'Arrival' Production Designer Reveals How to Create an Entirely New Type of Flying Saucer

The film's alien spacecraft couldn't be just another close-encounter light show, so Patrice Vermette came up with something so new and sleek it would look at home on display in an Apple Store.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
In 'Arrival', the elegant but ominous spacecraft hovers over Montana. (Inset: Denis Villeneuve and production designer Patrice Vermette on set.)

Creating the design for the computer-generated spacecraft for director Denis Villeneuve's $47 million sci-fi drama Arrival, which sets down in theaters Nov. 11, production designer Patrice Vermette knew he wanted something different. "I watched a lot of sci-fi movies to see what has been done, and I realized that since 2001: A Space Odyssey, except for some atypical examples, most movies used the same type of design — lights, windows," he explains. "Arrival's spaceship had to be a surprise, a different aesthetic, and it had to give you the sense of beauty and the sense that in beauty, there can be danger."

Vermette settled on a mysterious dark mass, floating aboveground in the mist, as the humans below, which include Amy Adams' linguist Louise Banks, try to puzzle out its purpose.

While the spacecraft was described as a sphere in Ted Chiang's novel Story of Your Life, on which Eric Heisserer based the screenplay, the director (with whom Vermette also had worked on Prisoners and Sicario) wanted it to be vertical. "I explored many shapes, and we went with a sort of elongated oval," says Vermette. "We took some creative liberties, but it's all about the same idea on which the book and script are based — the strangeness."

Vermette admits that one reason he and the director abandoned the idea of the sphere was that the approach had been used, most recently in 2008's The Day the Earth Stood Still. The final look was inspired by the shape of a large asteroid known as Eunomia.

"Then we thought, 'What if it were black?' We studied different charcoal textures. And what if the ship never lands? It hovers over the earth. What if humans have to take the last step [on an elevator] — the last 30 feet?"

These concept created other hurdles. "In the script [the humans] have to walk a long corridor into a bigger room [where they interact with the aliens]. So we came up with an idea: What if there's a leap of faith, where once they get into the ship, they need to jump off and there's a gravity shift? We also came up with the idea of having [the humans enter the shell of the ship] on a scissor lift for the contrast between the totally alien technology and something very down to earth."

Inside the ship, Vermette also strove for a fresh design. "Inspired by the book and screenplay," he says, "I thought it would be interesting to use the rare texture of sediment rock, which would represent the wisdom and history of that civilization — and the purity at the same time. It was important for us to project the idea that it was a strange world but very attracting. If you compare the interior of the ship to the interior of the white tents for the military camped out near the spacecraft, inside those tents is chaos, but inside the ship there's a feeling of peacefulness."

To further connect Adams' Banks with the aliens, the production design also uses shapes and textures of the spacecraft in Banks' home and workplace. "It's very subtle, but it's there."

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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