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Sure, there are spaceships and aliens, but the sounds for 'Arrival' were kept natural

Director Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” may be an alien movie, but you won’t hear the sounds of warp speed, Martian death rays or beeping robots in it, say supervising sound editor Sylvain Bellemare and re-recording mixer Bernard Gariépy Strobl.

“Denis really insisted on having a sound that was not electronic,” Bellemare says of the film starring Amy Adams as a linguist trying to communicate with an alien species. “He wanted to do another type of science fiction. So he wanted to use an approach of [making] the sound really organic.”

Bellemare and Gariépy Strobl knew what they were in for, having worked together on several previous films, including Villeneuve’s 2008 short “Next Floor.”

“Sylvain and I met through the corridors of a sound post-production facility, and we got along quite well,” says Gariépy Strobl. “And creatively, we complement each other very well.”

How did you create an organic sound for “Arrival”?

Bellemare: The first thing that probably will touch people is the sound of the heptapods [or aliens]. They started with Dave Whitehead, who is the wonderful sound designer living in New Zealand who works on many Peter Jackson films. And they really started the design of those organic voices with animals, basically, which is an old trick in sound design.

Gariépy Strobl: There were definitely some marine animals that were used in it that we can recognize, some whales in the recipe. And sometimes it was Dave’s voice that he used and treated in ways. So it’s a huge blend of a lot of different elements.

Bellemare: And you can say that on another topic, the sound of the vessel [or spacecraft] itself, we had decided to use natural sounds also. And that was really initiated with my partner Olivier Calvert, who was the sound designer responsible for that section. And we really made the vessel like there’s a mountain moving. We don’t hear any engine. We just hear the movement of the rocks and this ice.

Gariépy Strobl: And all the communication tools that were used.

Bellemare: Basically, we had 11 different devices for communication. They were all made of certain types of walkie-talkies and devices.

What was the setup?

Bellemare: So there are the voices of the actors in ProTools, in the recording system. And then we send that signal through the full-range speakers that Bernard had built. So the walkie-talkie is really standing close to the speaker. That goes to the receptor walkie-talkie, which is in another room. And that receptor outputs the signal, and that signal is being recorded by a microphone.

Did you record all of the dialogue this way?

Gariépy Strobl: You know, dialogue in a film is never over until the film is screening, so we had to be able to include new lines or changes all the way until the end. I created a whole bunch of presets using many different [software] plugins to try to re-create the same sound [as the walkie-talkie set-up]. And it would match very closely to what was recorded in the recording session with those devices.

How did you create the sound of the hazmat suits?

Bellemare: We made the foley [or sound effects recording] in Paris with Nicolas Becker, who is a well-known foley artist that worked on different big productions, such as “Gravity,” for instance, where the sound is absolutely astonishing. So they took the hazmat suit to re-create the foley in studio.

Gariépy Strobl: There was a lot of breathing that was re-recorded in ADR [or recording sessions after the filming] to make us feel her anxiety and her situation.

What’s your proudest success on this film?

Bellemare: Denis is always a filmmaker who wants to create a certain mood that is not directly part of the story, but is there under the skin, somewhere under the script. There are a lot of places where the characters are more in the shadows and dark than the light. That was the challenge also with the sound, to create this certain mood.

Gariépy Strobl: I’m proud of the way the film conveys a very strong emotional and very naturalist link to Louise [Adams]. And that was a goal I had the first time I saw the film, the way the camera is always on her. And I really wanted the sound to convey this, and to be part of her own experience and not seeing her experience from an outside point of view. I’m quite happy with the way it turned out.

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