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Contender – The Sound of Arrival


(L-R) Amy Adams as Louise Banks and Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly in Arrival by Paramount Pictures
(L-R) Amy Adams as Louise Banks and Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly in Arrival by Paramount Pictures Photo credit: Jan Thijs

For supervising sound editor Sylvain Bellemare and re-recording mixer Bernard Gariépy Strobl, the sound required for the ethereal science-fiction film Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, represented a wholly new challenge — to create an unprecedented world through audio. The pair worked on the post-production sound of the film in Montreal after key sound elements were developed in New Zealand. “David Whitehead and Michel Loeb in Wellington, New Zealand started before the Montreal team came,” said Bellemare. “They were a big part of the structure of the vocals of the aliens—they were made of the sound of camels, pigs, certain birds you find in New Zealand, and some flute that the Maori natives of New Zealand play. We did a lot of other stuff —production sound is teamwork. “

For the aforementioned team, their work on the film represented a four-month period. “Two-and-a-half months of sound editing and one-and-a-half months of sound mixing,” Strobl explained. “Denis wanted to do the work in Montreal. He started thinking of doing it in Los Angeles and eventually brought the sound to Montreal where the picture was being edited. It was a big rush for everybody.”

With a film as downplayed as Arrival, one of their biggest tasks in post-production audio was to get the sound tone of the film a perfect match to the visuals. “There was a very delicate line that we needed to stay on  – not make it noisy and very busy,” said Bellemare. “The film needed to stay emotional and focused on Louise [Amy Adams’ starring character]. There were a lot of different options that we could take. We had to prepare for the different options.”

In the story, after an alien ship arrives on earth, Louise, a linguistics expert who has lost a child, is summoned by military officials to help interpret the aliens’ written language. “The first time they go to the alien ship, it’s a delicate balance between the ship and presence — to feel this anxiety with a completely new and never seen before situation,” said Bellemare. “This needed to be created throughout the film and always getting enough emotion and enough presence of the whole army and aliens. To bring all of this together and keep the line of emotion as far as mixing was concerned. The main objective was to stay emotionally linked and have a sound that was very delicate and overpowering all the time.”

Sylvain Bellemare
Sylvain Bellemare

For the alien spacecraft, Strobl decided to take a different approach than that which had been used in previous sci-fi films. “To find original sound,” he said. “For example, the vessel the shell, sounds like a rock and [is] moving like a mountain, not like a vessel with an engine. We decided to redo every line with devices in a complex recording.” 

One of the approaches that Villeneuve wanted for the film was for the sound to remain decidedly natural to reflect Louise’s world – a normal human being’s life setting. “Even with the alien voice, there was a big effort not trying to sound electronic,” Bellemare divulged. “Trying something more organic — and grounded sound. With the communication devices, trying to create something more analog and natural sounding. In post-production, it’s hard to avoid going to the electronics. This was also one of the challenges – keep everything natural and out-of-world; an alien presence not that we know. Can I do a sound that never was really put forward before?”

(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

For the two-person team, which included a full sound crew of over 30, they soon realized they were onto a special project. “What was beautiful about Arrival, and this is why people are bonding to this film so much,” Bellemare revealed, “when you take what Louise is experiencing, it’s a film itself where someone is thinking of a child and whether or not we have a child that could be sick; there’s a lot of emotional presence in this. It was a beautiful blend of different kinds of films [with] sounds to carve in and out.”

While Bellemare began in 1992, eventually working as a sound designer and sound supervisor, Strobl started his work as a recordist in a mixing stage in 1995-96, both working in the small community in Montreal.  For the pair, Arrival served as a landmark in their full career experience. “Denis was open to anything as long as it works,” they conveyed together,  “as long as there’s feeling added to it. That was fascinating.”

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