In most science-fiction movies, the aliens are accompanied by weird sounds that are joined by roaring spaceships (but there shouldn’t be sound in space) and blasters that go pew-pew. But for anyone who has seen “Arrival,” one would know and hear that sound plays a vital part in telling a story, and giving a new breath to an otherwise cliche’ ridden genre.
To bring the film’s sound to life, director Denis Villeneuve enlisted Sylvain Bellemare to help tell this story of a linguistic professor who communicates with an elephant like a pair of aliens. The atmospheric and emotionally charged soundscape gave Bellemare his first Oscar, which he won Best Sound Editing this past February.
The sound design for “Arrival” was a true challenge. Villeneuve wanted to have a precise sound design that wouldn’t overwhelm the image as it so often happens. “The approach to the sound design was quite minimalistic, and the most powerful sound is silence,” Villeneuve adds.
Villeneuve brought on Bellemare, a 49-year-old native of Montreal, Canada, to lead the sound design and gave him one mandate for the sound palette. “The simple approach was that all the sounds in the film needed to come from really natural, organic sources, instead of going to electronic or processed sound,” Bellemare said in an interview with the LA Times.
Before “Arrival,” Bellemare has never worked on a science fiction movie before. The sound needed to be expressive but subtle, at the same time, natural. And this is one of the things that are more complicated to achieve.
To create the voice of the heptapods, the visiting aliens, Bellemare and his team went to the North Island of New Zealand to capture the foundation for their unique soundscape. They blended calls from birds, grunts from camels, squeals from pigs, and a Maori flute. The movement of the spaceships were captured from rocks falling, earthquakes, and icebergs grinding and breaking.
One of the things that make Arrival one of the best regarding sound design is that they do not only show you reality, but they also show you the reality as they know it. They took the additional effort to make sure that all the sounds came from natural sources.
“I think we can really feel in the film the texture of the sound,” said Bellemare. "There is something there, the scaled-down range of the sound is thing is really beautiful because these are coming from real textures.”
When the LA Times asked if there’s one thing that he’s picked up over the years that all sound designers should know, he responded: “That there is no good sound or bad sound — there is just the sound that fits your image, your story.”
If you want to hear the sound editing of “Arrival," check out this video from All Movie Extras on their approach to work.