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Contender – The Production Design of Arrival

January 23, 2017 | By
(L-R) Amy Adams and director, Denis Villeneuve on the set of the film Arrival by Paramount Pictures

(L-R) Amy Adams and director, Denis Villeneuve on the set of the film Arrival by Paramount Pictures Photo credit: Jan Thijs

When production designer Patrice Vermette received a compliment that his work in Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival is unlike that in any other in previous science-fiction films, his response was cavalier. “That was the whole point,” he stated. “I’m excited that people are appreciating that — I’m overwhelmed by this.”

In fact, few on Arrival’s crew, including Villeneuve himself, had ever worked on a film in this genre. “That was the mission,” said Vermette. “Our producers, when they hired Denis and me, they knew we had never done a sci-fi movie. We were all excited to change a short story; we need to do this. What’s the angle? It was super challenging and super fun to do, especially with a guy like Denis, the driving engine.”

When he first read the script and started discussing the project with Villeneuve, Vermette began his usual process in deciding upon a direction and approach to Arrival. “When I read a script, after reading the last page, it’s really fresh in my mind,” he revealed. “I start collecting pictures in my mind – strictly an emotional response to the script. It was [Villeneuve and my] fourth film together. We both knew we wanted to do something different.”

In his research, Vermette watched many previous science-fiction films. “I realized that since 2001, a lot of the space ship designs and alien language in movies was very similar,” he expressed. “Some examples were totally different – Tron, Dune, Under the Skin. It showed us that it was so out there that we were allowed to be different.”

One of Vermette‘s key amendments to Arrival’s script was the realization of the alien spacecraft itself. “In the script, it’s a sphere, but we wanted to do away from the sphere although it made sense,” he said. “There was a movie The Day The Earth Stood Still with a sphere; we wanted to stay away from that. Denis saw pictures from NASA with an oval. Denis also wanted it to be vertical. We wanted to do that – a different aspect ratio.”

Additionally, with regards to the craft itself, Vermette and Villeneuve also considered the landing zone for the spaceship, and they did not want the aliens to land next to the Eiffel Tower or the White House as in many sci-fi films. “It was a matter of fact approach,” Vermette explained. “We had that oval shape, and we decided not to [add] any engines, antennas. The oval could be more aesthetically interesting. I put a concave side to it. I still continued to try different things, but the oval came back. We did Photoshops in possible landing sites; we liked that shape very much. We then decided that the ship would not land. The aliens would have travelled all the way through the universe and stop 28 feet from the earth and be in balance. Very imposing in the landscape; very intriguing. The humans would need to put the extra effort in going to that ship.”

Vermette also decided to implement very modest human technology in the film compared to the sophisticated alien technology. “The scientists and the military go inside using a scissor lift,” he said, delineating that the key crew on Arrival were involved in an impending production choice. “Then the fact that it was vertical created a problem to us. In the script, they are walking in a long corridor to the interview room. Now, we were in a vertical shaft – like a well. We looked at each other – there’s a gravity shift – the last leap of faith for human beings to have that encounter. We built three different sets just to create that gravity shift.”

(L-R) Director, Denis Villeneuve and production designer, Patrice Vermette on the set of the film Arrival by Paramount Pictures

(L-R) Director, Denis Villeneuve and production designer, Patrice Vermette on the set of the film Arrival by Paramount Pictures Photo credit: Jan Thijs

For the interior of the craft, shot on stage in Montreal, Vermette continued the vertical orientation. “We wanted to do something very simple inside – no gadgets, buttons, steering wheel,” he said. “We should carry the same texture throughout – sediment rocks, semi-polished rock.  It represented the history and wisdom of that very ancient civilization. Then, when we get into the interview room, it needed to be very peaceful.”

Another aspect to Vermette’s designs was to convey a relationship between the visiting aliens and the background of the lead character, Louise, played by Amy Adams. “To show that very subtly,” Vermette related. “Every location is about her world—we wanted to make it remind ourselves of the interior of the ship. The interview room is like a classroom— they teach each other languages. When she walks in the corridor of the university, you see those lines in the walls in the concrete just like the sediment rocks in the ships; that’s a visual cue.”

Then, in the university sequences, the same lines appear. “In her classroom, there’s a white board, a piece of glass, like in the [alien] interview room,” Vermette said. “The interview room reflects the classroom. The other place is her house; we repeated that same idea. There’s a big window that leads to a hazy lake. When we are first introduced to her house, there’s a pan from the ceiling to the window. In the ceiling, you see those lines. We wanted to create that link between the aliens and Louise.”

Somewhat subliminally, Vermette also introduced the concept circularity as a visual presence in the story. “The hospital where Louise’s daughter is born and where she dies is a circular corridor,” reflected Vermette. “The ballroom where she meets General Shang is also circular. We had a lot of fun doing that.”

To realize the written alien language, Vermette consulted with anthropologists and talked to many graphic designers, but he was still unsure how to represent that vital story point. “Every thing that came back was very human,” he said. “You need to be able to read it — our humanity evolved because we created the wheel. What if we did not create the wheel? We would have had a totally different evolution.”

As his wife is a painter, when Vermette was in pre-production, what he termed ‘soft prep,’ she sensed that her husband was puzzled and needed visual assistance. “I’ve been banging my head on the wall,” said the designer. “My wife had [created] 15 different logograms. I said – ‘this is it!’ I went to meet with Denis, [but] I didn’t want it to sound like I’m hiring my wife. ‘In two weeks, I’ll tell you who made them if you like them.’”

Villeneuve was impressed, so Vermette and graphic designer Aaron Morrison made the concept work pragmatically. “Louise deciphers the language in 12 parts,” he detailed. “We started isolating parts of the circular logograms [and] attributed the meanings to some of them—made a bank of ink blobs with the attribution of what they would mean. We did a bit of reverse engineering and made it work. We assembled them very carefully.”

Image of the set of the film Arrival by Paramount Pictures Photo credit: Jan Thijs

Image of the set of the film Arrival by Paramount Pictures
Photo credit: Jan Thijs

After designs were in place, Vermette spent January to September of 2015 on full pre-production and principal photography in Montreal. One location was six hours northeast of the city for scenes of the exterior campsite. For scenes at the lower portion of the alien ship, Vermette constructed a partial craft on a backlot: a 40-foot by 40-foot section of the ship was built with 24 feet of attached shaft. Then, in a warehouse in Montreal, Vermette created various aspects of the ship’s interior. “We built a 28-foot-tall shaft where we see them sideways as they elevate,” he said. “Then, we built a horizontal tunnel, 150-feet-long. We built that 85-foot by 75-foot interview room. Those sections had wild walls and 14-foot ceilings for the tunnel and interview chamber.”

Considering the mix of diverse design requirements on the project, for Vermette, the entirety of Arrival was a once-in-a-lifetime event. “I hope to live to have another experience like that,” he said.

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