When a squadron of alien spaceships arrives on Earth, linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US government to help communicate with some of the aliens. Along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks unravels the mysterious alien language and gains the ability to see time nonlinearly. Turns out everyone’s favorite Doctor is correct: time isn’t a straight line, it’s “a big ball of quivering, timed stuff”.
With this in mind, the director of the film, Denis Villeneuve, wanted the language of the Heptapods to be based on circles, which was a challenge for Vermette. He said Space about the struggles he had in making such a familiar form appealing to audiences, saying, “We wanted to have something that was aesthetically pleasing, and that [viewers] couldn’t first know it’s a language or not [sic].”
Vermette struggled for some time before his wife, artist Martine Bertrand, offered to help. A few days later, she showed her husband a version of the twisted circles you see in the movie, and the beginnings of an alien language were born. Vermette and Bertrand researched existing languages and created 100 variants of the taut circle. Vermette said Initiated, “We studied the ancient Asian language, the Arabic language, the tribes of North Africa. [all] part of our history.” Vermette and Bertrand call the mottled circles logograms, which, depending on their complexity, can communicate a word or an entire phrase:
“The difference is in the complexity of the shape. The weight of a logogram also has meaning: a thicker swirl of ink can indicate a sense of urgency; a thinner one suggests a calm tone. A small hook attached to a symbol makes it a question. The system allows each logogram to express a set of ideas without adhering to traditional rules of syntax or sequence.”