From La Femme Nikita and The Professional to The Fifth Element, French filmmaker Luc Besson has created some of the most memorable female action heroes in cinematic history.
The director’s VFX-heavy sci-fi action thriller Lucy presents Scarlett Johansson as a Taipei-based grad student forced into running a dangerous errand that sees her turned into a drug mule. The drug Lucy carries is a volatile new chemical that’s able to “unlock the potential of the human mind.” Once she accidentally ingests it, she taps into a reservoir of superhuman brain power, morphing into a supreme being to which only Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman can relate. And, boy, does she kick plenty of ass along the way.
Writer/director Luc Besson (behind camera). Photo by Jessica Forde.
Multiple award-winning cinematographer Thierry Arbogast has served as Besson’s director of photography for more than two decades, most recently on The Family, the prolific writer/producer/director’s final film project (shot last year).
For Lucy, Arbogast conducted extensive testing with ARRI Alexa, RED EPIC and Sony CineAlta F65 cameras, ultimately selecting the F65. “At the moment, these are the three best digital cameras in the world,” Arbogast says. The testing process included capturing footage both outdoors and inside the Cité du Cinéma stages in Paris—where roughly 90 percent of the movie was filmed—followed by color grading at Cité du Cinéma post facility Digital Factory and a 4K screening. (The Cité du Cinéma film studio complex, the creation of Luc Besson, opened in the fall of 2012.)
“Luc’s feeling, and my feeling too, is that the F65 is probably the best camera for the color space,” Arbogast says, though he is careful to point out that the decision is not a critique. “I love Alexa. I am shooting at the moment with Alexa!”
The production employed a Super 35 widescreen format in order to avoid using anamorphic lenses, which Arbogast says would have cropped too much from the camera’s sensor. “Luc prefers to work in Super 35 now. He doesn’t want to shoot anamorphic anymore, although he did make an exception for Malavita [The Family]. The Professional was anamorphic and Nikita was anamorphic, so for Malavita, Luc said, ‘It’s my last movie on film. I want to come back to anamorphic,’” Arbogast relates.
“For this movie, Luc says, ‘I want to shoot Super 35 because I want to use a lot of zoom.’ He loves to work with zoom,” Arbogast continues, adding that he provided the director, who always operates the camera himself, with a combination of ARRI/Fujinon Alura 18-80mm and Angenieux Optimo 24-290 zoom lenses and a complete set of Cooke S4/i primes. “The Alura is very nice, very beautiful, especially for close-ups with the actress, so it was the zoom I used with Luc’s camera,” he says. “For the Steadicam—because Luc also uses a lot of Steadicam—I used the Cooke S4, which I love because it’s not too sharp, it’s not too hard, and it works really well for close-ups, too.”
Director of photography Thierry Arbogast
Arbogast worked closely with visual effects supervisor Nicholas Brooks to achieve Besson’s spectacular vision for Lucy. For a time-lapse sequence depicting New York City’s Times Square traveling backward through history, the production team employed the largest stage at Cité du Cinéma, constructing a giant 180-degree greenscreen mounted with a 24K projector to help create the illusion of the sun crossing the sky. Arbogast then captured footage of his Times Square populated with people, cars, horses and carriages from various eras, all of which was later painstakingly composited into a seamless shot.
“There are a lot of special things we had to do for that sequence,” Arbogast recalls. “For instance, Nick asked me to have the light go faster and faster, like day-night-day-night but very, very, very fast. So I made a ring with a light attached that can go up and down like the sun and can turn around very quickly,” he describes. “We worked on that a lot,” he adds with a laugh.
To create one of the most action-packed sequences in the film, a riveting car chase on the streets of Paris, Arbogast first filmed the chase elements without the actors—who were unavailable in August, when most Parisians are on holiday and film permits are easy to secure—using a camera car outfitted with RED EPIC cameras. “We shot in 4K with RED cameras because it was easier to locate six RED cameras in Paris at that time,” he details. “We mounted six RED cameras on a camera car: one in front, one behind, two on the sides, one tight, one wide. At every point, we needed to match the actors. We had this camera car do the chase along the Rue de Rivoli.”
A portion of the film was shot on location in Taiwan, including a sequence in which Lucy travels through nighttime Taipei in the back of a taxicab. Lurid neon signs are reflected in the car’s windows in a riot of color.
“I love this scene because it’s so colorful,” Arbogast says. “For lighting I used a special ARRI LED light that changes colors—red, yellow, blue, green—with the turn of a knob. Taipei at night is also very colorful, with many signs everywhere in the street. So we put some LEDs near the lens and I changed the color to red, blue, green. It was very nice.”