Getting a gig like this, you throw everything you have into it. I do this as a practice, to be honest, so in a lot of ways this isn’t anything over special… but this is DUNE and of course projects surrounding such a beloved source as this get you reaching for the extra gas container you have stashed away for the special projects. But in this case I had already done a Dune LP set begging for multiple pieces of art, and now I had to do it again. But BETTER.
That’s the tough thing with repeat jobs. I’ve not had too much of these but have had all of them together int he last year. Memories of Murder for both NEON and THE CRITERION COLLECTION, was the most closely aligned with this particular project. I had already had a tremendous experience with Bong and NEON on PARASITE, so being asked back to make poster work for his beloved re-release of MEMORIES OF MURDER was a deep honor. So I threw everything I had into it- and when Bong asked Criterion to bring me aboard their blu ray release, still a bit out of breath for the first go, I had to run it again, but invent an entirely new thing that was also still true to the original source, without making it less than the supreme effort of the first go. No mean feat. You can read the process of that enterprise HERE, so you don’t have to suffer those particular adventures here.
The process is daunting, as what you do when you get a thing like this the first time is burn hard to make your best work. And for my usual approach, that means there’s always TONS of extra art that never got used. The original instinct is frankly to reach for those cutting room floor bits and quickly cob out the project with material already executed. “It’s not hacking…”, you might say to yourself, “…You’re just using the work you did in earnest.” Which of course is sort of bullshit. The unused work got unused for a reason, and even if it were beloved, it may not automatically work for this new project. In the case with MoM, it was easier because it was two different universes- NEON to Criterion- but with DUNE it was in-house at the same shop with the same comrades to work with who had seen all of it before. There was no sneaky double play to be had here, and besides it was DUNE and I couldn’t bear dishonoring the gift to do it all over again that this curse also held.
The thing that made it so much more, this one being the Original Soundtrack at 2x LPs, and the prior effort was the massive 3xLP Dune Sketchbooks, the film had been out, had won all its trophies and grown its audience. Hans Zimmer and Denis Villeneuve had their eyes on this one after being so excited for the work not he prior effort, and the poster and LPs released had been such a tidal wave sellout. So of course… no pressure being asked to repeat that particular homer in front of this audience, right?
The first instinct was to as with any growing series, to link them together. I went back to the very first resource I had as a starting place, assuming we wanted to take the themes of the first bit and evolve forward to it’s next logical conclusion. When I got notes back right away from Mo and Spencer expressing a little reluctance to repeat what we’ve seen, culminated in the note that shattered the enterprise: “it just screams DUNE… let’s feel free to go someplace new”. That was the absolute freedom and terror moment. All the work and tolls cast aside, it was time to reinvent. Another way this was like MoM is that the overall approach was one akin to a hop to a parallel universe: A total, from the ground up, new approach. Similar in many ways to my usual exercise when there’s a property that has already been done over and over… google search what the others look like and use that as a negative to make a new positive from. Except in this instance one of the big negatives was my own work.
The benefit of such a deep bench support from the director and composer as well as the huge audience for Dune that fueled the frenzy around the first release, turned out to be an almost god level access to any possible approach. The revelation moment came in when Spencer Hickman offered the O-Card approach up and I had to look it up to find out what he was talking about so I didn’t sound like a ninny by asking. (Shhh don’t tell him). I decided to just be the kid that got access to the toy store and ran amok to play with all the best things. Nothing but wild hubris unleashed. Build the art off of your own weird intimate themes no one ever seems to regard and make the work about the triad relationship between Jessica, the mother, Paul the boy and Chani the lover? Why not? Redesign the logo? Sure! Make the front cover an abstraction rather than highlighting the zillion dollar cast? GO FOR IT. Paint the most guarded and reticent scene in the film and make it a two page spread? Light the match.
The first big thing was to make the plastic sleeve (the O-Card) that the LP slid inside of, be both an image and design unto itself but also one that interacted with the art it enclosed. This is one of those times where there’s TOO many possibilities and can freeze up… but in my case gifted by my own ignorance and lack of experience with these new materials and the technical possibilities to limit my scope. I immediately envisioned what you see here: a pile of Arrakis sand mixed with Spice. I had originally thought to carve out the Dune logo I had put together like a child’s beach drawing, but it just didn’t;t hold visually. Not all ideas translate to reality. So I went with a clean cutout, bright white so as to punch through hard but make the rest of the sleeve translucent to allow the colors and gradients of the art peek through like a tease without combatting with the design of the sleeve. The back was a furtherance of that approach now making the rear ofd the plastic sleeve become a kind of parting curtain to more explicitly show the art behind it. In this case, Spice from the front to invert into a coriolis storm swirling around Paul as he tripped balls on a spice dream supplicant kneeling in the sands of Arrakis. This kept the core poles of the story Paul and the Spice up front and attended to so I could sneak in my own personal triptych thematics in with the sleeve art.
The next big reveal when pulling the LP out was a lovers kiss between Chani and Paul. Not an expected next image and frankly Chani’s lack of real presence in this part of the story doesn’t undercut, in my sphere anyway, her importance as a siren that sings Paul to his destiny’s shipwreck. Largely being able to contextualize this comes from my overdue intimacy with the books. I know where this is going I’ve reread it so often I have picked though it with tweezers as we do with our loves… so being able to tease out these ideas was a simpler path given that library. Background knowledge helps. To further this effort I worked up devoted grayscale portraits of both Chain and Jessica to be printed in silver ink so their full measure would change and alter with the moving light.
The interior piece of Leto’s death was the only potential worry as it was an extremely delicate and sensitive scene to shoot for Denis and Oscar Isaac, and they were both very protective of it. And any instance in a project like this that shows a likeness triggers the need for that person’s approval of said drawing. So it would require their thumbs up and I was so certain we’d not get it I had a backup piece mentally ready to execute once we got the expected NO.
The response time of these things can be anywhere form within hours to even weeks and MONTHS. I’m still waiting on notes and approvals for a project I did nearly a year ago, just to express that outer edge. It’s an extreme case to be sure, but it belies the need to submit to the schedules of others… and active film directors are hard to pin down to make a timely back and forth on a project like this. Actors can be even harder so we expected things to take a bit longer than it did. I think we got Denis and Hans’ excited responses within hours. All that was left was the actors. And we’d had some issues with Zendaya’s people warning the didn’t;t dig the first go at Chani, so I worked up a fresh one with the hopes it solved whatever issue they had. You almost never get a solid reason for a rejection, by the way. It’s like fighting an X rating or an unwanted R at the MPAA: they don’t tell you what did it, but you’re welcome to resubmit and hope you guessed right at the problem. Darts in a dark room, so happily the expected trouble spots were happy quick yeses. Timothy Chalamet came back wanting a redo of the Paul piece below at the last minute that created some angst over timing as we were right up on production, but I’m sort of known as Johnny-on-the-spot in this thing and worked up a few alternative options to chose from. (NOTE- always give a semblance of choice rather than just one. It’s easy to say NO to a thing, but a set of options demands instead a choice between objects. Just make sure you never submit a choice you’d not be thrilled to execute because karma will punish you by having that EXACT piece chosen).
Having a hard no on a piece like this at this stage is not an abnormal event at all. Expect it. It’s easy to bitch and whine about it and how it’s ruining your perfect day.. but really it’s like complaining your tea isn’t quite hot enough as if it were the end of the world. It’s part of the process and yes sometimes when you glide past these approvals enough you get used to the yeses so the no’s feel like a slap. They aren’t. Especially as a first go. They make you rework a piece ten times… that’s a slap. This was not. In these instances you can always ask for clarity and wait to get notes back. Sometimes they tell you, other times it’ll be something cryptic like “they eyes don’t work” or “that noose is too ropey”. Our issue was time and we didn’t have it to banter about hoping Timothy would take a break from the insane press tour for Dune by answering this dingdong’s questions. And… by my reckoning, we’d gotten away not just with murder on this project already…. but with nuking a city, spending a week spending the stolen money in Vegas and bragging about it on Instagram after. So a redo for this was a small price to pay. I worked a couple up, one I redrew him assuming he preferred a better likeness or facial expression that was more specific to him. Actors tend to prefer to see themselves in a better light than not, being the thinking. and I did the thing I didn’t encourage and found one of my first drawings of him as Paul that was rejected when we were doing the first poster and reworked it into this piece. I assumed he’d not chose it but it was my preference, and in fact I liked it a great deal more than the first attack I submitted. But again… never make the perfect the enemy of the good. Whichever yes he gave was a win. Happily he picked the one I most hoped for and in the end we had a much better total package than if he and Zendaya had not intervened. So I am so grateful for their input and response.
To be sure going wild with highly presumptive seemingly arrogant design is not the normal response to pressure and importance. This was courting disaster to the usual crowd that when something worked once, the second time becomes a slave of conservatism to NOT FUCK IT UP… (which usually ironically fucks it up, let’s be honest). This was Rodney Dangerfield doing the Triple Lindy into a cup of water. And it worked! I honestly don’t know how this happened, but Hans and Denis were insanely effusive for my sins and I’m sure that went a long way. Other than a quick reworking of the piece of Paul alone in the desert, and Chani’s, there were no notes. Bonkers. I hold up Spencer Hickman and Mo Shafeek for encouraging me to actually go off the rails when the opposite was the usual push. When we flew wild, we did a better thing, something new and entire and in my opinion more rewarding as a piece than I would have ever imagined. I also got the opportunity to largely solo fly an entire design, soup to nuts and execute a total and complete vision. There really aren’t art gifts like this in our thing very often, and I have been well over gifted these last few years to the point where I am certain a meteor will bore through my head walking my dog to balance the cosmic scales. If my obituary pops up in the next week or so, you heard it here first.
The fine folk at Mondo have rereleased both the vinyl editions of both THE DUNE SKETCHBOOK and THE DUNE SOUNDTRACK, in an unlimited edition on their shop, and you can get them HERE.
The DUNE 3x CD set collecting the entire catalogue of music is now on sale right HERE: