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

Within his plush Malibu beachhouse-turned-post-production 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. 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 cacophony of behind-the-scenes imagery 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 Le 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 had worked with the anamorphic format on his prior pictures, but switched for Element at the request of the special effects team at Digital Domain (see page 42), saving them the task of compressing and decompressing the film's images while taking advantage of the experience they had gained on such special effects-laden Super 35 pictures as True Lies and Apollo 13.

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