"Directors and cinematographers have to be equally vulnerable."
It's an alien invasion. There are firebombs falling from the sky into hyper-saturated cities, followed by mass destruction and threatening creatures snatching children. Right?
Nope. Not this time. This is a different kind of alien movie.
Arrival is the first foray into science fiction for director Denis Villeneuve, known for Oscar-nominated Sicario (2015) and Incendies (2010). But it's certainly not his last—he's currently directing the remake of sci-fi classic Blade Runner. Arrival stars a melancholy Amy Adams as a linguist who is brought in to try to communicate with aliens hovering just over Earth in enormous floating vessels. The slow-burning narrative—which revolves around Adams' grief as much as her dealings with the alien visitors—has a spectacular twist at the end.
"Every film is a certain level of reprogramming and deconstructing my own colonized mentality around what filmmaking is."
The film relies very little on visual effects, but heavily on evocative lighting and camera work. Its convention-breaking approach is likely part of why it took screenwriter and producer Eric Heisserer years to get it made. When it came to production, they chose up-and-coming DP Bradford Young, who shot Ava Duvernay’s Selma. But he had big shoes to fill—the DP of Villeneuve’s last film was the legendary Roger Deakins, shooter of over 70 films, including Skyfall and No Country for Old Men.
No Film School spoke with Young just before the film's US theatrical release about unshackling oneself from genre tropes, "quilting" lenses to create visual texture, the importance of vulnerability for shooters and directors, and more.
No Film School: Much of Arrival's color palette, especially at the beginning, is muted and almost mundane—not what one might expect in a sci-fi. How was that choice made?
Bradford Young: I'm glad you used the word "mundane," because that's the word I'm using a lot to describe the film. The approach is really about wrapping our minds around the unexpected, which I think is what the film is really about.
Part of it was not shackling ourselves to genre. The science fiction genre has all types of good tropes that work that are tried and true, and that didn’t make sense for this story. In our process as filmmakers, we have to try and be really honest in how we tell a story, which, in this case, is to highlight the capacity and the beauty of human emotion.
"When I use a dolly or a camera movement, I always want it to be as subtle and as understated as possible."
Life is pretty mundane at times, and every now and then something unexpected shows up and creates a really interesting twist and turn. In this story, it's really about the mundane life of a lonely, melancholy person and then all of a sudden these aliens show up. You think the film is about one thing—mortality and loss—and then these aliens show up, and you're like, "What are they here to offer this story? What are these aliens, what is this existential thing going to offer to a life that's already realized and figured out?" That's what we tried to achieve.
NFS: I'm glad you weren't offended by the word "mundane."
Young: I think that's an important word in my process because, as a cinematographer, I'm more interested now in the mundane. The simplicity of life, the simplicity of story. Thank you for bringing that word back to the table.
NFS: How did you shake yourself out of the preconceived notions of what a sci-fi should look like?
Young: I think every film is a certain level of reprogramming and deconstructing my own colonized mentality around what filmmaking is. Since I'm already constantly in that process, it was just a matter of turning off the echo chamber. Appreciating and respecting all the contributions that have been made before, especially when you think about a master like Stanley Kubrick or Ridley Scott, but also not being arrested by what they brought to the table.
"I try to create a sort of delicacy to how the camera moves."
In terms of lighting, it was a real serious question: "What do aliens bring with them when they arrive?" Humans are arrogant in the sense that they think that aliens would show up and have access to the same alloys or the same materials that we have access to. What if they didn't? What would they bring? That freed us up to be really sensitive and very particular about how we executed the visual style of the film.
So it was turning of the echo chamber—stop watching, turn toward something else. Use music as an inspiration, look at photographers who are able to take visually mundane things and turn them into visually mythological things.
NFS: I think that's important on any film, to take inspiration from all kinds of other creative endeavors.
Young: Oh yeah, definitely. As a parent, I have to be really, really present. I'm away a lot, so being present was a big part of me understanding the time-bending sequence [in Arrival]. Being present with my son on my time off was a mantra, a catalyst to how I photographed Louise's time with [her daughter] Hannah. It's being very honest in the process of making a film and honestly letting it be a reflection of my life.
NFS: The camera seems to always be slowly and subtly moving in the film. What were you trying to communicate with the camera movement?
Young: For me, that's a handicap. I've always been apprehensive about camera movement, because I didn't start off making films where you have dollies and technocranes and Steadicams. We couldn't afford to have that stuff. When I use a dolly or a camera movement, I always want it to be as subtle and as understated as possible. With a lot of my work now, I try to create a sort of delicacy to how the camera moves.
"I've slowly begun to really, really respect what we're allowed to do with digital. It has so many virtues."
When we're getting into more procedural moments where [Amy Adams' character] is trying to decode the language, and she makes communication with the aliens... when she's with her child—those moments come out of my love for documentaries, and some of the best documentaries were those where the camera was handheld, and immediate, and frenetic, so it didn't impose. Again, just trying to be honest with those things that inspire me and really propel me as an image maker, bringing those things to this conversation.
NFS: On the technical side, what did you shoot the film with? Why did you make that choice?
Young: We shot with the Alexa XST. I shot with two different kinds of lenses: some vintage Ultra Primes from CamTec, and I also used Super Speeds. Denis had really positive, great results with the work he's done with Roger [Deakins] and I've slowly begun to really, really respect what we're allowed to do with digital. It has so many virtues.
When I look at the kind of films [Villeneuve] has made before, the kind of films he's making, and the kind of films I want to make, it makes sense that our films are probably going to be that much darker. Digital would be helpful in that. That's the reason why we picked that tool. Also, I think it's really helpful being able to see what you're getting on a film that's visual effects-happy, for two filmmakers that haven't made big digital effects films.
In terms of lensing, I'm always a fan of picking the right lens for the right moment. Sometimes that means I've got a Frankenstein rag tag set of lenses, but I chose the ones I felt would soften and give me a lot of exploring power in the darkness. I chose those two lenses because they gave me very different looks.
"In my own practice as an image maker, I slowly began to be less concerned with precision and more concerned with feeling."
NFS: I read something in the press notes about your use of lenses, and you use this term "quilting," which is an interesting metaphor. What does that mean?
Young: I'm from the South, so quilts are a big part of telling our story. Quilting is ancient, but in the South it's a very particular translation of idea, time, and space. In my own practice as an image maker, I slowly began to be less concerned with precision and more concerned with feeling.
Quiltmakers are rigorous, but they're a mixed media format. I think filmmaking should be a mixed media format. I'm just really honoring what quiltmakers do, which is tell a story by using varying texture within a specific framework to communicate an idea. For me, with digital technology, lenses do that the best. The chips don't do it now—digital film stock is basically all captured the same, but the lenses are how you give the image its textural quality.
NFS: What do you think the best thing a director can do to help the DP understand their vision?
Young: I think vulnerability is a big key element. Directors and cinematographers have to be equally vulnerable. My big mantra is that if I can't break bread with you after we make a film it's probably not a film we want to do together, because I'm going to expose to certain emotional, private things in my life that I wouldn't let other people unpack.
I firmly believe if we're being vulnerable to the story, we will achieve something, as imperfect as it will become. The vulnerability thing opens up a door for us to be better practitioners, and also to be better providers of material for what's essentially a media driven by a desire to communicate with the masses. You can't do that when you're sheltered; you can only do that when you open yourself up.
"Directors and cinematographers have to be equally vulnerable."
I say that with a real delicate stroke. It's not totally revealing because you can't give everybody your DNA, but you have to give a portion of your DNA in order to make the connection. I think people are responding to the film because we gave a lot of our own DNA—not only as filmmakers, but also as parents. We gave a lot of that up to make this film, and especially as fathers exploring a woman questioning her own mortality.
That required us to be that much more open, to be good listeners, and to not be paternalistic about how we approached that idea. That requires us to be vulnerable, it requires us to be open and not as silly, stupid men saying, "Oh we know, we know everything." No, you've got to be a listener, to know whose story you're telling. You just have to be that much more susceptible to having your world shaken, even if that's not the reason why you got into making films.