How light artist James Turrell and an oval exoplanet inspired 'Arrival's' Oscar-nominated production design

It all started with a James Turrell art exhibit. The artist’s geometric light projections and sensory deprivation installations served as inspiration for director Denis Villeneuve and production designer Patrice Vermette, even before receiving the script for 2016’s “Arrival.”    

Villeneuve’s cerebral film about alien invaders earned eight Oscar nominations including best picture, director and adapted screenplay. Behind the haunting, yet serene look of the film are Canadian production designer Vermette and set decorator Paul Hotte — both nominated for a production design Oscar.

In “Arrival,” the centerpiece of the film are the spaceships. Tell me about the design. 

Vermette: We tried many shapes for the ship. During our research, we saw an oval-shaped exoplanet [similar to] Venus, so we started playing with that. Then we decided to position the ship vertically because it was an intriguing shape. We decided to not have it land on Earth, but hover over the ground by 28 feet, because we thought it was interesting that these extraterrestrials would travel millions of light years to meet us but we still need to put the extra effort. 

We wanted to stay away from any antennas, frost on the windows. We wanted something different and aesthetically pleasing, but far away from the aesthetics of the spaceships we’ve seen in the past. There’s also the idea of putting in contrast between alien technology with our own modest technology on Earth.

What is your process for creating a film’s look?

Hotte: When you first do a read through of the script, you have images in your mind. Then you do a second reading, talking with people around, then a third and fourth. That’s the way our imagination works. There’s not only two people on this, there’s hundreds of people having something in mind. That’s what is magic about movie-making. It takes months of research, talking and a lot of visuals to be creative. Creativity comes with your day-to-day surrounding, it comes with having a meal with someone at home who doesn’t work on this movie.

How did you break into the industry? Were there any mentors helping you out?

Vermette: I started doing music videos when I came out of university. In 1999, I met someone who actually changed my perspective in movie-making. His name is Guss Roy, he was a French production designer. We had the opportunity to work together on commercials, and he passed away in 2010. He was my mentor.

Hotte: It was the same for me. When I was out of university I did my own movie and met people in the industry. At first I didn’t like the industry, so I went traveling for one year and came back. I tried it again and found someone who took me in for three years. That’s the way I started years ago.

Do you mentor anyone now?

Vermette: I try to bring one or two new people, if I can, on each project that I do. It doesn’t mean they’re going to stay with us but it’s just a way of helping like I was helped by different people.

Hotte: I think it’s important to give to the next generation, we are privileged enough to get where we are now. 

Tell us about being nominated.

Vermette: It’s spectacular, it’s something you can never expect. It’s a wonderful gift, and we feel privileged. Usually we imagine the recognition is only for the stars, the actors, the director and the producer that get this treatment. 

Hotte: It’s something magic, just the way we are treated. We feel like stars.

What are you wearing to the Academy Awards?

Hotte: I’m wearing a creation from Montreal from a designer called Philippe Dubuc.

Vermette: He copied me. I’m also wearing it, he’s a good friend of ours.

More on “Arrival” . . . 

Full coverage: Oscars 2017 »

makeda.easter@latimes.com

Twitter: @makedaeaster

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