Dune: Making of the Harkonnen Invasion Sequence

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March 23rd, 2022

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 many epic battle sequences in the movie was the Harkonnen Invasion Sequence, 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 Harkonnen Invasion Sequence?

The Harkonnen invasion of Arrakeen and the spaceport was one of the biggest sequences done in DNEG’s Vancouver studio, and it ran the VFX gamut in terms of scope. It had enormous explosions, rigid body sims, fire & smoke columns, city destruction, lasers, shield effects both personal and ship-sized, not to mention clashing armies and the ever present sand and blowing dust. Huge credit needs to go to the FX and lighting teams for this sequence, supervised by Lisa Nolan and Filippo Forno respectively, for pulling off work at a truly epic scale. The initial explosion that destroyed the spaceport command tower alone was almost 5 km in height!

Our ability to generate photoreal explosions was something Paul was very keen to see, and early on we were given reference footage of real pyro shot on the set in Budapest. We spent some time matching into that footage with particular focus on our pyro shaders, before attempting explosions twenty times that size when the Atreides troop transports were destroyed. Harkonnen ‘Snowflake bombs’ start descending from the sky before slowing down just outside the ship shields and drilling through. The personal shield effect seen in this and other sequences was achieved primarily in compositing, utilizing past and future frames from the footage offset with shake nodes within Nuke, tinted blue or red depending on whether the shield had been penetrated, and then artistically revealed with manual paint strokes. For the ship shields we created a 3D shield effect with it’s own incandescent shading so that it would behave as a light source and be reflected onto the ships as well as lighting the surrounding atmospherics and smoke VDBs. The same shield geometry acted as a container for the FX explosions, and as the shield fails, the container is breached and the pyro is allowed to expand and escape. Comp then applied a similar shaking and paint stroke treatment on top to tie into the personal shield effect.

We built a hero version of the Atreides troop ship rigged for destruction, where all of its exterior panels were individual objects mounted onto an inner framework and then the interior was filled with decks. This provided a great base for FX to blow them up and naturally reveal all of that structural detail. I’m particularly fond of the shot where one ship falls and impacts the ground, compressing as it hits and exploding at points of structural stress. FX lead Chris Phillips did some beautiful RBD (Rigid Body Dynamics) sims for that shot.

For the spaceport portion of the sequence, in particular, it was very important that we achieved parity between the look of our explosions in Mantra and Clarisse. We needed to do as much of our final rendering in Clarisse as possible due to the interconnectedness of all the various FX layers of the shot - fire, smoke, sand, dust, RBDs - and the fact the explosions and fire were acting as the sequence’s primary light source. The explosions also needed to be reflected off of the ships and emit light through atmospheric volumes since the whole environment is thick with dust.

The second half of the invasion sequence features an Ornithopter chase through a burning Arrakeen. Duncan Idaho steals a Harkonnen Ornithopter - a larger, more muscular six winged variant of the Atreides eight wing Ornithopter seen in earlier sequences - and destroys a few troop ships before being fired upon by the Harkonnen Gunship with a beam laser. He flies through the city, ducking into an underground sheltered marketplace area which the laser makes short work of, before escaping the city. Duncan had a particular flight style, which the animation team honed in this sequence, where he flies with less precision and more of a daredevil flare. At the point this sequence came to us, the master layout of Arrakeen was already determined, which meant we could choreograph his flight through the city taking key structures into account for more interesting profiles. A subset of buildings, including the cylindrical sunken market structure, were rigged for destruction and the laser slices through them like a knife. In this sequence as well, the explosions and fires were the main sources of light, and we created interesting silhouettes by implying fires in between monolithic building shapes and sculpting the shot composition in lighting. The laser too, acted as a blue light source, illuminating the dusty atmosphere and scattering through the clouds of smoke as it sliced buildings apart.

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 CG Desert Mouse