Exclusive: Interview with "DUNE: PART ONE" (2021) Concept Artist Keith Christensen

Dune: Part One concept artist by Keith Christensen

Check out my exclusive interview with Dune: Part One concept artist Keith Christensen!
What's it like working on an epic science fiction film like Denis Villeneuve's Dune? How did they adapt the costumes from Frank Herbert's classic science fiction novels? Find out in my interview with concept artist Keith Christensen. 

Back in 2013, I interviewed him about his work on Man of Steel. He was kind enough to come back and answer some more questions! I'm excited to share this with you because his detailed designs make him one of my favorite artists.

Christensen is a professional concept artist who's worked on Hollywood movies like Alita: Battle Angel (2019), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), and Black Panther (2018).


Click on the images to enlarge

Maurice: You've worked for ten years on over 40 films. So you're a veteran. How did you get the job working on this film?

Keith: In July of 2018, I was working on the Avatar sequels at [Lightstorm Entertainment] and I heard a rumor that Dune was starting up. I had been putting out feelers for months and when the call came, I felt like I had overdosed on caffeine. I worked for about three months with Costume Designers Kurt and Bart [Editor note: Kurt Swanson and Bart Mueller] exploring Bene Gesserit designs and the Still Suit. I had worked for them previously on Hunger Games: Mockingjay (2014) and Ghost in the Shell (2017).

In October of 2018, I heard another rumor. Kurt and Bart were leaving the show, and Jacqui West was being tapped to take over. I had worked with Jacqui on The Batman when it was still Ben Affleck directing and starring (but that's for another interview). 

On Halloween day I got an email from Jacqui saying she took the show, and I was officially hired for the second time on my dream project. Jacqui then asked Bob Morgan to co-design with her. Bob and I first worked together on Man of Steel (2013), where he greased the wheels to get me back in good standing with the costume designer's guild and set me up to work on designs for the Kryptonian armor. I credit my years at Ironhead studio (working under Jose Fernandez), and my experience on Man of Steel with putting me on the path that eventually led to projects like Dune.

M: You mentioned that you worked on Dune for almost a year. What part of the project took the most time? 

K: Yeah, about a year total, with reshoots. The Still Suit took a while to develop. Director Denis Villeneuve had been working with concept artist Joseph Cross prior to hiring anyone in the costume dept. Kurt and Bart were given Joseph's design and they asked me to do a take based on it. After much back and forth and many iterations incorporating everyone's notes and input, a design emerged that Denis approved. There are still some residual elements of Joseph's design in the final, and consequently, it's his design that's seen in the schematic shown in the film. 

Honestly, as far as time goes, with all of the specialty designs I worked on, there was a lot of back and forth and exploration before Denis signed off on the final versions. Then, after the designs were approved, I went on to do orthographic drawings, material breakdowns, part schematics, and color/finish references to facilitate the practical build. Even with something as deceivingly simple as Lady Jessica's dresses, there was a great deal of exchange between Jacqui, Bob, Denis, and myself. Jacqui and Bob's knowledge of fashion, as well as contemporary and period costume, far exceeds my own and we referenced and riffed on a variety of styles and periods to generate many of the designs.

M: It must have been exciting to work with veteran costume designers like that. What design were you most excited to see on the big screen? 

K: I was really looking forward to seeing the Baron's armor (which was apparently saved for the sequel?), but honestly, the Still Suits, the Harkonnen armor, the Atreides Armor, the Sardaukar...all of the designs that I worked on so hard and was so intimately familiar with were extremely satisfying to see on that huge IMAX screen. 

When I saw the opening shot of the Harkonnen soldier in his desert parka, it was pretty exhilarating.

M: How closely did you work with costume designers West and Morgan? How did their style influence the designs? 

K: For the first three months with Jacqui and Bob, we were all working in Jacqui's office together, and after that, it was Skype sessions maybe once or twice a week. I had worked with both of them in the past, so they were familiar with my work and my process, and I was familiar with theirs. We would toss around ideas for the characters, find relevant and inspiring references for the mood boards, talk over logistics, and I would (digitally) sketch and paint design concepts to submit. We would then have group Skype meetings with Denis, get his notes and reference, and run through it all again. Jacqui and Bob are both big fans of mid-century fashion, particularly simple, classic lines like a 1960s Balenciaga or Dior. 

I seem to gravitate towards simpler lines and shapes, so our tastes always felt very compatible. Denis' love of monolithic, brutalist, and industrial forms also had a major influence on designing the costumes. Working with Jacqui and Bob was really a very streamlined, collaborative experience. Where they had specific ideas, I rendered them faithfully and where they were completely open to suggestions, they didn't feel the need to hover and micromanage. 

It's a unique situation to work with a team where everyone has confidence in what they bring to the table and no one succumbs to the temptation to step on toes just to satisfy their ego. Seems rare in Hollywood for skill and competence to take precedence over power and control. 

No project is perfect, but the design phase of Dune was pretty great.

M: From what I understand the team worked very well together on the film and it shows. What were some of your most memorable experiences working on the film? 

K: There were many times while working on the designs that I would be struck with what a unique opportunity it was. At one point I was drawing while watching the 'Jodorowsky's Dune' documentary, and I thought "How is it possible that I ended up in this position?" 

There's an anxiety that many artists feel (myself included) that their solution to the problem isn't going to be good enough, or that their work is not going to resonate with people. I'm always looking back thinking "I should have done more, or worked harder...done one more pass." I'm so grateful (and relieved) that there has been such a positive response to Dune. 

At the risk of sounding sycophantic, and though my interaction was fairly limited, one of the most impactful memories from Dune was showing my work to director Denis Villeneuve. He gave me the impression that whatever we put in front of him, it was truly considered. Even when his initial reaction was negative, he would take the time to sit with it and get back to us with a thoughtful evaluation. I don't know if I'll ever get a more treasured compliment than Denis looking at something I designed, and saying in his thick French Canadian accent, "I deeply love it". 

M: I'm sure a lot of artists can relate to that feeling. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with my readers. Where can we see your work next? 

K: I did a ton of costume work with Deborah Scott on the Avatar sequels, which might come out someday... Also, my first project working within Marvel Visual Development, The Eternals (2021), is out on November 5, 2021. I also have early designs for The Batman (2022). I'm eager to show, as well as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), the Moon Knight (2022) series, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).

See more of Keith Christensen's portfolio at http://artofkc.com. Also, make sure you visit his sites https://www.artstation.com/keithchristensen and https://www.instagram.com/kachristensen_art/

Click on the links if you want to see more of Keith Christensen's work or Dune: Part One artwork on my blog.

About Dune: Part One (2021)

Official synopsis: "A mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey, Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, who must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence—a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential—only those who can conquer their fear will survive"
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Cinematography by Greig Fraser
Production Design by Patrice Vermette
"Dune: Part One" stars Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Babs Olusanmokun,
"Dune: Part One" was released on October 22, 2021 (United States)
What do you think of the concept art? If you've seen Dune: Part One what do you think of the look?

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