Given the unique nature of “Arrival” as a parable about time, memory and love, there was a special collaborative rapport between director Denis Villeneuve and his crafts team. Together they achieved an aesthetic about unity and beauty that goes to the heart of the alien heptapod philosophy.
It began with an oval and circular shape language about time, which binds the heptapods with Louise, the sensitive linguist played by Amy Adams.
The seven-limbed heptapods (a cross between a spider and octopus) are charcoal-gray and oval, like their shell-like space craft. And their circular logograms spew forth like florid ink blots, expressing the beginning and end of thoughts all at once. What’s more, with foreknowledge of the future.
Yet the logograms were particularly challenging for production designer Patrice Vermette. “We looked at hieroglyphs, but Denis didn’t think they were alien enough, and my wife (Martine Bertrand) is a painter and asked if she could take a crack at it,” he told IndieWire. “The following morning she presented a series of drawings and one of them was this logogram that looked like an ink blot. It was perfect — we reverse engineered it into a series of 100 symbols.”
Cinematographer Bradford Young then created two different looks: a warm, naturalistic, hand-held, series of portraitures for the memories of Louise and her young daughter, and a gray, misty, ethereal vibe for her encounters with the heptapods.
“I was free to be more imaginative and use all 360 degrees of the environment,” Young told IndieWire. “When you get to a certain age, you start to have questions about your own mortality, your professional mortality, your spiritual mortality. And then you have kids in the mix, which is a reflection of both of those things. Definitely, that’s the biggest challenge of the film.”
Meanwhile, design organically overlapped with VFX when it came to the heptapods (animated by Framestore) and their logograms (animated by Hybride). “The aliens have been traveling for thousands of years and are really old,” production VFX supervisor Louis Morin told IndieWire. “And the reference for skin was whales and elephants. They don’t walk like spiders but move in an unusual way with slow hip movement because of the gravity and the mist.
“The alien language is an abstraction of time,” Morin added. “Hybride tested fluid simulation with ink and developed an organic look that flows out of the aliens in a zero gravity way and generates the logogram. To make it less 2D-looking they added volume.”
For editor Joe Walker, playing with time in this unique way was a narrative challenge. But the documentary style of the memories loosened up the narrative and enabled the filmmakers to enter Louise’s mind. “We had the option of interspersing flashbacks in any order in the most elegant and poetic way,” Walker told IndieWire.
However, in the course of losing a subplot that wasn’t working, a happy accident occurred that allowed them to perfectly express how Louise starts to think like the heptapods after learning their non-linear language. “I kept two bits of a scene with Louise and Ian [the physicist played by Jeremy Renner] discussing how her mindset was being changed,” Walker said. “By pure coincidence, that was the first day we saw a test of the heptapod crawling like an elephant in the mist. I subverted the moment by joining the two because we [already] had her looking authoritatively off-screen.”
The score and sound design provided further synchronicity through otherworldly sensations. In fact, nearly every sound in the score by Johann Jóhannsson was analog-based. He also relied heavily on vocals and there was little use of sequencers, synthesizers or samplers, as in his two previous scores with Villeneuve (“Sicario” and “Prisoners”).
“There’s a crucial montage in the middle of the film about the process to understand the language and to reverse engineer it in some way by Louise,” Jóhannsson told IndieWire. “The accompanying music is a pivotal portal to this final epiphany that changes Louise’s view of life. And it has a strong command of harmonic singing and overtone singing by Theater of Voices [ensemble].”
Jóhannsson’s rough cuts were crucially played on set in Montreal, inspiring director, cast and crew and influencing the creative process. “The vocals we created [including New Zealand bird calls, bowed objects, wads of rice paper] latched into Jóhann’s complex and brooding score without competing,” added sound designer Dave Whitehead. “Once we started to get final cues delivered to us we did pitch-shift some of the sounds of the aliens to fit better with the tonality of the music creating a more sonically pleasing balance between the two.
“Denis’ initial note about creating a sacred and awe-inspiring vocal was the foundation of our sound design. There are moments that are scary, but he did not want lions or tigers roaring or any intense vocals that were too animalistic. Our aim was to create an alien sound that was more about a sensory experience than a traditional language. Denis did not want any noticeable synchronicity between the visual and audible languages. The point being, we should have no idea what they are saying or how to decipher it.”
That said, Whitehead was instructed by Villeneuve to intensify the emotional content of their vocals building up to the film’s climax and for that to ultimately reflect the journey of Louise’s character too.
“In the case of ‘Arrival,’ you can be sure that alien truly equals alien,” Whitehead said.