Would You Fly a ‘Dune’ Ornithopter?

Ornithopters are a form of an airplane powered by flapping wings. When Frank Herbert wrote the Dune novel in 1965, his ornithopters were as theoretical as flying cars. Today, modern inventors are experimenting with working ornithopter prototypes. For the 2021 Dune film, director Denis Villeneuve based the Dune ornithopters on both dragonflies and military helicopters. The resulting vehicle plays an important role in the blockbuster movie.

Ornithopters are a major form of transportation in the ‘Dune’ scifi universe

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In the vast world of Dune, an ornithopter is a common form of transportation. Ornithopters in the books and films all share flapping wings. These crafts can take off vertically, hover, fly under their own power, and glide. 

In Dune, humans engineer ornithopters in a range of sizes and shapes based on their purpose. Many Dune ornithopters can alternate between winged flight and jet propulsion. Some ornithopters can even complete short flights in outer space.

The fictional ornithopters are superior to helicopters. With jet engines, they can fold their wings and move much faster than jets. In addition, landing with a helicopter engine failure is nearly impossible. On the other hand, an ornithopter pilot experiencing an engine failure can fix the craft’s wings and glide.

‘Dune’ director Villaneuve based the movie Ornithopters on dragonflies

This is a still image of the Dune Ornithopters taken from the 2021 blockbuster's trailer. The Dune ornithopters were 11 ton props based on dragonflies and military helicopters. | Warn Bros. Pictures via Youtube
Ornithopters play a major role in the 2021 Dune film | Warn Bros. Pictures via Youtube

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Director Denis Villeneuve spent years envisioning the world of his 2021 Dune film. The Dune stories depict a space-age warrior society. At the same time, the people who inhabit the Dune universe take inspiration from the natural world. Ultimately, Villeneuve sought to bring both these elements of Dune into his ornithopter design.

The director described a shape inspired by a dragonfly to his storyboard artists. However, he insisted the vehicle also be “muscular” and reminiscent of a military helicopter. All his vehicles needed to be plausible, so the team pioneered the rapidly oscillating airfoil design. The resulting aircraft looks like a cross between a gunship helicopter and a flying insect.

Another central element of the “retro-futuristic” Dune world is its complete lack of computers. The ancestors of the humans in the Dune universe narrowly survived a brutal war with artificial intelligence. The government outlaws computers during the era of the Dune movie. Villeneuve describes the resulting world as “analog.”

The Ornithopters in the film reflect this aspect of the Dune world. Their only instruments appear to be a stack of analog gauges in front of the pilot. The film shows no autopilot function. What is more, the cockpits are panoramic fishbowls that do little to keep the harsh light of the landscape away from the crew.

The film crew built multiple, full-size ‘Dune’ Ornithopter props

The dune ornithopter is central to the new movie. Director Villeneuve filmed Paul Atreides on the outside of an ornithopter prop hanging from a crane. | Warner Bros.
To film actors on a flying ornithopter, the crew hung a prop from a crane | Warner Bros.

2021 seems filled with flying car prototypes and cities ordering air taxis. But in truth, none of the Dune ornithopter props actually fly. The crew built several full-size Ornithopter props. Some had cockpits with working controls to film the actors flying. Other props featured removable walls to film actors in the passenger compartment.

The filmmakers shot the desert scenes on location in Jordan. They transported the Ornithopter props to Jordan for filming. With the full-size props weighing 11 tons, shipping them to Africa was no small feat. Firstly, they loaded the props on an Antonov AN-124 cargo plane. Then, they used a huge crane to transport them to the set in the middle of the desert.

For one dramatic scene, Villeneuve wanted to show to characters clinging to the landing ramp of an Ornithopter in flight. So he used the crane to hoist an Ornithopter prop in the air, actors on board to get the shot right. 

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