Visual worlds

Sci-fi cinematographer Thierry Arbogast on why The Fifth Element became a cult classic
By Salomé Baudino | Film+TV | 25 April 2017

Top image: Still, ‘The Fifth Element’ (1997) dir. Luc Besson.

When Luc Besson opened Cannes Film Festival 1997 with his sci-fi blockbuster The Fifth Element, he transported critics to an outrageous 23rd century world populated by eccentric characters and mind-blowing futuristic cityscapes created by the film’s director of photography Thierry Arbogast, interviewed here. Twenty years on, Besson’s film has become a cult classic and continues to awe audiences today.

Smashing the box-office at its opening in the US, The Fifth Element soon won both critical and public acclaim. Centred around a hothead military-turned-taxi driver (Bruce Willis) and an alluring extraterrestrial (Milla Jovovitch) trying to save humanity from an evil power-motivated industrialist (Gary Oldman) in business with the Devil, the over-the-top plotline was realised against the film’s transportive cinematography. 

Effects-laden to the tune of ninety million (the most expensive French-financed film ever, no less), much of that budget was filtered into creating a vision of New York City 200 years in the future, complete with flying cars and crazy tech (including a special Chanel make-up applying device that the world has been waiting for ever since the film’s release).

To mark the film’s 20th anniversary, we met up with Arbogast the man behind the film’s epic visuals. Here, he takes us behind the scenes of one of cinema’s most innovative films. 


Salomé Baudino: How would you describe The Fifth Element and why do you believe it has become such a cult classic?
Thierry Arbogast: I’d say it’s a comedy first and foremost. I think its success stems partly because there’s a lot of funny scenes between Bruce Willis (Korben Dallas) and Chris Tucker (Ruby Rhod) and partly because the plot is very catchy. And then there’s probably also the fact that the heroine is a woman, something which wasn’t a given at the time. That, and it was a really colossal budget. 

Salomé: What was Luc Besson’s approach towards making the movie?
Thierry: We had talked with Luc about sci-fi and he explained that he didn’t want to do what has already been done, he wanted the move to be the anti Blade Runner. He wanted a movie much more luminous, much funnier and less dark. He wanted to do something outside the box in a totally different style.

Before starting the project Luc knew exactly what the whole movie would be like, and what it would look like. He knew exactly what he wanted. I had worked on Nikita (1990) and Leon (1994) with him, so we both knew we could work together in the most cooperative, trusting way. He’s just so good at what he does, he carries everything on his shoulders. He’s also extremely faithful to his technical team, he likes being able to work with the same crowd.

Salomé: How was the atmosphere on set?
Thierry: I’m usually very much doing my own thing. I’ve learnt it’s quite important to let the director free to spend his time with the cast whilst shooting, so we tend to avoid interferences between him and the technician crew. My main role is basically to make sure things go smoothly and as planned so that Luc can invest himself with his actors one hundred percent. 

Salomé: Were there any particular techniques or equipment you used to get the shots you wanted?
Thierry: Most of the movie was shot in studio were we had constructed special sets in which we integrated lights. For example, the yellow corridors in which the characters are strolling in, lights have been integrated inside it and light up the entire scene. There’s very little outside light within the movie, this also facilitates shooting 360 degrees scenes.

Salomé: Was there much collaboration between you, the set designers and Luc?
Thierry: I, myself, don’t usually prepare a movie. But I did slightly more in this case, as we knew there was going to be lots of special effects and quite a lot of pre-lighting. But Luc makes his movies in a very personal way, he’s already got a solid vision in mind. When he learnt the art of cinema, he learnt it through the camera. The way he shoots and cuts his films, he pretty much masters everything, therefore he doesn’t really need a second opinion. Firstly because he clearly knows what he wants and how to obtain it on the screen and secondly because he is extremely precise – Luc is doing all the framing himself, for example. It’s only him behind the camera.

Still, ‘The Fifth Element’ (1997) dir. Luc Besson

Salomé: It was your first time working with a green screen room. How did it change the way you worked?
Thierry: Well, the pursuit between Milla Jovovitch (Leeloo) and the police men, for example, right at the beginning of the movie, where she finds herself standing against a wall high above the ground, this wall had been built in studio, but the whole city had been constructed in post production, obviously, therefore we used a lot of those green screens, considering the amount of special effects that were added in post-production.

But because we had such a clear-cut idea of the final result, we installed a specific set of lights so that the cast knew what was supposed to be happening. Like, when that sort of vertical train arrives, like an elevator, the elevator in studio was in fact just a rotating light that worked as a signal. We basically made the lighting match with the special effects that would be added in the post-production phase.

Salomé: It’s known that Luc Besson drew most of his inspiration for the movie from the Valérian and Laureline comics…
Thierry: He definitely drew inspiration from comics, it’s a thing he’s been passionate about since childhood. Valérian and Laureline has indeed played a part in influencing the movie aesthetic. Illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières (who created Valérian and Laureline with Pierre Christin) actually collaborated with Luc on The Fifth Element and was on set whilst we were shooting the movie, he helped make the sets and characters evolve and helped The Fifth Element become a world of its own.

20th anniversary screenings of The Fifth Element will take place on 14th May and 17th May across the US, find more information here.

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