How Moody Cinematography, Photoreal CG and a Time-Hopping Scenario Evoke a Day Like Any Other — Until the Aliens Land

Science-fiction movies about alien visitations aren't generally thought of as Oscar bait. But director Denis Villeneuve's SF film is a triumphant exploration of inner space, revealing over time the peculiar state of mind of its protagonist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), whose story is nowhere near as straightforward as it first seems. Co-stars Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker contribute to the subdued mood, but the tone is set by cinematographer Bradford Young's intimate, understated photography — neither bright and comic-book colorful nor drab or dreary, it suggests the narrative's focus on deciphering unclear messages, and the accompanying human struggle from darkness into light. Arrival earned no fewer than eight Oscar nominations this year, including nods in the key categories of Best Picture and Best Cinematography. 

Colorist Joe Gawler, senior colorist and partner at Harbor Picture Company in New York, shepherded Young's images through the DI process, grading the film on DaVinci Resolve in a 4K theater at Mels in Montreal. We asked him about putting the right accents on the image — without shifting the look from what Young locked down in camera — to tell the story of ordinary humans facing the extraordinary.

StudioDaily: What was the collaborative process like on Arrival?

Working with Denis [Villeneuve], Bradford [Young] and Joe Walker, a tremendously talented editor who was also involved in the color grade, was one of the most wonderful collaborative projects I've been involved with. Denis is the final voice as the director, but he was respectful of all of us. Of course, some projects are more collaborative than others. Sometimes you're just pushing buttons for someone else, but this was everyone bringing something creative to the table.


What ideas did the director share at the beginning of the process to influence your thinking about the overall look, and/or specific shots/scenes?

Denis said that, although it's a science fiction film, it should look like a boring Tuesday morning where nothing special is happening. That's part of what separates Arrival from other films with a science-fiction element. The look is a very average, normal day. Bringing Bradford Young's sensibilities to that, we walked away with something an audience really reacted to. Everything is organic, even the spaceship and the creatures. There are no blinking lights and buttons and video screens — they're so advanced that everything feels organic. Overall, the film has that signature Bradford Young low-contrast, underlit look, very much in the vein of how Harris Savides used to shoot. So throughout the whole film, we're maintaining this beautiful, understated aesthetic. And the contrast punches up once you're inside that spaceship. The walls of the corridor have a graphite type of look, and the contrast comes in the brightness of the space the aliens live in. 

Had you worked with Bradford Young before?

I've done most all of his movies. We have a shorthand with each other. For me, creatively, it's such a pleasure when we get to do something together. Some jobs are a challenge, and you're fighting the whole time with the look of the project. With Bradford, it's like jazz, playing off of each other. In pre-production, I went to the set and worked with him and helped develop a customized LUT he could monitor on set while lighting and shooting everything. That gave us a starting point, and we've done that on a number of projects. That first show LUT is like the basework of everything else that happens. So they went and shot the film, edited it, and then, months later, we got together again.

Bradford was having his second child, so the schedule was trickier. We got started on the DI probably earlier than the production would have liked, because we wanted to get time in, in case Bradford had to bolt because of his baby. We did a preliminary pass through an almost locked picture, with incomplete VFX. He and I had a few days to balance and vibe on some ideas, hoping that we'd be able to come back a couple of weeks later to finish the movie. And we were able to finish together, after he had his baby and was able to join me for a final week of color with finished picture and VFX.

It's fortunate that you had a history together that gave him confidence that you would know what to do with his work.

That's the argument for being able to collaborate with people whom you trust. If you're not going to be there [in the DI suite], it absolutely matters who your colorist is going to be. There's a level of trust that he has with me, and it's a beautiful thing. I've been with Brad since Pariah [2011], a small film that won best cinematography at Sundance that year, and each project since has gradually stepped up in scale, until we finally did this kind of big studio production with someone we were doing little indie films with.

So he was kind of guiding it by saying, this is not a special day. Aliens just happen to land on this day. We always kept that in mind, and I think it really comes through in the film. He was very much weighing in on all of the VFX. They had been spending months with Louis Morin, the VFX supervisor, who did an amazing job. All that stuff in the chamber is really complicated, and it turned out great. We had to play off one another once we were in the final grade. Bradford was weighing in on his vision for how this should look, and there was some back and forth. We wanted to see the aliens, but not really get a clear impression of them until later. In the final color grade, there were moments where we would dodge and burn certain parts of the frame to maintain the mystery. Other moments, we would send it back to the VFX vendor to add some more atmosphere — or take away atmosphere. So it was definitely a collaboration with the VFX supervisor, Bradford, Denis and myself to make sure we got the reveal timed properly.


Were you confident the whole time that the finished film would have the consistent photorealism required, even though those VFX shots were being finished over time?

Working with Louis, there were enough shots that were spot-on, photoreal and beautiful, that we knew the stragglers would fall into place as well. With the DI schedule as it was, you just knew where you needed to be spending your time and what things you needed to put off until later. "OK, the chamber of the aliens is 80 percent complete today. Let's work on a couple of key frames and move on to the rest of the film, even though we know we'll have to come back to this." There were a couple of things with the aliens that had to wait until the very end, when the final VFX were in.

On a lot of films these days, you get started on the DI while there are still a lot of moving parts in the conform and VFX. It's not unusual for me to grade a film with incomplete VFX throughout, then put it on the shelf for a few weeks until the final VFX come in. It was the same with Arrival. We did a pass on the film before Brad's baby was born and felt really good about what we had done. We put it on the shelf for a few weeks, then went back to see our work with fresh eyes. We knew we had a couple of holes we needed to fill in, but we also needed to revisit decisions we had made previously, to add some nuance. That's the way I prefer to work, so you're not locked into the one moment in that week or two you had to work on the film before it was gone out into the world. It was Mike Jackman, who heads up post at FilmNation, who made sure Brad and I got the time we needed to do the process properly.


I was struck by the fact that so many objects in the film had such texture. The walls of the alien vessel and the elephant-like bodies of the alien creatures were almost tactile, like you wanted to reach up and touch them on screen, to see what they would feel like. Can you comment on that aspect of the imagery?

It goes back to Bradford's aesthetic — he's showing you just enough so there's some mystery there as well. You're not quite sure what you're looking at, because the underexposure keeps you guessing to a certain point. With Bradford's style of shooting, there' not a lot of wiggle room [in the DI]. He bakes it in. What we're doing is nuanced work on top of a perfectly exposed, elegant image.

Can you give an example of those nuances?

Certainly at the entry into the ship, there's a lot of windowing and shaping of the corners of the frame to keep it mysterious. So much of that sequence had CG elements, so we had to help pull them into the more underlit, mysterious world and the parts that were more practically shot. So in the entrance to the ship, we're pulling down the corners of the frame, and when you're looking down to the outside of the ship, we had to drive the exterior up so it was a strong, almost blinding contrast. We spent a lot of time there, and we spent more time on some of the CG elements than we did some of the practically shot footage. 

And then all those memories and flashbacks, or flash-forwards — they play with time in this film — of Amy Adams with her daughter. Those were shot more handheld. When the little girl is at the water and playing with the stones and grass and flowers, we really pushed the color of those elements, contrary to the other parts of the story. The lensing and everything was such that you felt a different world when she was with her young daughter. We were glowing parts of the film and giving it a dreamy look.

Those scenes were interesting, because they feel like a cliché — just a way to deliver a character's backstory in flashback mode — but toward the end of the film, you realize that the scenes weren't what they seemed to be, and that the filmmakers were being a lot smarter than you thought they were.

I haven't been in a film like this in a long time. When I finally saw it with an audience in the theater, when I turned around and looked there were little pockets of people staying until the lights came up in the theater, and they were talking about what they had just seen. It sparked a conversation. And then, in the parking lot, there were still people talking, outside their cars, about the movie. And I remember thinking, "Denis did something really special here. This movie might have some legs."

It definitely has a different effect on viewers from what you'd expect if you just knew the general concept of an alien visitation story. And what Young did visually, and the nuances you added in the DI, are a big part of what people take away from it.

What I brought to the table, and the general approach that Brad and I both have, was that we wanted people to walk away feeling, "Wow, that was a very beautiful movie." I don't want people to have that industry-type feeling, saying, "Wow, that was a great DI." I like more of a natural feel. Brad and I worked really hard to give you something beautiful and natural that doesn't call attention to the work. Sometimes you see a movie and you just kind of feel this layer was applied on top of what was photographed, and Bradford's work doesn't need that layer on top of it. If he shoots a dark movie, he doesn't need me to add another layer of dark and moody. Some movies you see, you can tell that every eye is tracked and rotoscoped in the DI. It creates a distance for you. If everything's perfect, it creates a cold distance relative to the characters.


Speaking of everything being perfect, I wanted to ask you about that fantastic shot of the alien spaceship having landed in the valley as these weird low cloud formations roll in over the landscape. I understand that was all actually captured in camera, rather than generated as VFX elements. Is that true?

We all joked about it, saying, "Nobody's going to believe that this really happened." But the only CG in that shot was the ship and the little base camp the helicopter flies around. It might become an iconic shot. It's beautiful and perfect. Not only is it real, but Bradford was telling me they weren't planning for that — they weren't expecting the clouds to roll in. So they said, "OK, the movie gods are looking down on us right now with favor." It's just breathtaking and stunning. It did inform some CG mist and cloud work later on in the base camp. When they're driving up to the ship the first time, leaving their little trucks, Denise and Louis Morin had to create more of that cloud-like atmosphere in the distance.

But that's our approach. We've shot something beautiful. We don't need to put a hat on a hat. We don't need to call attention to the beauty. We could have taken that shot and hyped it up and made it magical and surreal. But that would go against the grain of Denis' idea of the film. 

Last question — what's next for you?

The film i'm doing now is also with Louis Morin. I'm doing the next Todd Haynes film, Wonderstruck. It's being shot on 35mm color, 35mm black-and-white and Alexa, all mixed together, by Ed Lachman. It's a kids' movie, but it's dramatic. It's Todd's own approach that he's bringing to this film. Just as Arrival is a thinking man's sci fi film, Wonderstruck is a kids' film that doesn't insult the intelligence of children.