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The sound of sand: How Hans Zimmer and Dune collaborators built their sonic sci-fi world

·7 min read
The sound of sand: How Hans Zimmer and Dune collaborators built their sonic sci-fi world

Hans Zimmer knows what you expect a sci-fi film to sound like. Between John Williams' iconic Star Wars score and the use of "The Blue Danube" in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the template was set long ago.

"Whenever I see a science-fiction movie or anything that's set in the future or in a galaxy far, far away, it doesn't matter how beautiful and how brilliant the music is written, it's still like, 'here come the strings. Here comes the French horn,'" Zimmer tells EW.

The composer wanted to create a decidedly different score for Dune. Director Denis Villeneuve has previously told EW that his new adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 sci-fi novel about the struggle for control of the desert planet Arrakis and its precious spice melange is a lifelong dream project. Zimmer is just as passionate about the material. He says that the book's Litany Against Fear — a Bene Gesserit poem used to maintain equanimity in stressful situations that begins with "I must not fear, fear is the mind-killer…" — helped him through several stressful situations in his adolescence. So when Villeneuve casually mentioned to Zimmer that he was working on a new Dune film, the composer says he reacted by "going completely and utterly insane, at which point I think he realized that I was interested."

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Warner Bros. Pictures The spice melange as seen in 'Dune.'

Just as Villeneuve strove to be realistic in bringing to life iconic Dune fixtures like the great sandworms (with him and his collaborators working through how such a magnificent creature might have come to exist over centuries in response to its desert environment), so did Zimmer think seriously about what kind of music might still be around in the story's far future setting.

"One of the thoughts I had was, the only thing that will survive across centuries and across galaxies will probably be the human voice," Zimmer says. "And the other stuff, let's just make it up. So we made up strange rhythms, which are quite impossible for human beings to play — though of course, as soon as I say that, somebody's going to go out and figure out how to play them. We made up strange instruments, we literally built instruments to go and do this."

Zimmer's not kidding. With the help of his friend Chas Smith — a self-described professional welder and professional guitar player who has connections with aircraft manufacturers and access to scrap metal — Zimmer's team put together instruments much stranger than any that are used on present-day Earth. Together with the eerie chanting and singing that accompanies characters like the Bene Gesserit, they created a Dune score that sounds much different than stereotypical sci-fi.

"He makes these instruments with very strange tunings," Zimmer says of Smith. "We figured out ways to superimpose the sound of a Tibetan war horn onto a cello, how to make bagpipes out of guitars, and things like that. But the most important thing, ultimately, was that we had extraordinary singers. We had this woman, Loire Cotler, who has the courage to just let go; it's stunning and it just gets right under your skin. My Australian friend, Lisa Gerrard, didn't want to be up front. So she's like the beautiful wind that goes across the sand."

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Warner Bros. Pictures Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) gets tested in the ways of the Bene Gesserit by Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) in 'Dune.'

The sounds of Dune stretch even beyond the score, though. The storytelling is downright sonic: Those aforementioned sandworms respond to rhythm, and Bene Gesserit-trained characters like Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), are able to control others through the supernatural power called "the Voice." Sound designers Mark Mangini and Theo Green worked closely with Zimmer to interweave the sound effects with the score to create an immersive soundscape.

"There was quite a lot of going back and forth with what we were doing and what Hans was doing. He was sending me early versions of songs he was working on, and I was sending him early versions of sounds like the thumper so he could integrate it into what he was doing," Green says. "There were moments we verged into musical territory, and there were times when Hans did stuff that would traditionally be sound design. He created the sound of the Sardaukar priest, that very weird tuba-like sound which you hear very briefly at the very beginning of the movie, then again on Salusa Secundus. Denis considered what we were doing as composing with sounds, and what Hans was doing as organizing sounds into music. He very much encouraged us to collaborate on that. I think there are areas where that crossover creates something very alien and unusual."

Just as Zimmer wanted to avoid composing a score in the vein of what Star Wars viewers have come to expect, Mangini and Green also wanted to make sound effects like the Voice defy worn-out genre conventions.

"A decision Theo and I made early on was that electronically processing the Voice was not going to yield a satisfying result," Mangini says. "From Darth Vader to Deep Space Nine, we know what a human voice sounds like electronified, and that wasn't going to be the solution. In a very early meeting with Denis, I had this idea that when you summon the Voice, along with the ability to use that power, you're effectively summoning ancient memories of ancestors who came before you. That led us down the path of augmenting the voice with the voices of your ancestors. We set about casting the right voices that would accompany Paul and Jessica when they summon that power. This is a whole new approach to the Voice that isn't necessarily described in the book, but I think is honoring the idea of what's happening when you have to deploy it."

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Warner Bros. Pictures The great sandworm rears its head in 'Dune.'

As a result of this approach to the Voice, Mangini, and Green ended up creating new unseen characters: As the film progresses and Paul experiences more and more spice-induced visions, he starts the voices of his ancestors talking to him and guiding him on his path to becoming the Kwisatz Haderach.

By contrast, the sandworms are very visible characters that don't have a voice, although they do emit sounds. To create those sounds, Mangini and Green went straight into the sand.

"The way we created the sound of the thumper and the worm traveling underneath the desert was by going out to the desert and burying hydrophones, which are used in the ocean, to capture the sound underneath the desert floor," Mangini says. "We mined those recordings endlessly, and from that we extrapolated this bigger idea that the worms are like whales of the desert. It's a way of showing the amount of power they have, and from that we discovered the sand is the ocean water, so we used surf sounds for sand sounds. We found all these similarities between water and sand, worms and whales."

All these innovations and inventions combine to create an immersive soundscape for Dune that can fully bring viewers into Herbert's world, especially when experienced in a theater. Ferguson says that the mix of Zimmer's score and Mangini and Green's sound effects "heightens the movie so beyond, it just sugar-coats and gold-coats everything that everyone has already done so brilliantly." For Zimmer, it's about coming as close as he can to bringing the audience into the orchestra.

"The proof of the concept I always had was when my four children could just about sit straight without creating a complete mess, I would sit them in the middle of the orchestra rather than being in front of it," Zimmer says. "They were surrounded by sound, they were surrounded by instruments. It was a completely different experience for them, of course. It's a great thing to do and normal people don't get that privilege of doing that. I think if I can do that, if I can go and wrap an orchestra around your head or put you in the middle of this, it'll be fabulous."

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