Louise [Amy Adams] and physicist Ian Donnelly [Jeremy Renner] will try to communicate with the Aliens through the large interior window through which the Aliens appear in a mist, the setting reminiscent of Louise’s home. The striated inner structure, which represents layers of wisdom and mystery, echoes the lines of the ceiling of her home...
Louise's [Amy Adams] and Ian’s [Jeremy Renner] offices are translucent vinyl-walled structures set up within the Cryptology and Science tents, the window aspect again underlining the openness to communication...
The large digital screen visually ties in with Louise’s university classroom where she utilizes a huge whiteboard and a similar digital screen. It also ties to the Alien spacecraft window...and her windows at home...
Forest Whitaker, who plays Colonel Weber, here with Amy Adams, says... “This film dealt with the concept of whether time exists and if time is cyclical...and it’s about communication itself and the importance of communication in order to not have conflict...”
Set Decorator Paul Hotte SDSA says, “The white interiors were not only an aesthetics choice, but also a technical one. Configuration of the encampment was that all was interconnected, a world within a world...
Hotte points out, “The way the shots were set and not being over-exposed, it was often all in silhouette contour. Furniture played an important role but stayed low profile. We did a little exercise of style, but with careful editing.”
“The office area near the entrance, allows her to be surrounded by tangibles: books, paperwork, artifacts, paintings...Mayan, Hindu and Mexican pieces of fabric and pottery, small sculptures, archival books,” Hotte shares. “This area is much more disorderly and filled than the rest of the house...”
When twelve mysterious spacecraft arrive across the globe and hover just above ground, an elite team, led by expert linguist Louise Banks [Amy Adams] and physicist Ian Donnelly [Jeremy Renner], is brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, the team races against time for answers. To find them, Banks will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly all of humanity.
The depiction of alien beings and their spacecraft has been the focus of much of the coverage of the extraordinary film ARRIVAL, a nominee for the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, what makes this “thinking person’s sci-fi” believable—what anchors it and makes it more creditable—is the clarity of the depiction of the human world with which the aliens are trying to communicate.
“Coming from the documentary world, I feel that there's nothing more impressive than reality,” says Director Denis Villeneuve, nominated for Best Director. “And very often reality is ahead of your imagination. We tried to stay as close as possible to reality to try to create dirty sci-fi: sci-fi that’s based on reality and that’s unimpressive in some ways.”
“I don't like green screens. I wanted to create physical experiences for the actors as much as possible,” the director points out about some of the challenges he gave his Oscar-nominated production design duo, Production Designer Patrice Vermette and Set Decorator Paul Hotte SDSA, who worked closely with also-nominated Cinematographer Bradford Young ASC, Director of Photography. Villeneuve says. “I don't like the actors to be in contact with something that doesn't exist, I like them to be surrounded by something real.”
SET DECOR spoke with Hotte about the very real human spaces he, Vermette and their teams provided...
SET DECOR: How did you approach this project?
Set Decorator Paul Hotte SDSA: First and foremost, I have to say, if I’ve done the film ARRIVAL, it’s because of Jan Pascale, Set Decorator, SDSA. She called to propose that we work together, which we did years ago on THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES. I said, “Yes, anytime Mme.” For reason of budget restrictions, she stayed home and I got the full job. The challenge was even bigger for me because I had to stand up to her standard.
That’s the way it’s started for me. It was a first time with Denis and Patrice. These two fellows are easy going, organic and organization-flexible.
[Editor’s note: Villeneuve and Vermette are longtime collaborators who did the film SICARIO with Pascale as the Set Decorator, and indeed had asked her to work with them on this film as well. She introduced them to Hotte.]
I had two weeks before any teammates started. This gave me time to share with Patrice views on the overall aspect of the set dressing. Research started, with the help of Jennifer Bydwell, Product Placement & Research, on the US military intervention around the world in situations like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and Ebola outbreaks.
Because the encampment sets—interior and exterior—were major on this show, Patrice, Supervising Art Director Isabelle Guay and I focused first on determining the numbers of tents needed for use on stage. It was decided to purchase all of the tents because modifications had to be done and they were to be used on location as well, and for long term it was less expensive. With Art Director Robert Parle, we found a US Military Surplus specializing in used and refurbished tents. An added plus was that it was on the East coast, which facilitated transport since we were filming in the Montreal area.
We first set up a 60’ long tent, Alaska Type, for the Operational Command & Control Center to show Denis. It came with a white interior lining, which unfortunately not all of the tents had. Talking over with DP Bradford Young, Denis and Patrice, we agreed to do all of the tents with white interiors, including the vestibules.
It was not only an aesthetics choice, but also a technical one. Configuration of the encampment was that all was interconnected, a world within a world.
Two seamstresses worked for several weeks sewing and cutting the interior lining for all of the tents, with everything having Velcro to make it easily removable.
I remember Denis mentioning in a meeting that this movie wasn’t about the military, without diminishing the aspect of it at the same time. There were no reasons to see or have weapons. It was all about communication, about facing someone or something new without any reference.
So we created a base camp without a heavy imprint of weapons. All of the equipment from the army surplus came with military transit storage cases of different sizes, so they had a double function as both transport and set elements. The military interior dressing came from Vancouver and was all rented.
We purchased, with other items, something like 190 fluorescent light tubes that were modified to LED lighting, as per request of the DP, in order to be more controllable sources on individual dimmers. Light was generally quite low in these tents, thus computer screens became a source as well.
Product placement came up with 120 computer screens/key boards/phones mainly to be seen in the Command Center and the Skype tent, which was run by the CIA. Computer set up and installation was done with Zed Axis Productions, based in Montreal. They supplied cables, wires, servers and printers. All were practical, thus they generated some of the visuals onscreen. We had two big retro projection screens in both of these tents.
For Patrice and me, it was important to feel the emergency of the situation. You sense it when Louise and Ian are first introduced to the Command Center, going through the vestibule of the Science tent, the camera following them in an accelerated pace.
SET DECOR: It IS very realistic...
Hotte: Reality is unimpressive, but effective, and impressive once you were inside. Military consultant James Dever was more than helpful in helping us determine what would be the actuality of each area. When he joined us later on the show and saw these interiors, nothing had to be moved—it was all there.
The reality includes exposed connectors. There are no hidden wires in this film. You see the nest of network cables, AC vent units, high tech versus low tech, all hanging from the wall, even cable feeds from all departments. Cases of all sorts, folding tables and chairs, everything is compact and practical, no personal stuff.
We worked with graphic designers Carl Lessard in Montreal and Aaron Morisson in Toronto. They and their teams generated a great number of visual documents:
· All the logograms language on computer screens
· Variable sizes of laminated topographic maps
· Info on dry eraser boards
· Binder spines
· Specific documents related to military analysis in emergency situation.
· Working station identification
· Magnetic world map
· Satellite observation images
· Even the black folding chairs, an ID stencil was made for all of those
· Same thing for exterior transit cases and containers, they all had their own ID numbers...
Props hired a young engineer, Eric Yelemanov, specializing in computational mathematics. They got him working on software programs such as Mathematica-Baudline phonetic analysis from Mat Lab, and he assembled all of this information either for computer screens or transcript equation for boards and paperwork for the Crypto and Science tents.
In order for Louise and Ian’s office to be near both of those, art direction added an aluminum structure to enlarge this section, so they could each have their working spaces. All of this was in translucent clear vinyl to give the impression of two aquariums-offices. These tents were long and wide, adding transparency. With that and the white lining, you sense more depth of field, you weren’t confined in a corner.
SET DECOR: And then there’s the whole structure of the Decontamination tent...
Hotte: We were working from a concept similar to Tic-Tac-Toe for the Decontamination Center. From outside, you came into a yellow tent and were watered/hosed off. You then would open a door connecting to an SAA—Satellite Accumulation Area—where vaporizing takes place. You leave the SAA, entering the Cleanroom, where you step out of the exposed Hazmat suit, which is left hanging on hooks. To finish, you go through translucent slats, enter the tent section and take off the rest of the gear. Voilà.
The Decontamination tent came from a supplier in Montreal, and Art Direction built the SAAs and floor. A lab company in Montreal manufactured the Cleanroom in translucent vinyl on an aluminum structure.
SET DECOR: The base camp exterior was a large location...
Hotte: Yes! While finishing filming on the stages and on location for other sets, we prepared ourselves for the exterior encampment. With Set Decorators Daniel Hamelin and Frederic Berthiaume both working on research and dressing these tents, we planned our departure according to the shooting schedule on stage—quite a choreography.
During that time, our location department found this amazing valley near Rimouski in eastern Quebec. I think that Denis had to reset his mind because it had nothing to do with his first inspiration, which he had tremendously archived. This was a piece of land environmentally protected, owned and operated as a family business by Carol Roy. You couldn’t have found better a man for this set up—nothing stopped him. He was generous of his time and offered resources of all kinds.
Art Direction preceded us for measurement and implantation of the encampment...and the opening of roads—mustn’t forget these were open fields. And the Greens department, it was outstanding how they shaped the field creating natural paths and more.
It was a big set to cover, space and dressing wise, and a big chunk of logistics. We had restrictions for using heavy machinery in the field and it was a very windy environment. With the owner’s help, we found local manpower who were reliable and hard working people. Even so, it took us 4 weeks to put the base camp together.
Figure what it takes to bring to life a Military Base Camp in a wild field: tents, prefab houses, containers, radar equipment, satellite dishes, antennas, portable toilets, water tower. We brought the essentials, always having in mind reality. It turned out to be a great adventure.
When Denis saw the set a day before shooting, he was agreeably surprised, so he added more shots to his list.
We loved filming there—we had our little houses nested near the shore of the St. Lawrence River which we’d go home to at the end of the day and watch the sunset over the river. Ouf!
SET DECOR: And then for Louise’s world, particularly the beautiful, almost mystical serenity of her house on the lake...
Hotte: The first thing I asked for at the beginning of research was to have a linguistic consultant. Amazingly, Jessica Coon from McGill University had read the short story when in high school and it’s part of what got her interested in linguistics. She has done extensive fieldwork on Mayan languages.
Meeting Jessica and seeing her world inspired me for Louise’s environmental space for both at home and at the university. I saw in Louise someone who had traveled extensively and, more importantly, was open-minded.
The choice of the house was very important for Denis and Patrice.
They wanted wide views, open spaces—maybe interconnecting with a spacecraft! With Patrice’s help, our location department found this beautiful house in Vaudreuil-sur-le-Lac, Quebec, designed by Canadian architect Roger D’Astous and built in the early ‘70s. Patrice knew about this architect and the house corresponded to what they were looking for. It had style, but the exercise for us was not to over style it.
From the inside, we were looking at the lake through 10’x20’ panel windows that later on related visually with exterior shoots at the university and her classroom, and eventually connected with the Alien’s interview chamber, a similar rectangular shape. When you were looking at the lake, it had a magnifying feeling, like looking at infinity.
The way the shots were set and not being over-exposed, it was often all in silhouette contour. Furniture played an important role but stayed low profile.
For the exterior, the Greens department gave a little love to the surrounding areas. Art Direction changed the front door, covered the driveway with gravel and other minor changes. It was important to keep in mind that there shouldn’t be any time reference for this house.
From the paneled window wall in the front, with the wooden door set into it, one could see through the house. Everything was on the same floor, except for Louise’s daughter Anna’s bedroom on the second floor. The entrance vestibule created the partial wall of Louise’s office. Two steps up is the living/dining room with a stone fireplace wall, and on the far right side is Louise’s bedroom.
With Set Decorators Marie Soleil Denommé and André Valade, we took out all of the existing furniture except for a glass dining table. The goal to achieve was to feel that she’s an open-minded person. By her profession, she learned about human beings by listening to and observing them. In her office area, she was more surrounded by books, art, smalls from all over.
The interior wasn’t over-dressed by furniture. We had a sofa, a reading chair, a dining table & chairs, bookshelves for sound system and her office. We did a little exercise of style, but with careful editing. We kept the opening of the room so you could move around easily. The palette was in the tones of natural wicker. The floor was dark brown cork. We used natural cotton color for the sofa, natural linen curtains for all of the windows, and assured there was no high contrast. Only the reading chair! It had to be that particular one: aqua-green, mint condition.
All paintings were from local artists including Patrice’s wife, Martine, who also came up with the design concept of the Aliens’ circular written language. Pictures of Patrice’s father were among the smalls, which added to the personalization of the home.
Louise had two different spaces to work at home:
...The clear glass dining table, where she would spread out her papers, contemplate the lake and escape...
...or her office area near the entrance, where she would be surrounded by books, paperwork, artifacts, paintings...Mayan, Hindu and Mexican pieces of fabric and pottery, small sculptures, archival books. André found an amazing bookcase that integrated perfectly to the space. This area was much more disorderly and filled than the rest of the house.
The only bright color of the movie was in Louise’s bedroom: the tribal symbols quilt that hung over her bed. But here again was the importance of the windows, with the same soft linen curtains, except we added wood blinds to control light source from outside. And again, nothing over exposed, all in silhouette contours.
Louise’s office at the university had floor to ceiling bookshelves that we filled with books keyed to linguistics and occasional artifacts. We had some cues from Jessica for paperwork, annotation on chalkboard. And we added some tribal elements, all referring to types of human communication. I’m leaving all of what is symbolism, logograms, creative language to Patrice.
SET DECOR: He has covered it beautifully and in great detail in several interviews. One of the highlights he has shared is the theme of circularity: “Time is nonlinear in ARRIVAL, there is neither beginning nor end.” And he mentions the hospital that figures so importantly in Louise’s life and her daughter’s life, with its circular architecture and corridors: “The curved shape echoing the circle of life gave extra strength to the symbolism of the movie...”
Hotte: Yes, we had subtle references to this throughout, but again kept it edited back, just enough to quietly underline, not be obvious. I’ll let him explain the window and straight-line analogies:
“The whiteboard in her classroom reflects a similar one used in the main interview chamber of the ship, as well as the large horizontal window that opens up to a hazy lake found in her mid-century modern house location. Louise is far closer to the aliens than she would think at first.”
SET DECOR: Along with these moving messages, what was your takeaway from this film?
Hotte: The trust that Denis and Patrice had for all of us. There were no deeply mandated expectations, it was a regrouping of ideas to make it one—they lived the open mindedness and communication that is the heart of the film’s message.
I would especially want to thank them and my teammates for this great adventure...
Set Decorators: Daniel Hamelin, Marie-Soleil Denommé, Frédéric Berthiaume, André Valade
Asst. Set Decorator: Myriam Bélanger
Set Dressers: Louis Frédéric Denommé, Marco Lavallée, Jocelyn Charbonneau, Marc-André Jalbert, Vincent Morin Gagnon, Luc-Eric Duhamel, Luc Houle, Sébastien Gervais
From St Fabien sur Mer: André Bellerose, Alain Gagnier
On Set Dresser: Daniel Carpentier