March 9th, 2022

Dune: Making of the CG Desert Mouse

Set against the backdrop of Arrakis, a desert planet, Dune required VFX work that spanned massive and meticulously detailed FX simulations, sweeping environments, full-CG vehicles and creatures to bring the dystopian atmosphere to life on-screen. The VFX experts charged with bringing Director Villeneuve’s immersive vision to life were the team at DNEG who contributed to 28 sequences and nearly 1,200 VFX shots of the film’s 1,700 total. 

One of the many remarkable CG accomplishments in the movie was creating the CG Desert Mouse, we spoke to Dune CG Supervisor Rhys Salcombe to find out how this was created and rendered using Clarisse.

Can you tell us how you created the CG Desert Mouse?

A smaller but important scene we worked on featured a fully CG desert mouse, which readers of the book will know as Muad’dib. A true scale practical stuffy was built and taken on location in Jordan to be photographed under the appropriate desert lighting conditions as reference for us to create the CG one. The mouse only appeared in a handful of shots, but one was an extreme closeup of its ear and face, so close that you can clearly make out individual hair follicles. We knew we had our work cut out for us building the asset. Initially we were matching to the stuffy, but this wasn’t going to look like a real animal, so we pivoted fully toward reference of real animals both in terms of it’s proportions but more importantly it’s detail. 

The mouse isn’t a recreation of any one species but is more of a mixture of different types of Jerboa, and we studied their anatomy and fur in great detail. This included two reference shoots which we arranged with pets of DNEG employees - one in Vancouver featuring a chinchilla named Mr. Clive, and another in London with two pet degus. The animation team got some reference footage of how the animals act when idling, and using a pipette we tried gently wetting their fur to get a better look at the hydrophobic reaction. This was great information to have going into our shot work, as the mouse needed to stand on top of a dune and use it’s ears to capture moisture in the wind, showcasing it’s adaptability to Arrakis’ environment. 

The detail that really sold the creature in the end was damage and irregularity, both in the sculpt itself - things like scarring and knicks on the ears, and in the scatter of sand grains and small pieces of debris we added to it’s fur in Clarisse. Additionally the mouse had complex SSS and modeled veins in its ears to better sell the translucency so close up, and to further the look of an animal living in a harsh environment we added stochastic glints on the hairs to mimic layered damage to the cuticles. There was even a secondary groom with follicles that went inside the skin, which coupled with random-walk-subsurface made each follicle look like it was starting beneath the skin.

The mouse was an example of the director wanting to strip back the animal’s performance to something far more simple and still. We kept all of the detail, such as rapid breathing and micro tics and gestures, but the gross motion was calmed down to be very minimal, as if the animal only expends effort when absolutely necessary.

The combination of closeup fur, including fur seen refracted through large water droplets, a transparent meniscus layer for the eyes, and modeled whiskers with SSS - because we got too close for a fur system to hold up -  made this one of our shots with the longest render times at around 30+ hours per frame at final quality.

Read more about the making of Dune with:

Behind the Scenes: Dune at DNEG

Dune: Making of the Sandworm Harvester Attack Sequence

Dune: Making of the Harkonnen Invasion Sequence