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The importance of practical sets in Denis Villeneuve movie 'Arrival'


Quickly becoming an iconic filmmaker of contemporary cinema, Denis Villeneuve, together with Christopher Nolan, is a director focused on the spectacle of cinema, creating wondrous worlds and compelling tales of existential gravitas. Since his international breakthrough with Incendies in 2010, Denis Villeneuve has only grown in significance, releasing Prisoners in 2013, followed by Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and most recently, Dune

Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-winning science fiction alien flick Arrival may be the director’s biggest cinematic achievement, achieving both critical and commercial success upon its release in 2016. Based on the novella Story of My Life by Ted Chiang, this multi-award-winning film follows the travails of Louise (Amy Adams), a linguist, who set out to break the language barrier between an alien species and humanity.

Villeneuve blends the vast scope of inter-galactic science fiction elements with the intimate details of personal lives and makes them both seem equally relevant. “When we started we knew it was a profound, poetic story,” Villeneuve reported to the LA Times. “It was a challenge to bring that to the screen because it was a science fiction movie we’re not so used to seeing — the science fiction film that says something about reality,” he added. 

A triumph of Villeneuve’s artistic expression, Arrival is one of the greatest contemporary extra-terrestrial tales, elevated by terrific set design and performances from Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. These two elements come together to punctuate the realism of Arrival, as reported by Villeneuve in an interview with the AFI: “We constructed that chamber in the tunnel, it was a real set, it really created something sacred for the actor, they really felt that because of the nature of the matter, the colours, the lighting, it was so strong, it was like a massive white screen, one source of light,” Villeneuve recalled. 

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Discussing how he recreated the feeling of an ethereal extraterrestrial presence on-set, Villeneuve explained that the whole thing felt like “an experimental installation”. Using two puppeteers with long poles and shapes, the Arrival crew were able to recreate similar alien shapes to the ones seen in the film. 

Explaining the efficacy of such a method, Villeneuve stated: “It was eerie strange and beautiful even if it was very primitive, it really helped the actors and most of the scene they were wearing those huge hazmat suits and the only way to communicate with them was through microphones…they felt like astronauts and I was chatting in their ears the whole time describing to them the scenes”. 

With Arrival remaining one of the finest alien flicks in recent years, we hope that either Denis Villeneuve or Christopher Nolan once again delves into the unknown realms of the outer cosmos soon.