Oscars: Inside the Masterful Sound & Editing of ‘Arrival’

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Twelve mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe in Arrival, an intriguing science fiction thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve. Expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads a team that seeks to communicate with the alien lifeforms and to discover the purpose of their visit. As mankind grows increasingly fearful of the extraterrestrials’ intentions, Dr. Banks must decipher their language and save humanity from the brink of global warfare. Production sound mixer Claude La Haye and picture editor Joe Walker, ACE, were among the talented team that brought the unique story of Arrival to life, and they have now received Oscar, BAFTA, and guild nominations and awards for their achievements. La Haye and Walker took the time to speak with us about their work on this remarkable, innovative film.

Claude La Haye: Production Sound Mixer 


S&P: 
How did you first become involved with ‘Arrival’?

Claude La Haye: The film was supposed to be filmed in Vancouver at first, but for some reason it wasn’t possible. [Director] Denis [Villeneuve] decided to come to Montreal, and he knew a lot of people here. We got together to talk and decided that I would be the production sound mixer for the film. That was a very nice thing for me. I’ve known Denis for a long time because everybody knows each other here. He knows about me, and at one point we met for one of the films he made maybe 10 years ago, but it wasn’t possible for schedule reasons. Now it was a fantastic opportunity to join him and to work with him for the first time.

S&P: What interested you most about the project?

CLH: First, I have a great respect for what Denis is doing and for his filmmaking. Then I read the script and I realized that it was a very interesting story and there was a lot of place for sound. For myself on the production side, there were a few very important technical things to worry about. But seeing the quality of the actors that were there and Denis and the director of photography [Bradford Young], it was just a good project to be on.

S&P: What were some of the production sound challenges that you anticipated?

CLH: The first thing was the orange Hazmat suits that they wear when going into the spaceship. What it means for me is I have to record each actor, but I also have to provide the communication system so that each actor will hear each other. They each have a special mix so they hear just what they want to hear. If they don’t want to hear their own voice, I have to control that. I just ask them, ‘What do you need?’ Each actor in a Hazmat suit has a specific communication system just for them, so that’s quite a challenge. Also, Denis wants to speak with them, so they have to hear him and he has to hear them. Same thing for the First AD [Donald Sparks]. And when Denis talks to them, he doesn’t want to hear himself.

So that was the first big challenge. It was not a question of doing direct sound or ADR. The question was to make sure that communication goes through. And at the end I think they kept a lot of that sound, even if there was a small ventilator in the suits. I think they kept a lot of it because the first thing in the editing room was to be as close to Louise Banks [Amy Adams] as possible, so they wanted respiration and presence and all of that. I’m sure they did a lot afterward, but they kept a lot of the live performance. Any production sound mixer will tell you, when we deal with suits that cover the entire actor and they cannot hear, it’s a challenge because now you have to make sure that communication goes through.

After that, the other communication issue was the scene in the helicopter. We had to make sure that the communication system that belongs to the helicopter would work. What you hear is basically what the actors were listening to, and they were communicating through this system. The prop master made sure that all of this would be possible. The communication issue was the main thing. Apart from that, the challenge was just to make sure we captured what the performers gave us.

S&P: How did you collaborate with director Denis Villeneuve during pre-production and on set?

CLH: We talked a bit about the Hazmat suit issue, but other than that we didn’t talk that much before production. During filming, if he was curious about something or if he asked for something I would say,
“Maybe this would be a good way to work,” and we would communicate more on set. Before, there was not much to discuss. I had a few questions, but not that much. It was more an issue of where are we going to film the spaceship, how are we going to film that? These were questions I would address with the first AD or the art department.

S&P: Were you able to scout the locations before production?

CLH: Yes, we always do that here. I don’t have to discuss the choices that were made, but I have to visit and see how it will work for me, and ask questions about how we were going to film. Because it was a little bit complicated for everybody, like art department and visual effects — it was a lot of issues.

S&P: Can you tell us more about the shooting locations and the issues they presented to you?

CLH: The spaceship was not an actual studio. It was a huge warehouse, a place where they used to build trains. So sound wise, we said, “We’ll manage with that,” and actually, it worked pretty well! Because once everything was constructed, it was silent enough that we could record what we needed, so I was quite happy with that. And after that, the location of all of the insides of the tents was a studio, so that was workable. The outside location was maybe five hours from Montreal near the Saint Lawrence River. It’s a very nice place and it was totally workable.

S&P: Can you tell us about your production sound team and how you worked together on set?

CLH: I’ve worked with my usual boom operator, Francis Péloquin, for 20 years now, and he’s fantastic. He’s very good with radio microphones, he’s good with people, and we’re a great team. For a few films we have had a third assistant [Ilyaa Ghafouri], who is very, very good. When the actors were jumping in those Hazmat suits, there were five departments there: electric, special effects, costume, props, and sound, so everything had to go as fast as possible to make sure everything was working for all the departments. My two guys were there to make sure everything was working perfectly and to do tests every time with each actor. They did a fantastic job and I was very proud of them.

S&P: Tell us about your cart setup and mixing board. Did you need any special gear outside of your normal setup?

CLH: The special gear was for the communication system. I worked with Lectrosonics and Comtek systems, and I had six transmitters at one point. Behind the huge screen inside the spaceship, there were two puppeteers that were moving a stick and a few balls so that the actors would follow these points. After that, they constructed the visual effects for the aliens. But when we were shooting, Denis wanted to be sure that the actors were looking at the same spot, so they had to have a communication system.

Other than that, I worked with a digital multitrack recorder with a very good console mixing board and good radio mics. I worked with the Cantar recorder made by Aaton in France, and it’s a wonderful machine for me. I’ve worked with these machines for 10 years now and I think they’re great. The mixing board is a Sonosax SX8 — it’s Swiss-made and it’s fantastic. I used Schoeps microphones, and the radio mics I work with are made by Audio Limited, a British brand. I’ve been working with this material for so long now — hard to change!

S&P: How did you work with cinematographer Bradford Young and his camera crew on set?

CLH: Bradford is one of a kind — he’s so nice. He works very well, and when I had a problem, which didn’t occur that much, I would just go talk to him. We would work together to try to solve it. I was very happy to meet Bradford. It was the first time I worked with him, and he was also working with Denis for the first time. He was very nice with everybody and it was a huge command for him.

S&P: Did you work with visual effects supervisor Louis Morin on set?

CLH: Yes, he was always there. It was also a huge command for him. I didn’t have much to do with Louis — I would just see him working, solving problems, asking for more light! But Bradford would say, “No, sorry!” [laughs] Louis was doing a great job also — everybody was. And when I say that everybody was on the same page, it comes down to Denis, who is a fantastic leader in his own way, just calm and solving problems one after the other in an intelligent way.

S&P: Did you have any communication with the post sound team after production?

CLH: Yes, I know those guys really well, [re-recording mixer] Bernard [Gariépy Strobl] and [supervising sound editor] Sylvain [Bellemare]. Sylvain asked me for a recording of wind — he wanted to put some different wind in the spaceship — so I provided him with some sound that I recorded on other films and I went to record some here in Montreal. I was keeping in touch with him and with the dialogue editor and just asking her, “How did it go? Can I help you with anything?” And it was the same thing with Bernard, the mixer. At that point I was on another movie and not really involved, but we would keep in touch with the phone, and they did a fantastic job. There was a lot of place for sound in the story, and Denis and Joe Walker, the film editor, built the first soundscape that they wanted to hear in the editing room. Then they gave that to the post-production team, and they just picked up where it was and they added so much of their own creativity, so it was real teamwork.

S&P: What did you enjoy most about working on the film?

CLH: Everybody wants to work on a film that people will like to see, and making the film was just a very nice experience. That’s not always the case, but in this case the people involved — Denis and those fantastic actors — were all in the same place and were great to work with.

Joe Walker, ACE: Picture Editor 


S&P: How did you first become involved with ‘Arrival’?

Joe Walker, ACE: After cutting three films with Steve McQueen in Europe, I moved to the States. I joined Denis Villeneuve on Sicario. The first glimpse of Arrival was overhearing a private conversation of Denis.’ There are little moments sometimes when he shuts the cutting room door and you know it’s an important conversation he needs to focus on. We’re around each other all the time, so he doesn’t exclude me. He was talking to Carlos Huante, who’s the creature designer who developed the Heptapods. The sentence I remember was Denis saying, “Maybe we should think about it having no eyes?” I was thinking, “What is this thing?” [laughs] I’d just done a really great movie with Denis so a short while after that I got the script. I think there was a week or two off between Sicario and Arrival, and then it was one week off between Arrival and Blade Runner. That’s what we’re in the middle of now, so I’m on film three. It’s been a marathon, but I’m really enjoying it!

S&P: When you first read the script, what interested you most about the film’s story?

JW: Time. Definitely time. I thought, as an editor, that’s a real opportunity, it’s a huge preoccupation of mine. In things like 12 Years a Slave and Shame and even Hunger to some degree, they were experiments in how to play with time in lots of ways. Is something happening on successive days? Is it in a loop? When you structure the narrative in an interesting way, I start to get excited because that’s our superpower as editors, to get to play with flash-forwards and flashbacks and simultaneous time, cross-cutting, juxtaposition. When I read the script for Arrival I was very moved by it, but it was also a puzzle piece, which was interesting. I think the fundamental thing was just this idea of a flash structure — the timeline of translating the Heptapods and the world sinking into paranoia and tension, marbled through with glimpses of a child’s life. I felt this would really lift off the page, and indeed in the hands of the wonderful Bradford Young, they shot some remarkable stuff. Nearly everything with the mother and the daughter at the lakeside was very free — there was a lot of documentary-style footage which could go anywhere in the film. So I basically had tremendous freedom to craft something that made sense of it all. I thought that was a great challenge and a beautiful opportunity.

S&P: How did you collaborate with Denis Villeneuve during the editing process?

JW: I would be assembling in L.A. where I live while he was shooting in Montreal, and he was fine with me not being there. I have to sort of keep my distance in a way. I would send him QuickTimes and we’d discuss things every week. He’s always very positive about everything I send. Sometimes he would send me a little correction or explain an idea he was striving to convey, but when he’s shooting he really needs to concentrate on that. He checks to make sure that he’s got the scene, but he has to keep his blinkers on and carry on. As he sometimes says, “Do you want me to hunt or do you want me to cook? I can’t do both at the same time.”

After that shoot, which was 11 weeks or so, I came up to Montreal, where Denis lives. I was reunited with the team I had on Sicario. I had my assistant, Javier Marcheselli, he was promoted to a VFX editor this time. I brought up Mary Lukasiewicz, who had been a second on Sicario. She became my first assistant on Arrival.

We screened the assembly and it was in a bit of a state, to be honest. There was much work to do. We didn’t talk to each other for about 10 minutes after the screening and Denis looked shell-shocked. I said, “It’s absolutely fine, I’ve been here before, it’s going to work!” [laughs]. It was a crisis, but you know, I think everyone has them. Someone once said, “Your film is never as good as your dailies and never as bad as your first assembly.” There were a lot of things that we had to reassess to make the plot really tick. We had to build up everything in the world. The news reports weren’t fully developed — we just had green screens. For all of those Skype calls and those Army television screens there was nothing there, and of course there’s nothing there on the big screen where the aliens are meant to be, so it’s a very tough watch as a first assembly. But at the heart of it all was this really brilliant performance by Amy Adams, so we just built everything around that.

We spent 10 weeks working, and Denis was starting up on Blade Runner at the time, so I had to share him. [Blade Runner 2049 director of photography] Roger Deakins, for example, came to Montreal, and they were working in a hotel while I carried on. He would flip between us, so it was bit like how Rick Wakeman used to play two keyboards on stage [laughs]. Denis was a bit like that — the wizard with a big hat going between the two instruments of Blade Runner and Arrival. We worked really, really, hard on that show and we were always dedicated to making it the best, using all the typical editor’s tricks to try and help things along, like turning scenes into a montage, for example, or turning a normal scene into a nightmare scene. It’s also an advantage that in some cases we were able to just do things completely CGI, which we hadn’t planned. For example, we decided quite late in the day that we needed to see the spaceships depart, so thank God the producers set aside some money for that.

S&P: How did you work with sound designer Dave Whitehead to establish the film’s unique alien vocals?

JW: 
That was really fun stuff. The sound designer of Arrival was Sylvain Bellemare, but Dave was brought on somewhat earlier in the process. In the very early stages of the director’s cut, we had to turn over many scenes to VFX. It’s a slow process seeing things come back, and then it gets faster and faster, and you end up finessing some tiny little thing on week 53. But at the initial stages I had to commit to a cut of the scenes when Louise [Amy Adams] is up against the screen and interacting with the Heptapods. There’s nothing there to help with timing, past my hunch of how long a shot should be. We would use little bits from the storyboard, almost like clip art. I’d put them in as a ‘garbage matte’ just to indicate where the Heptapods were going to be. So it had those little graphical elements built in, and then Javier would finesse them. But I knew commissioning some great alien sounds would help keep our nerve.

There was a line of dialogue where Ian [Jeremy Renner] says, “I don’t want to mispronounce their names and offend their mothers.” So I knew we had to convince people that they have a coherent language, and as the script told us, this is something that humans can’t emulate.

So, I asked Denis very early if he would hire Dave Whitehead on the strength of District 9, because the bugs in that movie had a completely worked-out, believable language — I think Dave has some bible somewhere that translates all those strange noises! Denis loved what they did on that movie. The earliest conversations we had with Dave and his partner Michelle Child were about the physiognomy of the aliens and how the Heptapods’ bodies might work. Dave had an idea that they might have some double spine that would clack together and make a certain noise. They worked very, very hard and gave us these alien noises super fast. So the sounds were in my Avid timeline early in the director’s cut — even influencing the composer [Jóhann Jóhannsson], who kept out of the way of them — but to be honest, their sounds didn’t really change for the next seven months. It was remarkable — I’ve never worked with something so good that it withstands 20 screenings and two public screenings. At one point in the dub we tried to thin down the sounds a little, but we really couldn’t. It’s like if you take random vowels and consonants out of someone’s English phrase, it doesn’t make sense any more.

My background was originally in music. I was a sound editor for a while, and then a composer for a long time, so I just think about sound all the time. In this film, I wanted to give silence a chance. In the scene where she’s [Dr. Louise Banks] doing some work on paper in her office, she gets these first couple of flashes of her child by the lakeside studying a caterpillar. This is near silent. Then you have a shot where she’s disturbing a pebble in the water and you hear a little splash, and the sound develops. It starts off completely silent and then gradually you start hearing little bits of dialogue. And by the end of the film the two worlds are almost equally present. These are all tricks to kind of interpose these flashes into the main story in an interesting way.

S&P: How did you integrate composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score into the film?

JW: Denis and Jóhann have worked together three times, and this was our second film together. He hand-makes everything. He’ll go off and record in some cave in Iceland and then he’ll turn up in Bolivia where there’s some particular kind of ant that makes some particular chewing noise [laughs]. He goes off on these outlandish research trips and he has instrumentalists all around the world that he likes to record with.

Very early on, he sent us something inspired by the script. It was the circular vocal pattern, something you hear when you first see the spaceship. It’s layered on top of this wonderful drone which is made of hundreds of pianos that he’s overlaid, but he’s taken the attack off so you never hear the notes hit, just the sustain. It has a sort of steely, wiry sound. I received that while we were shooting, and it was just a winner. We thought, “Yes, that’s when we first see the spaceship. That’s going to be in the film.”

He’s very generous. He gives us all the stems broken down into instrumental groups, maybe one type of percussion, another type of percussion, the cellos, the basses, another one for the high strings, another one for brass. He’ll give us all the separate elements so we can edit around the picture, and it really embeds the music into the film very well. It feels as though the two sort of arrive together. I’ll put his music in and then fix my cut a little bit. I’ll then send it back to him and he will either re-orchestrate or rework some bits of it that he would like to improve. So it’s constantly working toward the end result — a bit like VFX — you start with sketches and build up and up and up. It meant I had to get a 50-inch monitor, though. There’s a lot of tracks to carry around.

S&P: What program or system did you use to edit the film?

JW: Avid Media Composer, version 8.4. I learned editing on film and then came up through Beta SP, then Lightworks, and then Avid. I’ve honestly never tried the others. At one stage I nearly had to cut something on Final Cut Pro, and I’m afraid I bottled it [laughs] and got them to transfer to an Avid. To me, Avid’s pretty robust. It feels very, very solid, especially when you’ve got 10 cutting rooms feeding off the same media. It can withstand a whole truckload of people using the same system and it just works. It’s a little bit annoying when they move things around — sometimes it’s a little bit like a kitchen where you can’t remember where things are. “I was sure I put the sugar tongs in there!” And then you have to open every single drawer until, “Oh! That’s where I put the sugar tongs!” [laughs]

S&P: What did you like most about working on this project?

JW: I think it was just being able to continually change and update and revise a cut and see it getting closer and closer to the result we wanted, and always feeling as though things were heading in the right direction. Sometimes you know a problem but you don’t yet know the solution, but I had the patience of people around me — particularly our producers Dan Levine and Aaron Ryder — to allow that process to take place without panicking.

Very late in the day, for example, we had a very good note from Paramount about the end sequence. In the original cut, she [Dr. Louise Banks] meets the Chinese general [Tzi Ma as General Shang] at a party, and then in the following scene she goes and does what he tells her to do. Paramount made the note: “Is there any way of cutting this differently? Because it feels like it isn’t as dramatic as it could be or as tense as it could be.” That was a note that Denis and I had been working on ourselves, and we couldn’t quite figure it out. But with that little extra bit of push to give it another go, we did find a solution, a way of doing it that’s in the film now. And I’m so glad about it — I can’t imagine it being cut a different way. I think it was just a real delight to see things evolve and to feel the love and support of those around us to get it absolutely right, and thank God for that. It’s managed to touch people’s heads and hearts in equal measure. There are lots of things I’m proud of, but that’s the one I’d pick.

-S&P-

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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