Cinema Blend interviewed Arrival concept artist Peter Konig today, and he gave them a glimpse at a number of alternate universes — his other designs for Arrival’s aliens, the heptapods, show all the worlds that might have been.
Konig emphasizes that director Denis Villeneuve was willing to entertain any and all ideas during the brainstorm phase, and that he wanted to hear a lot of them. Villeneuve opted to deliberately stray from the descriptions in the source material, Ted Chiang’s short piece “Story of Your Life.” Chiang describes the aliens as essentially barrels, with seven legs arranged in radial symmetry. Villeneuve’s adaptation keeps the name “heptapods,” and therefore keeps the seven legs as well, but the rest of the aliens’ bodies are notably different. They’re partially hidden in fog for most of the movie, but when the audience catches glimpses of them, they look like enormous, gray, faceless octopi.
Villeneuve sent Konig photos of cuttlefish, squids, and various microscopic organisms for inspiration. He also sent him a photo of horse eyes, because horse eyes are “soft and thoughtful” and “a little spooky.”
In the film’s production notes, Villeneuve mentions wanting to capture the feeling of standing next to a blue whale or an elephant — awe, but not necessarily fear. He also says his crew stayed away from the idea of making the heptapods look like humans in any way, because he believes humanoid aliens are intrinsically scarier to viewers.
Konig says this purple guy was one of the earlier contenders for the design. The final design for the aliens does include robot-claw hands that are a bit unnerving, but they’re much less sinister than this mock-up, in which some of the tentacles look like the possessed tree limbs from the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I like him, but he’s too scary! No eyes! Also, my editor Tasha says his head looks like a bird skull. Agree, and again: too scary.
Another early concept seems to have incorporated the horse-eye idea in a way that does not appeal to me. It’s beautifully drawn, though, and these limbs seem like a good fit for the way the heptapods lackadaisically squirt out their ink-circle language. This one also looks like a bird, but Tasha says it’s more like a sideways horse head made of driftwood, with a snake tongue lolling out of its mouth. Okay! Either way, the fact that it’s basically a Rorschach ink blot makes it fit better with the film’s aesthetic than the last dude.
Konig told Cinema Blend he understood why these concepts weren’t chosen, saying, “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 10 or 20 years, I think.”
He also submitted concept artwork for the aliens’ spaceship, including this idea for the human-alien interface that looks pretty close to what you see in the film. For more of his artwork and commentary, check out the full interview.