Arrival: Visual Style–Images and Design

“I found myself without a cinematographer for this project at the beginning because Roger Deakins was working on another project,” says Villeneuve, who had to figure out who else could create the movie he envisioned. “I needed a strong eye, someone [who could] bring sensuality, that would be able to capture life. The movie is in two parts: There’s Louise’s relationship with her daughter, this is the heart of the movie, and then there’s the sci-fi. I needed a cinematographer able to embrace with [sensitivity] and delicacy the relationship between the mother and her child, and the way I wanted to approach it, while at the same time [able] to bring freshness to [the] sci-fi [elements]. Bradford Young was a massive discovery for me. As a filmmaker, to work with him, [I felt] I was seeing the birth of a genius.”   “I’ve been a big fan of Denis’ work since Polytechnique (2009),” explains Young. “A few months ago somebody asked me who I wanted to work with next—Denis was at the top of my list. We know some folks in common and they’d said we would really get along. When I got the call from him it was a big surprise but it seemed serendipitous. I read the script, liked the material and it went from there.”  “The guy is really hyper-sensitive,” says Villeneuve about Young. “We created an approach that we call ‘dirty sci-fi’—which means that we were trying to create the feeling that this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning. We wanted to create a sci-fi movie that [gave you a feeling] like when you were a kid on the school bus on a rainy day and you’d dream while looking [out the window] at the clouds—that kind of atmosphere, getting away from the scope of the huge movies. Getting away from the spectacle. We were trying to make something delicate and light. Bradford brought a lot of humanity and beauty to the movie.”    “Denis’ films seem very grounded,” says Young. “They always feel very present but cinematic. Even though it’s embedded in this tight, human drama, a human reality, they always seem to have massive scope. That’s always attracted me to his work. I’ve looked for opportunities where we could focus in on the human dilemma, but at the same time I always feel like movies should have scale. They should have size and perspective. As I grow as a cinematographer, I look for those opportunities where I can photograph movies that have that ethos to them.”   “When Denis and I first started talking about the film,” recounts the cinematographer, “one of the things that we were really concerned about is that, as filmmakers, we often inoculate the process with our own preconceived notions about what
a genre could be. This genre was sci-fi but what we wanted was to be just as surprised when the aliens arrive as the viewer or the characters in the film are. We wanted to be as naive as the characters about what it means to interact with alien intelligence. That allowed Denis and I to take a step back from the process and decide that this film needed to be raw. It needed to be truthful. When the aliens and spacecraft arrive, we all feel surprise, and as frightened and compelled to be in contact with them as the characters in the film.”  Retaining a sense of mystery about the aliens, maintaining their otherworldliness, was crucial. “Often times in sci-fi films human beings have so much influence on our interpretation of what alien intelligence is,” explains Young about their attempt to move beyond preconceptions. “This is about backing away from that. What if human beings never had contact with aliens? Would they have alloys? Metals? Would they arrive with all the things that we assume because we, as human intelligence, have access to these things? It’s about a fresh look at how simple and raw life can be for human beings on Earth and how simple and raw it could be for alien intelligence. We wanted to scale it down and make it very personal—that’s been our focus from the beginning, making a very innocent, personal film but with scale.”   To design and realize the film’s aesthetic Villeneuve worked closely with his cinematographer in preproduction and while filming; his editor, Joe Walker, in postproduction; as well as his production designer, Patrice Vermette, who helped design the spaceship; VFX supervisor Louis Morin, who realized the designs for the ship and the aliens; artists Carlos Huante, who helped design the aliens, and Martine Bertrand, who designed the aliens’ written language; sound designer Dave Whitehead, who helped create the clicks and whirrs of the alien’s “spoken” language; Supervising Sound Editor Sylvain Bellemare, who created the sound the ships made when they moved; and composer Johann Johannsson who created the score.  “It started with Patrice Vermette, my production designer and beloved friend,” says Villeneuve. “We’ve made a lot of movies together and Patrice was by far my first choice because he’s brilliant. He has culture, he’s passionate, and he’d never done a sci-fi movie. He had all the qualities I was looking for and I thought he’d bring a fresh approach to the movie. Initially, the spaceships were supposed to be round, like spheres, but I felt that had been done before. It wasn’t ominous or strange enough. I came up with the idea that the spaceship should be shaped like a pebble, a little stone, ovoid. I based the shape on an asteroid, or small planet, called Eunomia [aka asteroid 15] that’s in orbit in the solar system. The shape’s insane, like a strange egg.” Villeneuve had, until learning about Eunomia, always assumed that everything in outer space, whether an asteroid, planet or
moon, was spherical. “That strange, perfect [shape] felt ominous, mysterious, frightening to me.”    Morin, who had worked with Villeneuve on his previous film, Sicario (2015), says he added little to the design process. “My job is mainly enhancing and making the shot beautiful at the end of the day,” says Morin. “Denis’ approach is that he wants it to be mysterious. The aliens are not going to be in your face. It’s going to take a long time—the audience will see parts of the alien and they’ll construct in their mind what the alien could be—and it will be a big surprise at the end.”   “Spielberg and Close Encounters are probably a pretty good inspiration for what we’re doing,” explains Ryder about their jumping off point. “First off you have an alien ARRIVAL movie, you’re not going out and finding aliens, they’re coming to us. The second thing is we had the opportunity to design something that we see through our character’s eyes for the first time so that going into an alien ship impacts us too. Patrice and Denis came up with something that was really unusual.”  The spaceship, which was dubbed “the shell” in the script, held symbolic space as well. “There was a relationship with life, with birth, that was perfect for the idea behind the spaceship,” explains Villeneuve. “We thought, Patrice and I, that the spaceship should be made from matter that’s not from Earth. It’s not a shiny spaceship. It’s not white, or made of metal or plastic, it’s made of a strange stone. We aren’t sure what this is exactly. We can’t even guess.”    “We’re trying to approach this naive perspective within the genre and also through the photography,” explains Young. “The way we photograph the film is that much closer than what some sci-fi films would be. We talked about the film being very raw, but it’s really massively naturalistic and trying to be as natural as possible, while also exploring this idea of darkness. Not darkness as a frightening thing, but darkness as an unknown. When we step into the spaceship, which is ultimately a temple, it’s a place where a certain level of truthfulness is revealed to humanity. We don’t feel frightened to be in the ship. We feel enlightened. Throughout the film we’re working with darkness in all of the places humans occupy, but when we enter into the space the aliens occupy, we’re working with a level of brightness.”   “Every time they enter into the spaceship,” explains Young, “as a viewer you want to go back there, because it’s the one space in the film where you can see things, where you can understand what it means to watch human beings evolve. The other place is a little bit darker—a little bit dirtier, as Denis and I would call it. There’s a visual trajectory about starting in a dark place, which is the unknown, and ending in a place that’s a little more
elevated, which is about enlightening oneself and coming to a realization of who we are as human beings.”