Photography and Visual Effects for DUNE

By Mandell, Paul | American Cinematographer, December 1984 | Go to article overview

Photography and Visual Effects for DUNE

Mandell, Paul, American Cinematographer

"Most of us feel the film comes under the heading of 'strange and dark,' " British cinematographer Freddie Francis said. "Strange, dark and different, I'd say. One doesn't want it to look like Star Wars IV, and it's not that sort of film, anyway."

This could be an apt description of Dune, which Francis spent almost a year photographing, but words cannot do it justice. For though this magnum science-fiction opus is an overwhelming fusion of sight and sound, produced by a truly international crew, Dune is a David Lynch film. That alone delineates it from the norm. The surrealist painter-turned filmmaker has infused his penchant for industrial wastelands and mutagenic images into Frank Herbert's story. It is his second outing with Freddie Francis, both having won critical acclaim for the textural tapestries of The Elephant Man.

Dune is David Lynch's first major film in color. "I would loved to have made Dune in black and white," he admits, "but it really is a color film. I would love to have seen parts of it done in black and white, though. There are places where I might want to desaturate the color and slip in that direction. It's not that I'm a negative person, really. It's just that I always like something dark in the frame, so that you don't see everything and you can sort of zoom out somewhere. It's a feeling. Of course, this caused some problems on Dune, but photographically it's important to me. A lot of times I'm not arguing with Freddie, I'm begging him to make something darker. Dino, on the other hand is begging him not to listen to me and make it lighter."

Francis handled each situation with kid gloves. "Because I had worked with David on Elephant Man, we didn't have to discuss the lighting plans a great deal. I knew the things he'd like, but one has to know what's in the back of his head. David thinks in black and white. We've gone very low in key for color, sometimes hardly as low as David would like to go, but one has to think of other people who have to sell the film.

"I never say no to David on anything, but when he wants something too dark, you have to put the brakes on."

Incongruous, considering the neurotic absurdities of his films, is the personality and demeanor of Lynch himself - the apotheosis of normalcy. He is boyish and highly professional, yet something bizarre lurks beyond that shell. "I love to go into weird worlds, and Dune has four of them," Lynch said. Caladan, the home of hero Paul Atreides, is verdant and lush, almost Victorian. Arrakis, the planet Dune, is infinite desert, where sandworms half-amile long roam and inhabitants wear stillsuits to recycle their body fluids. There are the deep purple caves of the Fremcn, and Kaitain, the Emperor's planet, sparkling with gilt. Geidi Prime, the oil planet, is an industrial universe not unlike a medieval Pittsburgh.

To realize this epic at Mexico City's sprawling Churubusco complex, Lynch and producer Rafaella DeLaurentiis hand-picked the best creative supervision available. Production design is by Tony Masters (zooi: A Space Odyssey), with conceptual art by Mentor Huebner (The Blade Runner), George Jensen (Return of the Jedi), and Ron Miller. Physical effects are masterminded by Kit West (Raiders of the Lost Ark). Bob Ringwood, (Excalibur) designed the costumes, and Dino DeLaurentiis' mainstay, Carlo Rambaldi, developed the mechanical creatures. To complement Francis' photography with unearthly sound effects, Lynch recruited Alan Splet, who was very much a part of The Elephant Man and Lynch's cult classic, Eraserhead. John Dykstra's Apogee Company originally was selected to helm the special visual effects, later to be completed by Van Der Veer Photo Effects.

The Dune operation was enormous. The publicized 70 sets housed on eight huge sound stages at Churubusco is a conservative estimate; the actual count is closer to 100. Photographing them was a major achievement; some sets were so murky and cloistered that it was difficult to navigate within them, let alone film them. …

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