under the sand, striking the sand from above and pulling microphones through deep sand to get the sound of a giant sandworm traveling through a subterranean environment. (“Then we’d bring that little sound back to the studio and magnify it into the sound of a 400-meter worm traveling underneath you,” Mangini said.)

They even recorded themselves walking over sand that had been sprinkled with Rice Krispies, which were supposed to represent the sound of “spice” — the most valuable material in the galaxy, according to “Dune” lore — embedded in the sand. 

But the trickiest sound they had to create for the film had nothing to do with sand. It was “the voice,” a commanding tone by which a member of the mysterious Bene Gesserit organization could gain instant obedience from whomever they were addressing.

“The voice was certainly the longest gestation,” Mangini said. “We never fully nailed exactly what we wanted to do until the last week of final mixes — and that span is very close to a year and a half of experimentation.” 

One key, said Green, was the idea that the voice could channel ancestors who’d been using the power for generations. “So as the person uses the voice, perhaps we hear an element of an ancient, sort of crackly voice which carries the ancestors. We cast an actor who had that kind of voice and recorded her saying a whole bunch of possible things. And then other tricks came in, such as dimming and vacuuming out the air in the space to convey the effect it has on a person and the environment that it’s used in.”

As they tinkered with the voice, editor Joe Walker would change his edit of the scene to match the timing. “There was this lovely back-and-forth to find the best way to present the sequence,” Mangini said. “It’s not very common that sound and picture editorial work in concert with each other, and I found it very refreshing.”

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

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

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

‘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

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