The great barrier lodged between a great filmmaker and their masterpiece is time. When given time, a production company and their visionary auteur can craft out a meticulous artistic vision with appropriate verve to match their lofty ambitions, allowing makeup, prop, costume and production design teams to prepare well ahead of the schedule. Take into account the years of production that went into Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning Apocalypse Now, Terrence Malick’s methodical The Thin Red Line, or indeed Peter Jackson’s stunning fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, with each project benefiting greatly from this extended period.
Beginning initial production design in August 1997, Peter Jackson demanded total realism for his grubby take on Middle Earth, commanding every facet of production to complete his artistic vision. Hiring the special effects and prop company Weta Workshop, Jackson worked with the specialists to craft specialist pieces of armour, weapons, prosthetics and creatures that would each be used in the final film to give a sense of authenticity to the fantasy epic.
Filmed during the span of 438 days from 1999 to 2001, by the time the film was ready to shoot two years after Jackson had initially contacted Weta, hundreds of props had been created and half the work had already been done to bring the world of Middle Earth to life. The resulting trilogy remains known as the best piece of fantasy cinema ever brought to the big screen, acting as a blueprint for similar such epics to come, yet no film could match its might.
By comparison, The Hobbit trilogy released from 2012-2014 pales in comparison to the original films, taking just 266 days to put together. Initially helmed by Guillermo del Toro, Jackson jumped on the project once the Mexican departed, as he recalled: “We didn’t wind the clock back a year and a half and give me a year and a half prep to design the movie”. Continuing he adds, “It was impossible, and as a result of it being impossible I just started shooting the movie with most of it not prepped at all. You’re going on to a set and you’re winging it”.
Whilst The Hobbit trilogy would become a shining example of ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’, its neglect became emblematic of modern cinema that prefers to try and fast-track success rather than foster slow and steady prosperity. Even Disney and their Marvel Cinematic Universe realised this truth, planning out a careful route of narrative sustenance that has kept the series vigorous for almost 15 years, even if the identity of the films themselves lack visual weight.
In fact, the only film that has truly realised the scope of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in narrative, technical and creative proficiency is Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction epic, Dune. Having been attached to the project since 2016, five years prior to the release of the film itself, Villeneuve was well prepared to take on the epic story when it came to the shooting of the film.
Perfectly realising the scope of the influential book, Villeneuve committed to complete authenticity much like Peter Jackson had for The Lord of the Rings, travelling to Budapest, the Stadlandet peninsula in Norway and Jordan’s Wadi Rum valley to sculpt the perfect environment for the cosmic tale of Dune to take place. Unlike such similar projects as Disney’s Star Wars, Dune uses CGI sparingly, making you double-take as you consider that maybe the breathtaking structure emerging from the sand may in fact be real.
“We went old-school Hollywood,” French-Canadian set designer and three-time Oscar nominee Patrice Vermette told Elle, adding: “Denis’s approach has always been about creating the most immersive sets and the most immersive environments for the actors. I think it helps everyone on the team get into the mood of what we’re doing”.
Becoming animated in his work on the film, Vermette further describes the meticulous detail that went into the production design, particularly one fine aspect of Paul Atreides’ bedroom in Arrakeen. “One nerdy detail that nobody would know about except me is that in the imperial lab, on the walls in the main room, it looks like a stone texture, but if you look closely it’s all a written language,” he reveals.
These minute details are weaved together to create a convincing whole and an utterly timeless science fiction classic, with endless details about how rich the production design was behind the Oscar-nominated blockbuster. From the surreal ‘Ornithopters’ that look like towering mechanical dragonflies that were made by a prop maker in London and then shipped to Jordan, to the over 200 workers that Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan of the costume department hired, the commitment to creating an artistic epic is self-evident.
Whilst science fiction and vibrant fantasy have been the order of the day since the success of The Lord of the Rings way back in 2003, it has taken almost 20 years for the industry to see a worthy successor to the glory of Return of King. Whilst Peter Jackson filmed his original trilogy concurrently, Denis Villeneuve hasn’t been given that same freedom, with the highly-anticipated sequel currently in pre-production for a 2023 release. Though, if history has taught us anything, as long as he is given the time to carry the full extent of his artistic vision, the forthcoming Dune trilogy could become a quintessential piece of cinematic greatness.