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Oscar Race 2017: Editor Joe Walker Describes His Process For Cutting “Arrival”

Multiple camera angles and sound cues helped inform editor Joe Walker’s decisions in cutting “Arrival.”

By: Marjorie Galas

Gripping dramatic storytelling isn’t the only thing editor Joe Walker continues to gravitate to. This could be said about the directors he works with as well. His collaboration with director Steve McQueen, for example, resulted in arresting narratives including 2008’s “Hunger”, 2011’s “Shame” and 2014’s Academy Award Best Picture winner, “12 Years A Slave”, for which Walker received his first Best Editing Oscar nom.

Walker’s second Best Editing Oscar nomination is the result of another dynamic partnership with director Denis Villeneuve. Their first partnership resulted in 2015’s critically heralded “Sicario.”  Walker’s work is recognized for their second collaboration on “Arrival” – a film that is also nominated for Best Picture.  Highlighting Louise, a linguist (Amy Adams) who’s been retained by the government to interpret the communications made by aliens that landed in random locations across the globe, Walker’s editing weaves a tense narrative that blends science fiction, education and human nature.  Variety 411 recently caught up with Walker to discuss his process.

Variety 411:  You had just concluded “Sicario” when you transitioned to “Arrival”.  The two films, while vastly different, maintain some similar themes, including human hostility, military power and the intricacies of communication.   Did you and Denis want a completely unique visual style for “Arrival?” 

Joe Walker: The first tantalizing glimpse I had of “Arrival” was overhearing a phone conversation (while cutting “Sicario”) with the creature designers where Denis said “Perhaps we should think about it not having any eyes.” That was the first image I had long before reading the script.  “Sicario” was a great first project to work with Denis on, the edit was relatively straightforward and we could really spend our time honing the sound and image and build up mutual faith.  “Arrival”, by contrast, was a much looser edit, with a wealth of almost documentary footage which we needed to structure and marble through for the main narrative. Delivering a reveal took a fair bit of trial and error.  And the other challenge was that two of the main characters, our heptapods, where missing. During the shoot (they) were no more than puppeteers holding a tennis ball on a pole.  But fundamentally, I worked with Denis exactly the same way, trying to tell a story the best way we could and to wring every drop of tension out of a situation. 

V411: Did you feel you could freely share your interpretation of scenes and sequences – that is, did you feel you had a great deal of creative impact through the course of editing “Arrival?”

JW: We’d built up a great deal of trust, so yes. Time is at the heart of the story, so it was always going to be a story where editing had a big role to play.  With the ‘flash’ or ‘vision’ material, which in itself had narrative on a very low gas, we took great care to give them the illusion of an overall shape, by echoing images carefully, and being very precise about their rhythm.  On the soundtrack, we start them mute, then slowly introduced flashes of sound, then snatches of dialogue, carefully building until the two worlds have equal presence in Louise’s mind.

There were often problems we couldn’t immediately solve, but we learned the best way to deal with them was to start a sentence by saying, “ok, bad idea, what if we..?” This avoided a lot of staring at the wall.  Some great ideas came out of just trying something that might appear impossible.  One scene that we’d tried to discard had to come back because it articulated an idea vital to understanding the story: the idea that exposure to a language can rewire your brain.  Normally restoring a scene that you’ve happily lived without can feel like putting back on wet swimming trunks.  But we tried nevertheless and that lead to a big inspiration: turning (the scene) into a nightmare; incorporating its strange discontinuities and a surprise cut to a fat heptapod crouching at the foot of the bed.  It ended up an excellent way of entering into our lead character’s mind.  

V411: As I was watching the film I noticed there was a substantial use of wide and medium shots.  Can you talk a little about the choice of using specific types of shots when editing “Arrival?”  Where there certain tones, emotions or moods you were aiming to create? 

JW: The wide shots often convey a sense of vulnerability for the main character. Often the camera is traveling behind Louise, for example as she walks through the car park and witnesses a crash and passing fighter planes.  I think Bradford Young and Denis did a great job conveying the infinity of space outside her lakeside home and Bradford is a master of focus, they chose a very shallow depth of field so things like helicopters or the spaceship were very often thrown out of focus.  I think it helped sell the world by underplaying it, and it draws your attention to the main characters.

Much of the ‘flash’ material is often BCU – it adds to a level of intimacy which takes Louise aback – the child being put to bed, for example, or asking why she’s named Hannah. There’s an intensity to those images (because) the world is so different – all those sherbet-y colors of the child’s natural world against the technological environment and low level lighting – from the army environment.

It’s always fun to clash these shot sizes, to smash cut between a wide and a BCU, for example. Such as when Louise first sees the aliens, we’re toggling between close shots of her intensely nervous face and the entire space of the chamber and the whole scenario she is having to take in and process. 

V411: During “Sicario” you worked closely with composer Johann Johannsson, sharing each other’s progress like a checker game during the editing process.  You had mentioned at times you had even edited without sound, to really capture an intuitive rhythm within the action.  Johann also scored “Arrival” – were there unique ways you worked this time? 

JW: It was similar in many ways, Johann delivered some killer tracks very early, during the shoot.  The first track that blew us away was the circular vocal piece over the steely drone, that’s the music we ended up using over Louise’s first glimpse of the spaceship from the helicopter.  I love Johann’s choice, on a film about humans and communication, to lean more towards vocals and extended vocal techniques.  There was more music in “Arrival”, so the back end of the fine cut involved a lot more of a checker game than “Sicario.”  I had Clint Bennett as Music Editor to help me recraft some pieces that were written for scenes that changed after recording the music.  For example, it was a relatively late decision to include a majestic sequence of the spaceships departing, so at the last minute we had Framestore (a creative studio supplying VFX on “Arrival”) working full tilt and didn’t get the sequence ready in time for the music recording.  On this film, we kept the clay wet up until the very last moment. 

V411: Sound is a big element in this film.  Did you have a close working relationship with the sound editor, perhaps in exchanging ideas or modifying scenes? 

JW: Denis and I prefer to set out a really strong blueprint in the AVID, long before the sound designers came on board.  We’d made many decisions early, including folding the fantastic heptapod vocal sounds into the edit only a few weeks into the fine cut.  It really helped us in a process where you have to turn over VFX shots so early, often with relatively crude temp shots of the heptapods cut out of the storyboards to help indicate the scene.  Building up the sound helped to keep our nerve with the length of shots, and there was always a diminishing amount of things to imagine.

That said, Sylvain Bellemare brought great skill and taste when he joined us later as sound designer. For example, we recorded masses of crowd ADR to create a din of army voices over the headsets.  Sylvain built a Heath Robinson rig in the studio so that he could redirect any of these clean sounds through the natural distortion of tiny speakers like a Dictaphone, or walkie-talkies.  That was a huge job.  He also brought a wonderful approach to the sound of the shell moving, a mixture of ice and rocks.  Denis always favors natural sounds, so this approach worked well.  He wanted the whole invasion to occur on an overcast Tuesday morning, and Sylvain’s sounds complemented that.  Sylvain and his team recorded a lot of original sound for the movie, wonderful wind noises, for example.  He’s that kind of guy.  We used to joke that if he’d drunk too much and was sick in an alley, he’d probably grab his recorder and shoot it.

V411: Speaking of sounds, I distinctly recall the sound of the song bird that was brought into the alien ship chirping in scenes where Amy Adams is back in the barracks while she experienced some of her “memory/future” flashes.  Can you talk about the intention of introducing visions and sounds from other scenes or life experiences within particular sequences (like the song bird?) 

JW: The canary is a good device for raising the tension. The idea is it’s a canary in a coalmine, an early indicator of danger or contamination. A bit like the dog barking on the Bridge of Americas in “Sicario”.  Inside the spaceship, we edited the sound to suggest it was getting agitated long before we know what it’s sensing.  We used the canary in the nightmare sequence, also, it was a good way of ratcheting up the tension, and while we’re watching the scene, it’s a clear indication that not is all as it seems.

I really loved peppering dialogue from the child over shots of Amy inside the barracks. Things like the kind of lip moving noises she made while reading a book, a little sound you sense before you hear her say “What’s this word?”  It conveyed a child right next to your shoulder, at odds with the office scene where Louise hears it.  Once the ‘flash’ material had got underway, it was a device we used often to contaminate the main narrative.

V411: Were you working with a lot of VFX refining of the aliens and their language that resulted in your continuously tweaking or adjusting edits during their communication sequences?   

JW: Patrice Vermette, the production designer, and his wife Martine Bertrand, designed the logograms. They had to decide this in pre-production so they could litter the army barracks with photocopies, leaving us in post to reverse engineer 3-dimensional objects that would be the source of those images. It took a long time for Denis and Louis Morin, the VFX supervisor, to settle on the look of the logograms as they move through space.  We settled on a globular ink look which being generated by a sim, would sometimes have just the right look and sometimes not. We needed to convey a sense that, gravity in the chamber being different to the outside world, the logogram ink holds together long enough to read, but are constantly collapsing until some tipping point where the ink completely evaporates.  It took time.

We had to extend the ‘bible’ as we needed more logograms than originally planned. We see Louise scrolling through different logograms on an iPad at one point so we also had to create something that looked like the software that could decode them.

The great advantage of logograms in terms of re-engineering some story beats was that we could put any subtitle we wanted over them! So there was a lot of dialogue we gave the heptapods that helped us nail the reveal, when we moved that earlier into the timeline and wanted it to be a little more conspicuous.  

V411: Now you are working with Denis on the third straight collaboration – “Blade Runner”.  I know you can’t talk about the film, but what is it like working with him on a re-imagined story that already has such a revered spot in film history?  

JW: No pressure! So many people approach me with a mix of intense curiosity and a certain level of panic, because the first “Blade Runner” was such an important film to them.  I can’t say much about it, because I really don’t want to spoil the surprise.  If I did tell you, I’d probably have to kill you.