Luc Besson’s “Lucy” Opens Today… Interview with Thierry Arbogast, AFC

ABS-38858 Thierry Arbogast

Thierry Arbogast, AFC

Thierry Arbogast, AFC is an award–winning French cinematographer. He was born in France in 1957. His work with director Luc Besson began in 1989 with “La Femme Nikita.” Their most recent collaboration, “Lucy,” starring Scarlett Johansson, opens July 25, 2014. Among many awards, Thierry won the Vulcan Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for “The Fifth Element” in 1997, the César Award for Best Cinematography in 1998 for “The Fifth Element,” and the César again for Best Cinematography in 2004 for “Bon Voyage.” Thierry’s other credits include “Léon: The Professional” (1994), “Asterix at the Olympic Games” (2008), “The Lady” (2011), “Malavita (The Family)” (2013), and about 70 more films.

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Writer-Director-Camera Operator! Luc Besson on “Lucy,” starring Scarlett Johansson, with Sony F65. Photos in this article by Jessica Forde. ⓒ Universal Pictures

“Lucy” was directed by Luc Besson. He was born in Paris in 1959. His parents were Club Med scuba instructors. His first big success was “The Big Blue” (1988) about free diving, followed by “La Femme Nikita” in 1990. He won a César for Best Director on “The Fifth Element” as well as many other awards. He founded EuropaCorp in 2000, built the Cité du Cinema stages and post facilities in Saint-Denis in the film district of Paris, and worked on more than 50 films as writer, director and producer.

Luc Besson’s films are renowned for their highly visual style, edge-of-the-seat action, quirky characters, and delicious dialog (Léon: And stop saying “okay” all the time. Okay? Mathilda: Okay. Léon: Good.)

Besson writes and is involved in every aspect of his films. He operates the camera himself. His prodigious handheld camera work and great gliding moves deserve recognition by the Society of Camera Operators. He has always favored the latest, most innovative technologies. He also seems to be daring in his choices of cameras, no matter the size or weight—as long as it fulfilled the high technical bar he required. At a time when most people shunned the Arriflex 535—Bill Bennett, Gary Thiltges, Jim Jannard and I were lonely members of the original unofficial 535 owners’ association—there was Luc Besson in many production stills, shown fearlessly handholding the 535 on “The Fifth Element.” For “Lucy,” he purchased two Sony F65s at a time when few people in Europe were using those cameras. Colleagues noticed and the camera gained acceptance.

Behind the scenes video from IMDB (4:38 min)

Jon Fauer, ASC spoke with Thierry Arbogast a few days ago. Thanks to Julien Bachelier, DIT, for additional editing on this interview.

JON FAUER: What cameras were you using on “Lucy?”

THIERRY ARBOGAST: We shot most of the film with two F65 cameras. We chose them after doing many tests with all the major brands. After screening the results in a theater, our favorite camera for the look of this film was the F65—especially for its color space.

Did you shoot it in 4K?

Yes, of course, we shot in 4K. I think there will be selected screenings in 4K. But probably 90% of the film release will be projected in 2K.

Where did you rent the equipment from?

The camera equipment came from the rental house Next Shot.

I visited there last year—in la Cité du Cinema, Paris.

They bought two F65 cameras for the movie because they didn’t have any when we chose the F65 for the film. So Next Shot bought two Sony F65s for the movie and also an ARRI/FUJINON Alura 18-80 mm zoom.

Tell me about the lenses that you used on the show.

We shot with the Cooke S4/i primes. The Cooke S4 is my favorite prime lens. We had the complete set (12, 14, 16, 18, 21, 25, 27, 32, 35, 40, 50, 65, 75, 100, 135, 150, 180 mm). And we had two zooms. The 18-80 ARRI/Fujinon and an Angenieux Optimo 24-290. I like this Optimo zoom; I think it is one of the best. The 18-80 is a very good zoom for Luc because he likes to operate the camera with a short lens but he sometimes wants to zoom during the shot. The 24-290 was for long lens shots, but we didn’t use it that much. Just sometimes.

Since you had two F65 cameras, were you shooting both at the same time?

No, we never used them simultaneously. We had two cameras because Luc likes to have the second camera ready to go any time. The main camera, operated by Luc, usually had the 18-80 zoom. But the second camera was always on the side ready to go with a Cooke S4. For example, we might be shooting with the “A” camera and then Luc would ask for a Steadicam shot. But, of course, he’d supervise the Steadicam shot.

Isn’t the F65 heavy for Steadicam?

Not really. The F65 looks a little bigger than other cameras—especially bigger than the RED, which is very small. But if we compare weights, the F65 is not very heavy. (11 lb / 5 kg.) The Sony’s body is made of something lightweight (magnesium). It looks big, but it’s completely lightweight. Unfortunately, the F65 looks like a cheap camera. If we compared the styling of the F65 to other cameras, the others look much better.

But in our tests, we and our colorists found that the images on the F65 had the best picture, the best color space for this film.

What was the look or the style for this film?

We spoke about the style of the movie during pre-production. Luc told me he wanted something like “Inception.” He told me he wanted something close to that look and we decided with the assistance of some reference photos with the art department. Especially in Taipei, the look was very colorful, very shiny.

Did you soften the image with filters or shoot clean?

Just clean. Luc always works with a clean picture. Always. No diffusion, no filters.

So you and he are not afraid of 4K for faces? Unlike some of our other colleagues who seem to be concerned about that?

No, we always try to find something sharp, with high definition, and we are not afraid of 4K.

I love anamorphic lenses, but Luc has not wanted to work with anamorphic lenses for quite some time. When we did “Fifth Element,” Digital Domain asked for it to be shot in spherical, Super 35mm. Since then, Luc has worked with spherical lenses. He came back to anamorphic lenses only for “Malavita” (“The Family”) with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. The French title “Malavita” comes from the name of the dog in the story. It was a very famous book and this was an adaptation. It made a lot of money. Luc asked me what I thought for lenses on his last 35mm film. He was thinking it would probably be the last movie that he was going to make using motion picture film. He asked me if I agreed to shoot in anamorphic. And I said, “Wonderful, I love anamorphic lenses.” We used the Panavision anamorphic G-Series lenses, Primo Close Focus, and some anamorphic zooms.

But for this movie, “Lucy,” he told me he preferred to shoot in spherical because it’s would be easier with effects, and also there would be a lot of close focus. It was Luc’s choice. Also with the F65, it would be bad to shoot in anamorphic because the sensor is not tall enough.

Because it’s 16×9 and the sensor height is less than 18mm?

Yes, it will crop. So we tested spherical lenses with the F65. We liked the Cooke S4 set. They are very good lenses, very sharp, very beautiful. But they are not too “crispy,” you know? I think it’s good for digital to be not too sharp…not too hard or harsh.

Where did you get the S4 Cookes? From EMIT?

Next Shot already had many S4s primes. But I wanted a complete set, so they just bought the rest.

You shot the entire film with F65 cameras?

Yes, most of it.

What is “Lucy” about?

It’s a story about a woman. You can get some information about the story from the Internet. But I can’t speak about the story because it’s opening soon.

I’m reading online: “A woman accidentally caught in a dark deal turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.” So it’s science fiction and action, right?

Yes, exactly. Some parts are science fiction. But it’s not complicated science fiction. It’s a story in the reality of the city. It’s a normal movie, but there are some parts that are a little futuristic.

Getting back to the style. Your lead actress is Scarlett Johansson, a beautiful woman.

She’s a beautiful woman. We used ring lights on the camera all the time. Because I wanted to have very good highlights in the eyes. I wanted her to be as beautiful as possible. I used the ring light a lot of times, with a dimmer. The dimmer was controlled wirelessly. When the camera moved, I could dial the brightness of the ring light up and down.

Is it wireless? Do you do it by remote control?

Yes, exactly. For example, if I do a travelling shot with Scarlett, and if at some point we go in front of a mirror or glass, I can go down or turn if off if there is a reflection of the ring light in the glass. Also, if the actress comes close to the lens, I can go down or I can go up if she goes a little further away.

This is on the zoom lens?

The ring light was attached to the zoom lens. And also on the Steadicam with the Cooke S4 lens.

Really? You had a ring light on the Steadicam?

Exactly, but we built a special ring light for the Steadicam. The ring light was in daylight, but we had some filters that we put in front to go warmer and to go to tungsten. I asked my gaffer to make one with different LEDs. Warm and tungsten and daylight. But it was not possible to do it so quickly. So we only had one in daylight and we used gels to warm it. But next time if I have to do a movie with a ring light again, I’m going to try to build one with two different LED colors: tungsten and daylight so we can mix them together and chose the perfect color that we want.

Let’s talk about the lighting in general.

On this movie we used all the latest technology in lighting, LED, and so on. In Taipei, I used some ARRI LED units that can go red, yellow, blue, every color. You can turn the button and it goes to any color you want. I used that for the Taipei shots with Scarlett in a taxi. When we had a close-up of her at night in the taxi, or in the street, there were a lot of different color signs outside. Taipei has many huge color 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.

We also used these lights in the nightclub scene. It’s a flashback. The look of the movie is quite colorful.

What key lights did you use for your big setups?

I used big 18K lights in the stage. We had a lot of sets on stage and I recreated daylight for the hotel scene. We had a lot of scenes in the big hotel and we created a lot of daylight—big sources of light from outside. We used a lot of blue screen also. Actually, the majority of the movie was shot on the stage. After shooting the real locations, we matched them on the stage. In Taipei, we shot in some real locations—including some bad restaurants and some crappy locations—but they are very beautiful in the movie.

With all of those different locations, did you use the built-in ND filters inside the F65?

On stage, not so much. There, I adjusted the ISO sensitivity of the camera. But outside, of course, when we shot in real daylight with the sun, we used the ND filters.

For exteriors, did you use HMI lights?

Not so much. We used a lot of natural light. We had a chase sequence in Paris that was very sunny, with very natural light. Afterwards, we matched it with the car and the actors on stage. So the big chase was in the real location, with the car moving; but inside the car, we matched everything on the stage with the actors because we didn’t want to have the actors doing this chase in the streets of Paris.

What lights did you use on the stage to match?

HMI to recreate daylight. We put a circular track around the car and used an HMI—probably 12K—to recreate the sun. This HMI sun was on the track so we could move it around the car to have the feeling that the car was turning.

Did you shoot in slow motion?

Not really. Luc didn’t use slow motion for this movie.

Where did you do post production and grading?

At the Digital Factory (www.digitalfactory.fr) in the Cité du Cinema. On Lustre. Luc always wants to do the grading in France. Since his very first movie, he has done the grading in France.

When you were shooting, did you have a DIT to set the looks?

Yes, I have a DIT on the set all the time to check the exposure and to be sure that there are no technical problems. And also I have a Data Manager to take care of the back end.

Do you operate the camera or one of the cameras?

Luc does the camera operating himself. Always. From the beginning, from his first movie, he was always behind the camera himself. Luc usually works with only one camera. If there are some action scenes, sometimes he uses the second camera for something very special, but not usually. If there is a second camera, I take it. But because we had the Steadicam 75% of the time, it was standing by, ready to go, already configured.

When you are not operating second camera, are you watching on a monitor?

Yes. We had a Sony OLED monitor that I liked very much for the whole movie.

I’m looking at IMDB. It says that you used an Alexa and an Epic for some shots?

Yes. For the car chase in Paris, as background plates. We needed to match the chase with the actors later in the studio. We shot the chase during the middle of August. Paris is completely empty during August. It’s the best time to do a chase. But the chase was supposed to be with the actors and the actress and they were not available at this time. Scarlett came to Taipei in September. So we filmed the chase elements without the actors. 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 du Rivoli in Paris. At the time, it was very difficult to find six F65s in Paris. It was easier to find six RED cameras in Paris. That’s the reason why we shot with the RED in 4K, which was very comfortable.

So the RED cameras were for the car chase and what was the Alexa for?

Alexa was also used from time to time because it was easier to find for occasional extra camera shots. I love the Alexa too. We also did some shots with the Canon 5D. We used the 5D for some very small, very quick shots. But when you have an action scene, quickly cut, it’s not a big deal to match everything together. There are some shots that are just two seconds long.

Since we may have people from Sony reading this, do you have any comments to them on what you liked about the camera, what you didn’t like, what you’d like them to improve for the next camera?

If I have some suggestions for the F65, it would be a bigger 4:3 sensor for the anamorphic lenses (18 x 24 mm). Not the 16:9 sensor. The bigger the sensor, the happier I am. At minimum, an anamorphic lens should cover it (without cropping).

On this show, what aspect ratio was it? 2.35:1?

Yes. We shot 2.35:1, spherical, Super 35mm. But for the next movie, if I want to use anamorphic lenses, I would be happy to have the quality of the F65 with a bigger sensor that captures the full 4:3 anamorphic squeezed frame (23.76 x 17.82 mm).

Why are so many people interested in anamorphic?

Because of the style of anamorphic, because of the depth of field anamorphic lens, and especially the quality. There are some old lenses that provide a very nice atmosphere and picture. We don’t always need to be so realistic and anamorphic offers something that may be a little more poetic in style. It’s my point of view but it’s the same for a lot of cinematographers.

A lot of us love anamorphic lenses, especially in digital because it blocks the digital style. I am very open. There are some movies I prefer to make in Super 35 with prime spherical lenses. But there are also some movies that I prefer to make in anamorphic. I choose ARRI Alexa for anamorphic because it’s the only camera that has a digital sensor that covers the full anamorphic lens. The new RED Dragon camera has a sensor that is bigger—it crops a little less – but it still crops. But the F65 crops too much when we use anamorphic lenses.

If you had a choice of shooting anamorphic 35mm, which lenses would you prefer?

At the moment, I am shooting a movie using a set of Panavision Primo close focus anamorphics. They are heavy, but I don’t care. Because the camera is on a dolly. The minimum focus is 2.5 feet. For the Steadicam or handheld camera I have 3 Kowa anamorphic lenses… not so bad. I have a 40, 50 and 75 mm. Good quality. So I match them with the Primos. It’s nice. I think it’s a good combination. And no zoom.

What camera are you using for this?

I’m using ARRI Alexa. Because of the 4:3 sensor. If Sony had the same sized sensor, I might use the F65.

How would you describe the color space of the F65?

I made tests—almost ten different shots, two shots outside, three shots in stage, two shots in the real location. We tested three different cameras and then we worked on the grading. First we graded the images to make the cameras’ picture as similar as possible in the DI. When we adjusted the three cameras almost all the same, Luc came to the screening and said that he liked the F65 best for the color and look of the film we were about to make. We tried to match everything. We tried to match the three cameras together to have the same look, but it was impossible to be the same, of course, because they are different cameras. Luc was referring to the green of the trees, the costumes, the skin tones of the models. For the look of “Lucy,” we felt the F65 was the best for the skin tones and for the colors of the film. I mean, it’s not a huge difference. You have to look a few times to be sure because it was very close when we tried to match in the DI. Also, the person doing the grading told me that with the F65 it’s very easy to find the natural color.

Was this the first digital film for Luc Besson?

Yes. It was the first digital film for him. The first one that he directed. But not the first one that he produced. On “Malavita,” we did some night shots with the Alexa. Because it was easier to catch the streetlights of the village. If we had done it in 35 mm, it would have been at 500 ISO. With Alexa, we could go to 1200 easily. And also we could open the shutter. I don’t mind opening the shutter to 360 degrees if there is not too much motion blur on the actors’ faces.

So whose idea was it to shoot “Lucy” in digital as opposed to film?

It was an evolution. A while ago I asked Luc if he wanted to shoot in digital and he said, “No, I want to shoot in 35mm.” But we did some tests back then with the F35 and the Panavision Genesis. Also at night, in the Place de la Concorde. I used the two cameras together, F35 and Genesis for a few shots. Because he didn’t want to use cherry pickers with HMI lights at night. He wanted to catch the natural light from the street lights in the Place de la Concorde. So we started in digital with Luc on this movie. On other movies, except “Malavita,” he asked me if it’s possible to use digital for night scenes. On “The Lady” we shot the whole movie in 35mm film. But with the evolution of digital, the quality of the cameras was getting better and better, and I said to Luc, “Now maybe it’s good to go digital.” For “Malavita,” he said, “No, I want to make ‘Malavita’ in 35mm. It’s probably the last movie that I’m going to do in film.” But for the next one, he said, “OK, I agree to shoot in digital.” When he saw the test, he approved the Sony F65. It’s nice because digital is getting technically better and better. I am not sure – but maybe Luc will go back to film for his next movie. It’s not impossible, you know? But for this movie, he agreed to shoot in digital.

It’s interesting that you chose the F65. I know a couple of rental houses in Paris bought F65s and they really couldn’t rent them for a while. And then all of the sudden you started using them and now everybody wants to shoot F65.

I know the F65 was not very popular a few years ago. The F65 came out 3 years ago, but this camera was not very popular until now. Two years ago, nobody wanted to use it. From the beginning, Sony said why not use the F65, make some tests, try it. Few people knew about it before.

I think also in the beginning people were afraid of 4K and maybe now it’s more accepted in France?

I don’t think so. The RED was already in 4K, you know? The RED was very popular. So I don’t think that’s the reason. I think the reason that the camera was not popular is it’s a little ugly. It looks a little cheap. And it’s a little too big. So people stayed away from a big camera. It’s a big camera. Much bigger than the others.

The film business is almost like the fashion business. If the camera’s not stylish, they’re not going to use it. It’s like fashion.

Yes, exactly. Not fashionable. Sony has to think about that. The Genesis was very ugly too.

Actually the Genesis, the Panaflex, and the F65 all kind of look the same?

The Alexa and the RED have the best designs at the moment for sure. The ARRI D-21 was not very pretty.

Do you use a light meter or how do you determine exposure?

No, no, I rarely use a light meter. Sometimes I use one during pre-light when I need to have a little reference of the level of the light. But on the set I don’t need it. Because we have the monitor. We know the exposure exactly: the blacks, the whites, if we are over or under, we know. Especially with the DIT, we speak about that. We don’t need light meters anymore with digital. I know there are some DPs who use light meters, but it’s a little funny. But sometimes it’s good to double check to be sure that the camera is doing well.

So physically on the set, you’re watching the same monitor as the DIT and then you say make it darker, lighter and so on?

Yes. I advise the DIT on the exposure because sometimes I want it to be much darker or sometimes I don’t care to be overexposed in some part of the picture. I might say, “No, no, you can go up in the picture” or “You can go down.” I love digital cameras now because you have the complete picture on the set. You don’t have to wait for the lab to process the film and screen the film dailies the next day. It’s very comfortable to have the picture on the set and to know is exactly where you go.

No more scary telephone calls in the middle of the night from the lab.

Exactly. I waited a long time for the digital cameras to have the quality they have now. In 1990, we saw the first digital cameras, but they were really still photography cameras. And I was thinking if there were some digital still photography cameras in 1990, probably in 10 years, we would have the similar digital technology in motion picture cameras. But it was not completely true. We waited a lot longer. I think the Genesis was probably the first good camera in digital. Before that, I didn’t really want to use a digital motion picture camera because I didn’t feel the quality was not good enough. So the first good quality camera in digital was the Genesis from my point of view. And when the Genesis appeared, I wanted to use it as soon as possible.

You didn’t like the F23, a 2/3 inch camera?

No. There were no digital cameras before the Genesis good enough for me. Of course, I am very happy to work in digital now, but I am not happy to work in digital if the digital is not the same quality as film. Because there is no reason to go so fast to digital if it is not as good as film. But I think with the Genesis, it was maybe not the same quality, but close enough.

And the F65 is definitely as good as film?

Maybe better. Especially now that we’re screening in 4K. The F65 has an 8K sensor.

How did you screen your dailies on “Lucy?”

I saw the picture on the set. I did the grading with the DIT. And after that we had an iPad with a reference of every scene. But on the set I saw every shot, every setup. After, I don’t care to see dailies. It’s not my thing to see dailies. The dailies are for the Director and for the Editors later on. But for me, I don’t need to see dailies. When we finish the day, for me, it’s completely finished. I don’t need to come back to the dailies. But I keep every picture on the iPad. It’s a still frame. Sometimes I want to be sure to have the same reference if I have to match something, so the iPad helps remember what picture we did.

Does Luc watch dailies on a big screen like a 4K projection or something?

Luc just wants to be sure that post-production is happy and there are no technical problems. He doesn’t need to see dailies on a big screen. Post-production makes a DVD or whatever that he sometimes uses to see the dailies for himself. Or he starts editing during shooting. I think sometimes during the weekends he goes to the editing room or to see some sequences or to see some dailies.

Have you seen the finished film yet?

Yes. I’ve seen the movie. But not the 4K screening yet. Luc asked me to come to a screening a few days ago, but I was not available because I am shooting the Jean-Paul Rappeneau movie (“Belles familles”) now.

How did you get started in film? Did you go to film school?

No, I never went to film school. When I was a child, I wanted to make movies and be a DP. When I was about 12, I had a Super 8mm camera and I would make films by myself. And at one point, when I was 17 years old, I began working with a DP as a First Assistant on some very small, cheap movies in 16mm. I worked my way up. After eight years as an assistant, I began working as a DP.

Are you also teaching film these days?

No, not really. I’m too busy working. I don’t have time to teach. But if La Femis asked me to come, I would go maybe one day. I taught one day at Luc’s school in the Cité du Cinema.

How was that?

Good, I was very happy to do that.

Is there anything else you would like to add about “Lucy?”

I think we made a very nice movie with Luc. I think the picture looks good in the trailer And I am sure it’s going to be a good film. I have a feeling that the movie is going to be a big success. It’s just my feeling.

Congratulations in advance. I think you’ll have a great success and you’ll be widely applauded.

Also, I just want to say that Luc’s films are always very beautiful. Because it’s Luc’s style. It’s something that we work on together. He helped me a lot to make this picture so good. It’s a collaboration. Luc has a very good style.

Your first film together was which one?

“Nikita.” In 1990. It’s a long time ago. And we have worked together ever since. I have shot all his films since “Nikita.” “The Professional,” “The Fifth Element…” I’m very happy to work with him all the time.

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