Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is almost an anti-alien invasion film. It’s subtle and purposeful use of visual effects was orchestrated by vfx supe Louis Morin, who enlisted vendors including Hybride, Oblique FX, Rodeo FX, Framestore, Raynault VFX, Folks FX and Alchemy FX to render everything from odd-shaped spacecraft to even odder-shaped aliens. In this interview with vfxblog, Morin discusses the invisible nature of the effects work and some of the harder shots to pull off.
— SPOILER WARNING —
vfxblog: Arrival is a sci-fi film but it doesn’t feel like a visual effects film. Can you talk about your philosophy for the visual effects for the film to start off with?
Louis Morin: Well, let’s start with Denis, because I think he’s the master of the style of this film. Because he wanted nothing to do with any kind of sci-fi movie that we’ve been seeing recently from Hollywood. His reference was Jonathan Glazer’s film Under the Skin. Like the way they shot with a camera with non-actors, he said he just wanted this movie to feel so real and so boring in so many ways, like, ordinary looking. I remember we were cutting the movie, we spent a lot of time finessing the story in the edit, and we were in Montréal in February, minus fifteen or twenty outside with a cloudy day, no color – he said, ‘That’s what I want’.
He wanted a film that felt real and didn’t want the effects to be overwhelming the story. When we first started shooting, as far as the aliens went, Denis said just like Jaws we don’t see the shark for a very long time, and that’s the way I want to play with the aliens. I want them to be mysterious, I don’t want to see them, you know. And that was difficult for me because I have to do those CG aliens. I need detail, you know? I understand that he wanted them, first in fog and I was playing with mist, and I wanted to put them in murky water but we did several tests and ended up using the mist to make it very mysterious.
And he wanted all the feel of it very white, so at some point he looked at the white screen and he said that’s what I want. I said we can’t do that. I have to give you depth, I have to give you range of that mist. And so we had to work really hard to play with this, to give him the range. They were really white in the offline and when it gets to the eye, well, you had the range, and what we see in the final movie is many, many months of work, working with that. And they also work with the mist in the depth compositing so we could play with positioning of aliens.
vfxblog: Since we’re talking about the aliens – the heptapods – and although they are hidden to some degree, what were some of the design and animation challenges for them?
Louis Morin: They tried to find something that was never seen, that was out of the ordinary, that nobody could really relate to, that had no anthropomorphic relation. So it had to be something totally alien and different from whatever we’ve seen. The other element important in the story was the gravity. The aliens were in this space, – they’re seen through a cinema screen, basically, that protects the humans to the alien atmosphere. And outside in this atmosphere the gravity is different. So there’s a big reveal towards the end of the movie to see what the alien is, because for most of the first part you think it’s looks almost like a spider, and then in the reveal you see that it’s much more than that. We based our texture on whales, a mixture of whales and octopus and like an elephant. We wanted like them to feel old.
vfxblog: What about the spacecraft – tell me about some of the initial designs and challenges for those.
Louis Morin: As far as spaceships, they had to be like a whole piece of rock that travels through the universe for so many thousands of years, so you wanted that feel from them. You wanted the black ship, basically it’s an ovoid shape cut in half. And we worked with the art department and production designer Patrice Vermette, to come up with samples of the look of the texture of it and the shape. It’s basically a spaceship, but on a vertical shape and is over two thousand five hundred feet of height. And what’s interesting is that they’re not really moving. The spaceship is pretty much static for most of the movie except towards the end where there’s some minor rotation for storytelling purposes.
vfxblog: How tricky was a spacecraft with that kind of surface to realize realistically?
Louis Morin: Getting material that is black into an environment is kind of a challenge. The way we work, as we always do, involves HDR imaging in the location. So the CG artist has the exact light of the environment where they have to put the spaceship. We worked more on a dark gray look so that, again to give range to the eye, and I guess they went for something that’s a bit more on the dark side.
vfxblog: During shooting, was there any need to have any kind of stand-in something for the ships in different scenes?
Louis Morin: It was impossible because of the size of the spaceship, but as always on a movie like this what you do is previs. I would basically be doing the scouts where I get all kinds of pictures and measurements, and based on that we did some previs slash techvis. So I had kind of a library of different lenses and angles. I was thinking we could have the real spaceship live within a playback in the camera, but the philosophy of the shoot didn’t work for that. So my strategy was more to give them total freedom on set, just telling them, okay if you frame like this, this is the kind of spaceship you’re gonna get. You can always cheat a bit in size and relationship or better framing, but in general what I had as references worked really well for framing the spaceship into any kind of shots we had to do.
vfxblog: What about the alien language? How did you approach that sort of smoky, misty lettering that’s used?
Louis Morin: The design was done by Patrice Vermette. I think it was done by his wife who is an artist, and basically they played on ink and made those circular lines for these ‘logograms’. And this had to be designed because like they were interacting and working on set with those logograms printed on paper.
As far as doing them for the aliens, there were early discussions of using dust particles, but in my mind I waned to go liquid with this. The difficult thing was to get that feel of liquid that remains in movement constantly. Even though the logogram is fixed there’s still organic movement. I wanted this to feel really, really organic looking – nothing CG looking. It had to be integrated in mist, had to travel through mist. And the difficulty also was because we had a hand logogram design to try to get away from what we call the re-targeting. Because the ink is going to a destination and the form of the destination’s already decided, so we have to play with this to make it feel really organic and moving. And I think we achieved something that’s pretty nice looking and that goes with the story that doesn’t feel like an effect.
vfxblog: There’s a scene where Amy Adams’ character becomes immersed with the aliens and begins to understand what’s happening. What were the visual effects elements here?
Louis Morin: What Denis wanted from the beginning was an environment to be like murky water, and then he said, well what are we gonna do with the actor’s hair? I said we could do that in CG. So we didn’t keep the murky water idea, but we kept the floating hair thing. So basically Amy wears ‘CG hair’ during the sequence, and they were reacting as if they were like in a low-gravity kind of water environment.
vfxblog: The events are taking place around the world – what kind of vfx work did you need to do for cities and armies and military vessels?
Louis Morin: All the helicopters, all the tanks, everything that’s got to do with the army is CG. We also had a huge new ending to the film where there was a world conflict with China. We had mini-monitors inside the tent where they’re discussing with the other spaceship scientists because there’s twelve spaceships that have landed on Earth. And I was pushing them to say let’s go out of those monitors, let’s do some real shots. And so we did some various full-CG shots environments in different countries, in Sudan, China, and all the locations that were in the story. So we had like many shots like that full CG with some army material and spaceships interacting with them.
vfxblog: The spaceships end up disappearing. Can you talk about how that was done?
Louis Morin: That came in late on the project, and I had Framestore design the disappearance of the spaceship. Because the story is based on time where past, present, future is all circular, so there’s no beginning or end of a sentence. So the spaceship couldn’t just disappear or move out of space as we were used to seeing, instead we wanted them to disintegrate. I suggested, what if we have this like material persistence, like trying to say the spaceship has disappeared but we still feel it’s there. And the guys came back with some ideas, they showed us some airplanes with condensation that would just appear on the wings of a plane almost magically. And this is a real physical element.
So we started with that, and to keep the scope and size of the spaceship we decided to make the disappearance, instead of having it just pop out in one frame, we had it last for a very long time and had this condensation going down the spaceship, and then the spaceships totally dissolve and just remaining are some dark particles that would have been on the spaceship. Which is really, really beautiful and really poetic and marks the end of the movie and the disappearance of the aliens.
All images and clips copyright 2016 Paramount Pictures.