About Luc Besson’s "Valerian" : Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, AFC

By Ariane Damain Vergallo, on behalf of CW Sonderoptic - Leica

par Ernst Leitz Wetzlar La Lettre AFC n°278

[English] [français]

No less than four months of intense preparation preceded the actual production of Luc Besson’s new film, Valerian. Besson first gathered all the department heads : production designer Hugues Tissandier, costume designer Olivier Bériot and cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. He summed up Valerian’s story line then, after a reading of the script, he showed them a series of drawings better to immerse them in the particular world of Christin’s and Mezières’ comic book that appeared in France in the 1970s and which the film is based on.
Thierry Arbogast
Thierry Arbogast
Photo Ariane Damain Vergallo, prise au Leica M et Summicron-C 50 mm

Then Besson went one step further : he asked each of them to rack their respective brains and feed him back with images that would further enrich their reflection and preparation. Thierry Arbogast called on a Chinese graphic artist who, following his indications, produced about twenty drawings. He then immersed himself in photo archives, spotting this or that street in Asian cities, the way the sun breaks through into the narrow streets of Marrakech souks... He also remembered films the lighting of which had often inspired him : Ridley Scott’s The Duellists and Blade Runner, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

Of the eighty pictures provided by Arbogast, Besson selected some, rejected others. They agreed on a colorful, luminous imagery with an only-mildly-aggressive contrast. Then they dissected and analyzed each sequence to bring out its true uniqueness. Finally, along with production designer Hugues Tissandier, they chose to insert light sources into various elements of the sets.

Meanwhile, several tests and trials were taking place :

  • Trials of LED-LC10 and Sky Pan 60 spotlights from Arri - more specifically LED ribbons. An actual casting session was even set up because there were "flickering" problems with the ballasts. Tests were made at 24 and 48 frames/sec, at the end of which a dozen ballasts were eliminated.
  • Further tests, along with numerous meetings with the three leading SFX companies in New Zealand (Weta), the USA (George Lucas’ ILM) and France (Mikros), ultimately tipped the balance in favor of the super 35 (as opposed to the Anamorphic), due to the size of the digital files and the unsqueezed geometry of the image.
    All the lenses were then encoded which, after the shooting, earned the SFX department wild and unanimous applause, for 100% of the metadata had been collected and preserved, which is extremely rare.
  • Various cameras were also tested : the Sony F65, the Arri Alexa XT, the Alexa 65 and the RED. Ultimately, the Alexa XT was selected.
  • Last but not least, the zooms having already been decided on (the Alura 18-80mm and the Angénieux Optimo 24-290mm), advanced tests of prime lenses were made to finalize their choice between the Zeiss Master Primes, the Cooke S4 and the Leica Summilux-C from CW Sonderoptics.
L’Arri Alexa XT équipée d’un Leica Summilux-C 35 mm sur le plateau de "Valérian"
L’Arri Alexa XT équipée d’un Leica Summilux-C 35 mm sur le plateau de "Valérian"
© EuropaCorp

Since they first collaborated on Nikita, in 1990, Thierry Arbogast and Luc Besson have always opted not to put any filter on the lenses because they like the image as it is. Also softness and luminosity were the main criteria here. So they opted for the Leica Summilux-Cs, which were practical, light, modern, with a great-looking bokeh and a lot of charm.

Valerian’s shoot was done mainly with two cameras ; the Summilux-C prime lenses were favored when the camera was on the Steadicam, during night shoots, in low light scenes... or simply whenever Thierry Arbogast wanted them for a particular image quality.

Valerian is Luc Besson’s first film to be shot entirely in La Cité du Cinéma studios, which he founded. During the six months of principal photography, only one week was spent filming in the Bahamas.

Being constantly there allowed Besson to control and supervise all the tests, to view them and validate his choices almost immediately.

During production, Arbogast would prelight and, using a stand-in, film all the sets. Then he would show the results to Besson who would instantly tell him whether they suited him.

Such meticulousness, such thorough work attest to how demanding this extraordinary film was in terms of budget (the highest in European filmmaking since the dawn of cinema), the duration of principal photography and the prime importance of special effects, which affect almost 90% of the shots.

Luc Besson writes, produces, directs and, above all, frames his films only with his main camera. Arbogast appreciates Besson’s camera work which is characterized by a taste for symmetry - an extremely rare occurrence in Scope, which one finds only in Stanley Kubrick’s work or in Japanese cinema. A quest for an absolute purity of lines.

Dane DeHaan, Luc Besson, caméra et optique Leica à l’épaule, et des membres de l’équipe sur le tournage de "Valérian"
Dane DeHaan, Luc Besson, caméra et optique Leica à l’épaule, et des membres de l’équipe sur le tournage de "Valérian"
© EuropaCorp

Besson likes to center on the character, be it in extreme close-up or in very wide shots. Within that specific framework, Arbogast often proposes the over-the-shoulder inclusion of an element aligned with the light (and the character’s gaze), the "empty" part being counterbalanced by the shadow thus created.

Besson works axis per axis, one step at a time, with an eye for simplicity and efficiency. Hence, for instance, his systematically shooting comedy scenes in a series of shots/reverse shots. In recent years, however, sequence shots have appeared more frequently than in their early days together.

As far as lights are concerned, Arbogast does not receive any specific direction, except when Besson needs a specific result. He will then light the scene with two light effects he is particularly fond of :

  • The "cross light" (or "side light") is a spotlight coming from the left and set up a little high, adjusted ever so slightly as to light only one side of the face while still catching the eye that remains in the shadow. That was the light painters went for until the nineteenth century, before they emerged from their artist’s studios and, going for "natural" sunlight, became Impressionists.
  • The Top Light is simply a soft light that overhangs the actors and makes their eyes disappear in the shade when they lower their faces then make them reappear when they raise their heads. A technique used - wonderfully - by Gordon Willis on The Godfather, which Arbogast also went for on Besson’s Léon (Léon : the Professional, 1994)

Arbogast readily admits that the tandem he formed with Besson was ideal in that he could devote himself fully and solely to the light scheme of Valerian.

“We evolve, we progress, we improve. When the bases are there, it works.”

(Translated from French by Henri Béhar)