Deconstructing the psychedelic sound design of ‘Dune’

The book series Dune is one of the most celebrated sci-fi epics of all time, full of technological motifs like shield belts, hovering gadgets, and space travel. But for director Denis Villeneuve, who released the latest film remake in 2021, “at the end of the day, Dune is a psychedelic journey.” It’s a drug-fueled exploration of the desert itself.

Indeed, Villeneuve’s Dune is a two-and-a-half-hour art film, less concerned with racing through a plot than taking the viewer deep into the ecosystem of planet Arrakis—a place that never rains, but somehow supports 1,500-foot sandworms plowing under the earth like subway trains. And in this new, 29-minute, behind-the-scenes video, we get a deep dive into the film’s thoughtful sound design, which was critical to creating that world.

Whereas many productions bring in sound designers after many of the visuals have already been finalized, supervising sound editor Mark Mangini (who worked with Villeneuve on Blade Runner 2049) began building the audioscape of Dune from its early days of production. As a result, the sound actually informs all sorts of things we see on-screen, and even fills in some of the conceptual gaps of the Dune series. (How can a giant worm actually burrow through so much sand? It vibrates with a low frequency to displace particles.)

[Image: courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures]

Mangini’s team set up in a hotel on the edge of Death Valley, and quickly learned that one of the tropes of the desert we know—the omnipresent howl of dry wind—was an invention of film, repeated by film. In fact, dunes are often still, silent places, and when they aren’t, they actually sing and groan much like an ominous soundtrack.

[Image: courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures]

The team sourced sounds from nature, dragging microphones through the sand to simulate a worm, hammering the earth with a rubber mallet to capture the sound of a “thumper” gadget that the citizens of Arrakis use to summon the beasts. While these sounds are post-processed by cutting-edge audio software to enhance various characteristics, the core is organic, and thereby believable.

[Image: courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures]

I won’t spoil insights from the entire video for you, because it really is a joy to hear how humble sounds snowball (err, sandball?) into extravagant spectacles. Sit back, grab a pair of headphones, and appreciate this craft of sound design being performed at its highest level. Because there’s no way that Dune’s sound design isn’t bagging a couple of Oscars.

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