Telling the story of a military-recruited linguist tasked to translate alien communications, Arrival had Morin leading a small legion of local VFX studios under Denis Villeneuve’s direction and was shot entirely in his home province of Quebec. Hailed as one of the best films of the year, Morin discusses the realities of making "Arrival" – the creative approaches and committed teams, the gut feelings and happy accidents, and of course, those understated, almost elegant photo-real effects.
How many VFX shots are in "Arrival," and who contributed?
My count is about 800 shots, and there were many skilled vendors to contribute to that. Hybride Technologies was the main one; they delivered about 350 shots. Oblique handled the spaceship, helicopters, army materials such as tanks, and also did some crowd shots. Raynault was mostly in charge of the many monitor shots, and also handled some environment stuff, too. Rodeo FX worked mainly on the gravity effects you see when the characters enter the alien ship – motion controlled shots and CG in Autodesk ® Maya ®. MELS and Alchemy 24 contributed some great work, and Framestore joined later on to handle the disappearance of the ship.
How long were you with this project?
I worked on this for 15 months. It was a long journey. When I finally let go, it was as though I had eaten too many sweets; I was ready for a break. It was nice though, to sit down a few months later, and be able to enjoy it all in its entirety.
Tell us about the expectations for the VFX and the approach you took.
Denis had a very specific mindset for this. He wanted to stay away from anything and everything we’re already accustomed to seeing in Science Fiction movies. My trademark is seamless effects so the goal was to make everything photo-real, including the spaceship and the aliens, and that’s exactly what Denis wanted. I remember sitting with him in post on a Tuesday afternoon in February and he was looking out the window. He said, 'My movie has to feel like this – a Tuesday afternoon in Montreal, in February.' Essentially that means, little color, nothing fancy, just very…real. Reality and its imperfections make this film stand apart.
Where did you shoot?
Denis was in love with some locations in Vancouver but I convinced him to take a look at Bic National Park near Rimouski, Quebec. They went and found a valley that could easily pass for Montana without many visual effects – we just inserted the Rockies in the distance in a couple of places.
Let’s talk now about those striking spaceships. They’re almost elegant – did you receive specific instructions for those?
Denis’ approach to the ships, referred to as 'Shells' in the movie, is that they’re really old pieces of rock. The aliens are a very old civilization who’ve been travelling forever and because they’ve mastered time, the ships don’t travel in the way that we’re used to: they don’t fly, they don’t really move, they simply shift from one place in time to another. Also, they’re huge, about 500 ft tall, and they rest in a vertical position, not touching the ground. Denis wanted them to be black but we opted for dark grey so that we could sculpt with light. We suggested at one point adding a little texture to them but Denis said, “No, no, no. Add nothing.” I think in the end they turned out really well.
And how about the aliens? What were the considerations with them?
The aliens were quite a challenge because so much about them had to be defined and there was much R+D to do on our part. I put a lot of work into writing down the details of their world, their demeanor, their stature, their body language, how they would interact with the mist and so on – we worked for months just on the mist! We developed many tests of them walking on their 7 legs, we did tests on their fingers… It took a tremendous amount of time to create a perfect, photo-real look for them that would work with his storytelling. We kept them as true to Denis’ original concept as possible, though we did adapt them a bit to make certain things easier or more realistic. Actually, he didn’t even want to see them all that much. He wanted them to be like the shark in JAWS – you know that they’re there but you rarely set eyes on them. He wanted them to be revealed slowly, progressively, so many of my storyboards showed them as simple black dots in a white square (laughs).
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
Well, the atmosphere inside the ship is different than on earth so when Louise is in there, her hair is CG so that we could have it react as it would in much lower gravity. It was quite difficult to do – but Hybride handled it. Another challenge for me when creating seamless visual effects, is that I find it easy to get to 95 percent, but to get to 100 percent is so difficult. There is so much work that goes into conceiving of every little detail, of course, but nailing the final look is always the ultimate challenge for me.
And when do you know you’ve hit 100 percent?
It’s a gut feeling – you know when you see it. You need to be able to analyze an image and instinctively know what needs to be done. VFX is teamwork; I’m like a conductor in front of a symphony with many players working to bring something together. I team with the VFX Supervisors and the CG Supervisors and really try to push for the best quality possible. It’s about taking their comments, their reactions, their input, their solutions, and making sure things stays focused and on the right path.
Tell us about an iconic shot in the film, and what went into making it.
There are so many to choose from but I guess the first that comes to mind is this: I left for Bic a day ahead of Denis to prep for the crew to come shoot the arrival of Louise – POV helicopter shots. I went up in the helicopter with the aerial DP, and we essentially designed the shot that you see in the movie while we were up there. When Denis came the next day, I stayed on the ground and he went up with the DP, shooting the same shot we’d designed – but – there was a natural mist that came rising up over the mountain. All I could think was, ‘Who else in the world can come on the day of the shoot and get THAT? I’m sure everyone will assume it’s VFX but it’s real. It was a true, iconic shot that was completely natural, and Denis is so lucky in that way.
What made ARRIVAL a unique, special project for you?
Well, I was 14 when I saw 2001: a Space Odyssey. I had read the book two or three times and went and saw the movie two or three times, too. It’s the film that made me decide to get into feature films, and just like that film, Arrival is a brainy, sci-fi movie that makes you think. Working on a project that stays with you and affects you – especially when VFX is mostly about explosions and that sort of thing – is a real privilege for me.
What do you love most about supervising film projects?
We can do anything – change everything – so long as there is the time and the budget. In post, we’re like a candy store for directors: 'Can you do this? Can you fix that?' And we can. It’s a powerful thing.
What industry trends have you excited?
With visual effects, it seems you’re always just easing into a really terrific position where the hardware is great, the software performs, and just when you feel that you’re ahead of the game and you’re practically working in real-time, 4K come along (laughs), and then Ang Lee comes along wanting to shoot at 120 fps in stereoscopy (laughs). I do think artificial intelligence could be a huge asset in the future, whether for crowds, forests or for wind. I think there’s a lot of creative development to be done with that, around those kinds of tools that will make it possible to do a 100 percent photo-real movie. That day is going to come and I look forward to it.
So, to close, please tell us what makes you the proudest with “Arrival.”
The fact that it’s finished (laughs). I laugh but really, at one point everyone had doubts about whether or not we could make it. I was told that I was the only one who believed in it anymore. There was a lot of commitment that went into it and we really kept pushing hard until we got it done – and done well. I’m very, very proud of that.
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Paramount Pictures’ “Arrival” has been nominated at Camerimage for a Golden Frog, Main Competition; nominated, HMMA Award for Best Original Score - Sci-Fi/Fantasy Film at the Venice Film Festival, and nominated, Golden Lion, Best Film.
Louis Morin is also known for his work on “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), and the “The Aviator” (2004).
The team of VFX studios who contributed to the Arrival include:
HYBRIDE TECHNOLOGIES | RODEO FX | MELS | RAYNAULT VFX | ALCHEMY 24 | OBLIQUE | FOLKS | FRAMESTORE