It was a “Dune” crafts celebration Sunday at the Oscars, with Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi powerhouse from Warner Bros. grabbing six out of eight wins for cinematography, production design, editing, original score, sound, and visual effects. (It didn’t compete for original song, which was won by “No Time To Die,” from the sister-brother team of Billie Eilish and Finneas — the third consecutive win for the James Bond franchise.)
“Dune” was the big screen event of the season, ushering in the reopening of theaters after the pandemic with its heady mix of politics and religion wrapped around a hero’s journey in the desert. It only came up short in costume design and makeup and hairstyling, where it got overshadowed by three-time Oscar winner Jenny Beaven’s ’70’s punk look for Emma Stone in “Cruella” (Disney), and the transformation of Best Actress winner Jessica Chastain into the infamous televangelist for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Searchlight Pictures).
The win for makeup artists Linda Dowds and Justin Raleigh and hairstylist Stephanie Ingram follows the recent trend of Oscar-winning biopics that includes “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Bombshell,” “Vice,” and “Darkest Hour.” Beaven previously won for “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “A Room with a View.”
Everything else, though, fell into place for Villeneuve’s ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” which was his life-long passion project. “Dune” tapped all of his talent for sensory spectacle and he unleashed the creativity of his crafts team to create a combination of David Lean (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and Andrei Tarkovsky (“Solaris”).
It began with the imaginative world building of production designer Patrice Vermette and set decorator Zsuzsanna Sipos, which was a diverse mixture of medieval, Middle Eastern, and Asian influences. Cinematographer Greig Fraser, who’s on the cutting edge of LED-wall tech at ILM with his Emmy-winning “The Mandalorian,” was like a naturalist and impressionist. He used the digital Alexa LF and IMAX 65mm cameras to convey the distinctive looks of the planets as well as the surreal dreams and visions of Paul (Timothée Chalamet) as he grapples with leading the nomadic Fremen in a holy war on the desert planet Arrakis.
The visual effects, meanwhile, were both naturalistic and fantastical. DNEG won its seventh Oscar, overseen by three-time Oscar-winning production VFX supervisor Paul Lambert, two-time Oscar winners Tristan Myles and Gerd Nefzer (the SFX supervisor), and first-time winner Brian Connor. Their work encompassed wind-blown sand, practical sandstorms, flying dragonfly-like ornithopters (requiring a special in-camera setup and backed by photoreal exteriors), and the iconic CG sandworms, which caused the desert to vibrate like a body of water with the help of custom-built mechanics. However, the big ticket item was the Sand Screen process for background environments in the desert. Better than green or blue screen, this prioritized accurate bound light over ease-of-compositing.
Then there was the organic soundscape to evoke desert power and the ancestral female chanting inside Paul’s head. This was achieved by supervising sound editors Mark Mangini (a two-time Oscar winner) and Theo Green, and re-recording sound mixers Doug Hemphill (also a two-time Oscar winner), Ron Bartlett, and Mac Ruth. They created an array of desert sounds that feed off rhythmic pulses, from the ocean-like dunes to the sandworms that moan like whales, to the thwacking Thumpers that boom across the desert to attract sandworms.
Tied to the soundscape was the inventive score of Hans Zimmer (who earned his second Oscar). He conjured the beauty and danger of the desert planet — from the rhythm of the wind pushing the sand between the rocks to the pounding percussion of the sandworms. Zimmer also leaned on the spiritual, driven by a choir of female voices. As part of the hallucinatory nature, Zimmer created new instrumental sounds with the help of sculptor/welder Chas Smith and his virtual synthesizer.
Editor Joe Walker then brilliantly balanced the epic with the intimate in delivering Villeneuve’s sensory power. He cut through loads of exposition to focus on the emotional story of Paul and his family, yet played with Paul’s mindscape to give greater meaning to his struggle as a would-be messiah, adding layers of picture, sound, and score. The groundwork has been laid as we await for “Part Two.”
Yet the craft celebration was marred by the controversial decision to pre-tape eight categories (editing, makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design, and documentary, live action, and animated short) for an edited version presented during the live broadcast. This was an unprecedented, last ditch effort by the Academy executive committee to tighten the show and boost historically low viewership.
Not surprisingly, this resulted in letters of protest from various guilds and unions, and condemnation from such directors as Jane Campion, Guillermo del Toro, Villeneuve, and Steven Spielberg. There were even two sound members that resigned from the Academy in protest: four-time Oscar nominated sound mixer Peter Kurland, who most recently worked on “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” and Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman (“Hugo”). Others may follow suit.
During the pre-taping (presented by “Dune” co-stars Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa) only one winner, makeup artist Dowds, addressed the controversy in her acceptance speech: “There are tens of thousands of crafts people just like us, who are below the line, who come into work every day and work long and hard and who never get the opportunity to have this kind of recognition,” she said. “I just hope that each and every day on set everyone takes a moment to just look around and look at all those people who work so hard.”
Yet the crafts shout out from Dowds was omitted from the telecast, which, by the way, ran 39 minutes over the allotted time. This was indicative of the disrespect that many objected to. So we’ll have to wait and see if the Academy governors, who were bypassed by the executive committee, will let this stand or not.
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