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ILM Gets Trippy with Scarlett Johansson's VFX in Luc Besson's 'Lucy'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood August 1, 2014 at 1:01PM

Industrial Light & Magic embraced something completely different with Luc Besson's heady sci-fi actioner, "Lucy," in which Scarlett Johansson plays a badass and brainy super-gal who taps her full cerebral capacity in blazing a new evolutionary trail for humanity.
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Lucy Tendrils

Industrial Light & Magic embraced something completely different with Luc Besson's heady sci-fi actioner, "Lucy," in which Scarlett Johansson plays a badass and brainy super-gal who taps her full cerebral capacity in blazing a new evolutionary trail for humanity.

Thus, to help visualize how Lucy colonizes her brain after a bizarre drug overdose, ILM became more design-centric and abstract than usual for Besson's pulpy version of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"It was really fun because it wasn't a thousand shots of robots or things we typically do," admits ILM VFX supervisor Richard Bluff, a former digital matte artist ("The Avengers," "Avatar"). "It was very small sequences: Fifteen shots in the airplane bathroom [where Lucy decomposes], eight shots of a prehistoric human, 15 shots of time traveling [and the Big Bang]. It was very unique in that sense and it required a lot of new ways to problem-solve and to visualize them."

For the airplane sequence, Besson ripped out a picture of a woman's face covered in cupcake sprinkles he spied in an in-flight magazine and asked ILM to reproduce the look. "He wanted the elegance of a Dior commercial for the decomposition sequence that gets progressively more horrifying," Bluff continues. "But other than one shot, he didn't want her to look ugly. Her skin is being thrown off her in a zero-G, particle way. She's always struggling to rebuild herself. So it was a lot of re-projections of her face back onto her geometry and then animating erosion maps with crystals on the edge and then the sprinkles animated through a Houdini particle set up."

When Lucy grabs the baddie's head, we go inside his brain, which lights up as she searches for the info that she requires from his memories. It starts out looking like a real brain and then gets very abstract in structure, more like underwater micro-photography of sea urchins and star fish. They we fly further and arrive at the tip of a swimming sea anemone, where his memories are stored.


Lucy Big Bang

To give the visuals a more unusual look, ILM partnered with Perry Hall ("What Dreams May Come"), an artist who combines psychedelic imagery with vibrations. It looks strange but organic and ILM had him work out his signature effect to texture the walls of the inside of the memory--the idea of oil and water repelling each other. 

When Lucy travels back in time to the source of the Big Bang, she has an out of body experience and encounters her pre-historic self. And during this sequence you see the creation of the earth backwards. ILM created an exaggerated version of Hubble Space Telescope photography. Images become more otherworldly every time we cut back to outer space. The references range from MRI scans to X-rays to underwater imagery.

"But we took a number of those and concepted out a story effectively of what would happen if everything exploded during the Big Bang and went through all these changes, the energies that would be created," Bluff explains. "What would happen if you went through a Black Hole? Could you get to the edge of the universe? Is the universe a surface and what would it look like? This was uncharted territory for us."

But the most challenging and complex sequence occurs when Lucy utilizes 100% of her brain capacity and transforms into a slithering, otherworldly black mass comprised of thousands of tendrils. Technical director Florian Witzel built the procedural program for conveying mass and movement (utilizing ILM's in-house Zeno system). The substance grabs and absorbs electronic equipment in a lab and gives off an electrical vibe but with a non-threatening personality.

"We used almost everything available to us at ILM and Luc wanted to be surprised and so he would step in and out of the work. It felt a little overwhelming at first, but Luc gave us the freedom to really experiment and that allowed us to hone the various looks of each sequence."


This article is related to: Lucy, Luc Besson, Scarlett Johansson, VFX, Immersed In Movies, Interviews, Interviews, Interviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.