Rodeo FX art director Deak Ferrand on his concept contributions to ‘Dune’.
The task of designing massive spaceships and vast landscapes for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was an enormous one. Which is why the director, and production designer Patrice Vermette, looked to several concept artists to help imagine their vision for the film. One of those was Rodeo FX art director Deak Ferrand, working with Rodeo FX executive VFX producer Cheryl Bainum.
Here, Ferrand, who had also contributed designs on Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, explains to befores & afters the philosophy behind his contributions to Dune, including the approach to specific ships and settings in the world of the film.
b&a: How did you get involved on Dune?
Deak Ferrand: I think it started when we were doing Blade Runner. We came late on Blade Runner. It was already in post and I didn’t really know Denis at that point and was introduced and we started to work and redo concepts. We did mostly matte paintings. We developed a very good relationship during that time. He was doing the post in LA and we would spend time together. He would come to the office and we would just re-design elements that he wanted to change. Then near the end of the post, he came to me and said, ‘I just wanted to ask you something. Do you want to be part of this movie? The next movie I’m going to do is Dune.’ That was really early. I mean he was starting to write. So I said, ‘Are you kidding? Yeah, absolutely.’
We started to work on it as he was writing, I think Sam Hudecki, Denis’ storyboard artist, was already there. Then production designer Patrice Vermette came in. We just meshed completely. Originally it was four to eight weeks and then it went 12 to 16 and then more. It was over a year of work on Dune with Patrice, mainly.
It’s interesting because I had been doing a lot of post-production art. On Dune, however, I was completely in pre-production under the production designer, working other designers like George Hull, just amazing people.
b&a: You have that perspective as a matte painter, a designer, a visual effects artist–how did that experience in visual effects in particular help with fitting into Denis’ vision?
Deak Ferrand: That was something that Denis said to me on Blade Runner. I was re-doing some concepts on Blade Runner and he said, ‘One of my regrets on this film is that I never got the concept design in pre-production exactly the way I wanted it. And now I have to tell the post-production people that this is not what I want. I’m going to try to tell you what I want.’ It was a hassle for him because all of a sudden it’s taking a lot of his time. He said, ‘For Dune, what I would like to do is, when you guys do the concepts, we get them to a point where it’s exactly what I want and all I have to do is show up in post.’
And we’re not just designing for visual effects. We’re also designing for set building obviously, as well. Denis will have an image crafted and he gives it out, and if someone wants to change something he says, ‘No, no, no, no, don’t do that. This is exactly what I want.’
The concepts in terms of finish were not stylized, were not loose. I was applying more of my matte painting background to do concepts. It’s, ‘How can I get as realistic as I can with the concepts?’
b&a: That’s exactly what I was leading to. There is something in the imagery that you sent me which feels like it looks more like final VFX shots.
Deak Ferrand: Yes, I think you’re able to see how close sometimes it is to the final shots and I think that’s really what Denis wanted in terms of not having to struggle to try to get vision through, because it is a very specific vision. I mean it’s all about holding back, right? There’s something about it that I think if you don’t get it very quickly, there’s a tendency to try to show off. I always say, we’re artists, we’re trying to show off a little bit and that’s not Denis.
We’re all children of Star Wars in a way that you can’t do that. And I love Star Wars and I love the designs of Star Wars, but you can hide behind the detail and the noise, I would say, in a good way, because I love it. But not with Denis and not with Patrice. For example, I would show something and Patrice would say, ‘Well, no, this is never going to be there because it’s just too Star Wars. So I think it’s a language that you learn. In fact, I think I failed for the first maybe month working on the film.
Deak Ferrand: They would say, ‘None of these little patterns, or details, just clean it all off.’ It was all meant to be more simplistic.
b&a: Is there a way to describe what Patrice and Denis wanted for the different worlds of Dune? Is there a way to describe the look and feel that they were going for?
Deak Ferrand: Well, for Arrakeen, in terms of building the city, we did a lot of different things. We tried different ways of showing how the city would be built. It’s not about brutalism. It’s not really about a style of architecture, it’s about the planet and how harsh and dangerous and violent it is. You go outside and it kills you. If you were to build a city in this environment, how would the city look? It looks like brutalism architecture because you’re trying to protect yourself from the sun, from the wind, from the sandstorms, from the cold at night and the heat of the day.
So, there’s no windows. Nobody’s going to have a window. You can’t really open the windows, things like that. I think starting with that idea, then you can start to develop what it’s going to look like, protected by the mountains.
b&a: Your concepts seem to have a ‘3D’ look to them. What is your process that you followed to build it up?
Deak Ferrand: When you’re working with the production designer, they’re going to build a lot of set parts from whatever you’re designing and they want to see it from different angles. They want to make sure it works at scale, too. Patrice was working in SketchUp. I’m working in Cinema 4D, but we could exchange the files. He would do mockups of a set of an interior and then give me the SketchUp and I take it and I remodel everything.
For ships, well, the ship has to look good from every angle. Plus there’s also a mechanism for the legs, say. How does the leg deploy? How does it open the ramp? You can’t do that in 2D. I would say 95% is a 3D model. And then you apply the techniques of matte painting, wallpapers, and then you layer and then you come with real photos on top and then there’s a strange mix of the photo and the 3D and, hopefully, it looks pretty good. I don’t think you want it to look like it’s a 3D thing. It still needs to feel organic.
b&a: One of the pieces of art you worked on was a Harkonnens gunship with the blasts coming out. Can you talk about that?
Deak Ferrand: That was interesting because, well, I’m not a spaceship or vehicle designer. I usually do the environments, so it was very nice for Patrice and Denis to ask me sometimes to design vehicles because I love it, but I’m kind of limited I think in my modelling skills, compared to George Hull.
That Harkonnen ship is like a big blob, and then there are some smaller ones with the two ‘balloons’ on the side. I started to design some stuff and Denis said, ‘No, no, no, just do me a favor, don’t design the bad guys’ ship like they’re bad guys. They’re bad people but maybe their ship looks benign. Maybe it looks like the good guys’ ship. So it’s not dark. It’s not hard angles. It’s very smooth. Denis loved that.
For the ship with the two ‘side bananas’, that shape was started by somebody else. It was a very simple shape. I took it and then worked really hard on this to just really come up with the final detail, shape, mechanical stuff, all that texture. And the texture is derived from the Harkonnen big ship. I had a recipe of layering to make sure it belongs to the same family.
The ship with the fiery gunfire was what we call the ‘Plague’ ship and Patrice sent me pictures of the bubonic plague on people and he said, ‘Okay, this ship is the bubonic plague. This is what it is.’ So he sends me these horrible goddamn pictures. And then he sends me a picture of the flares, the flares behind those big military planes. He said, ‘Well, just design something that looks fucking awful. It’s horrible, it’s scary and it shows those things.’ And I did that thing with the shower of gunfire and I thought this thing would be moving very slowly in this showery ribbon of rockets and just destroy everything.
b&a: There are some other ships, like the Heighliner donut, and also the Imperial ship, that you did concepts for. I’d love to talk about those.
Deak Ferrand: For the Heighliner, Denis had a storyboard. The ship looked like a tube cut in a slanted way. It was a very rough sketch. Even with Patrice, we were like, ‘Well, okay. Isn’t it a little bit simple?’ I mean, we were thinking, how do you make this look good and huge?
One thing I observed with the original concept was that it would be the whole thing, the whole ship. When I did my version of the design, I did it where you just see the mouth of the ship, and then you could really appreciate the scale. If I had to do the whole ship, I’d tell Denis, ‘I’m giving you this concept because I have to give you the concept of the whole ship, the whole Heighliner, but you should never show it whole because it should be that it’s so big that you can never embrace the entire shape.’
b&a: What about the Imperial ship? The ball-shaped one.
Deak Ferrand: Patrice found a picture of a particular piece of art. It was a marble ball that somebody had made and he said, ‘Okay, this is the Imperial ship.’ We were looking at it, saying, ‘What are you talking about?’ But sometimes you have to interpret images that have nothing to do with a ship. You have to come up with a ship that shares those similarities, but you don’t copy it. You can’t copy what you’re seeing, obviously. So that was pretty bold. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool. A big ball.’
b&a: How did you help envisage things like landing mechanisms for that ship? Do you have to do any animatics?
Deak Ferrand: It’s interesting because you’re designing the thing and it’s flying and it’s cool and it’s simple. And then all of a sudden, obviously it has to land. How do you land something like this? Where is the landing gear? How do they deploy? Does it look good? Because landing a ball might not look very good in terms of having little legs. At the beginning, it looked like a chicken and an egg, you know those little chicks that are stuck in the egg on these little legs.
The thing with Dune, too, there’s no shortcuts like Star Wars or Star Trek where the thing can hover above the floor and that’s it. Sometimes you curse at that because you’re like, ‘C’mon man, let’s just have it hover! It’s a sci-fi movie. It’s 20,000 years into the future or whatever it is.’
b&a: There’s another concept of the Kynes moisture room. How do you communicate an expansive environment like that?
Deak Ferrand: That was definitely something that Patrice had already in terms of the layout. He gave it to me and said, ‘Can you make it gigantic?’ So I can’t say I designed this from scratch because it is not me. It’s a collaboration. I mean it’s hard to even take full credit for anything, because sometimes you do provide the idea for a design and sometimes you work with somebody coming up with the design or you design something and then you fail. It’s really about failing. I was always saying that, way more than when you’re designing in post-production.
In post-production, you can’t fail. You’re so pressured. It has to be perfect the first time. In pre-pro, it’s awesome. You sit down and you go, ‘Okay, let’s try this.’ And if it doesn’t work, you’re not fired. It’s okay. It means that this is not working. So you say, ‘Let’s try and have something else. We know what’s not working. Let’s try to do something completely different.’ We do that all the time and it’s great.
b&a: In your concepts I feel like one of the things I really noticed was the ‘depth’ in them. How do you add this depth and atmosphere to concepts? Is it hazing? Is it perspective? Is it something else?
Deak Ferrand: Well, I think you have to be very careful with atmosphere because I think it’s an easy way out. I mean, I use it all the time. I wish I didn’t have to do that. In reality, you don’t have atmosphere all the time. What also helps is, it’s always trying to find a relationship of scale. When you’re on Caladan, you have trees. On Arrakis, you have nothing. You have rocks and sand and things like this, but it makes it harder. When you look at those photos of Jordan, of the Wadi Rum, it is really hard to understand the scale of these landscapes sometimes. Even if you were to put a spaceship there, you wouldn’t really feel the tremendous scale of it. So, I’m always asking, ‘Please give me a way to put a scale reference in that everybody knows about.’
b&a: Well, you’ve done an amazing job communicating the vastness of the spaces.
Deak Ferrand: The thing is, the technique to achieve this atmosphere in the computer is always the same. If you were to see me working, it’s the same all the time. What is not the same is just finding out, how do I tell the story? Because, I can design a spaceship and stuff like that. But what’s the story? What are you guys trying to tell in this framing or in this concept? What’s the feeling? That’s the hard part.