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'Dune' visual effects team wins Oscar

March 28, 2022

The German visual effects artist's work on "Dune" led him to his second Academy Award. To create the fictional desert planet, the special effects company came up with unusual ideas.

 Tristan Myles, Brian Connor, Gerd Nefzer, Paul Lambert pose holding awards at the 94th Oscars.
Gerd Nefzer (center right) is among the team that took home an Oscar for "Dune"Image: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

From giant sandworms to flying spacecrafts, the sci-fi movie "Dune" would not have seen its current success without the magic worked by special effects experts.

The film directed by Denis Villeneuve swept the 94th Oscars ceremony on March 27 with wins in six categories, including best visual effects.

The special effects team consisted of Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor and Gerd Nefzer — some of whom had worked together on Villeneuve's 2017 blockbuster "Bladerunner 2049," which had also won an Oscar for special effects. One of the returning members was German special effects master Gerd Nefzer.

Nefzer, also known as 'the weatherman'

Nefzer is no stranger to working in Hollywood and has been lending his special effects wizardry to films for decades.

Nefzer Special Effects, the company he runs with his brother-in-law Uli, has come a long way since its humble beginnings when it rented out fog machines.

Located in German film studio Babelsberg, the company has among others created special effects for blockbusters like "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay" and "Captain America: Civil War."

Over the years, Nefzer has earned the nickname "the weatherman" for his ability to create unique weather conditions.

"Bladerunner 2049" had very specific weather requirements for each scene that needed to be created manually, for example. The team made light, camera, atmosphere, fog, rain and snow tests in advance, said Nefzer in a previous interview with DW. "When we were shooting, we knew which type of weather we wanted and how to make it," he said.

Weather is an often under-appreciated part of special effects: "Many people think of special effects only in the terms of pyrotechnics: a 'boom' here and a 'bang' there. But the environment — the bad weather, the pollution, the cloudy, depressed mood — were really important for the movie," Nefzer said of "Bladerunner 2049."

Gerd Nefzer sits at a desk in an office.
Nefzer and his team must get creative to create complex visual effectsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

From Potsdam to the sand planet Arrakis

For the movie "Dune," Nefzer and his team had to get more creative than ever while working on the movie's fictional desert planet, Arrakis. They were tasked with doing something that had never before been done — make people sink in sand.

The team found a creative solution: putting steel plates in desert sand. "Under the plates we built powerful vibration motors that could be regulated. We then buried them half a meter deep in the desert. The vibrations cause the grains to separate, and then the person slowly sinks into the sand," Nefzer told German broadcaster RBB.

They also had another difficult task on Arrakis: make 20 palm trees burn brightly over several days of shooting.

Nefzer's solution was to create steel palm leaves and create a system through which gas was ducted around each leaf. In the end, the project required two 5,000 later propane gas tanks and pumps that needed to operate during the shoot. There were 25 employees in charge of ensuring it all went according to plan. 

Other recent Nefzer projects include Ruben Fleischer's "Uncharted" (2022), starring Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg, Antonio Banderas and Sophia Ali, as well as the upcoming period mystery-horror Netflix series, "1899."

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

Sarah Hucal
Sarah Hucal Freelance Multimedia Journalist