Bradford Young was the cinematographer selected to partner with Denis Villeneuve to create the cinematography and to direct the film respectively. The cool aesthetics of this visual performance and Young’s precise cinematographic style helped to lay the foundation for the film’s tone and mood. This essay will be a purely technical breakdown of the behind the scenes and what approaches and techniques I believe to have been used.
In many of the scenes located in the internal structure of the alien spaceship a baffled still camera was used to achieve the film’s low depth and composition. This helped to keep the camera very quiet so that the still camera could get very close to the actors while they are talking so as that the beats between speaking are naturally silent. For these still camera shots I believe the Alexa SXT was used alongside a monitor and cinotape with a Lieber head rig for stability and agility. This meant that the scenes could maintain their cinematic appearance with mobility and low sound interference. This is an underappreciated facet of a camera set up as the performances of actors are more likely to feel organic. Here they used a three piece set and CGI markers lit very evenly by a 20x source possibly a book-light. This simplistic approach was crucial.
During the filming of this feature Young used the CAM Tech Ultra Prime. This allowed them to make use of a whole spectrum of lenses such as older super-speeds which are likely to be more uncoded and therefore more flarey. From my perspective the use of 36 frame per second footage for the film’s entire duration had a great impact on the look and feel as the more physical and restless shots had an added energy and convinced the viewer. Silent or non-dialogue elements of the film particularly benefited as the structure of these shots were composed of micro-precision and a life-like fluidity.
Observing the opening shot of the first contact one can see a bright light in the background known as a practical under proper methodology. This light source is reflected in the curved space of the entrance broken by the rippled wall effects. These strong silhouette’s build tension and have an ominous feel to them. To achieve the following shot at the mouth of the expanse on which the aliens will communicate Young wanted to create a sense of scale and underline the arrival of it’s characters so used what appears to be a 45/60 Technocrane with a Lieber and SXT rig for a high mobile shot. The bridge between the aliens and humans is represented with a wide backlit screen panel which I believe to be a symbolic portrait of the light of knowledge and darkness of ignorance as the aliens attempt to spread their mental diagrams.
As the scene progresses Young switches to a telescoping crane to mark the transition to more intimate mobile shots known as the Technocrane SRO with an Alexa front lit Lieber head and a speaker for additional playback. This speaker helped in an unconventional way to articulate the musical score and as an auditory demonstration to the actors. To mark the third stage of this shot to shot transition the crew uses an extended boom mic so as to fully capture the wide shot and maintain the sense of space and scale. The camera used for this shot was the Alexa over-slung rig for added maneuverability. You can also see a spotter for identifying shot stability.
In the second encounter, a cinotape using a sonar based distance measure a profile shot of Amy Adams creates a pace to her movements underlining trepidation. As this was a profile shot it was necessary that the plastic face sheet was not too reflective despite the 35ft back-lit panel. This was achieved by the curved surface which allowed a natural cooler and less extreme lighting for her face with a sliver of reflected light. This added substantial clarity. Furthermore an arrow crane with a fisher extender and a Mosis extender was used to create stability in this shot.
Roughly twenty five minutes later in the following encounter Amy Adam’s character is now not wearing her hazmat so the cinematographic approach alters. A goal post crank stand is used for a harsher contrast effect. The 20 x 60 light panel lights the entire scene and was specially made for this scene by a studio known as Rag Place LA and you can tell they did a great job providing an evenly lit light source. The wonder perceived in Adams’ eyes is established using this light source as her raised eyes have their bottom half lit by the source to give it a gleefulness.
Young diversifies his shots earlier in the process with an over the shoulder shot of the gloved protagonist writing on a whiteboard. The reflection on the gloves helps to give the shot a sense of ownership over her language. Using a blue colour correct of the ambient roof reflection the whiteboard added complexity to what was being written alongside the orange suit reflection. This is complemented by the blue colour correction used on the floor of the set.
In another shot containing a bird in a cage we see a variety of techniques being used. The shot is all back-lit, all ambien and all reflection to create a silhouette effect. It’s everything that I love and more. Simple yet dynamic and also striking. Despite Young’s inexperience on a VFX set the clipboard constantly used the focal length in the white room scenes. Using a stage version of the white tent as the room, quasar LED tubes and a Light Mat 1 are used to give the scenes a procedural serious tone. As you white balance these images it is fascinating to observe the colour correction used as they change the uniform white colour of the tent and many pieces of clothing to a grayish-blue. Some of the background used ultra-blue for contrast. Young is using strong, practical lighting to silhouette non-speaking parts. The top lights serve a dual purpose of lighting the scene and adjusting the balance of dark silhouetted shots.
For many of the closeup shots three quarter lights were used for faces to complement the colour adjustments. For more mobile 4K shots a SXTM backpack was used to shoot raw recorder and maintain the quality seen in other shots. For many of the international Skyping scenes the monitors were used as lighting for army officers to give the scene an Apple Mac advert vibe and highlight the military discipline. To improve this further the whites were looking pretty white so the mids and blacks must have been tinted blue. Young’s cinematography also created character as he underlined the cowardliness and incompetence of a character using a 250 to diffuse created a shot with less energy and by using a Cenotaph.
During a scene in the second act of the film we experience a less claustrophobic outdoors scene which sought to show off the Cam Tech Ultra Prime 32s. Moreover, they ensured that the flare of the sun in these shots was modified for clarity and to articulate the relief of the spacious outdoors forming an orange teal colour. Much later in these outdoors scenes Young reverses this process to use an Instagram-esque filter with vignette and dampened colours signaling the intimidation and fear being experienced by Adams’ character.
Bradford Young minimized the use of flares however was able to use them effectively during outdoor night scenes so as to give the impression of disorientation without making the audience disorientated themselves. They weren’t too aggressive and used a lot of chromatic aboration. One of my favorite shots is when Amy Adams’ character first touches the spaceship using a close-up on her hand. The blurred center and orange and blue makes the ship seem mysterious and beautifully engaging in it’s tactile appearance. This shot is completely composed of reflections from natural light. Similarly I really enjoyed a shot of this racetrack sitting down on a bench outside the light of sanitation chamber. She is completely silhouetted with the repeated orange shapes of hazmat and practical lighting. Their are also repeated struts and tiles as well as harnesses and legs to give the shot a satisfying consistency and contemplative nature reflecting the character in shot.
I really appreciate Bradford Young’s use of practicals in shots and none more so than during the scene in the helicopter journey to base camp. The red emergency practicals with the quasar tube repeated again and blue colour correct. The fact that the faces and heads of characters use pure black means that the shots are less comforting and more ominous to complement the tone of the scene.
I appreciate the integration of production design and cinematography in this movie as practical sets were implemented for the alien scenes to the full extent of the word. From a symbolic perspective Bradford describes the darkness used as not being scary but unknown so as to coincide with the film’s narrative. The approach to cinematography was called Dirty Sci-Fi by it’s creators as though it took place on a rainy average Tuesday Morning. This hearkens back to both the director and DP’s childhood and the excitement of imagination on days such as these on the bus journey to school. This sense of adventure was meant to feel organic. The film demonstrates that the point of departure should be feeling. If it felt right, ultimately it could be as wide as he wanted and as tight as he wanted to add a sense of scale and fundamentally be deeply personal and deeply internal but at the same time be massively observational and have the ability to step back from it all as well.
WRITING WITH IMAGES: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘ARRIVAL’