‘Arrival’ Sound Editor Sylvain Bellemare On First Sci-Fi Experience & Working With Denis Villeneuve To Craft An Alien Sound

Matthew Grobar

How do aliens sound in an emotional, psychological, science fiction universe? This was one of many questions faced by French-Canadian sound editor Sylvain Bellemare in overseeing the development of a soundscape for Denis Villeneuve’s out-of-the-box alien invasion picture, Arrival. In working with Villeneuve, a director Bellemare describes as demanding, and specific in his vision, the reference points for the film were films like Interstellar and the Jodie Foster-starring Contact, and although those films are indeed suggestive of what one can expect of Arrival, they don’t tell the full story. Below, Bellemare discusses his long collaboration with Villeneuve, the craft of sound editing, and his first experience editing sound for a sci-fi blockbuster.

What initially attracted you to Arrival, and how did you get involved?

I was really fascinated with the script, when I read it, and I was really interested in [the way in which the script used] the past and future. Of course, it’s not really good in an interview to share that concept; of course, you saw the film. But for the viewers, I would just say it’s interesting how it plays with time. That will be a better answer. [Laughs] I’ve known Denis for a long, long time—I’ve been doing films with him here in Montreal for…the first time was like 20 years ago. We’ve done different projects over the years—we have a long-term partnership in movies, so it was a bit natural for me to do the film, even if Denis does all his films in California, for the last few ones. I was involved for that reason.

Sound editing is one of the lesser-understood crafts in filmmaking. What would you say about your artistic process, and your collaborative relationship with Denis, having worked together on a number of films?

First of all, I really approach sound as a character—sound is, in a way, really a part of the cinematographic language. It’s always my approach that the sound can define the narration, and define the emotion that you want to share. Also, the first idea is to bring ideas, basically, from the director, and even abstract ideas—sound really remains kind of a subconscious view of the world; sometimes, it’s really difficult to put words on it. It’s something basically where if you hear the sound, you understand what I mean, but if we just talked…we need to hear it. It’s like if our level of comprehension cannot come by words, but it’s really by sounds—which is really close to the film, in a way, because [the scientists] try to connect with those E.T. sounds, but sounds cannot connect them. Their language is difficult to understand; communication cannot be sensitive only with words and sounds. She has to go through another level, and that level will be reached through kind of a weird connection.

It’s a thin line. There’s a lot of things that [Denis] doesn’t like, there’s a lot of things that he likes, but you really need exactly what he wants. If he does not get that, he will throw away all your work. It’s a very thin line with him, and at any moment, something cannot be what he wants. He’s always afraid, which is very important, that sound does not overwhelm the image, which has happened sometimes in some films, so we have to be very clever with him to bring the sound at the top level of what the film needs if the sound is too obvious, or too ‘in your face.’ It’s a challenge.

How did Denis express his idea of this film’s soundscape to you? Did you find cues or ideas within the script itself?

He really wanted a different sound than other films—it’s cliché to say that, but he really wanted another sort of sensation with this film, another type of sensation. Some people would relate the film with something like Interstellar, or even like Contact, with Jodie Foster, but it’s emotional, psychological science fiction, so the sound in the film was really related to memories, and how memories can bring you to a level of presence. And of course, how do you bring that, how do you try to not be too cliché with that? It was a challenge, basically, and sometimes we played with it in the film—that sometimes, the memory or the image, and the sound was in the present, and sometimes it was in the opposite.

The sound was in the memory—in the past—and the image was in the present. It was something to play with. I think you just want to make sure that the sound was a strong enough character to live by itself, and maybe to cover holes that sometimes we had hard times with in editing—that there was some link to the story that sound had to do in the rhythm, in the narration.

Have you taken on a science-fiction narrative, or a film of this scope in the past? What are the unique challenges and opportunities presented in working on a film of this sort?

My experience came a lot more from the experimental movies. Science fiction wasn’t something that I really had the chance to touch because science fiction films, most of the time, are only made basically in Hollywood. There are only so many places in the world where you can afford to do science fiction. I’ve done some stuff, but it was closer to experimental kinds of films, so you explore sound in a very abstract way, where sound is really close to music sometimes. In that type of field, we didn’t have the time that probably they had on Star Wars, or something. [Arrival] was a film that the schedule was really tight for different matters, and we had to have all the ideas and the design in a short period of time. Fortunately, we were a big, wonderful team that worked very hard on the front lines, for everybody.

One of the basic things that was a success on the sound of Arrival was the voice part [of the alien species], which was made a lot from living animals and creatures, and on the other side, a lot of the radio communication also was really made from real devices, so we had the chance to work the devices instead of going to plug-ins. But on many levels, we used our big sound memory to do the soundscape— on other projects, I would have had time to record more sound, but because it was so tight, we had to dig a lot in our huge sound library. It would be like that for the vessels, for instance—the rock sounds of the vessel, made out of real, actual rock sounds that we had to change for the film.


Were most sounds for the film newly recorded, or did you source a great deal from your sound libraries?

Beside the animal voices and the radio communication, we of course did recordings for some things, but basically a lot of it came from our sound library. Unfortunately with the schedule he had, we had to face that, but we found rock sounds that we wanted for the vessel, when it moves. I would also add the fact that one of the things Denis really wanted, maybe going back to one of your first questions, is that Denis really wanted a non-electronic sound for the film. He really wanted a sort of organic and naturalistic sound—that’s why the vessel sounds really like a natural mountain moving, instead of a very sci-fi, electronic sound. You don’t see an engine, for instance—when you see the vessel, there is no engine. When you see the little vessel that goes to pick up Amy, it’s the same. Where’d that come from? There is no smoke, no nothing. At the end of the film, it’s really obvious when you see the vessel disappearing, like dust into the clouds. The same for the voices of the Heptopods—they had to come from naturalistic sounds.

One recurring sound, seemingly coming from the alien ship, has the feeling of blaring trumpets, or other horns. Was that reflective of your intent?

It sounds like that. [laughs] Certain sounds we really tried to make them sound like organic sounds. Some sounds were a bit like whales, or something like that. I don’t know if you felt that—it was basically [akin to] subaquatic creatures. They look like that—even though sometimes they’re not a recording based on whale sounds, I would say that they sound sometimes a bit like that, like a subaquatic creature. That was a goal, to make them as a living beast, and also at a very low frequency. We [needed] a sound that was terrifying, on one side, and smooth on the other side. Those creatures are basically not our friends, on the first steps, and we had to make it clear about that—it’s a very wild beast, in fact, that the character of Louise will [encounter]. We kept the ideal that to be monsters, [the sound] has to be something terrifying.

How would you describe your process in working with Dave Whitehead, the sound designer who was another major contributor to the final product?

It’s really important to name Dave. Dave was on the project before me—he really worked specifically on the Heptopod vocal design. He really worked specifically on the vocal sounds—I was supervising him, but basically, Dave’s is the masterpiece of the vocals.

My role as the supervising sound editor was to make sure that we created specific sound ideas and designs for the film. Dave started before me on the project, so he did something with [editor] Joe Walker, and then I came and supervised the entire sound. In film, the Supervising Sound Editor is like a conductor. We have different instruments, and some of them are leading instruments—Dave is definitely like first violin. I’d like to have a word also about the crowd: One of the subtle sounds in the film is the crowd at the [military] base camp, trying to have natural crowds—kind of a walla sound. And as I said before, one of the big issues was all the communication, the devices, walkie talkies that we had—we really did a recording of every single word through these devices—real devices—instead of using plug-ins, so it was an exciting process, but very hard. It was something special to do.

Where do you look to get access to the sort of specialized equipment involved in a film like this, for purposes of sound recording?

Basically, we did a lot of research into military devices and what the U.S. Army would use. And sometimes we’d discover that the U.S. military would use devices that we cannot get. [Laughs] We have access to many things, but we’d have to re-create that. There’s a small helicopter scene in the film—it’s the same. We really get the devices.

The realistic recordings of military devices serve also to ground the film, in relation to the surreal, heightened events taking place within the alien vessel.

One of the things was always to be with Louise’s emotions—to follow what Louise is going through. As a viewer, we know she’s not there—she’s between life and death, basically. She’s always between a world that she does not understand, and another world that she doesn’t really understand—the military. She’s not really comfortable there. The sound in Arrival was really based in creating a vibration or mood between real and unreal worlds.

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