There are bucket list gift projects and there are BUCKET LIST GIFT PROJECTS. Dune was one of these and both.
I first read Dune when I was 13. I wasn’t really a fantasy guy nor despite my love of horror was never much down with Stephen King either. No one I knew read much sci fi to begin with, and the premise of the novel struck me as entirely bonkers in a way that I couldn’t escape. It’s unlike most sci fi approaches… there’s a muddy hero in place, almost zero space battles, and zero actual aliens save for the worm’s whose poo has become the most fetishized material in the universe. When David Lynch’s film landed in 1984 I adored it, despite its silly Toto music and the muppet worms, and Sting in a metal eagle thong. It still captured the most unique picture of the far future I’d ever imagined, and managed to sculpt a near miss of being loyal to the original material. I went on to read and then over the years that followed, re-read the entire run of Frank Herbert’s six novels almost ritualistically. I saw an interview with this new director taking on adapting Ted Chiang’s bonkers mind warping short piece, The Story of Your Life, and the first thing that caught my attention was his passing mention of reading Dune also as a young teenager and it was his favorite novel. ARRIVAL was a must see for me on that basis alone and that film was such a sheer delight, I was an avid fan of his approach to the genre. He could take a high science idea, a story that was mostly about inner change and concepts and world making and create something accessible and still retain its intellect. When I heard he was taking on Dune about three or so years ago, i was immediately in.
I had done a series of character portraits based on the novel on my own as part of my ongoing 52 Weeks Project sidehustles, and you can find more of those pieces HERE.
I was working with Mondo on a bunch of new things including the massive 60-piece gallery show and print series for Twin Peaks, and I think I remember making it clear in no uncertain terms that if Denis Villeneuve’s Dune came to be I wanted in. So when after covid cocked up the world and schedule and Dune looked finally to be coming to us in the Fall of 2021, I was tapped to work on a poster, perhaps as a means of feeding the bear so it’d leave them alone, I leapt. Once the enthusiasm faded, the reality of what I had agreed to landed hard. Security was so tight they refused to send out the usual screeners to build the work from, only allowing anyone working for it to see it in a studio controlled high security screening room on the WB lot in LA. Most of the work would have to be done before even getting that opportunity with the looming deadline. A trick made trickier by being asked to do not just a single poster image but a 5-6 piece project to also tackle the 3x LP extended soundtrack by Hans Zimmer.
Where Twin Peaks was also a deeply adored project, I had a copious resource of material to build from on hand, and I was originally working on it in the dark so to speak, on my own and guided simply by my own nerd loves. That project was picked up based on the work I HAD done, this was one where I had to dance on stage under the klieg lights from scratch. A wholly different animal. And not only one everyone would be watching, but one I would hold myself to the highest account given the subject and attention on this thing. If there was ever aa time to be glad a project didn’t come earlier, it was this one. I would need to marshall all I had to do this in a way that felt satisfying and also still loyal to the source that it needed to be under the license and purpose of the project. Be careful what you wish for rang like a song in my brain over and over again on repeat.
Mondo did yeoman’s work in gathering whatever story bible and minimal visual material the studio was willing to release under NDA, but it was threadbare at best unless the goal was to simply ape one of the set shots and call it a day. I must have ticked through at least three full designs of both poster and LP projects before we went to press, with most of that work falling to the cutting room floor… but I needed to go through that process to end up where we did. I don;t consider that overworking a waste really for that reason alone, even if it is a little insane looking from the outside. I had the most important tool I could have on hand: a deep dive knowledge of the source material, its themes, characters and background to draw something from that would satisfy my own high bar for this, and just started burning through the work.
The first approach, largely based on a near total lack of viable resources like the tone of the film, particularly the lack of any imagery at all of the new sandworm designs, was to push towards a character piece. I had done a quick graphite drawing when I heard this was announced and Timothee Chalamet was cast as paul as a starting point. Dune is essentially his story, and follows his ascension to the throne of the universe but we didn’t quite feel like this was the right approach for the project.
Another piece was created that also didn’t quite get us there, but did offer a new route to a solve and a new way of how I work, to get us where we wanted and needed to go.
So I decided to break things down in terms of its eventual execution, allow myself not to know where we might end up and build a core asset portrait of Paul in his stillsuit as a basis for wherever we went. Knowing that elements would be drawn in later and then composed digitally rather than my usual way to doing this all at once practically on the paper. I felt certain if we cracked the cover image the rest would fall into place. Which… was kind of true.
This next series of pieces got us far down the field for the first time in way that was starting to work, even up to the point where we submitted the final design to the studio, Denis and Hans for approval. I began working on the ideas for the rest of the work in the LP side of the project based on it. We knew there was the idea to make each of the three LPs reflect each of the three central planets of the story, and feature character portraits derived from each. But what the combination of three would be was tricky. First it was Rabban, Liet and Leto more for design and look than concept justifications. Liet as an example of this, mostly because she was a cool change to the character and I wanted to support the expression of diversifying what is essentially an exceedingly white male dominated story. It still remains my favorite of all the portraits, but I think i’m alone in that summation. The combination wasn’t unlocking the box of this project, and I went back and made several different approaches to try and find the right set of images to do it. Panic was starting to set in. But there’s sometimes gold nuggets birthed in desperation.
One was making my very own spice! I went to our local sandy lakeside beach, and stole a handful of sand, came home and mixed it with some smoked paprika, cinnamon, flecks of gold leaf I had in a jar and shook it all vigorously before tossing it onto this big old slate tabletop in the kitchen to photograph. I had done something similar with a book for Nghi Vo’s THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL for tor books, using paper cutouts, so this was new but not an unprecedented approach.
Now one of my personal foibles in the work I do is an obsessive grip when a project hasn’t found its footing. A kind of itch I can;t let go of until it gets a good scratch. And I was itching all over for this one. For all the tricks and acceptable work I had done, none of it felt like we were truly there yet. Even the main poster piece felt like settling to me in some fashion. Acceptance through exhaustion more than embracing an ideal. This was my most beloved novel and a film by one of my favorite new directors, and I was blowing it.
As an exercise I decided to return to my usual approach of doing extremely intimate character work with big vast environmental world building imagery. But so far I was lacking on the second bit. There wasn’t yet any pullback. I had been locked into a mode that was exclusive to centering on the all star cast at it’s expense. So i went and drew a big sprawling Arrakis picture as if for a vacationer’s travelogue, that showed us the sprawling expanse of sand, with the two moons off in the distance, the blow of spice as a pair of onlookers, presumably Jessica and Paul, taking in the night sky. I turned this in and I think we all felt like we had finally tasted a thing that had been missing, that we didn’t realize was gone until we saw what was absent. Dune was a place and a character I had somehow ignore until now.
That’s when Grace, our reference material hunter managed to secure, finally a short animation of the sandworm. This was a friday before deadline and by Sunday I was already writing to poor Rob, Mitch Eric, Mo and Spencer about a new idea I had and was going to execute. Happily they are all largely used to my weirdo way of getting into a pit and then finding a last minute solve that lands us out of danger and where we needed to be.
The sandworm approach landed, not quite where it needed to be but fare down the field from where we were with Paul’s portrait for the poster. In my usual madcap fashion I worked up whole new finalized approach and we raced that to approval right way in place of the Paul piece. We figured having all the other work, the new double wide Arrakis piece, that should they give us the thumbs up on this one, the rest could be ordered to work.
After a few approaches to a new portrait of The Baron, a new Chani piece and the existing basis for Paul, we had our trio, our gatefold spread and now the iconic image of Paul standing with his maker hooks before a rising worm. Finally it felt like Dune to me. The angry freaked out little nerd-nazi in my head that had been stabbing at me all this time settled down and grudgingly approved. (The best I can ever hope to get from that little monster, so a high bar indeed). The only real notes from the studio was keeping the oil off The Baron;s head, which I had thankfully painted on as a secondary layer, and could solve it by a simple clicking awayof that in Photoshop. I had also not quite gotten the moons right for Arrakis and that prompted them to send over some shots from the film to refer to. Adding a bit of drama to have the worm bursting from the desert as opposed to quietly resting before Paul as they regarded each other was the final pass and we were there. At long last…. We had managed to find the Dune we needed to for this.
I rarely leave a project with a full sense of it being complete, deciding to find comfort instead of that old canard from painting that promises “ A painting is never finished, it just stops in interesting places”. I had created more than twenty or thirty drawings, sketches, recursive studies and big final pieces for this project that only really ever demanded four or five, and it still felt like I was missing some opportunities. Having finally towards the end seeing the film I was confirmed by the theory that we had gotten it pretty right despite the initial lack of material. I worried sitting down with the film having done most of the work for it in the dark of it, would come as a slap, but my deep foreknowledge of the books, the cast and Denis’ distinct style from his prior films… we had managed to blind contour as close a true picture as would have ever had been possible.
I would not have been able to do this until this time in my career when I did do this. Even if this film had come to us when it was supposed to without the Covid sabotage, I don;t know that I’d have been ready for it. It was the same summer I had another iconic bucket list job illustrating jane Campion’s THE PIANO for Criterion, another consequential LP and poster project that will be revealed later this month, Titane and a few others that reshaped how I approach my work both in color and style. I needed to marshall all my skillsets to do this right and well, and however impatient I am as a creative person, this whole thing taught me the value of waiting and being ready to seize the moment exactly when it’s the right time to ride it. Like running alongside a worm with a couple of maker hooks, every step or stumble bringing instant doom under it’s roiling weight, I managed by some miracle to mount the beast and get on top of it for at least a little while. There’s more to do and more I get to do coming and now an inevitable and needed sequel offers the opportunity to do more later. Dune is a rich vibrant and all consuming landscape to play in, and not since Twin Peaks have I felt the pull and desire to want to do more and more and more for it. I am glad and grateful beyond words I had this one small part in its revealing, and I come away from it changed and better at my job than when I started it. Dune taught me to trust my own process more, to remain vigilant to better ideas even as the clock ticked down, and to never not overwork a project to make sure the end result gives the nod the subject it deserves. When we illustrate we celebrate, and are in service of an idea and story as a prima facia ethic, if we’re doing our jobs right. It’s a blessing to crown a season of some of the most iconic work I have gotten to do so far with Dune. Fitting and scary as shit and as rewarding as the job could ever be is a lot to process. It taught me to be grateful for waiting for the right moment, and that even if I think I’m ready for a project of this scale, I may not be until the right time comes. There’s no doubt going to be a flood of DUNE art incoming over the next year or two as it seems we have the full Villeneuve franchise we’d all hoped for. I’m excited to see the world expressed in so many voices, to witness the weirdest of pop sci-fi fi novels become part of the basic fabric of our culture, and to see more and more come. Good things to those who wait. My thirteen year old self would be grinning wildly like a freeman in a berserker frenzy.
As a bonus… In the coming week, I will be making a lot of these pieces available on the storefront website, releasing a big central drawing and three or so attending sketches each day, for five days in celebration of this project’s closing. Each drop will happen at 1PM EST HERE. Check social media for details and the peeks and reveals as they come. For now a peek at the groupings that will unfold over the week to come: