Placing importance on sound design early on in the production can lead to great things.
Before we see anything appear on screen, a low, gravelly voice pierces through the darkness of the theater, immediately transporting us to the world of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. It’s a simple action that has a huge payoff.
Sound design is extremely important in film because it creates an environment and tone that the audience will be immersed in for the next two hours. In his sci-fi work, the sound design goal for Villeneuve was to create a sense of distant familiarity while taking the audience on the ethereal trip that Paul was on. By discovering the certain elements of acoustic recordings that tell the brain that what they are seeing is real and working on the visuals at the same time, the sound design team behind Dune was able to create a soundscape that we have never heard before.
Villeneuve approached Dune differently from his other projects. Sound design became one of the first things he and his team focused on, creating the soundscape for the film while it was being filmed. The sound design and the visuals heavily influenced each other throughout the production. Soundworks Collective sat down with Villeneuve and the sound team in their documentary to break down the creative journey behind the sound of Dune.
Starting with Sound First
Villeneuve knew that Dune would be different from his other films. Often, sound design isn’t something many filmmakers think about when they are on set. Instead, it's an afterthought that helps shape the footage to fit the director’s vision, but Dune is different. In the documentary, he said, “I remembered my first movies. All of them I have moments that I didn’t have the time to think enough, to digest enough, to work to make sure that the sound has enough roots to make sure that the ideas will stand the test of time.”
After completing the screenplay, Villeneuve and his sound team—Supervising Sound Editor & Sound Designer Mark Mangini, Supervising Sound Editor & Sound Designer Theo Green, and Re-recording Mixer Ron Bartlett—sat down to start creating the world of Arrakis.
The goal was to create a soundscape that immersed the audience, making the planet feel like a real and familiar place rather than a distant and unknown planet. Theo Green went to Death Valley to be in a place that resembled Arrakis as he read the screenplay. “Experimenting with sand was a huge part of it. That’s one of the few things on planet Arrakis that we can have an equivalent for on Earth,” Green said.
There, he listened to the sounds of the sand dunes and listened to Sound Mixer Doug Hemphill’s record of the singing sand dunes. In Hemphill’s recording, Green noted that when the sand dunes made a low, groaning noise, which contrasted with the cinema sound trope of the wind howling in the desert.
The sound team experimented with the sand dunes, burying microphones under the ground at different levels to create everything they had read in the script and the sounds of the sandworm.
Creating the Sandworm
Villeneuve told Mangini and the sound team that he wanted the worm to be a creature of reverence. The worm, according to Villeneuve, was not a monster or something to be feared, but something godlike, creating a spiritual experience by looking at it.
In the early experiences with the sandworm, Villeneuve wanted a small sound that almost sounded like a bee but was unfamiliar to a non-native ear. The sound team believed that the worm had to create vibrations to move underneath the sand, and recorded various sounds of the microphone moving around vibrating sand.
When the sandworm does appear, the contrast between its appearance and its subtle noises is apparent. This was what Villeneuve wanted—a spiritual experience—and it was marked by the "gunking" noise it makes, a similar noise made by the sand thumpers used by the Fremen. The sound team pitched the idea that the sandworms communicated in a similar way that whales call to each other but through a deep thumping sound, which is why they respond to the thumpers.
Once that sound was established, Villeneuve wanted to get that effect done and put into the film immediately. Mangini recalled that satisfying moment, saying, “Sound drove what we did visually, and that was very gratifying.”
The Voice of the Bene Gesserit
The Voice was one of the more complex pieces of the film to bring to life. Used by the powerful and influential Bene Gesserit, the Voice allows the Bene Gesserit to gain control over uninitiated victims by altering their tonal qualities.
To nail the Voice, the sound team cast female voice artists that had gritty voices and reminded them of deep, authoritative, female ancestors. “It’s something very personal to me… but that was like an experiment, that was a laboratory, that was not done over a weekend,” Villeneuve says, reflecting on hearing that idea.
The sound team knew that the Voice would change the resonance of the person’s voice, increasing the bass of the room to the point where it rattled. Layering all of those elements for a single, short sentence meant that the team had to find a powerful frequency that made a quick impression.
Green used a trick he learned from Lee “Scratch” Perry, who Green calls the pioneer of dub reggae, in which a bass line was recorded, then played back through a speaker in a room that is resin, and record that. Green said that “it enhances the resonance of the bass, and you also hear something of the shaking of the room.”
Once the team discovered what they could do with the Voice for Paul’s (Timothée Chalamet) spiritual journey, other narrative possibilities began to open up. The ancient voice that Paul often heard in his head could speak subtext and text and tell stories even when it is not being used as the Voice. Its tactile authority communicates that it has wisdom and that it should be heard.
This was a new storytelling tool for Villeneuve that he didn’t originally know he could use during production. Mangini noted in the documentary that “subconsciously, there are embedded elements of acoustic recordings that tell the brain [something] is real. It’s all about the time of arrival to the ear and the acoustic environment that a sound lives within.” Utilizing these certain elements allowed Villeneuve to achieve his goal of grounding Dune for everyone to understand and easily immerse themselves.
Putting the sound design in the pre-production allowed the team to create a world that was slowly coming to life. The visuals and soundscape were built at the same time, influencing each other throughout the production, grounding the world of Dune in a new way that other sci-fi films have not been able to do.
Let us know what you think in the comments.