On Maxing Out the Avid Timeline, Sound Design for Aliens, and Identifying the Bits You Don't Need

Denis Villeneuve’s new film Arrival plays with language in myriad forms: literal, intellectual, oral, emotional, visual, spatial and spiritual. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner star as linguist Louise Banks and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, two civilian scientists enlisted by the U.S. military to make first contact with beings inside one of 12 alien vessels recently landed on earth. A heady, beautifully organic adaptation of science-fiction writer Ted Chiang’s devastating short story “Story of Your Life,” the film probes the challenges of cross-cultural communication as it quietly dismantles our own perceptions of narrative, memory and time. Just as we suspend reality in a movie theater, Arrival asks us to slip from time’s trusses by actively embracing those moments that let us live outside it. We talked with editor (and former composer) Joe Walker, ACE, who first worked with Villeneuve on Sicario and is completing Blade Runner 2049 with him for release next year, about how editorial, camera, visual effects and sound helped develop the syntax of that message on screen.

Caveat lector: This interview may contain SPOILERS.

Inside Ship Long Shot

StudioDaily: How did the film’s challenging multi-layered timelines influence your edit? Were you more structured in your approach, or less?

Joe Walker: That was actually the big appeal of the film for me, because it played straight into the editing superpower, which is time. And that was very freeing. The material shot at the lakeside that chronicles Louise’s relationship with her daughter, a lot of that had very intentional paces and beats, such as the “zero-sum game” moment. But most of it was very loose, so we could go anywhere. There was a wonderful freedom to fluidly work that material in once she takes her hazmat suit off and is in close contact with the heptapods. She starts having a series of flashes, and we increased the intensity of those moments, and were very free with what we used. It could be anything, which helped heightened the effect of her changing perceptions.

Cinematographer Bradford Young shot such beautiful, shallow-focus material. He has such an amazing color palette. I loved the fact that it was a kind of colliding of two very different worlds: this very nature-based, sherbet-colored world with the mother and daughter, and then the army base, with its cold light and massive technology, hundreds of laptops, monitors and screens. We also were very free with all the world news spots, which was just green-screen during filming, so the edit team had to figure it out with archives and writing and actual TV reports to build up a sense of the world but also to build to the crux where Louise realizes she has to contact the Chinese general. We had to really piece together the architecture of that.

The third freedom was in the scenes with the heptapod aliens. For the most part, the heptapod footage I had was a puppeteer wearing a green latex suit and holding a pole with a tennis ball attached to it by a string. There was lots of freedom to structuring those scenes in how long you hold a shot, how you tease the audience with these unknowable creatures and give our secrets away as gradually as possible while always keeping a few surprises in our pockets. Sometimes that kind of tremendous freedom can make my job harder, but sometimes a looser process can be the real joy of it.

Hazmat Human

Did you ever work yourself into a corner and how did you solve it?

There was one remarkable scene, which was a kind of complete save. And I don’t want this to come off as if I am undermining Eric Heisserer’s fantastic script. Editing is always the end of the conversation, isn’t it? The culmination of everything. [But] there was a long piece of narrative that Denis felt didn’t deliver what was hoped it would. But by taking it out we missed a crucial element, which was a scene inside of Louise’s bedroom in the barracks, where she’s visited, originally in the script, by Ian and Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitacker). They are probing her to admit that she is very distressed. In the original scene, they end up benching her to the sidelines. So together we all had a head-scratching time trying to figure out how it fit. We knew it articulated the idea that is the kernel to the whole film, which is that exposure to a language can rewire your brain. One of the great joys of working with a director a second time is you develop a level of trust, and Denis said, “Why don’t we just assemble the bits we need but not the bits we don’t?” We immediately said, well how the heck do we do that? If we do the normal reverse cut to Weber, we go down the rabbit hole of the two or three scenes we wanted to take out.

So instead, we just chopped these pieces together, delivering a magnificent accident. Louise was probing off-screen, originally with Forest Whitaker off-camera, and we just held the shot and then cut to a shot of a heptapod in the mist, instantly transforming it into a dream sequence. It solved so many things: it articulated this notion of rewiring the brain, and it got deeper inside the character’s mind so the audience can feel her discombobulation more fully. But she’s also dreaming of Ian, which helped become another platform in a smaller way to advance the romance, which develops later in the film. There were lots of little accidents like that, and I’ve learned over the years that sometimes you don’t know what the solution is, and the best thing you can hope for is an accident. That was a glorious one.

Heptapods Mist

The visual effects in this film look almost practical, with the elephant-and octopus-like heptapods in the mist, and the spaceships suspended midair like polished stones. Untrained eyes might not realize how many effects shots are in the film, and I heard as much walking out of the theater. Can you explain how Villeneuve and editorial, working with VFX, achieved this look?

I take that as a huge compliment! Denis had an approach on this film which really payed dividends. It began with the very shallow focus that he and Bradford chose for the characters. I think it was 1.9, so one side of their face is in focus and the other side is out. And that choice was always rooted in the central character. For example, you see Louise walking in the grasslands with her hair whipping in the breeze and in the background, out of focus, is this black, tomb-like egg [see top]. Of course, that drives VFX companies nuts! But they all did a marvelous job.

Hybride was wonderful with the heptapods. The typical trope of science fiction is you see every detail in the shot, and it’s all glistening and robotic. Denis wanted the opposite effect. So you could have seen the heptapods completely, in three dimensions and photoreal, but the choice was made that they would exist in some kind of mist. Indeed, they are very much like elephants in the mist, some strange texture that you gradually get to discover. His plan was always that the shells should land on an overcast Tuesday morning at 11 o’clock — just an ordinary day. And then, through Louise, you slowly enter another world. By the time I came on, it was such a heavily developed conceptual project [Screenwriter Eric Heisserer even embedded heptapod “nonlinear lopograms” in his drafts]. I remember, back when we were doing Sicario, hearing a phone conversation in the cutting room where Denis was saying to the concept artists, “Maybe we should think about not having any eyes.” I knew nothing about the project at the time, but I thought, this sounds wild!

Spaceship Long shot

Were all the VFX shops who worked on this local in Montreal?

Yes. Hybride, Framestore and Rodeo FX are all right there. Framestore came in very late in the game, actually. Our VFX supervisor, Louis Morin, quite literally said anything is possible, so very late in the process, even after the first audience previews sometime back in April, we changed a lot of stuff toward the end of the film, when Louise makes the call to the Chinese general as she meets him at a party. We thought it would be more tense if she doesn’t know what she’s doing as she goes to do it. So after all that tension, we really felt we needed some kind of scene showing the spaceships actually arriving. They were all peripheral and individual on television screens at that point. Framestore came in and showed us some really gorgeous natural phenomena, with aircraft and wind and cold air and how it moves and created these shots of the spaceships descending. We worked that in after lots of things had also shifted around, toward the end. There were 753 effects shots in total in the film.

Sicario composer Jóhann Jóhannsson scored the film — bookended by Max Richter’s haunting “On the Nature of Daylight” theme. Were you cutting with temp tracks or without sound at all?

We worked the same way that we did on Sicario. He sent us three tracks while we were assembling the film. One was that beautiful drone with the strange vocal noise, which you hear when you’re first approaching the shell. It has this lovely circular pattern, which I really like because it played into several concepts of circular time and circular language in the film. The drone is made out of hundreds of piano notes (Watch Deutsche Grammophon’s featurette on how Jóhannsson created that sound here.) That was the first piece he sent, and it just felt like shell music to us.

The next batch of music that arrived helped us structure a scene where Ian is inside the shell and trying to figure out its science, and we turned that into a montage. For the shots of the spaceships around the world, Jóhann gave us a track that has a kind of burbling, chirping vocal. So it was pretty clear straight away that he was on to a really good thing, and using strange, extended vocal techniques felt very, very appropriate to this film. Every track a winner from Jóhann as far as I’m concerned.

Adams in Ship

The rest of the sound design is also very organic.

In sound terms, Denis’ approach was always to make things as natural as possible. You won’t hear any synthesizers in this film, and there’s very little sound that’s been electronically generated. There’s a fantastic sound of wind, for example, that our supervising sound editor, Sylvain Bellemare, recorded in a far northern spot in upper Canada. It was edited, but not really treated in any huge way. He didn’t have to: it doesn’t sound like any other wind on earth! He used sounds of ice and rock when the airships move. Most of the other ambient sounds, in the army barracks and in the hazmat suits, were recorded too. He had this wonderful Heath Robinson box with all these tiny little speakers in it: car radio speakers and dictaphone speakers and phone speakers, so he could plug anything into one of them and rerecord it. It was a huge effort but it made the most authentic landscape of sound and helped drive home this feeling that you are inside Louise’s head. Building on the central ideas in the film, he wanted to show, through sound, how entering the ship would affect the sense of conveyed time. You can barely hear it, but there is interference on the radio transmissions layered into those scenes and it all helped to create a very special threshold inside that space.

Did you use any software or other tools in your suite differently while assembling this film?

For sure. In terms of the Avid, I was using all 24 video tracks for the first time in my life. We were stacking up versions and there were lots of little refinements to be made all the time in order to achieve what Denis was after. We started principal photography in early June 2015, and 53 weeks later we filmed that last shot of Louise’s hair flowing in the film. It was a long schlep, really. It was fun and enormously rewarding, but to give enough time for sound and VFX, you have to work that way.

Another way technology really helped me this time around was with the heptapod oral language. I wanted to get the alien language developed really early. The minute we arrived in Montreal at the beginning of the shoot I was telling Denis about District 9, which has such lovely bug language in it. So we hired Michelle Child and Dave Whitehead, a couple who do this in New Zealand. They’re the experts and we hired them really early on. It was helpful for a number of reasons. One, it helped dictate to a degree the pace of the scenes with the heptapods to allow enough time for things to happen. I didn’t want to rush those scenes. They were very delicate, and it’s a very big build to the point where you meet them. We are literally slowing time down in those moments to try to capture that dread and dislocation and build it with music. Then, when you get there, we tried to convey this idea with the rhythm of things that humans and heptapods are far adrift; it’s not question and answer, it’s more overlapping.

So Michelle and Dave developed this whole, fantastic physiognomy about how these heptapods would make sounds with their bodies. They delivered all those tracks and they were very sturdy. The tracks also helped the animators quite a bit when developing those subtle quirks and shivers and movements that visualized the sound. It was a joy hearing those sounds over and over again, too; I was almost addicted to it. When Louise has her hand on the glass and she sees a flash and reaches into a cotton blanket to touch her baby’s hand, there’s this beautifully deep, resonant lament, which is on the verge of being music. I remember Denis and I used to get a particular joy out of hearing that when we screened those scenes.

Alien Language

You’re in the depths of Blade Runner 2049 now, which I know you can’t talk about. Are you worried about delivering a sequel to the first film’s ardent fans?

Come October next year, we’ll probably print ourselves some T-shirts with targets on them (laughs). Seriously, I feel that Arrival‘s success is a pretty good indicator of the sci-fi community and fan base trusting Denis with this beloved object. I don’t have that much doubt. I think it’s going to be fantastic and a thrill to watch. I saw Blade Runner when I was young and hadn’t seen it since [until] screening it several times before working on the new film. It’s amazing how it’s more than just a film. Its style is integral and continues to reverberate. I tell people how, the day Denis got confirmed to direct it, we went out to a comedy bar in L.A. and there was a girl sitting in front of us who was just the spitting image of Pris, Daryl Hannah’s sexy droid in the original. She was dressed like her and even had the exaggerated charcoal eye makeup. It was like Daryl Hannah 30 years on. I feel like those folks might be disappointed, but the new film is a great reformat of the original. But I’ll let you know if I’m in hiding when it comes out!