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‘Dune’: How the Organic Sounds of the Desert Helped Drive Denis Villeneuve’s Sensory, Sci-Fi Vision

The Oscar frontrunning team created a unique soundscape to evoke desert power that alternated between documentary and surreal.

DUNE, from left: from left: Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, 2020. ph: Chiabella James / © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Dune”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

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In conjunction with Hans Zimmer’s inventive score, the innovative sound design of “Dune” helps drive the mystical journey of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) on the desert planet Arrakis, where he bumps up against the unshakable force of nature. Indeed, score and sound blend together seamlessly into an organic soundscape, steered by editor Joe Walker, contributing mightily to Denis Villeneuve’s sensory experience. No wonder “Dune” is the frontrunner for score, sound, and editing.

“Denis wanted the sound to be gritty and realistic, and if you landed on Arrakis this is what you’d hear or what a documentary crew might’ve captured,” said supervising sound editor/designer Mark Mangini, who reunited with the Oscar-nominated “Blade Runner 2049” team of supervising sound editor/designer Theo Green and re-recording mixers Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett. “That initial framing of his goals informed everything that we subsequently designed and created and that Ron and Doug would mix. That was our aesthetic.”

Familiarity was important for the sound of Arrakis. Villeneuve did not want an otherworldly, synthesized vibe. In fact, of the 3,200 bespoke sounds in the movie, less than half a dozen were electronically produced. “One of the ways we achieved the success of making science fiction sound familiar was by utilizing acoustic sounds as raw elements from the real world recorded with mics in real acoustic spaces,” Mangini continued.

DUNE, Timothee Chalamet, 2020. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Dune”

©Warner Bros / courtesy Everett Collection

During pre-production, the sound team went to Death Valley to record the dunes, with mics buried deep under the sand. Hemphill noticed similarities to the ocean, and they played with that metaphor. “We would end up using surf and waves to augment the size of natural sand to give us the girth and weight that we needed,” Hemphill said.

The sound team also recorded the resonant quality of thwacking the sand with a mallet for the crucial Thumper instrument. “The Thumper spreads the sound wide throughout the desert to lure [the immense] sandworms,” said Green. In fact, there’s a relationship between the vibrations of the Atreides’ protective shield, the Thumper, and the whale-like moans of the sandworm. “All of these things are rhythmic pulses, which we didn’t invent,” he continued. “That came from Frank Herbert. It’s a way to make sure that the slightly outlandish sounds can seem believable by creating similarity between sounds that can live on one planet.” Even the insect-shaped ornithopter fit within the group. Hidden beneath the sounds of military hardware are beetle wings.

By contrast, there are the strange, otherworldly sounds of “Dune” that live parallel with the naturalistic sounds. These include the loud, commanding Voice associated with the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, who possess advanced physical and mental powers, of which Paul is the only male member, along with the inner voices inside Paul’s head: ancient female chants from his Bene Gesserit ancestry that help summon his messianic superpowers.

Dune Ornithopter

“Dune” Ornithopter

Courtesy of DNEG and Warner Bros.

The Voice was achieved by combining the actor’s modulated voice with a witch’s chorus that included actress Jean Gilpin and English singer Marianne Faithfull. “One of our success was bringing sound as a narrative tool,” said Mangini. “This idea of the ancient voice is not described by Herbert in the book. And it was, in fact, in a creative session with Denis and Joe that we realized that that is where the power of the voice is derived, in summoning one’s ancestors. We used this sound to further the narrative.”

“When Denis heard those first tests of ancient Bene Gesserit voices that we recorded, it gave him a bunch of ideas of how we could use that voice inside Paul’s head during visions, and [hallucinatory, mind bending] spice trips,” Green said. “Denis started writing lines of dialogue that we could use with our recording artists, which Joe applied to the various visionary scenes, and it became part of the language of the film.”

It all came together early on in the gripping Gom Jabbar scene, in which Paul’s special mental abilities and impulse control are put to the test when he places his hand in a painful box controlled by the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling). “We started with some very unpleasant, dentist drill high-pitched tones, sizzling sounds, and other odd noises,” added Green. “Somehow we had to slowly edge into that pain: make it more and more realistic.

Dune

“Dune”

Warner Bros.

“We handed it over early to Hans,” Green continued, “so he could hear high-pitched screeches and write something that wasn’t gonna rub up against the tones that we were using. As result, there’s this interesting hand off between establishing the pain and when Paul suddenly gains the ability to withstand [it], and he looks dead on at Mohiam, and Hans’ [horn] cue completely takes over from our sound.”

Walker’s intercutting, though, of both image and sound added greater complexity. He not only inserted Paul’s vision of burning palm trees into the scene, foretelling doom for the Atreides family, but also a medieval chant by singer Loire Cotler, which was central to Zimmer’s score. “It was a process of layering these ancient voices, harkening back to thousands of years of building up to that point,” added Bartlett. “When Paul pulls his hand out and sees that it’s fine, it’s such a great arc emotionally.”

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