Creating the Alien Language of Arrival


With Oscar week in full swing, Nerd HQ got an inside look at the science behind Arrival and how the production designers created the mysterious alien language. For those unfamiliar, the alien language in Arrival begins with a black circle with loose tendrils and ink splotches that branch out from a solid ring. In the film, scientists figure out that the circles represent full statements, but the branches can be broken up into separate words. Amy Adams’ character ends up decoding and creating an index of these phrases in order to communicate with the aliens. Production Designer Patrice Vermette told a group of reporters at a news conference Friday (Feb. 10) at Paramount Studios about his experience on the film and how he conceived the language of Arrival.

On Reuniting With Denis Villeneuve

Denis and Vermette first worked together in the United States on the dark drama Prisoners in 2013, also collaborating on Sicario in 2015, “We’ve known each other for about twenty years and did commercials in the early 2000s together. We have similar sensibilities – we like the same type of aesthetic and do lots of research.” Patrice explained that signing on for Arrival was a no-brainer.

On Transitioning From Drama to Sci-Fi

“Being offered the opportunity to work on a sci-fi movie is not something that comes everyday, especially for a French-Canadian independent filmmaker.” Vermette said Arrival was a big risk for a producer to hire someone who has never done sci-fi, “It was a big leap of faith for [the studio].” Vermette said him and his team were initially excited for that chance, but ended up panicking, “we needed to deliver. It was a big challenge for us; we wanted to do something that had our own signature – so we did a lot of research.”
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On Creating the Aliens

Vermette started his research by looking at sci-fi movies from the 50s and 60s and ended up finding a human resonance in those movies, “2001: A Space Odyssey set the bar for what spaceships should look like – and Denis and I knew we wanted to go a different route…we wanted our aliens to be very alien to our civilization. We had a total creative license because nobody’s ever met any aliens: that was liberating to realize for us.”

On Creating the Language

Vermette did research with anthropologists, linguists, designers, and codemakers, looking at languages from all around the world, studying the evolution of human beings and language. Vermette explained, “We wanted to have something that was aesthetically pleasing – something that we could not know at first if it is a language or not. We heard their sound, we saw what they look like, then ink is suddenly thrown at you like a squid – and ink is a defense mechanism for a squid. When we were beginning the creative process for the language, we had already designed the appearance of the ship and wanted to have something that would be aesthetically in relation with that… and we got stuck.” It wasn’t until artist Martine Bertrand (Vermette’s wife) came up with the finished product. Vermette said Bertrand’s design solution was so obvious, and felt stupid for not asking her before.

On Advancing the Logograms

Now that they had a base design, Vermette and his graphic designer dissected the logograms and isolated different pieces, assigning meaning to each of them. Vermette explained, “We now had a bank of words from which we would create these new logograms that would be specific to the script.” Vermette said they created over 100 different logogram phrases.
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Paul Vermette is nominated for an Oscar in Best Achievement in Production Design for Arrival. The film is now available to purchase on Blu-ray and Digital HD.

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