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‘Dune’: The Inner Workings of Ornithopters, Sand Worms, and Creative Moviemaking

From functional wingspans to alien throat anatomy, DNEG animation director Robyn Luckham discusses his work on Denis Villeneuve’s masterful epic adaptation of the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic.

Sometimes you know your work has been most successful when it’s least noticed. In an impressive 20-year career as an animator, animation supervisor and, most recently, animation director on Denis Villeneuve’s acclaimed Dune, DNEG’s Robyn Luckham has contributed to such landmark films as Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avatar, and King Kong, among many others. While all have been lauded for their design and visual effects accomplishments, of which Luckham is rightfully proud, he’ll tell you that what makes him happiest about his work on the epic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic is how inseparable it is from the story and how everyone’s efforts coalesced to bring life to a singular vision.

In an expansive interview, Luckham talked at length about animating ornithopters and sand worms, the challenge of creating a major battle scene over Zoom, and the magic of working with like-minded colleagues. 

AWN: To start, can you share a little about how you got involved in the project?

Robyn Luckham: It’s a funny story, in a way. I had stopped doing films for a bit and then I started again in Vancouver about five years ago. And I would have conversations with a few other HODs, where we would talk about what we would love to work on. Everyone would talk about their fantasy projects. And one of them was Dune.           

Anyway, fast forward. We did Blade Runner [2049] with Denis, which went really, really well. And then we hear that Legendary have got the rights to Dune. And I'm like, okay, I'm going to have to do this one. I'm going to have to get the old gloves off again. And I'm so happy I did. It's probably one of the best experiences I've had. I've been very, very fortunate in my career to work with some great people. But this one was magic from the start.

AWN: Your saying it was a great experience doesn’t surprise me. It showed on the screen.

RL: It was Denis's vision. He respected [the property] massively. Everyone's seen what he can do with science fiction [in Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival]. But it was different here. I could see straightaway he didn't want to make a science fiction fantasy. It's kind of like a science fiction reality. Everything had to feel functional and real, from the creatures to the ornithopters.

AWN: Your role in the production was animation director. What did that entail?

RL: Pretty much any VFX asset that performs was my responsibility. That includes any kind of vehicle – land, sea, or air. Any kind of creature and any kind of motion capture that had to be stitched to a performance. We had a team in Vancouver, and I was also the supervisor of a team in Montreal, as well as one in Mumbai.

AWN: What sequences or characters or moving objects presented the greatest challenges for you?

RL: As I mentioned, it was all about the reality. Something like an ornithopter, which isn’t a creature and isn’t “acting,” might not seem like it would be a challenge. But it plays a large role in the film and it's very beloved by everyone. It has to feel real. So at the start, I was like the Wright brothers. I was testing so many types of flights just to see how it'd function. We tried different wing movements and different landing styles. Each wing actually moves in a figure eight like a bird. It goes about 30 times a second, or a frame. The rendering on it was off the charts just to get them to work. And the actual blur within the wings had to be rendered differently so that we could have a kind of oscillation to show that it's faster or slower. So when you're banking, the blur would be bigger on this side or that side.

The hardest part was that they're massive and they had to be mechanically real. You had to feel like they could take off. So, even though it was poor for composition sometimes, we widened the wingspans. It made it feel like they could thrust and move this thing in the air. We created a bible for Denis of how the ornithopters would move around space. When Denis uses the phrase "I deeply love it," you know you've hit a home run. We hit it with the ornithopters.

AWN: Did the sand worms present a similar kind of challenge?

RL: Like the ornithopters, the sand worms were huge. I know from doing King Kong and other huge creatures, they take a long time to do things. So normally you end up getting things a bit too fast because there’s not enough time in a shot to do it right. But Denis didn't want that. He wanted to feel the scale.

I researched every kind of worm/snake creature I could find. I even found some old Chinese fossils of a creature that had kind of teeth in the front. We ended up pulling apart and redoing all the muscles and actually constructing it so it would work in reality. How would it bend and lift itself? How would it open and close its mouth? It couldn't just be a tube walking around and eating.

We even created two or three levels of throat that all functioned in a specific way. We found this quite stunning footage where someone put a camera inside the larynx of a beatboxer when he makes noises. And you can see the functionality of the muscles pulling inside and pushing. It's disgusting to watch, but that's what we wanted. When you stare into the eye of that worm, there's something convulsing in there, which is quite terrifying, but it’s realistic.

Ultimately, we started to think of the sand as being more like an ocean. The sand worm was more like a sand whale. It would swim and arc through this sand, which worked with the other signatures that Denis wanted, like the sand vibrating and how it pushed and pulled it. And it became this kind of really big, huge, terrifying, but elegant creature that lived in this sand ocean.


AWN: Was there any single sequence that stands out for its difficulty?

RL: Probably the hardest part of the movie, and the hardest thing I’ve done in my career, had more to do with bad timing and circumstance than specific story elements. There’s a scene in which Paul [Atreides] is in an underground tent and he’s having these spice visions about the future. He sees a big battle, and he's in the middle of it doing these loops and kicks. So, this little sequence, which involved about a thousand fighters, was very late in the schedule, and we didn't have much time to do it. We'd just been put in a big lockdown. I remember one of my lead animators, Leonardo Bonisolli, just standing there and laughing, as we tried to figure out how we were going to do it. We'd only built one costume. And if we have 10 actors of different sizes and scales, it's very hard to reuse their motion capture. You have to re-edit it, re-animate it, and re-key it because they run at different speeds.

So it took months just to work out how to do it – framing fights with Roger Yuan, who is the stunt coordinator, and then driving a motion-capture sheet with him and 12 stunt guys in LA via Zoom, while I'm in Vancouver and Denis, who's not done motion capture before, is in Montreal. And then taking these 12 performances and stitching them to make thousands of choreographed people flying around in this enormous battle scene.

The last three to six months of the movie was done on Zoom, and this whole sequence was done digitally. Every single character. It's all composed in one big shot. That was the last task, and it was a real head-scratcher. But it was brilliant. It worked really well. In fact, one of my friends was, like, “Oh, I thought that was all acted on the stage.” And I'm like, well, I've done my job okay then.

AWN: How much of a role did previs and storyboards play? Did you have a lot to work from,  or did you have to create a lot of sequences more or less from scratch at the time you were actually doing the animation?

RL: As far as previs is concerned, we had some good fleshed-out ideas, and we had boards for the entire film. But Denis is very organic in the way he reacts to things, and tends to think of things on the fly. He doesn't want to limit himself and he’s open to new ideas. So for most of the show we had some previs, but often it would just be to give a rough idea. Really, Denis’s bible was the work done by Patrice Vermette, the production designer. Brilliant set of concepts and amazing storyboards. But new sequences would come up throughout the film, which makes it quite exciting. It's a terrible heart attack for producers, but it allowed us to make some creative contributions.

AWN: Is there anything about this production that makes it stand out, compared to other projects you’ve worked on?

RL: It's hard to pin down, but I think it was just a unity of vision. We all just clicked. It's quite unusual to be on a show where everyone is absolutely in sync and on their A-game. I went to see the movie with my wife and I asked her how many shots she thought were in it. And she guessed about a few hundred. I told her it was over 2,000 and she's, like, “I just couldn't see it.” Which is an amazing compliment. That's the opposite of some films I've done, where all you can see is the effects work.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.