Dune’s Ornithopters Don’t Just Look Like Bugs—They Sound Like Them, Too

Creating science fiction sounds out of wild mashups of assorted noises is a long tradition. The things that reportedly went into the many sound effects of Star Wars include bathroom pipes, idling projectors, airplanes, a lion’s roar, and dentist’s tools.

In a long interview for Dolby’s Sound + Image Lab, director Denis Villeneuve and the sound team from Dune recently discussed the sounds of Villeneuve’s new film, which has truly epic sound design—and design in general. The ornithopters, transportation on the desert planet Arrakis, are one of the coolest things in the film; they look like giant dragonflies and maneuver like nothing else. And as it turns out, they don’t just look like bugs: The distinctive sound of the flying machines also includes bug noises. And cats purring. And other things, too.

“I was terrified,” supervising sound editor Mark Mangini says of trying to create the sound for the ornithopters. The sound team had to experiment to figure out what elements would go into the sound, which they didn’t want to sound like helicopters, but like something more natural. Villeneuve wanted Dune to feel like “a believable universe of science fiction,” Mangini says.

The wing sound eventually was made up of bug wings (one of the sound guys wanted to ship in bugs from Hungary), a cat purring, and a canvas strap from a tent, battered in 140-mph winds to create the rapid flapping sound, all layered and then manipulated. “Engine sounds were made almost entirely of bugs, mostly of bees,” Mangini explains.

Many, many more details of the film’s sound design are discussed in the interview, including how exactly one mics a sand dune, how sandworms move, how the shield sound was designed, and how sound vibrations play into the technology of Dune. It’s a fascinating peek into how Villeneuve conceives of his films, and how many small details and individual elements are combined to create the small but vital pieces of every scene.


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