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'Arrival' Redefines the Language of Alien Movies

14 Feb, 2017 By: John Latchem

A major factor in the critical and popular success of Arrival has to be its visual style, which has proved to be as key to the film’s identity as the twists and turns of its plot.

Arrival stars Amy Adams as a linguist hired by the military to decipher the alien language to figure out what they are doing on Earth. Paramount Home Media Distribution releases the film Feb. 14 on Blu-ray, DVD and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.

At first blush, director Denis Villeneuve’s film looks to be just another entry in the tried-and-true aliens-on-Earth genre, but filmmakers sought to distance the film from what had come before. In many ways, the film’s visual style would end up enhancing the story in ways the original script might not have foreseen, especially when it came to the design of the alien ship.

“In the script it’s a sphere,” said Patrice Vermette, the film’s Oscar-nominated production designer. “We wanted to get away from that.”

Speaking Feb. 10 during a press event at the Paramount Pictures studio lot, Vermette said an early design of the ship had it looking like an oyster before they hit upon the idea of making it look more like an egg.

“We wanted to make it dark and we wanted to give it the appearance of stone. And one day Denis saw in the research a dwarf planet just off Neptune, and it’s an ovoid shape,” Vermette said.

Filmmakers also sought to differentiate Arrival from other alien movies with the places the aliens picked to make contact, such as an empty field in Montana.

“We wanted to make it random locations and not show the shell landing next to the White House or the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben,” Vermette said. “We thought it would be more spectacular or more weird to have it hover and not ever land. So metaphorically, it’s like the human beings need to do the extra step to get in contact with them.”

Vermette related how solving certain design problems raised more issues, which required more creativity to solve those. For example, the humans reach the alien ship using a simple scissor lift, a solution Vermette liked because it “happens to put those two technologies in contrast: the humans a very modest technology and totally alien technology.”

But because they decided the alien ships would be 1,500 feet tall, the scissor lift wouldn’t be able to reach where the humans needed to go.

“We said, let’s do a last leap of faith for the humans and create a gravity shift,” Vermette said. “So that was kind of problem solving, but we had created our own problems.”

However, the process of creating the alien language at the heart of Arrival proved to be a big challenge to the filmmakers.

“We had designed the interior of the ship, the exterior appearance of the ship, we had designed the appearance of the [military] camp and we were still stuck with the problem of having a language that the aesthetics would fit the ship,” Vermette said. “We wanted something that, at the beginning … you don’t want the audience to get that it’s a language. There’s an evolution in the story. We wanted something that would be interesting and different.”

According to Vermette, the script specified the writing would be circular and written by the aliens using something like ink. Eventually, Vermette found the answer from his wife, Martine Bertrand, an artist who works with inks.

“He wanted to feel the fear and beauty,” she said. "I liked the challenge."

She created 15 symbols, which Vermette and his team then used as the basis to craft the alien language, known as logograms.

“Denis and I fell in love with the appearance of them,” Vermette said. “But since we are a bit nerdy, we wanted to [give it] a sense of reality.”

Vermette and his team assigned meaning to various shapes in Bertrand’s designs, and then re-combined different sections to create more logograms. In the end, Vermette and Bertrand created more than 100 logograms to fit all the different situations needed in the movie.

Preserving the unique visual dynamics of the film was an important task for the team overseeing the home entertainment release.

“This movie’s really about subtlety and shadow detail, and definitely makes the most of it” said Mike Trainotti, SVP of technical services for worldwide technical operations at Paramount Pictures. “What’s important to note is that whenever we do mastering in high dynamic range … they’ve got so much more range to play with they may want to make it more saturated, hue it differently, whatever they want to do. They can now produce some of the colors that they couldn’t in the past.”

“Usually with this HDR stuff they want to … dazzle you with lights,” said Ed Hoxsie, SVP of worldwide product production and fulfillment for Paramount Pictures. “Arrival is so dark, it’s actually a perfect example of going the other way, which is we’re going to go into the dark and show you detail, which usually doesn’t happen.”

As far as the real-life implications of the film, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., found the storyline of Arrival to be a refreshing change of pace for an alien movie.

“There is this concern that the aliens would be bad, and if you go to the movies on a routine basis to watch alien films you know I’m sure 70% of that that’s exactly what they’re here for. But that makes a good storyline,” Shostak said. “[In Arrival], they wanted to help. To begin with that’s kind of refreshing, isn’t it? I mean gosh, they’re not all bad. But not only that, they wanted to help us in a way that was somewhat significant.”

Shostak said he appreciated the unique approach of focusing on the alien language.

“They actually had a written language, which I thought, at least, that was new,” Shostak said.

However, as a representative of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Shostak said he might have handled things a bit differently.

“In terms of language, if I was sending messages to the aliens, I would send the whole Internet,” Shostak said. “Communication would actually not be the first thing on my list; the first thing on my list would be trying to figure out what’s going on in terms of how their big black banana spacecraft can just sort of hang there. That’s interesting right there. That’s worth real money.”

Oscar-nominated production designer Patrice Vermette (right) and his wife, Martine Bertrand, show off some of the logograms she designed to represent the alien language of Arrival.


About the Author: John Latchem

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