Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Dive Into Dune with this Beautiful Concept Art

Creative Production Studio
Montreal, Canada
Rodeo FX’s Deak Ferrand - one of the concept artists behind Dune, Blade Runner 2049 and more - tells LBB’s Adam Bennett how he created his vision for Frank Herbert’s epic and sprawling sci-fi masterpiece

Often, great cinema is about upending expectations. With the release of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the epic sci-fi Dune last year, one such extraordinary feat of filmmaking was accomplished. Until that point, Frank Herbert’s novel had been broadly and routinely considered as ‘unfilmable’ or, according to TIME last year, ‘not so much unfilmable as uncontainable’. 

In fact, an entire documentary - Jodorowsky's Dune - has been made to document how the acclaimed filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky tried and, ultimately, failed to convert the awe-inspiring world of Dune from page to screen (and, as Jorodowsky himself explains, his ideal adaptation of the novel would have had a runtime of roughly 14 hours). 

The task of mapping out a vision for this sprawling universe, then, was not one for the faint of heart. Fortunately, Rodeo FX’s Deak Ferrand was the man director Denis Villeneuve turned to. Deak’s work as an artist will be familiar to anyone who has seen a litany of high-concept productions including Game of Thrones, as well as Blade Runner: 2049 (the latter representing a previous collaboration with Villeneuve). In the words of The New York Times’ review of the movie, Dune - having started life with Deak’s concept art - is a masterpiece in equal parts “sweeping and intimate”. 

Even for such a well-versed concept artist, however, Dune presented an altogether new and unique challenge. 

“When I started work on Dune, the very first thing I had to do was to forget a lifetime of sci-fi related design inspirations and learn a new visual language,” explains Deak. “That language was fed to me by Denis Villeneuve and Patrice Vermette, the film’s production designer. All along the process, we would put away whatever didn’t work and start fresh again, always looking for the visual idea that felt true - without any compromise or doubts.”

That process, says Deak, proved to be an immensely enriching one. “The way that both Denis and Patrice approach the creation of a design is extremely unique,” he observes. “I found Patrice, for example, to be a very smart and creative person - open to collaboration and willing to try things, even if at times I would find myself hitting a wall.”  

Perhaps one of the more remarkable aspects of Dune’s world design on-screen is how simultaneously majestic and sparse it feels. As Deak recalls, solving that paradox was key to the overall creative vision. “As concept designers, we generally have a tendency to show off by adding a lot of detail to our work, which can end up overcrowding the image for no good reason,” he says. “I find it way more complicated to create a city or a spaceship whilst using the minimum of detail, and the simplest shapes, without the benefit of adding known scale references used in more classical sci-fi design.”

To find a way around that conundrum in the case of Dune, Deak was forced to think anew. “I was able to figure out that what still worked for me, in order to give a sense of scale to those alien environments, was the quality of the light and atmospheric haze,” he says.

On the topic of the film’s spaceships, the vehicles used throughout the Dune universe represent another distinct visual signifier. Eschewing the shiny or combat-focused design seen in blockbuster space operas such as Star Wars, Dune’s spaceships look somewhat functional and worn-down by comparison. That effect, explains Deak, was no accident. 

“I spent a lot of time defining what I call a layering recipe for each of the different house spaceships that I worked on,” he says. “We were careful to apply distinct design philosophies to each of the houses’ vehicles. Atreides ships are angular and fish-like, whereas the Harkonnens’ are round and beige. The Choam Heighliner is almost devoid of any detail or texture due to its tremendous scale.” 

Watching the film back and witnessing his work come to life, it’s the smaller vehicles which have made an impression on Deak. “I was really impressed by how the small Harkonnen troop transports were animated in the movie. The inflating elongated side wings to break their fall before landing is quite interesting,” he recalls. 

Another impressive facet to Deak’s work on Dune is how much of a departure it represents following his previous collaboration with Villeneuve, Blade Runner: 2049. Whilst Dune’s landscapes are almost uniformly epic and open, the world of Blade Runner is distinctively busy and crammed often to the point of claustrophobia. 

“The design for Dune is a direct expression of the logical way the world should be built,” explains Deak. “There is no doubt as to why the city of Arrakeen looks like it does. The design is a direct reaction to man wanting to protect himself from the extreme weather of the planet Arrakis. Heat, cold, violent sandstorms, and extreme wind erosion. What better materials to use than a concrete mix made of sand and rocks, and ten feet-thick slabs that will keep the temperature stable and take hundreds of years to erode. Any paint, or a mural frieze, would be obliterated in one day.” 

Just as Dune’s monolithic and melancholic structures are products of their own environments, so too did the futuristic streets of Los Angeles signify the world around them in Blade Runner. “Blade Runner, by contrast, needed to look dense with detail, in order to give a sense of congestion, overcrowding, and the loss of human dignity,” says Deak. 

Happily for fans of 2021’s adaptation, the world of Dune is set to return in a much-anticipated ‘Part II’ in 2023. Perhaps the most mouth-watering prospect of all, then, is a chance to see how this beautiful, fierce, and ultimately epic universe will evolve as we continue to explore it. 

Above: Dive into the world of Dune with this gallery of concept art

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