Dune 2021's "Sand Screen" Method VFX Breakdown

Dune 2021's "Sand Screen" Method VFX Breakdown

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The original 1984 Dune film was criticized for being complicated and confusing, this was mainly because the original story was too intricate to be covered in just one movie, even if it was a long one. Dune 2021 avoided this problem by deciding from the very start that the story should take place over two movies.

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Getting Practical.
For Dune, the filmmakers wanted to get as much as possible “in camera”, which meant only doing effects digitally when doing it practically wasn’t possible.
The idea was to keep everything photoreal and natural and to embrace the environments they filmed in, however, the film takes place in a dry desert environment with harsh bright sunlight, and this kind of bright light would be very difficult to replicate on an indoor set for shoots of the interior of the Ornithopters.
Initially, they thought about using LED screens as a background for these shots, but there was no way that the LED screens would be able to recreate the bright and dazzling desert light.
So the team decided that if they were going to shoot something that was going to be outside, they would have to shoot it, outside.
For the interior ornithopter work they actually built two 12 tonne Ornithopters and took them out to Budapest then they picked the highest hill they could find and built a gimbal at the top of it, this gave them a nice and flat horizon and the ability to move and rotate their 12-tonne Ornithopter, next, they built a 7.5-meter high sand-colored ramp, 360 degrees, all the way around the gimbal, this they called “The Dog Collar”. This collar served two purposes, firstly it bounced the bright sunlight straight onto the Ornithopter from all directions, and secondly when they shot the action focused on the actors, the ramp in the background was out of focus, this blurred sandy background could then be blended with the background footage they’d shot previously with 6 cameras in a helicopter flying over the deserts of the United Arab Emirates.

Sand screens.
Even though sets would have to be extended and other things would have to be added digitally, bluescreens and greenscreens weren’t really a viable option and this was for a variety of reasons:
one was because an actor gives a better performance when they are immersed in an environment rather than surrounded by bluescreens, another was that light reflects off the blue and green screen and actually spills out onto things around them, giving everything a blue or green tinge.
But perhaps one of the main reasons is that the VFX teams really wanted to ground everything in reality, knowing that under such intense sunlight virtually everything becomes a reflective surface they knew that if they were to use bluescreens they would also appear on these reflections.
The Solution? Sand-colored screens. By using sand-colored screens they ensured that the actors would still feel like part of the environment, that any color spilling from the screens would also be a similar color to the environment, and that any reflections appearing on armor or people’s faces would also be in keeping with the desert environment.

The clever thing about using sand-colored screens is that if you look at a color wheel you will notice that on the opposite side to those orangey and yellowy sand colors you have blues, so if you shoot a sand screen background and then invert the colors you effectively have a bluescreen.
Of course, extensive tests were done to find the right color for the sand, and they found that depending on where the sun was during the shoot they would lose a bit of color but on the whole, this clever solution worked beautifully.

Sand and more sand.
A lot of reference work was done with helicopters in order to get them to throw up dust swirls and clouds but for some of the ornithopter shots, they shot a helicopter directly from another helicopter and then replaced it with their ornithopter.

The sandstorm was also based on reference material of a real-life sandstorm in Africa obtained from National Geographic this gave them a front-on view of a massive sandstorm. This helped them to find the balance between how tremendously big and menacing it is and also how surprisingly slowly it moves.

Huge fans were also used to blow sand around during the shots and even though around 18 tonnes of sand and dust were used, the VFX team knew they’d have to add even more digitally later on.

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