Denis Villeneuve's Arrival seems like a shoo-in for some prestige season love throughout the next couple of months. A good piece of that love will come from the various visual effects nominations that will stem from the incredible work behind the film's Heptapod aliens, courtesy of artist Carlos Huante. However, that wasn't always going to be the design for the creatures, nor was it the first piece of work that Villeneuve and his team had looked at. An earlier favorite for the design gig was fellow artist Peter Konig, who has contributed work to everything from Jurassic Park to Splice, and even Beverly Hills Chihuahua in-between.
Luckily for us, we were given permission not only to share Konig's concept art from Arrival's production phases, but we also had a chance to speak with Peter, so that we could discuss the design processes that went into the art you're going to see below. No need to worry about spoilers, for as Peter Konig himself points out on his official website, ArtStation, the final concept used was drastically different from what was proposed by Konig. We'll start with some interesting concepts for the actual designs of the Heptapods themselves, the first of which is directly below.
While the design for Arrival's aliens is pretty interesting, it doesn't fit the overall aesthetic of the film. In our conversation with Konig, he described his preliminary design process thusly:
For the creatures, when they brought me on, they were in a stage where (Denis) Villenueve just wanted ideas, lots of ideas. He didn't want to stick to the short story or the script in terms of what they should look like. He wanted variety, and to just try stuff. He sent me photo (references) of stuff he liked, real things he thought had elements that he thought were important - pictures of cuttle fish, squids, microscopic organisms, stuff like that. He also like horses eyes for their very soft and thoughtful qualities and because although they looked familiar they had this other quality of being slightly "other" and alien. They had a sympathetic look, but were a little spooky. He also wanted to try designs that had no back and no front, confusing to look at, yet still with an intelligent feel. I started with quick pencil sketches, which didn't go anywhere. When I started kitbashing in Zbrush, I hit upon that purplish one with the tentacles and he really responded to that one and seemed really excited about it. I kinda thought that that was the one that would end up in the movie, but a lot of time went by and things changed.
Interestingly enough, Konig mentions Denis Villeneuve as ignoring the descriptions of the Heptapods from the short story. Yet for all of the discounting that went on with the initial description, it looks like Peter Konig's design pays homage to the short story. The photos above and below took parts of the original concept from Ted Chiang's short story, Story of Your Life, and eliminated key pieces. Chiang's original story described the alien visitors as follows:
It looked like a barrel suspended at the intersection of seven limbs. It was radially symmetric, and any of its limbs could serve as an arm or a leg. The one in front of me was walking around on four legs, three non-adjacent arms curled up at its sides.
As you can see, with both designs shown above, Peter Konig took the barrel concept of the Heptapod's central design, and turned the creatures into floating figures, much like a jellyfish. Though if you think the alternate concepts for Arrival's aliens isn't interesting enough for you, on the next page we'll be showing off the spaceship designs.
For Arrival's iconic spaceship design, Peter Konig actually didn't submit as much work as he did for the designs of the Heptapods themselves. Yet the concepts he did submit were wildly different than the actual ships used for the final film. In fact, if you look at the original elements and then consult the artwork for the successful video game Destiny, the initial concept looks a lot closer to that of the games' Traveler spacecraft.
The information Konig provided on his spaceship work on Arrival isn't as plentful, seeing as he didn't work too extensively on the concepts. However, as you'll see below, they aren't any less insightful.
For the small amount of work I did on the ship, Villenueve initially wanted them nearly spherical but soon wanted other features. I didn't go too far with the exterior designs - just a few explorations and some texture tests. I love the design they ended up with... much more interesting than ball shape. The few interiors I did, I based off of his description of a featureless space with just a wall of glass like material, like a huge aquarium wall. Pretty simple, but effective.
Out of all the work that Peter Konig had done on Arrival's spaceships and aliens, ultimately most of the work was changed into what we saw on the screen when the film premiered earlier this month. Though there was one sketch that Konig shared that ended up being the closest that one of his pieces had to make it into the final film. His reaction, as well as that concept, are on the next page.
The one concept designed by Peter Konig that looks to have survived in the final, finished film of Arrival is the now iconic interface that looks like a really high-tech aquarium set up. A starkly designed room, the trailers for the film have used scenes from this chamber quite a bit. You can see the extremely familiar looking room in the sketch below.
While this may be the only piece of Peter Konig's work that seems to have survived through the entire concept design process he engaged in, the artist understands that Arrival isn't the sort of film that demands the "ordinary" protocol for spaceship and creature design. Konig laid that out in his final statement regarding the design process:
Overall I understand the choices Villenueve made. The Story is not actually about aliens and spaceships, it's about the humans and the concept of communication. Making the alien elements crazy and fantastical would pull the focus away from the point of the story, so keeping everything minimal was smart. Also, the minimalism will keep it from looking dated in ten or 20 years, I think.
With its intelligent plot, and masterful execution of hard sci-fi and emotional storytelling, Arrival looks like it could be destined for being remembered in the long run as a genre classic. Though you don't need to take our word for it, as you're still able to see the film pretty openly in theaters at this moment. However, if you'd like to see the remains of the concept art provided by Peter Konig, you can click through to the next page and view it readily.