Astral Grandeur: The Fifth Element Offers a New Sci-Fi Aesthetic

Director Luc Besson and cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, AFC create a kaleidoscopic 23rd-century adventure.

By Andrew O. Thompson
Unit photography by Jack English, courtesy of Columbia Pictures

At top, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) and Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) present the all-important Multi Pass.

Within his plush Malibu beachhouse-turned-postproduction facility, French filmmaker Luc Besson cradles a cup of steaming tea while coyly deflecting specific questions concerning the plot of his avant-garde stellar epic The Fifth Element. Although this futuristic film holds the coveted opening night slot at this month's 50th Cannes Film Festival, the director has shrouded it in the utmost secrecy. 

This story originally appeared in AC May 1997. Some images are additional or alternate.

An animated yet weary-looking Besson offers sparse specifics about the film's mythical battle between virtue and villainy, which is set in the year 2259. Instead, the Gallic auteur presents a five-minute "making of" documentary which displays highlights of the production's 22-week shoot, which took place from January to June 1996 on nine soundstages at Pinewood Studios outside London, England.

While the film's narrative is resolutely obscured, this quick-cut montage of behind-the scenes imagery Besson shows us is hypnotic: Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), an otherworldly nymph crowned with a day-glo orange coiffure and swathed only in strategically placed silk strips, takes out alien aggressors twice her size; gangs of troll-faced aliens (known as Mangalores) exchange blaster fire with intrepid cabbie Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) in an ornate dining chamber; Zorg (Gary Oldman), a dapper arms dealer with a two-tone, post-punk hairdo, strolls from a spacecraft's green glowing gantry with mayhem on his mind; and a compact flying taxicab careens through the skies of a swirling Manhattan cityscape as it flees multiple police vehicles. 

Science-fiction is a genre long loved by Besson. As a teenager, he penned the original story for The Fifth Element as a novel, and freely admits that a comic-book aesthetic drives his cinematic sensibilities. Though Element is is in the same vein as Besson's first feature — the $375,000, silent, black-and-white post-apocalyptic tale Ee Dernier Combat (The Last Battle, 1983) — his latest futuristic romp is a far more ambitious undertaking. The color-filled film's $75 million budget ranks it as the most expensive European production to date.

In keeping with the hands-on approach Besson established on Le Dernier Combat and has practiced on all of his successive films — Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), Atlantis (1990), La Femme Nikita (1991) and The Professional (1994) — the filmmaker operated the camera himself throughout the entire shoot. While such a working situation is rare for directors working within the Hollywood system, Besson prefers it because he can maintain better control of the onscreen action. "I create the frame and the movement within it," he explains. "Why lose time explaining everything to someone else? He's going to be slightly off, and then I'm going to freak out and say, 'No, this is not what we discussed. I want the camera here!' So it's better for everyone involved if I just do it myself.

"What gives me the most satisfaction is the relationship that I have with the actors," he submits. "If you're in the middle of the action, you can hear them talk or cry, and you can even grab an actor and place him in or out of the frame."

Besson shot Element in the Super 35 format, primarily with an Arriflex 535B most often fitted with Zeiss prime lenses. He also wielded Arri 2C and 3Cs for handheld work, multiple high-speed 435s for action scenes, and a miniature Eyemo camera for POV shots. His in-the-action filmic style makes heavy use of focal ranges between 25 and 50mm.

Besson blasts away with a futuristic weapon outfitted with a 35mm Eyemo camera to capture a gunman's POV. The director filmed this particular setup with both a 25mm and 32mm lenses.
Besson blasts away with a futuristic weapon outfitted with a 35mm Eyemo camera to capture a gunman's POV. The director filmed this particular setup with both a 25mm and 32mm lenses.

Besson worked with the anamorphic format on his prior pictures, but switched for Element at the request of the visual effects team at Digital Domain, saving them the task of compressing and decompressing the film's images while taking advantage of the experience they had gained on such visual effects-laden Super 35 pictures as True Lies [AC, Sept. and Dec. '94] and Apollo 13 [AC, Jun. '95].

To reduce grain, Element's Parisian cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast, AFC (J'embrasse pas, Ma Saison Preferee, Mina Tannenbaum, The Horseman on the Roof, Ridicule, L'Appartement and the upcoming She's De Lovely), chose to shoot the film with slower stocks that wouldn't be as vulnerable to image degradation. Kodak's 5293 was employed for non-effects photography, and 5248 for any scenes requiring greenscreen work or other image manipulation. This concession also allowed Besson, who prefers lightweight equipment for obvious reasons, to avoid using the bulkier VistaVision camera system.

The director found the most distinct difference between the anamorphic and Super 35 formats to be their respective depth of field parameters. "There is not a lot of depth when you are shooting in Cinemascope, so the background will be very unfocused," he notes. "If I shoot someone who is backlit at night in anamorphic, the light will be washed out and totally out of focus. But with Super 35, the depth is so great that it changes everything for me [in terms of shot composition].

Besson dollies in on a group of passengers in the main hall of the Fhioston Paradise luxury cruise ship. The set, built at Pinewood Studios, was extended in post by Digital Domain and offered Arbogast one of his few opportunities to utilize stage lighting from above. Since Besson regularly used wide lenses and low angles, most other sets were built with completed ceilings — requiring integrated lighting.

"Now I have to focus on almost everything. If you take a 35mm or 14mm lens in anamorphic, the minimum focusing distance is three or four feet. In Super 35, the minimum focus suddenly becomes very close, say one and a half feet. Since this is a sci-fi movie, I was very happy that I could play with [focal depths]. I could come in very close to the actors and still have full focus."

Besson is enamored of visceral camera movement that features a full range of kinetic techniques, including handheld work, dolly and crane moves, and Steadicam. When filming action sequences, Besson prefers to create the tension during the moment, rather than enhancing it afterwards. He explains, "For me, there are two ways to shoot an action scene. The American way, let's say, is more inclined to add the action [in postproduction]. First, lots of coverage is shot with six cameras outfitted with long lenses, and then the rhythm is created through the editing. So it's basically one 25-second-long scene edited between six angles.

“When a movie is really well-done, you're supposed to be totally involved in the story and not even care where the camera is.”

The Priest who protects the secret of the fifth element (Ian Holm) is held hostage by Mangalore mercenaries. Arbogast found the aliens' design and detail to be exceptional and usually used toplight to both add menace to the creatures and bring out their skin texture.

"I write each action scene as if it is a ballet; the movements fit with the music. Generally, I'll shoot a fight sequence for 10 days using just one or two cameras and a very small crew. I've already written out the fight scene in my head, shot by shot. I do this for each and every sequence so that we can just shoot it, and then put the scene together in the editing room. At the same time, when you're on the set, you can have an idea at the last moment; you realize that from a different angle the light might be better, so you change the perspective [of the shot]. But I'll always write down and block out this [new] progression."

Besson's framing and compositional preferences are rooted in portraiture, particularly the work of 16th-century Flemish painters, Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, and Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, as well as various still photographers. "Paintings and pictures are good for understanding movement, because you're not bothered by the story," he offers, comparing the experience to studying motion pictures. "The aestheticism is more efficient, more upfront. When a movie is really well-done, you're supposed to be totally involved in the story and not even care where the camera is. The first time I saw One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest [photographed by Haskell Wexler ASC and Bill Butler, ASC], I couldn't tell where the camera was, because I was crying and totally overwhelmed. I often have to see a movie three or four times before I can figure out how the director did something.”

"I write each action scene as if it is a ballet" — a creative impulse clearly exemplified when Leeloo fights the Mangalore gunmen.
"I write each action scene as if it is a ballet" — a creative impulse clearly exemplified when Leeloo fights the Mangalore gunmen.

Since Arbogast had previously collaborated with Besson to create dazzling imagery for the action-thrillers La Femme Nikita and The Professional, the cinematographer was accustomed to the director's unique division-of-labor during the production process. But given the immense scope of Element, and the extensive amount of visual effects — two new challenges for Arbogast — the cameraman says that he had more than enough work on his plate.

Black-hearted weapons dealer Zorg (Gary Oldman) demonstrates one of his latest products for a gang of Mangalore lackeys. While the character features comic costume stylings, Arbogast's Godfather-esque toplight gives Zorg an air of evil.

Typically, Besson and Arbogast discuss ideas during pre-production, after which the cinematographer is given free reign to handle all photographic concerns regarding lighting, exposure and stocks. One of the duo's initial agreements involved forsaking the neo-noir, dystopian style that has become a standard in sci-fi cinema over the past 15 years. The cameraman explains, "Films with very dark moods, like Alien [shot by Derek Vanlint, CSC] and Blade Runner [photographed by Jordan Cronenweth, ASC], have many scenes using smoke to create shafts of light. Luc didn't want that kind of look for The Fifth Element because this movie also has comedic aspects. The light in Luc's films is always based on realistic sources; it has to make sense. He prefers a simple, honest approach with a striking effect, and doesn't necessarily like sophisticated lighting setups."

"Our objective on this film was to have a lot of colors and a lot of depth," Arbogast adds. "Everything was to be very sharp and clear, so the images would pop off the screen. Luc really wanted a comic-book style of look, so we worked together to pick the appropriate gel colors. [Since the film was shot primarily with tungsten balanced lamps], we used HMIs as cold sources. We also tried to use complementary colors. For example, in the airport setup [a sequence in which Korben and Leeloo attempt to flee Manhattan], we had a lot of green and purple mixed with blue and a little red."

Director Luc Besson and his Mangalore mercenaries.

During the prep period, Arbogast worked extensively with production designer Dan Weil to integrate various lighting units — primarily fluorescent and occasionally ultraviolet fixtures — within the sets themselves. More often than not, the futuristic spaces dictated the types of fixtures that could be used.

The high-rise apartment of cabbie Korben Dallas proved particularly complex, given its compact, cube-like shape and Besson's desire to have the set built and shot as a practical location. Most of its illumination emanated from twin rows of ceiling panels containing fluorescent fixtures. Some smaller variations of these units jutted out from the walls, providing additional illumination. Says Arbogast, "The look of his apartment was a sort of futuristic variation on the types of big but low-rent apartment buildings we have in France. The apartments are like little cubicles. The set was a bit boxy, which led me to go with toplighting. We also did a lot of bounce lighting.

Dallas stands his ground against an attempted home invasion.

"Many of the sets had ceilings, because Luc likes to shoot from low angles quite a bit," the cinematographer notes. "There were exceptions, such as the airport, where we had arches that blocked the view. We couldn't use as many low angles there, which allowed me to light from the top."

Early in the film, a fleet of Earth's starships encounter a powerful celestial entity — the embodiment of Evil — as it bears down on their home planet. Much of the sequence takes place aboard the bridge of the cruiser helmed by the President of the Council of Federated Territories. Arbogast and Weil lined the set with translucent panels of stellar charts that were lit from behind. Fill was created from overhead low-watt fixtures. Assessing the purple-hued command center, Arbogast says, "That set was easy because it was like a box; there was no opportunity to create cross-lighting or anything of that nature because there were no real sources. It was like a set out of Star Trek."

The President (Tiny Lister) attempts to get the situation under control.

Midway through Element's stellar adventure, Dallas and Leeloo board the floating pleasure cruiser Fhloston Paradise to contact an extraterrestrial opera diva and find clues to the whereabouts of the five artifacts they seek. Before the pair can acquire any information, the strange siren must first take the stage and perform for an eclectic audience of admirers.

Alien chanteuse Diva Plavalaguna (played by Maïwenn Le Besco).

“Most of the lights you see in the opera house were already there. The difficulty was in lighting the people in the audience without illuminating the white facades of the balcony. Therefore, we used a lot of flags to focus our lighting precisely on the people.”

The scene was one of the film's few that was filmed on location, inside the towering London Covent Garden Royal Opera House. While on stage, the aqua¬ marine diva is bathed in an intense but cold spotlight. Recalls Arbogast, "When we were planning this, I remembered the scene from A Clockwork Orange [shot by John Alcott, BSC] where the nude woman on the stage [during the demonstration of Alex's "cure" via the Ludovico technique] was lit by a blue follow-spot. In our film, the diva's outfit was blue and the set was a bit golden in tone, so I thought it would be best to play with the color temperatures a bit. I lit her to be slightly overexposed, which would help give the impression that some of the light was emanating from within her. We wanted her to give off a glow. I lit her with a 4K Xenon from the balcony seats above, but since the stability of the light on her wasn't perfect, I used a 6K Cinepar for the tighter shots.

"Most of the lights you see in the opera house were already there," he adds. "The difficulty was in lighting the people in the audience without illuminating the white facades of the balcony. Therefore, we used a lot of flags to focus our lighting precisely on the people."

Location work factored into the picture's prologue as well. The film's first sequence begins in early 20th-century Egypt, where a spaceship piloted by the benevolent Mondoshawan lands near a temple to retrieve four of the five elements needed to vanquish the evil forces threatening the universe. Ten days' worth of photography took place in Mauritania, a nation on the eastern peninsula of the African continent. With advisory assistance from Digital Domain effects cinematographer Bill Neil, Arbogast shot background plates for the ship's vertical landing and takeoff. The location-shot footage was later augmented with set work photographed at Pinewood Studios.

Arbogast details, "We wanted to give the desert a presence, and we used very bright light outside to give the temple the feeling of a black oven or corridor. Luc had the brilliant idea to have children use mirrors to reflect light into the temple [as a practical source]. I decided to deploy 18K HMIs for this general daylight effect, because I wanted to use a few very strong sources. We then used a Xenon light to get the reflection of the 'sun' from the mirrors. We didn't use any lens filtration, because the sets were already done in warm tones, but we did use warming gels on the lights."

A "lumbering" Mondoshawan guardian.

Clad in copper-colored armor, the lumbering Mondoshawan resemble nothing so much as a group of giant walking alarm clocks. They were lit much like an automobile might be in order to highlight their gleaming contours. As Arbogast recalls, "I tried to bounce my lighting, because their metal suits took reflections very well. We had also hung a large softbox overhead for overall ambience. The motivation was that there might be a hole in the temple ceiling with sunlight coming in."

Pinewood's mammoth "007 Stage" (famed for its use on various James Bond films) was dressed as a plush hotel ballroom during the final days of production to facilitate an extensive shootout sequence pitting Dallas against Mangalore mercenaries who have boarded the Fhloston Paradise. 

Outgunned, the cabbie retrieves a grenade lobbed by his alien foes and slings it back in their direction — resulting in the largest indoor explosion ever created:

Notes Arbogast, "We used about 15 different cameras running at once for that shot. Luc doesn't like to use slow-motion for explosions, but we did have the cameras set at various frame rates ranging from 24 to 48 fps. Controlling the exposure during the explosion was tricky, because the set was really big and the higher frame rates necessitated a lot of light. The extra lighting helped us to control the exposure; we didn't want the flash to be too bright."

The extensive use of visual effects in Fifth Element — 240 shots combining CGI, greenscreen work, models and miniatures — was a novel challenge for Arbogast, who had never before mapped out lighting effects that would be coupled with postproduction creations.

An impressive example of this photographic approach occurs in the film's first act, when Leeloo finds herself trapped on the ledge of a skyscraper as she is pursued by the NYPD's armor-plated, jackbooted officers. Manhattan looms all around her precarious perch, hundreds of stories above the invisible street far below. As Leeloo considers her fate, an external elevator rushes past along the side of the huge structure, narrowly missing the girl as its running lights flash across her frightened profile. 

NYPD's finest march into action. Notes Arbogast of the officers' beaming breastplates, "That effect was very difficult to perfect. We ended up choosing an incandescent quartz fixture to fit inside the costumes. It was the smallest unit that could be easily placed inside [the circular plate]; the glass was polished and we put a reflector inside for bounce."

In reality, of course, actress Milla Jovovich merely performed on a slightly elevated set, situated above a massive greenscreen. But while the cityscape and elevator car were digital additions, Arbogast had to create as much interactive lighting as possible to help sell the shot. "We had to cheat the lighting on her face from the vertical elevator," he notes. "We built a special guillotine-like device that would cut the light as it moved across it. The whole thing was a bit like a film strip, with these bars that would interrupt the light. We also had a dimmer-controlled vertical light bar with different sources to create a kind of uneven lighting." 

Leeloo chooses to leap rather than be captured, but as fate would have it, she safely lands in Korben's flying cab. What ensues is a spectacular flying car chase through the skies of the labyrinthine megalopolis as Korben outmaneuvers dozens of pursuing police cruisers. Arbogast offers, "The difficult part [of shooting the cab interiors] was in matching the studio lighting with the lighting of the special-effects city. I also had to create some interactive shadows and special lighting effects on the cars, because the light was always moving around them. We rigged certain lights on dimmers that would oscillate to create the sense of movement, and also physically moved some other fixtures around the cars themselves."

Having aced his entry into big-budget moviemaking, the cinematographer is currently in Yugoslavia completing work on a still-untitled film directed by Emir Kusturica (Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dreaming). Arbogast says that he is hoping to collaborate again with Besson, who has no new projects on deck just yet.“He's the best director I could work with,” says the cameraman. “Luc has a very specific style of filming that adds a lot to the cinematography. He’s a bit like Spielberg or Kubrick in the way that he handles the camerawork. He places the camera to meet the action; it's simple but very effective, and the action is always clear.”

Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, AFC in the temple set.
Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, AFC in the temple set.

Shaping Things to Come

At first view, the milieu of The Fifth Element evokes the kitschy, chrome-laden futurescapes popularized by the graphic fantasy magazine Heavy Metal. The resemblance stems from the fact that production designer Dan Weil (Kamikaze, The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita, The Professional and Total Eclipse) received assistance from two of France's most celebrated sci-fi comic artists: Jean "Moebius" Giraud, a pioneer illustrator for Metal Hurlant, the French periodical upon which Heavy Metal is based; and Jean-Claude Mezieres, the famed artist of the graphic novel series Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent.

Weil and Mezieres' vision of 23rd-century New York City began with basic concepts gleaned from utopian architecture. Director Luc Besson's prerequisites were that the skyline be identifiable and that the city (viewed mainly during daytime) not be enveloped in a smoke-strewn, overcast atmosphere. The film's Manhattan — a massive, multi-tiered megalopolis — recalls the colossal constructs of the futurist classics Metropolis (1926) and Things to Come (1936) But The Fifth Element takes urban incursion to a different level by envisioning underground development. Says Weil, "Most sci-fi movies always imagine buildings to be higher and higher. We decided that there would be [structures] one-and-a-half times the height of the tallest skyscraper in New York City today. At that point, it wouldn't make any sense go higher, even if one could accomplish it. Also, there would be so many people living there that the ability to build higher would be limited technologically — so we created a deep city. The idea was that few hundred years from now, technology will allow us to build something underground that's the size of World Trade Center's twin towers. 

The Big Apple circa 2259 A.D. This megalopolis melds utopian architecture with modern Manhattan.

"We also elaborated upon the concept that due to climactic changes, the sea level has lowered and New York has become arid — the shore is no longer so close, and the Statue of Liberty is no longer in the ocean. There is now a lot more land; instead of going to Battery Park to get a boat, you know have to go five to ten miles further.

"Still, the city had to be recognizable conceptually. The most important thing about New York is the view of Manhattan, which is known worldwide, especially to Europeans. So we wanted to keep our Manhattan in the same basic shape it's in now — even if ours is higher — with parallel and perpendicular street grids and the standard sizes of a block. We also wanted to keep the idea of Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey as three different cities, and not create a crazy city that was completely out of scale."

The trio of Weil, Moebius and Mezieres supervised seven up-and-coming illustrators — of French, Brazilian, British and American extraction — who toiled collectively on Besson's concepts. The initial pre-production sessions began in November of 1991 and continued for a year until the project's temporary hiatus. Drafting resumed in September of 1994, when Columbia Pictures acquired rights to the film, and continued through principal photography.

After the first year, the team generated some 3,000 images. When prep recommenced in 1994, Besson and Weil picked the best concepts; the artistic collective then proceeded to devise additional designs. When all was said and done, approximately 8,000 sketches were created. (Elevated plane models of the various sets were later constructed so that Besson could conceive potential shots.)

Since Weil hails from a realist background, the production designer steered his artistic team towards a functional futurism free from cumbersome, gimmicky hardware. He says, "Since I was working with sci-fi artists, I had to fight a lot against the mechanical and technical exaggerations of sci-fi imagery. A vacuum cleaner, for example, is just a piece of plastic that starts when you press your foot on it. When you design a vacuum cleaner for a sci-fi film, you need to add lots of little lights and pipes, and smoke vapor, so that what you have becomes a lot more complicated. My daily battle with everyone was not to make things simplistic, but to make them at least as simple as they are in the real world."

As Weil notes, the vibrant palette of both the sets and props not only contributed to the comic-book look of The Fifth Element, but provided a subtle means of altering modern substances on film so that they would appear to possess more advanced qualities. "It was a way of cheating the texture of traditional materials so that we could give them a different feeling," Weil says. "If you take the a block of granite and make it purple, no one knows what it is. In the same way, if you take a piece of plaster and coat it pink or yellow, no one will really be able to see it as a simple piece of plaster. And because you yourself don't have the technology to invent something — a strange plastic like Kevlar, for example — the challenge in designing a sci-fi movie lies in coming up with a brand new type of material which no one can explain." — Andrew O. Thompson

For more on this production, from the same issue: Fantastic Voyage: Creating the Futurescape for The Fifth Element.

Besson oversees shooting the full-scale cab.
Besson oversees shooting the full-scale cab.


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