Riding the Sandworms: ‘Dune 2’ Action Scenes Took 44 Days to Shoot and Used Road Runner Cartoons for Inspiration

“Desert power.” That’s how Denis Villeneuve teases what’s to come at the end of 2021’s “Dune,” as Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atriedes looks out across the desert in awe as he sees a Fremen person riding a sandworm.

And Villeneuve does not disappoint. The director goes full white-knuckle thrill ride in its sequel, orchestrating a glorious sandworm riding sequence that took 44 days to shoot. It was the most complex thing Villeneuve had ever attempted to do. It needed to feel edgy, dangerous, exciting and real.

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It took Villeneuve’s most-trusted collaborators to help him pull off the scene, in which Paul uses the thumper for the first time to draw a sandworm out from beneath the surface and mount the creature as Chani (Zendaya), Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and the Fremen look on.

Production designer Patrice Vermette tells Variety, “We call them ‘Methodology Meetings.’ It’s when Denis has a new storyboard that nobody has seen, and it’s all the heads of department sitting around the table.” He continues, “When we got to the worm-riding sequence, we were like, ‘Wow, okay, how the hell are we going to do that? That’s a big challenge.”

Cinematographer Greig Fraser read the script and shared similar sentiments: “I read that and thought, ‘How the heck are we going to do that?’ In the book, Paul rides a sandworm, and if we weren’t careful, it could be an odd concept. So we made sure we were so careful [that] the audience never had a concept suspending their disbelief.”

Luckily for Villeneuve, his collaborators thrive on challenges.

Vermette explains the sandworm was a 90-foot-long by 24-foot-wide set piece. Initially, it was tested against the side of a soundstage wall to see how it would all work, and then it was out to the desert with the rig for the sequence to be shot on camera.

The design of the sandworm’s skin layer was inspired by “dry lakes,” says Vermette. “The texture was soft and textured with scales, enough for the skin to be pulled, and we had openings for the hooks.”

Even costume designer Jacqueline West had to consider Paul’s stillsuit outfit for the sandworm riding scene. “It needed to be fitted, but it had to be light and mobile just to get on the worm.” Furthermore, it needed to look like “other-worldly fabric.”

To test things out, West created a desert backdrop and turned to an armorer in Budapest. “He came in with different renditions of the armor. We’d put it on the stillsuit and showed Denis how it worked and how it would move,” she says. “He could see with the backdrop how it would look in the desert with all the colors.”

When it came to filming the action, Villeneuve entrusted Fraser and producer Tanya LaPointe to head up the film’s unit. Fraser says they had constant communication with Kristof Brandl, the B camera operator, about positions and lenses.

Fraser had to figure out how the camera would move with the sandworm. “Every shot that we did needed to have a basis of believability and truth,” he says. “We talked about shooting things, and we said, ‘Okay, we don’t have a tracking vehicle fast enough.'” He thought about, figuratively, positioning the camera on another sandworm tracking alongside Chalamet with a long lens.

“It’s shaky and overtaking,” Fraser adds. “We had to come up with a believability to the camera positions. There was no way we could excuse a camera that was unbelievable.”

Vermette adds, “There were lots of wind machines and lots of makeup powder, the color of sand.”

Walker says Villeneuve cited Chuck Jones’ Road Runner cartoons as a major influence. He has a photo on his wall in the cutting room where he and Villeneuve cut the scene. “Maybe the sandworm odes a little bit to that,” he smiles. “It’s very dynamic. My favorite part is where he’s tumbling down into this cloud of sand, it’s only the diffuse sun lowering in that tells you that he’s becoming horizontal, and then we cut wide and he’s looking around him.”

Walker continues, “It was a 44-day shoot, with many different parts on many different rigs and incredibly clever architecture.”

Once VFX had added in their shots, the cut was a slow-evolving puzzle that Walker and Villeneuve revisited several times. Walker says, “It took a lot of effort for them to get it absolutely right. It was always trying to deliver something brand new that you’ve never seen before.”

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