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Dissecting the alien language in 'Arrival'

Or, how filmmakers coded (and decoded) those mysterious circles.
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One of the coolest bits from Arrival isn't the sci-fi movie's Lovecraftian aliens or its stunning cinematography (although, to be fair, those are both great), it's the Heptapods' language. Figuring out a way to communicate with beings without provoking a war is central to the first-contact story's plot. While their spoken language is basically a series of low-frequency grunts and groans, the inky "written" version of it resembles an ouroboros that's written and read from left to right and right to left, simultaneously.

Throughout a series of tweets recently, writer/producer Eric Heisserer explained not only how the circular speech symbols came to be, but also the "bespoke logogram analytic code" that translated the language when the cameras were rolling. "In several shots in the film, the analytics you see are working in real-time to dissect a logogram," Heisserer writes. "Not canned CG."

Bringing the language to the screen was a joint effort between designer Patrice Vermette, science consultant Stephen Wolfram -- of Wolfram Alpha fame -- and his son Christopher Wolfram. All told, some 100 "unique logograms with embedded words and phrases, with mutable components" were crafted for the film.

The elder Wolfram penned a lengthy blog post about the science of the movie, too. He explains the "shell" ship design of the aliens, the work he did to ensure the science was accurate while still being entertaining and the extent that his Mathematica software was used therein. He even dishes on the whiteboard full of formulas shown in the movie, and what went into ensuring its contents were probable and plausible.

Of course, both Heisserer's tweets and Wolfram's blog post are rife with spoilers, so if you're trying to go into the movie completely blind you're going to want to avoid both. Arrival is in theaters now.

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Over the past decade, Timothy’s covered everything from drag shows to heavy metal, and he even debunked a local ghost story before joining Engadget in 2013. He’s an A/V enthusiast who adores physical media, much to the chagrin of his available shelf space. Movies by David Fincher and music from Amon Tobin, Deftones, Run the Jewels and Trent Reznor are his favorites. He has a complicated relationship with photography too and shares an exact birth date with Katy Perry.

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