How a village was created in the Abu Dhabi desert for Dune: Part Two

The blockbuster production involved many local departments and a handful of interns

Director Denis Villeneuve, right, with actor Timothee Chalamet on the set of Dune: Part Two. Photo: Warner Bros Pictures
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Both Dune films have relied on Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter to depict the planet of Arrakis.

While the first installment – released in 2021 – comprised five days of filming in the emirate, the production team spent almost a month in the desert for the sequel.

It was not just the photogenic landscape, the sandy dunes rolling into the horizon, that lured the film back to Abu Dhabi. That was a definite selling point, of course, as most of Dune takes place in a desert planet and the Empty Quarter is arid, expansive and lends itself beautifully to the film.

But there were other factors that perhaps made Abu Dhabi an alluring place for Denis Villeneuve to bring the anticipated sequel to the science fiction epic back to Abu Dhabi, this time for longer.

Dune: Part Two is not the first blockbuster to film in Abu Dhabi. Over the years, the emirate has hosted several Hollywood and Bollywood productions, including Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, 6 Underground, Tiger Zinda Hai and The Misfits. While the cash rebates and incentives are definitely an added allure, it is also the emirate’s willingness to efficiently facilitate the production process for international projects, which often span various government departments.

The Abu Dhabi Film Commission and the Creative Media Agency are at the centre of this network, working to streamline communications and ensure all the cogs of the production process are working properly.

After all, a village had to be built in the middle of the desert for the production of Dune: Part Two. More than 1,000 people worked on the film while it was in Abu Dhabi, and ensuring swift mobility of equipment, cast and crew was paramount.

“We were filming for 27 days in the desert,” says Sameer Al Jaberi, head of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission. “You might think of accommodation. So where would they be staying? Obviously, Qasr Al Sarab did an amazing job housing almost all of the crew, but there were still more. We had 300 local crew, 250 international, and 500 extras. That’s a massive number. To come up with a creative solution, along with Epic Films, the local production company, built a village in the desert.”

This village, built from repurposed containers, had all the amenities one can think of. From bedrooms and laundry services to cafes. It was large enough to house and sustain more than 150 people, while being accessible to the 20 locations in the desert that were used for filming.

“With all these locations, [it was important] to move easily with a large amount of crew members,” Al Jaberi says. He adds that the commission worked with several institutions, including the Environmental Agency, the municipalities of the Dhafrah region and Abu Dhabi, as well as local production companies, to build a 30km road that would facilitate smooth transportation of the crew and the heavy equipment.

Director of Dune Part Two reveals 'surprising moments' in Abu Dhabi desert

Director of Dune Part Two reveals 'surprising moments' in Abu Dhabi desert

Al Jaberi says that each blockbuster that comes to Abu Dhabi brings forth its own set of challenges. For Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, for instance, which was filmed during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, special measures had to be taken to ensure the safety of the crew. The commission, Al Jaberi says, has become well accustomed to dealing with each challenge that unfolds, and a silver lining is that over the years, the rapport between different government departments has strengthened as a result.

“With every project, there is some sort of an educational process that happens between us and the stakeholders and the government entities,” he says. “With time, you see that almost all government entities speak our language.”

Mohammed Dobay, acting director general of the Creative Media Authority, says Dune: Part Two, along with the other blockbusters that have been shot in Abu Dhabi, work to strengthen the emirate’s creative sector across many facets.

“One of the main mandates of the CMA is to develop creative industry in Abu Dhabi,” Dobay says. “It is to position Abu Dhabi as a global, not just regional, creative hub. This means offering the facilities for the full cycle of production.”

The fact that the Dune team returned to Abu Dhabi to film for an extended period while filming the sequel is proof that it isn’t just the locations that are attracting large-scale productions to the emirate.

“It’s proof that they are amazed by the full ecosystem, from the collaborating companies in the private sector to the government services,” Dobay says. “We are inspired by our leadership. How they plan to diversify the economy. The filmmaking sector is a humble arm, but we are proud of it and its impact on the GDP.”

Another key mandate for the CMA is to help boost local talents in terms of skillset and opportunities. The organisation oversees institutions within the creative sector such as Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Film Commission, along with Creative Lab and Arab Film Studio, which is focused on talent development. As part of the incentive deals that bring in international productions, local talents are required to join in the production process, working along a range of departments.

A handful of interns were part of the local production wing of Dune: Part 2. These included Amna Al Darmaki, Mouza Al Darmaki, Ghena Al Satti, Thoraya Farzaneh and Khaled Al Hosani. They were were selected after applying through the TwoFour54 website, and were eventually picked after a rigorous screening process.

Al Satti, for instance, assisted the film’s wardrobe department, specifically working on costumes for extras. A freelance photographer, she says the experience helped her develop her understanding of set design and her organisational skills.

“I do small projects by myself,” she says. “This is a very big scale production. I did not have enough knowledge about wardrobe and costumes, because it's different from just styling in general. I learnt a lot from that, which I can incorporate into my freelance business.”

Al Darmaki, on the other hand, was involved in the film’s visual effects department. She had previously interned in the director of photography department at Image Nation AD and on the MBC production for the series Al Meerath. Dune: Part Two, however, presented a new learning experience for her as she developed insights on how large-scale productions conceive their special effects.

“I never expected to be part of the project,” she says. “It was challenging. I worked directly with [visual effects supervisor] Paul Lambert. I shadowed him throughout the experience. I wanted to understand how he came up with his ideas. Because with the first Dune film, it was the first time I see VFX of that kind. They didn’t use green or blue screens, but brown to blend more with the theme and the desert landscape. It was so reflections wouldn’t disrupt the lighting or the aesthetic.”

Al Hosani, meanwhile, worked in the film’s camera department. An up-and-coming filmmaker, Al Hosani has taken part in several local and regional productions. Again, Dune: Part Two presented an opportunity to work a project that was at an unprecedented scale.

“We worked from sunrise to sunset,” he says. “Working under the DOP Greig Fraser was a great experience. We saw how challenging it was to shoot in a landscape such as the desert practically, but he still achieved the idea and image he had in mind.

"We had to carry equipment to where cars couldn’t reach. It was challenging but rewarding. The project was a large-scale one, and it opened doors for me, job opportunities that came afterwards. I learnt a lot, about the equipment that we used, as well as technical aspects.”

Dune: Part Two releases in UAE and Lebanon on February 29, and is scheduled for a wider regional release on the April 11

Updated: February 23, 2024, 1:15 PM