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In conversation with Oscar-nominated production designer Patrice Vermette

Canadian production designer Patrice Vermette, whose work for the 2021 film Dune has got an Oscar nomination, discusses with STIR the nuances of world building.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Feb 14, 2022

Franklin Herbert's Dune is a narrative that has captivated the minds of science-fiction fans for the better part of five decades. What started as a single novel in 1965 grew into an entire series and is Herbert’s best-known work. The first novel won the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1965 and the 1966 Hugo Award. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) is not the first attempt to convert Herbert’s text into a movie. David Lynch’s 1984 film is one of the better known early adaptations, followed by a 2000 television miniseries. Villeneuve’s two-part adaptation captures the political and social narrative of the book and depicts a believable distant future. The world is illustrated by Canada-born production designer, Patrice Vermette, and has garnered him an Oscar nomination. In an interview with STIR, Vermette discusses the nuances of world-building with a text such as Herbert’s Dune

Stills from Dune (2021) | Dune (2021) | Denis Villeneuve | Patrice Vermette | Timothée Chalamet | Zendaya | STIRworld
Stills from Dune (2021) Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Production

Over the course of our conversation, the Canadian production designer was quick to point out that one of the key elements of Herbert’s Dune is the lack of “thinking machines” which includes robots or any form of artificial intelligence. A staple in contemporary science-fiction movies, the use of AI is an important plot device that drives the genre's narratives. Science-fiction storytelling underwent a transformation between the 70s and 80s where it went from conceptual explorations of future scenarios to technological and visual adventures. A large part of this shift can be attributed to the proliferation of science fiction as a cinema and film medium and not just as novels and books. Herbert’s tale explores themes of colonisation and declining empires, an aspect Vermette uses to help define the architecture seen on the desert planet of Arrakis. Taking cues from the built spaces of our reality, Vermette stitches a visual narrative that connects them to the imagined spaces of the movie.

Mural in Paul Atreides’ bedchamber in Dune (2021) | Dune (2021) | Denis Villeneuve | Patrice Vermette | Timothée Chalamet | Zendaya | STIRworld
Mural in Paul Atreides’ bedchamber in Dune (2021) Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Production

Dune is often cited as an “unfilmable” book, Villeneuve and Vermette added to their task at hand by eliminating the use of green screens. A lot of what one sees on the screen constitutes built sets and props that are refined during post-production. With on-location filming the production team travelled from the coastal area of Norway to the sand dunes of Budapest, to depict Caladan and Arrakis; visually tying the two fictional worlds to recognisable geography. This is an important technique of world-building that provides audiences with a parallel that they are familiar with, in order to connect spatial narratives in their mind.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Production | Dune (2021) | Denis Villeneuve | Patrice Vermette | Timothée Chalamet | Zendaya | STIRworld
Writing on the wall, stills from Dune (2021) Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Production

The unfilmable narrative of Herbert’s Dune also stems from his writing, which lays a larger emphasis on characterisation rather than description. Vermette then uses the characterisation not only of the worlds but also of the fictional characters to create the spatial experience that enhances the narrative. Inspired by Brazilian brutalist architecture, and utilising the scale of colonial architecture, Vermette’s Arrakis is defined by his close reading of the source material. The ziggurat like forms of the colonial settlements in Arrakeen also respond to Herbert’s implication that the strong winds of Arrakis can cut through metal.

Set design of Dune (2021)| Dune (2021) | Denis Villeneuve | Patrice Vermette | Timothée Chalamet | Zendaya | STIRworld
Set design of Dune (2021) Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Production

The production design is also a careful exploration of scale. While it may be easy to get lost in Vermette's imagined reality, the buildings aren’t real. Incorporating details that illustrate the history of the spaces in both close-up and wide frames, is carefully and deliberately orchestrated. From the Art Deco-inspired details to the murals of the sandworm, it isn’t just the script that is telling a story.

Filming on location | Dune (2021) | Denis Villeneuve | Patrice Vermette | Timothée Chalamet | Zendaya | STIRworld
Filming on locationImage: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Production

Towards the end of our interview, Vermette describes the two-part movie as a single film with a very long intermission. The second part of the film, scheduled for 2023, will hopefully see the Fremen architectural typology and the production design of a very different Arrakis.

Tap the cover video to watch the full conversation.

Mise-en-scène with STIR:
In a series of conversations with this year's Oscar-nominated production designers, STIR attempts to decipher the genesis, visualisation, and the process of breathing life into fantastical cinematic landscapes. From the dusty depths of Arrakis, to the uncanny concrete landscape of Inverness, the rustic barns of the West, and a dubious fever-dream disguised as a carnival, discover new worlds in stimulating conversations with Oscar winner Patrice Vermette, and his fellow nominees Stefan Dechant, Grant Major, and Tamara Deverell.

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