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How Science and Nerdery Combined to Create ARRIVAL’s Clever “Logograms”

How Science and Nerdery Combined to Create ARRIVAL’s Clever “Logograms”

What would a conversation with an alien be like? Even if there was some common terra firma, could you ever hope to understand its fundamentally bizarre point of view? That’s the central question posed in Arrival, an alien-themed sci-fi blockbuster that for once doesn’t involve a destroyed city. The film’s alien “language” has been touted by hard sci-fi nerds like ourselves as being simultaneously otherworldly and realistic, and that’s because some of the brightest minds and biggest nerds helped create the hetapod’s mysterious “logograms.”

Speaking over the phone, Academy Award-nominated production designer Patrice Vermette told Nerdist that the genesis of the alien language was the script—the logograms were circular in screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s adaptation, based on the 1998 short story, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, and so the movie followed suit. But the designs “still needed to be decipherable and look good,” Vermette said. That task fell to artist and costume designer Martine Bertrand, who added ink to the script’s description, so to speak. The result was an eerie yet intriguing language, almost inviting you to understand it:

NerdistLogogramArrival_PICIt’s not an exact translation, but this is how Arrival’s hetapods would say “Nerdist.”

Once they had the design down, Vermette gave the logograms to Stephen Wolfram, founder of Mathematica and WolframAlpha, and his son Christopher Wolfram to analyze like a willing linguist would. They quickly identified 12 “interesting looking” sections that could be the basis for the language, and Vermette began adding meaning to those sections and their combinations. All in all, Vermette and Betrand had created a bank of 100 symbols that could express simple phrases (“Hello”) or complex ideas, like a certain nerdy human business name (“Nerdist” above).

“We wanted to ground the symbols in something that makes sense, in reality,” Vermette told us. “It would be too easy otherwise — given the opportunity and the privilege of making [Arrival], let’s push it to the limit.”

Filmmakers have no obligation to get the science right, so when they do, nerds take notice. Nerds like Vermette. “I’m a huge Star Wars fan,” Vermette said. “There were tears in my eyes when I gave away my figurines from 1977.” He was gifting them to his kids.

The logograms of Arrival were born of this geekiness, and the dedication to realism comes through in the film. Remembering that “sci-fi” means “science fiction” often adds to the story, rather than detracts from it, which was exactly what Vermette wanted. The science of the logograms (no spoilers) has a message in and of itself. “The role of the film is to talk about humanity, to open people’s eyes,” Vermette said.

“Every moment of life is important.”

Arrival is out on Blu-ray and DVD starting today.

Images: Paramount Pictures

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