More on LUCY: “Hidden Hands at Work” and VFX

Periodically, I will take the opportunity to provide copies here of some of the scholarly pieces I’ve published. I will also offer further insight into the question posed in the piece or make a revision or two.

What kinds of decisions do filmmakers make and how can the historian use them to explain the look and sound of movies? Here is a piece I wrote on the subject in a brilliant anthology put together by Jonathan Gray and Derek Johnson, titled A Companion to Media Authorship (published by Wiley-Blackwell):

Burnett_Hidden Hands_scan copy 2

In this chapter, I try to make sense of the work of the historian who sets out to track the trajectory of intentions involved in the making of a film. I call this (after art historian Michael Baxandall) the “intentional flux” of film practice. What does this mean?

It means that not all intentions on a movie look alike, and distinguishing between types of intentions helps us with our explanations. I determined that some intentions might be called precompositional commitments–intentions about cinema in general, the process of filmmaking, about politics, art, and so on that a filmmaker has before writing a script or composing a shot. These are important for the historian because such commitments shape purposeful action–that is, how a filmmaker will make choices on the set. But these commitments “morph”–they become other kinds of intentions once the filmmaker decides to make a movie.

A second type of intentionality involves becoming aware and stating artistic problems for oneself or one’s crew. In making a movie filmmakers will recognize hurdles or narrow, difficult paths they must confront when staging a scene or making a cut. But a film can’t get made unless these problems are overcome and are turned into a final type of aim.

The final type of intention relates to solutions. Not only does purposeful activity during filmmaking involve formulating problems; filmmakers also actively seek solutions, which are the images and sounds of the films themselves.

Intentions flux, then, during the realization of a film.

Now, perhaps the skeptical reader will say to him or herself, “hold on, Colin. I was taught that artistic intentions are neither knowable nor useful when interpreting a movie.” In this piece, I survey these objections, and come to a simple conclusion: intentions may be difficult to confirm, and they may not be useful in all forms of interpretive practice; but in fact some can be confirmed (with some hard-nosed scrutiny of sources) and these confirmable intentions can in fact be useful to the specific kind of interpretation that is historical explanation. 

But above all, I hope that this piece will prove useful to those studying how different filmmakers manage their teams. Whatever else a film auteur is he or she is the one whose commitments and problems most shape the solutions devised by their artistic collaborators, like cinematographers and set designers. But how do they manage their teams?

I reasoned that there were four ways a director or indeed an auteur approaches the management of his or her personnel (this is a diagram from the chapter):

Fig. 1. Director management styles.
Fig. 1. Director management styles.

A director (or, in the case of TV, a showrunner) will manage autocratically (the director will determine how his team solves problems); paternalistically (the director will shape the problems but not determine the solutions his team arrives at); democratically (the team will contribute collectively to devising the major problems and solutions on a film); or in a laissez-faire manner (the team will work rather independently, devising their own problems and solutions without consultation).

Fig. 1. Besson on the set of LUCY.
Fig. 2. Besson on the set of Lucy.

Consider briefly how we might apply the intentional flux model to Lucy (Besson, 2014). Lucy is, without question, an auteur film. Review after review refers to Besson’s guiding “vision” for the project. But does this mean that Besson designed every little aspect of the film on his own? Certainly not. And this fact doesn’t make Besson any less of an auteur.

In a July 30 Hollywood Reporter article, we learn that Besson approached the task of managing his visual effect team as “an audience member.” In our language, he managed things paternalistically. ILM’s VFX supervisor Richard Bluff reports that Besson came in, tried to “inspire them” with the story, “had some guidelines” (“do not show things early” and create visuals that leave viewers with different interpretations and different hunches about how the visuals were made), but then left it the ILM to devise solutions.

This approach set the ILM team on a search. They sought inspiration from the animation used by DJs, the work of Perry Hall, and so on. But let’s consider one example in depth. According to Hollywood Reporter:

Toward the end of the film, when Lucy’s brain reached 100 percent of its potential, she transforms into a black substance that take the form of a supercomputer. ‘Luc didn’t want it to look like liquid or a creature. And it had to feel like there was a level of technology to it,’ Bluff explained.”

Fig. 2. Production still for LUCY.
Fig. 3. Publicity still for Lucy.

This led to a unique solution: an algorithmic approach to FX design. This is Bluff again:

We had a procedural technique (meaning the program created a set of rules for where the CG elements needed to go and the program calculated the path) that we felt could be used. It played nicely with the end result, which was a computer, because it was mathematical. We then started to do some physical tests with fluids and chemical reactions to ‘grow’ something that was natural and organic and wrap it around this procedural technology.

Of course, we still have a long way to go if we want to offer a robust explanation of this aspect of Lucy‘s “look.” But by beginning to attend to the director’s precompositional commitments, and then how the problems on the film were stated and then solved, we are on the right path to developing an intention-based causal account of why the black substance in the film–which represents Lucy’s final stage as a supercomputer–looks the way it does. Each of these phases of intention helped to determine the final outcome.
Fig. 4. Besson's personal note on how to "make sense" of LUCY (unconfirmed).
Fig. 4. Besson’s personal note on how to “make sense” of Lucy.