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Through the Lens: Joe Walker on Arrival

In our latest Through the Lens, editor Joe Walker takes us through three scenes from Arrival. Walker is no stranger to working with Arrival director Denis Villeneuve. They worked together on Sicario and they team up again for Bladerunner 2049, coming to theaters October 6th.

“With Denis, you look at a sequence and he’ll drop a thought bomb about how to approach the scene differently. He never tells you how to achieve that. I might discuss it with him, and that’s the real key to it. He trusts me enough to find my own way to find that note.”

The Phone Call Scene:

This scene was a really late change in the day. As scripted and performed, it was the scene where she meets General Shang at the party and he tells her what to do. It was followed by her coming round on the airfield and running back and grabbing a phone trying to make a phone call.

I think it was after fourteen or fifteen weeks into the final cut process. We’d seen the screen bit and we thought, people know what’s going to happen and she does it which is never as much fun as much as this idea that we know as little as she does with what she’s going to do. That seemed ten times more tense, so we ended up having to re-cut it because it just wasn’t scripted or performed like that. We had to get to where he hands the phone to her, and we could cut back to the airfield and have her move back into the airbase without a clue of what she’s going to say to the man. Then we did some ADR where she says, “What am I going to say?” We deliberately didn’t want to translate what he was saying, but if there are Chinese people in the audience, they’ll understand the dialogue.

The key thing is it’s a line of dialogue that only he thinks he knows because it’s his wife dying words. That felt like enough information. We managed to get all that tension of meeting a strange man and it’s got a deliberate dream-like pace to the cutting. I held on people a long time. His performance was striking and Amy was moved by him. It was a miracle where Tzi Ma turns up for one day, and even though he’s a shadow across the whole film, we were putting his face in news reports earlier, and we platformed him, you still don’t know who he is or his personality. It’s so strong when you meet the man, you have this hold shot on him and don’t cut. Then there’s a fast-paced intercutting of her running to the air base, finding the phone, being pursued by the soldiers with pumping music, and Ian comes to help her.

There’s that claustrophobic feel of her being stuck in the decontamination shower, and the big build to the climax.

As a result of having built to that climax, we felt we needed a compensation. What we had there originally was the screen’s turning back on, but it didn’t feel enough. It was quite late in the day and we asked the producers to give us some more money so we could build that sequence where the spaceship evaporates. That moment was never planned, we just felt we needed something epic to send off that climax and make it balanced, and spend a lot of time with the TV monitors with that breaking news.

The party scene took a day to shoot. It was a big crowd. One of the choices that Bradford Young and Denis had was that we had this fantastic stuff in production value, and they wanted to push it out of focus into the background. It was such a clever way to do it.

If you looked at a heptapod without any mist, the animation is 100% there, but Denis wanted to get to know it slowly, and have the exposition slow and save goodies for later. It’s the same thing he does with the spaceship in the background, having that out of focus like a giant black egg. It always draws the focus back to the central character.

In the party scene, in particular, everything is muted, dark colors in the background, and out of focus even though it’s a huge crowd of 300 extras.

It was surprisingly late in the day. The question was always there, to see if there was another way of building that climax but we just couldn’t find it for a long time. Finally, when we were under pressure, we finally did. I always like that part of the process, that we’re left to find a solution and then we do.

A Note on the first sighting of the spaceship:

People don’t notice this but we had this amazing aerial shot of the incredible mist coming from the hills. People assume that there was CGI in that shot, but that mist was God’s own visual effects.

They had two days. One was flat and boring. The next day, we had sunkissed mist floating down. We had other CGI to blend in with it because it was a short-lived weather event.

I held it for a long time to let people see it. It was a great first view. We built up to that. There are the news reports where you glimpse this thing. We took amazing footage in Venezuela and fed it. The choice was to starve everybody of what they wanted to see. So, when you see it, you really give it to them. It’s bold. I thought it was a ballsy approach to deal with the exposition of this thing.

First Contact:

This is so typical of Denis, in that he was so highly prepared with these great storyboards. Sam Hudecki is a great guy from Toronto and they work out the logic of a scene. That scene does have careful planning, but he freely will throw something away for something better.

In the gravity walk where Ian jumps up from the skylift onto the side wall. There was a plan to do it one way, and we just went with this version where Jeremy stands like a toddler.

The other improv was at one point we thought we should deliver a swear word in this film about communication. There’s no swearing and we thought Jeremy deserved it. So in ADR he says this line, “Holy Fuck.”

We had a dolly zoom which we used because we wanted to create that feeling of vertigo where the camera is pushing in and zooming out at the same time, and its gives you that effect as you’re watching it on screen.

We continued to play around with aspects into post-production. The sound was a big element. Jóhann Jóhannsson gave us this zero gravity feeling in his music which is very threatening and there’s this big gliss in the basses and cellos, and it conveys the world is shifting to the left without you noticing. He adds this steady beat as they process down this long hallway. We talked and touched on trying to make an allusive reference to religion in a way that it was a procession in a way, almost like an arcane civilization that is simultaneously threatening and obscure. We talked about this Korean court music, Gagaku which is weird, and slow-pulsed with loud trumpet noises. I think Johan reflects that in the music.

With sound, Silvan added hundreds of elements to it. In particular, we wanted to sharpen up the sense of claustrophobia that these hazmat suits are a real burden. They’re incredibly uncomfortable to wear. They have noise of fans and the actors couldn’t wear them for a long time, which adds to the vulnerability of the characters. You hear the cross talk from the army talk. In a film about communication, it was
important to make it deafening. When Louise takes the suit off later, it’s a moment of freedom and bravery.