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6 min read

How production designer Patrice Vermette built the world of 'Dune'

One book. Three years. Hundreds of sketches. Dune production designer Patrice Vermette tells us how the movie came to life.

Movie still from the movie Dune. Image courtesy Warner Brothers.

Image courtesy Warner Brothers.

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Dune, the eagerly awaited, expansive sci-fi film based on the 1965 Frank Herbert novel by the same name, is by all accounts, epic.

The film, directed by Denis Villeneuve (who has previously directed mega sci-fi films like Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival) is a sweeping story with a mega 165 million dollar budget. It has star-studded cast, including Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, and Oscar Isaac. But it's also a design feat, and a shining example of how design can be leveraged to tell a story—no matter how big.

We spoke to production designer Patrice Vermette about his creative vision, design influences, and the most challenging moment on set for the movie that was years in the making.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Portrait of Patrice Vermette.
Image courtesy Warner Brothers.

Shaping Design: When did you first sign on to the project, and how long ago did the overall design process begin?

Patrice Vermette: I started working on Dune in February 2018, when Denis [Villeneuve, the film’s director] offered me the amazing opportunity to collaborate with him. It was our fifth movie together—I knew how important the book was to him. I felt it was a huge responsibility and honor at the same time, for him, the fans, and for the book itself. So I went back to reading the book. After that we went into design: exchanging ideas, sketches, and pictures of architecture. Once we did that, I started drawing sketches and I hired my close team of collaborators and concept artists.

After seven months, we had seen like a good 125 or 130 illustrations, and that served as the Bible, the book that we showed the studio and everybody on the team. We wanted to make sure that everybody was on the same boat and that we were going on the same journey together. We had props, all the sets were already modeled, illustrated. I said ‘the Bible’; but it was a bit like the cookbook.

We were a bit shy about the costumes. We had broad brushstrokes. But [costume designers] Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan used the sets and the color palette to make [the costumes] their own. The sets; the cities; what you see beyond the city wall: the skies of Arrakis. The planets were there. The two moons were there. It was fun. It was a great process because it was a small unit. It was Denis and I creating the world.

SD: How do you even begin to design an entire world?

PV: You start by reading the book again and picking out the clues and cues within the book. First of all, you need to understand what the planet is. You have to imagine the planet naked without anybody in it. And that’s quite well expressed in the book.

Then you say, ‘Ok, there’s a reality that exists on the planet,’ and you need to bounce from that reality. For instance, on Arakkis, the book says there is wind that goes from 850 km an hour. So architecture and design has to be a response to those elements. When you start making buildings, you’d probably want them to be on an angle, because the wind sweeps over them.