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Dune Supervising Sound Editors Mark Mangini and Theo Green Detail the Film’s Transformative Sound Design

January 3, 2022 09:00 | By
Dune

A scene from Dune

The latest adaptation of Dune, based on the novel by Frank Herbert, is an epic and immersive sci-fi from the creative mind of director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 1949, Arrival). The film features Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). The Atreides family journeys to the desert world of Arrakis in order to accumulate spice and attempt to form a partnership with the planet’s inhabitants known as the Fremen. 

Villeneuve relied on Supervising Sound Editors Mark Mangini (Blade Runner 2049, Mad Max) and Theo Green (Blade Runner 2049, The Gambler) to shape the world through imaginative, elaborate, and transformative sound design. 

Below The Line spoke with Mangini and Green on the sound design behind Dune, revealing how sound drives the story forward, the major difference between Paul’s dreams vs reality, the atmosphere of the major worlds, the sound of the sandworms, the creation of “The Voice,” the massive invasion battle on Arrakis, and how music plays an integral role in the film. 

Mark Mangini

Mark Mangini

BTL: How did you drive the story forward in Dune, and what emotions were you trying to evoke through sound design?

Mark Mangini: It’s important to state that right up front in our early discussions with Denis Villeneuve, Denis really drove the tone and tenor of what we did by stating that he wanted this to be a very believable science fiction universe. Denis, Theo, and I had this sense that we didn’t want to create, for lack of a better term, a Star Wars-type of sonic universe of fantastic things made of fantastic sounds. We were going for something much more believable. In fact, we used this metaphor of having it feel like it was a documentary as a way to frame everything that we would create. It’s science fiction, there’s a lot of things that don’t exist. We can’t find a worm, a shield, or an ornithopter in a sound library. It’s up to Theo and I to create and design these elements, and that’s the fun part of our job.

Theo Green: We went for this very realistic, almost documentary, real depiction of the worlds that they’re in. There’s also a lot in Dune the book and this film, when we’re inside someone’s head. Certainly, where we want to connect with what it’s like to be Paul having psychedelic visions and prophecies. If there is another language that we used in the film, it’s that of the interior worlds of a character like Paul and his visions. That’s the place where we go into a nonrealistic, non-documentary kind of sounds.

BTL: Speaking of Paul’s dreams, how did you differentiate the sound in his dreams versus reality?

Mangini: One is that we go into interior into his thought process and we develop these voices that he would be hearing that we affectionately call the ancient voice. He’s hearing and receiving a body of wisdom from an ancient ancestor that is speaking for an entire tribe. Those voices were part of a bigger design project that Theo and I developed as part of the deployment of ‘the voice’ that we’ll probably talk about that he deploys as a weapon.

Green: We did pepper certain scenes where we wanted to get Paul’s visions clearly across. There’s a difference between his visions when they’re in his dreams and when the spice is giving him a channel through the ancestral memory of the Bene Gesserit. We did certain things like peppering it with the sound of spice, which we concocted with elements like sand, those little flashbulbs, and then some synthesized granules to give a sense that there’s a swirling cloud of spice in that scene where he’s in the tent under the sand with his mother. In the scene where they come to rescue the sandcrawler and he gets blindsided by a spice wind, we really wanted to suggest that there’s some extra visionary power that he’s gaining in those moments. There are voices in his head suggesting that he is the chosen one. Everything gets a little bit more intense in those moments. But we also have moments of him dreaming of Chani played by Zendaya and things that aren’t quite so hallucinatory, so we made a distinction like that.

Mangini: Another tried and true technique to indicate a dream or another emotional space is that we leach out the atmospheres, the sounds of what is that reality. If he’s in a tent or if he’s in his room, we leach out the sounds of what that reality is yielding to these unusual psychedelic sounds like the spice and these voices.

BTL: There were four major worlds featured with Salusa Secundus, Arrakis, Caladan, home of House Atreides and Giedi Prime, home of House Harkonnen. How were the atmosphere and environments created for each world?

Mangini: For the Harkonnen world, it’s immediately established that it’s a dystopian steampunk-ish, mechanized universe, perhaps dominated by giant things. We developed a series of slow downed metal gear like clinks, clunks, and rumbles that harken to a dirty, rumbly, unpleasant place that we wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time in. Then we only go to Salusa Secundus once and that one scene is really made different through the use of a lot of ambient musical drones. It’s designed to feel a little bit more exotic and alien, and not as mechanical and dystopian as the Harkonnen world.

Theo Green

Theo Green

Green: We briefly see the exteriors of the Harkonnen and the Sardaukar world. We see Salusa Secundus with the massive armies of the Sardaukar. To extend on the Harkonnen world is that Harkonnen is a symbol of everything gone to the massive consumption. If we imagine humans without absolutely no checks on our consumption, we just consume every natural resource until it’s completely gone. The Baron is like this massive symbol of overconsumption, corporate greed, and everything all in one. There are these great symbols, I think, that Frank Herbert set up in the novel as critiques of the way that humans treat their environments. There’s a lot of stuff in the book about ecology and going forward into part two and further into the series, there’s the desire to turn the planet Arrakis into a lush green world and revive a planet that’s become a desert. There’s this interesting theme of humans and their effect on their environment that runs through Dune

When we start with Caladan, we used to tease Denis and say you mean Canada, not Caladan, the green lushes to the mountainous. It’s a symbol of everything that Paul and his family are about to lose when they go to the driest planet in the galaxy. We really wanted to have distant soft thunderstorms suggesting there’s going to be gentle rain on this planet, there’s water, it’s lush, there’s greenery, and it’s the only place we hear a bird. We suggest there’s quite a lot of nature there that has either been imported from planet Earth or in some way is similar. We know that Paul’s grandfather was a bullfighter. There are various things that make us feel this is basically an analogy of planet Earth, unspoiled. The place where he’s going is an arid hellhole with water that we have to recycle from our own bodies. Making a point of making those two worlds as diametrically opposed as possible. One is as lush, pleasant, and water-filled as possible; that’s what they’re leaving behind. That contrast really gets us to sense the dryness and the dustiness of Arrakis. The second that they touched down, we feel the gritty particles in the wind, we see what a struggle it’s going to be on that planet. I think all these things are part of the original books and ideas. For us to point out the difference between these worlds is a lot of the study of what ecology is, and the study of the environment that Frank Herbert was so interested in. We spent a lot of time making sure that there was as much contrast as possible between those worlds.

Mangini: One of the fun little details that we used to differentiate Arrakis is in our foley sessions. We had our foley artists add sand and silt, wherever appropriate. If we opened a door, we might hear a little grit in the hinges or hear a little silt or sand fall off an object to imply that sand gets in everything. We attempted to create some sonic differentiation by adding sand to things we wouldn’t think of.

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A sandworm from Dune

BTL: How did you create the sound for the sandworms?

Mangini: One of the ways we differentiated these worlds was in the sandworm vocalizations. One of the notes from Denis is that when we were to design the voice of the worm, he wanted that to be the driest sound on the planet. Our first instincts were to use animal sounds that have that gargly quality, for some reason, that speaks danger or terrifying. We started with things like lions, tigers, elephant roars, and growls and processed them, but they all had a wet gurgly quality to them, which was anathema. Denis said this has to be the driest thing we can imagine. 

Green: I’ll start with the worm when it has its mouth open and Paul’s looking directly into it. Whereas we thought we’re looking to a huge throat, we started to try to take our minds away from the traditional imagination of what is down a throat. If we look down at it, this creature that’s evolved completely separately from us, it doesn’t necessarily have a throat at all, it’s a huge, long tube with teeth at one end. When we got to see the visuals develop a little bit more, because the worm and its teeth are largely created in CGI, we realize that they’d really gone for showing us the sand dripping out from its teeth. We could see just how dry it was intended to be. We concentrated on things. One of our sound editors used the dry bristles on a brush, which is a brilliantly dry source. We used various things like dry branches being twisted and vegetation that sounded dry for the body of the worm moving. There’s this wonderful gunk gunk gunk sound, which was developed relatively early on, and Mark and I worked with a sound designer called Dave Whitehead, who was an expert at working with creature sounds. He came up with that from his library of recordings that he’s made and I think it was sourced from a whale, originally. The meaning of the sound is what we were so happy with. It felt as if it belongs in a world, where the Fremen are using these thumping devices to lure the worms, it makes sense that they were responding to a sound that the worm itself makes perhaps like a mating call or a communication. We don’t show the worm that much, we only see it open its mouth present itself a couple of times in the movie. The rest of the time, there’s the threat of the worm, there’s the presence, somewhere underneath the sand that this sort of feeling it’s coming for us but know where from. Mark and I developed a whole language of the worm’s presence. Going back to the book, something that’s referred to as worm sign and is described as almost a tiny fluttering insect rather than a giant huge sound. We interpreted that as meaning the fluttering of the sand particles as the vibrations of the worm. We figure that the worm uses vibration to travel into the sand. The first sign we get that there’s a worm coming is just a little fluttering of the sand close to us, we don’t really get any immediate sense of how massive the creature coming towards us is. 

Next, we used recordings from Re-Recording Mixer Doug Hemphill, and we made more recordings of our own in the sands of Death Valley. Sand dunes make a sound all of their own. Doug recorded these sounds with his assistant sliding down the side of the sand dune and we get this great moaning sound. The reason that we get a sound is because a sand dune isn’t just Earth that doesn’t resonate, it’s every bit as resonant as a giant cello or a huge drum would be. It has that resonance that when we tap it on one side, the whole mountainous sand dune makes a sound of its own. We had these recordings that sounded like a huge groaning moan or a deep singing. We used and processed those sounds to evoke what it would sound like if a sand dune near us is starting to move because there’s a creature under it. I believe that if there were such things as huge sandworms that is exactly the sound we would hear. We were going for realism even though the sound itself is a bizarre one that most people don’t. We went out to Death Valley and recorded dragging microphones around under and in the sand. We buried microphones in the sand, walked, ran, fell, and hammered on top of them. We really picked up a whole library of the interior and exterior of sand dunes and used that extensively to describe what it would be if we had something huge moving under the sand.

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Zendaya in Dune

Mangini: The only other time we see the worms are their ma when it consumes the spice crawler, Kynes, and Sardaukar. For that beat, for that suction sound, I put a microphone in my mouth and just made a sound. I wanted it to sound terrifyingly proximate, like we were literally inside the maw. I can’t go out to the desert and record a sandworm, so we have to find a way to fake these things. The only thing I could imagine was I used my minuscule esophagus as the body of the sound and then we would expand or enlarge that sound in the mix to make it sound 400 meters long, huge, and cavernous.

Green: When we’re dealing with something of a huge scale that we could never possibly find and record. The classic sound designer trick is to record the closest thing that we can on a different scale and then to scale it up to make it sound huge and then we slow it down. That’s something which has been a tried, trusted method for sound designers for many decades. We could turn a bird into a dinosaur.

BTL: How was “the voice” for Paul and his mother created? How did you figure out the pitch and frequency?

Green: The deep impact that wallops us in the cinema that we feel inside us rather than necessarily hearing is achieved by taking the voice pitching it down a whole lot, but also re-recording it in a room with a subwoofer so that we get the sense of a thing in a real space, we get the sense of a room slightly reacting and rattling to it. Depending on the space, whether it was in the ornithopter or the library where Reverend Mother uses it on Paul. There are slight distinctions in the way that bass sounds. The other distinction that was an invention of Denis Villeneuve with his editor Joe Walker was really how to convey that Paul is only learning how to use this voice and he hasn’t quite grasped it yet. That was to make that face impact slip the sink of it so that it wasn’t actually in sync with his own voice. In fact, when he opens his mouth, we hear a sound and then a voice afterward that says “Give me the water” to his mother in the first scene. That’s something they came up with later in the day as a way of describing his lack of proficiency in using the voice. Then we go to Reverend Mother and we realize she’s hyper-trained in using this and it just hits us inside our head in one moment. But there are other elements as well, like losing the background. The background ambient sound disappears, the air gets vacuumed out of the room when someone uses the voice. There’s this other aspect which goes into these ancient, witchy voices that we hear within the user’s voice.

Mangini: One of the really valuable concepts that we worked with Joe and Denis was this idea of when one deploys the voice, one summons the full force and power of one’s ancestors. We developed this idea of the ancient voice or even ancient voices; a regal, powerful, authoritative woman’s voice would speak as the speaker or speak with the speaker, or even add to what the speaker had to say. Theo and I embarked on a process of casting, directing, and recording and to find that unique ancient voice and we found it in a very gifted woman by the name of Jean Gilpin. What we discovered is that the ancient voice became a narrative tool that was a godsend to the rest of the movie. We could now use that voice in narrative and storytelling ways other than a character using it to simply deploy the voice. Sometimes that voice would end up in a cloud of sound that would engulf and immerse us in the theater. It became a very useful tool. It allowed us to get a little more away from the tradition of voice design, which is to take the character’s voice and do a pitch, an EQ, or an echo on it to say different. We went in a much more narrative direction with this and I think it’s because of that, it’s much more useful.

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Rebecca Ferguson in Dune

Green: It’s one of the things we love about the way that Denis Villeneuve brings us on very early in the game. Early enough that he’s still figuring out certain ideas even in the script and early enough that his editor is first cutting a scene. They might reach out to us and say, “Could you try that voice you’re playing around with? We’re thinking maybe in the scene where Paul is flying through the sandstone, there could be a moment where we go into his head and he hears that voice or giving him some guidance.” We’re involved in storytelling in a much bigger way than we would be if we just came in after everything was done. That’s something that Mark and I are evangelizing about. I think it’s something that not many movies do. It takes a director like Denis pressing that idea through the studio and the studio graciously saying yes to it. That allows us to do those things and allows us to be a part of telling the story.

Mangini: This is exceedingly nontraditional. Theo was developing sounds in Budapest while they were shooting.

Green: I was sending them back to Mark in LA and we were starting our process up, even in the first days of the shoot in Budapest. You can imagine what that means in terms of us knowing how to plan out our resources, what kind of people we want to work with, and what kind of sound recording missions we’re going to have to go on. It enables us to have the time to do the casting of those voices and all of that stuff. It’s impossible to imagine the result that we got on this film being achievable in any other way than having been brought on early.

Mangini: Our film editor, Joe Walker, said something very profound. On first blush, when looking at a budget, a producer might say, nobody comes on during production, nobody comes on during the edit, that’s just too expensive. Joe pointed out that there was in fact a visual effects shot that they wanted to hold on to for a length of time. When Theo and I had delivered the sound, it allowed them to realize that the shot didn’t need to be as long as had been planned. For every frame of a visual effect shot, there was a charge of 1000s of dollars. Joe contended that we might have saved whatever that extra money was for our early involvement in simply making clear to the filmmakers this shot doesn’t have to be that long, you don’t have to spend that money.

BTL: How did you sound design the big invasion battle on Arrakis

Mangini: I’m proud to say it’s rare that I get to cut as much as I did on this film. Often as a supervisor and as a designer, my job is to create and record sounds with Theo and manage this big team of people. But I was also allowed to edit on a number of sequences and that was one of my children. In fact, that was the first sequence that Joe Walker turned over very early on. I started working on that and in September of 2019, constantly refining and building that out. In the process, developing sounds for the Harkonnen attack ships, developing the sounds of the ship’s shields, which are an iteration of the body shields that Theo had designed for that early training montage. That scene was just a bundle of fun because it’s the stuff that we live for. It’s all action and excitement, big sound, and invented sound. It’s always a joy to work on those.

BTL: Music was an integral part of the movie. Can you talk about the electronic textures, and how that enhanced the sound design? What did he experiment with?

Green: Hans Zimmer was very collaborative on this film. That was a mandate from Denis Villeneuve that we would not do the traditional thing of being a very separate entity from the composer, but instead that we should share our work in progress. That’s a very hard thing to do. I also compose on other films, and I know how hard it is when someone asks to listen to something when we haven’t finished recording the stuff for it, but don’t want to let anyone in until it’s ready. But Hans was wonderful before he’d written a theme or a cue, he was able to send us the instruments that he’s developing because he did build a lot of instruments and synthesizer patches that we’ve never heard before. By sharing his early work, his textures and tonalities; and by us sending him some of the things that we were working on, the nerve-shredding, dentist, drill tones of the Gom Jabbar scene, and the thumper. Anything where we thought there’s something that’s really sonic that’s going to define the scene, we would send it to him. This way we were able to integrate our work rather than just leave it all to come crashing together in a final mix, like so often happens.

Dune is available On Demand and will be released on DVD and Bluray on Jan. 11.

All photos courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures.