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Physical Sets Helped ‘Arrival’ Cinematographer Control Movie’s Tone

When director Denis Villeneuve approached Bradford Young about “Arrival,” he told the DP he wanted to make a science-fiction film that starts on a boring Tuesday morning. “Denis called it a story about a typical mundane day, and then the aliens show up,” Young recalls.

Based on “Story of Your Life,” a short story by Ted Chiang, the narrative follows Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics expert, and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who lead a team trying to solve the mystery of why 12 spaceships have landed at locations over different parts of the globe.

Both the director and cinematographer strove to avoid familiar sci-fi tropes, instead aiming to bring a sense of humility to the story. “We wanted to make a very innocent and personal film, with scale,” says Young. “There’s real a human dilemma, with this sci-fi backdrop.”

To visually ground the layered plot, Villeneuve looked to longtime collaborator and production designer Patrice Vermette.

“The great thing about Denis and Patrice is, if it’s not practical, they’re not going to do it,” says Young. “The interior of the ship is 100% practical: The 150-foot tunnel where they enter the ship is real. The chamber where they have their exchange with the aliens through a screen is real. The floor that looks like scraped-out pumice stone is real. … That set was massive and all practical.”

Having physical sets meant Young could control the tone through lighting and lens choice, while shooting digitally.

“It anchors [the shot] and gives you healthy restrictions, which forces you to be more imaginative and creative because the structure you’re in has its own limits,” he says.

In crafting the film’s colors, the cinematographer referenced Martina Hoogland Ivanow’s “Speedway,” a photo essay on Swedish motocross riders who race at night. “The book has a real palpable energy that we could relate to in our film,” he explains. “You can see her trying to dig into the shadows of the night….”

Young used grays, blues, browns, and milky blacks to create soft, low-contrast images. He deployed two different sets of spherical lenses, and photographed the film in a raw yet naturalistic way, exploring the idea of darkness as an unknown, rather than as a reason to be afraid.

In the end, though, Young wanted everything to feel so normal that the audience would forget it was watching a movie.

“Denis is never going to throw humility and sensitivity out for a visual spectacle,” he says. “Part of this film is us checking in on how powerful these aliens are, and the whole idea that human beings don’t know everything — and that we’re among a large vast universe of unknowns.”

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