Warning: There are some small spoilers ahead for “Arrival.”
“Arrival,” is the most acclaimed sci-fi spectacle of the year. The movie, which stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, follows the duo’s journey as they attempt to communicate with aliens who have landed on Earth. Their mission is to discover why 12 mysterious pods have cropped up across the planet and whether they’re an endangerment to mankind.
Linguist Louise Banks (Adams) has a breakthrough and is able to communicate with two of the aliens, playfully nicknamed Abbott and Costello, using an elaborate system. Throughout the film, the two aliens draw circular designs on a giant wall to communicate back and forth with both Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).
In a story that teaches that communication is key to thrive not only in a nation, but as a larger community across the world, it can be intimidating to come up with the perfect language to embody an entirely new species. An incredible amount of detail went into solving how the complex alien language was constructed and how it worked. The result became dozens of beautiful giant logograms that resemble coffee stains or inkblots.
It took several months to develop after the initial design was agreed upon. Production designer Patrice Vermette tells INSIDER the crew even put together a dictionary for reference.
“The dictionary is quite simple,” says Vermette. “We came up with about 100 different words, different expressions, different meanings, different concepts or sentences or words to present and communicate.”
One of the alien phrases seen in the movie — which puts the US and foreign governments at odds — is “offer weapon.”
Vermette says it wasn’t a cakewalk coming up with the final design. The journey of winding up with the language started by asking linguists and graphic designers on their opinions and design ideas, but the responses he and his wife, artist Martine Bertrand, received ultimately never winded up fruitful.
“We weren’t very satisfied because everything was always related to something that humans could identify to. We wanted that language to be surprising,” said Vermette. “It needs to be beautiful, but it also needs to be scary. We wanted the audience to be as surprised and mesmerised as Louise.”
After approaching various designers and linguists and coming up short, Vermette ultimately turned to his wife, Bertrand. He said everything he was coming up with was either mathematical or hieroglyphic, and they were all things humans could relate to. They didn’t incorporate that mysteriousness that he was looking for.
“One night I was at home with my wife having dinner. My wife said, ‘Would you mind if I tackled the problem tomorrow?’ And I said, ‘No, go ahead.'” Vermette says the next day when he came home, Bertrand had about 15 designs set out on the kitchen table. “‘Oh my God. I think you solved it. I think you solved the puzzle,'” Vermette recalled. “The next day, I went to the office and I showed all the different designs to [director] Denis [Villeneuve] and he went, ‘What is that? That’s exactly it!’ […] From there, the real development went underway.”
Vermette says coming up with the design was a “eureka” moment.
“We looked into ancient Asian language, Arabic language, tribes from Northern Africa,” he said. “It’s [all] part of our history. We can always relate to it. We wanted something totally different.”
Vermette says at one point he could actually write the logograms himself with his hand.
Through all of the designs that you’ll see in the film, Vermette says that there was one one design he described as especially beautiful that wasn’t used in the final film.
“It was ‘create life’ with a question [mark]. It was a thing that was dropped,” Vermette said. “But it was Jeremy Renner’s character writing that on the glass, the window in Louise’s house. That is there to reflect the big white wall in the [alien] ship.”
The symbol was to be used in a scene that was cut where Ian Donnelly (Renner) would have expressed to Louise that he wanted to have a child.
“Arrival” is now in theatres.
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