Sunday, November 19, 2017
  • Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016
"Arrival" Marks Departure From Conventional Sci-Fi Fare
VFX supervisor Louis Morin
VFX supervisor Louis Morin, production designer Patrice Vermette reflect on their collaborative relationship with director Denis Villeneuve

Arrival is one of 10 features to make the shortlist for the Best Visual Effects Oscar. If the film goes on to garner a VFX nomination, it would be the first for effects supervisor Louis Morin. Still, Morin is no stranger to industry recognition, having earned two VES Award nominations for Outstanding Supporting VFX in a Feature Motion Picture--the first coming in 2004 for director Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and then again in 2012 for Duncan Jones’ Source Code.

Arrival marks Morin’s second collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve. It also represents a return engagement for Morin with editor Joe Walker and production designer Patrice Vermette. They had all worked together previously on Villeneuve’s Sicario. Morin found the shared Sicario experience to have been gratifying and invaluable. “I feel like the effects on Sicario were truly seamless--that’s the goal I have, to make the effects so that no one notices we’ve done the work,” said Morin. “I simply want to make visual effects a storytelling tool for the director. Establishing a relationship with Denis on Sicario helped us to attain that for Arrival.”

Based on “Story of Your Life,” a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival depicts alien beings who bring spacecrafts to Earth, hovering slightly above the ground at sites throughout the globe. A team is assembled—which includes linguist Louise Banks (portrayed by Amy Adams), mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker)—to investigate and communicate with the other worldly lifeforms. Their visit to our planet sparks myriad thoughts and feelings, ranging from fear to optimism over their intentions. Arrival is a multi-faceted, intelligent, emotional form of science-fiction that touches the heart and mind, departing from the Hollywood norm, said Morin, in depicting alien lifeforms and telling otherworldly stories.

Morin assembled a lineup of studios to handle the ambitious visual effects, making Montreal-based Hybride the primary VFX house. He also tapped into the resources and talent at such shops as Framestore, Rodeo FX, Oblique FX, Folks VFX and MELS Studios. Morin is well versed in the studio landscape, including offerings in Canada. “Hybride was so eager to make this film,” he recalled. “They have a strong lead animator. I’ve known the house for fifteen years. I know when they commit to something, they won’t let go.”

Neither would Villeneuve who wanted a sense of realism, tapping into the audience’s imagination, said Morin, by not showing all that much of the CG aliens (who didn’t seem at all to be CG creations). Being somewhat restrained in the presentation of the alien characters reminded Morin of an iconic movie.  “It’s almost like Jaws where what you didn’t see heightened the feeling,” observed Morin. 

This in turn matched the mystery of the aliens’ language which is wildly different from that of human beings. Linguist Banks has to decode that language which centers on the aliens’ liquid ink-like discharge which takes the form of “logograms.”  Villeneuve wanted this language to have an organic feel--nothing that smacked of a CG look. Alien fingers seemingly throw a liquid ink into the air which travels like a mist to generate the circular logograms.

Morin added that Villeneuve specified that he didn’t want the alien creatures to fall into the cliche of being anthropomorphic. Body language was essential in conveying a sense of these extraterrestrial visitors.

Patrice Vermette
Production designer Patrice Vermette was a key contributor to helping realize Villeneuve’s vision of Arrival breaking free from sci-fi cliche and convention. “Before entering this project, I watched many sci-fi movies. Except for certain ones, there was always some variation of the same theme--marked by blinking lights and antennas,” observed Vermette. “Denis presented the challenge of creating something exciting and confronting the audience with something new. Both of us dedicated ourselves to creating strong images.”

Among those was the aforementioned alien language which Morin credited Vermette and the production designer’s wife, Martine Bertrand, with creating. The graphics-based language is one of the film’s stunning, indelible achievements. This was integral to the story as when the aliens first try to communicate with humanity, we don’t know what they are trying to convey. Rather these are graphics which the humans--both in the film and in the audience--viscerally feel. Patrice Vermette asked, “If you are in that interview chamber meeting these aliens for the first time, how would you react to one of them spitting ink at you? Is it a defense mechanism from the aliens? Whatever it is, it’s very strange, something we at first can’t decipher, can’t interpret. It’s multi-layered and sophisticated.”

Juxtaposed with that mysterious, seemingly advanced language, continued Vermette, is “Amy Adam’s world as a linguist. She has what amounts to a teacher’s blackboard--a whiteboard actually. The interview chamber is a classroom for her.”

Similarly, Vermette’s long-standing collaborative relationship with Villeneuve has been an invaluable learning experience, dating back to a couple of commercials they collaborated on, followed a couple years later by the features Enemy and then Prisoners, both released in 2013, and then continuing onto Sicario and Arrival. “Denis and I like the beauty of normality--and the strangeness of normality,” shared Vermette. “We like to analyze things a lot. It always sparks a creative process. I send him images and he sends me images--photography, art installation pieces, pictures that for other people would not mean anything. Sometimes it’s imagery just about light or texture. We emotionally react to those images and from there we start to create the aesthetic of the movie we’re working on. I remember these images helping me start out on Prisoners, for example.”

Relative to Arrival, among the inspiring images were those that Vermette and Villeneuve ran across in James Turrell exhibits. Turrell creates work that brings together art, science, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, archaeology and spirituality. “We saw his work about a year and a half before we started Sicario,” recalled Vermette. “Then later when we were starting on Arrival, Turrell’s work and the ideas it sparked came back to us.” 

Another motivation was personal, related Vermette who described Arrival as “a very intense and emotionally charged movie for me.” Shot in Montreal, Arrival had Vermette working at home during a year that his father had passed away. He said that his design was “influenced by that fact of life.” This is reflected for instance in the long vertical tunnel through which Adams’ and Renner’s characters defy gravity in order to get to the aliens in the spaceship which is suspended above terra firma. “The whole tunnel and its rock sediment layers represent in a sense the layers of history and wisdom of generations, the civilization of those aliens and their heritage passed from one generation to the next. Because of the script and the themes it entailed, I learned a lot about myself doing this movie.”

That learning curve may lead to the Oscar nominees’ circle. Vermette is no stranger to that select space, earning a Best Achievement in Art Direction Academy Award nod (shared with set decorator Maggie Gray) in 2010 for The Young Victoria directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Six year later Vermette garnered an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nomination for Sicario (shared with supervising art director Paul D. Kelly, art director Bjarne Sletteland, assistant art director Derek Jensen, graphic designer Aaron Morrison, set designer Ricardo Guillermo, storyboard artist Sam Hudecki, scenic artist Virginia Hopkins and set decorator Jan Pascale).

This is the eighth of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards. The Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

Credits for ScreenWork: 

DIRECTOR DENIS VILLENEUVE
SCREENPLAY BY ERIC HEISSERER 
BASED ON THE STORY “STORY OF YOUR LIFE” WRITTEN BY TED CHIANG
CINEMATOGRAPHER BRADFORD YOUNG, ASC
PRODUCTION DESIGNER PATRICE VERMETTE
KEY DECORATOR PAUL HOTTE
FILM EDITOR JOE WALKER, ACE
COSTUME DESIGN RENÉE APRIL
ORIGINAL SCORE JÓHANN JÓHANNSSON
SOUND MIXER CLAUDE LA HAYE
SUPERVISING RE-RECORDING MIXER BERNARD GARIÉPY STROBL
SUPERVISING SOUND EDITOR SYLVAIN BELLEMARE
HEAD OF MAKEUP DEPARTMENT COLLEEN QUINTON
MAKEUP ARTIST FOR MS. ADAMS AND MR. RENNER MORAG ROSS
VISUAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR LOUIS MORIN