'Lucy:' How VFX House ILM 'Surprised' Luc Besson With the Visuals

"He asked us to resist the temptation to show things early, until it was at the stage that it was really compelling," says ILM VFX supervisor Richard Bluff.
Universal Pictures

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Lucy.]

To create the unique visual effects for sci-fi action film Lucy — which topped the North American box office this past weekend with a $44 million debut — director Luc Besson started by working with the film's VFX supervisor, Nicholas Brooks.

But when they brought their ideas to lead VFX house Industrial Light & Magic, the company's VFX supervisor Richard Bluff said the pair still brought a sizable creative challenge to his team. "Luc wanted us to drive a lot of the visuals," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "He wanted to be surprised by the work. He wanted to come in and inspire us by the story and the possibility of what we could do. He gave us guidelines, but for the most part he wanted to remain an audience member. He would ask us to resist the temptation to show things early, until it was at the stage that it was really compelling."

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There was plenty of room to experiment. The film stars Scarlett Johansson as a woman who, caught in dangerous circumstances involving drugs, accidentally unlocks the full potential of her brain. And the VFX work included fully CG images to show the inside of Lucy's brain and images from different periods of evolution.

"The logical approach was to work within the guidelines but go out and start looking for the strangest visuals that could possibly be wrapped around these story points," Bluff continued. "Luc wanted to challenge the way we look at visual effects. He wanted people to walk away from certain sequences and have different interpretations about how it was done and the story it was telling. So we had to stretch ourselves in where we looked for inspiration.

"We went from looking at chemical reactions to animation that is typically produced by DJ booths at raves, which is very stylized and different," he added.

ILM also explored the work of artist Perry Hall, which was previously featured in sequences of the film What Dreams May Come. "His weird and wonderful imagery is very hard to explain. That started to hit the nail on the head for Luc."

In the scene in which a drug enters Lucy's system, penetrating her brain, she is tossed violently around a small room where she is being held prisoner. This was shot on a gimbal set that rotated with a locked camera. Bluff explained that once ILM had this footage, they created CG shots of what was happening inside her body, which were cut into the scene. "We'd make sure that when she was flipping onto the ceiling and going against the gravity of the room, we would try to [show the similar movement] inside of her body."

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In another scene, as the drug's effects take hold of Lucy's body, she is in an airplane where she begins to disassemble into particles. Bluff relates that for this sequence, Besson showed the team an image that he ripped out of an in-flight magazine. "It was a picture of a face that was covered in sprinkles from cupcakes. He said, ‘I want you to build this sequence around this image.'

"We would take Scarlett's real performance, and map it onto a CG version of Scarlett and then flatten in the image so we could animate the sprinkles, then wrap this around her face in the [actual footage]. It was almost like a textural wallpaper."

During production, ILM was also working with some digital artists who don't usually work in features. Bluff said these artists used their own software and creativity to develop new looks, and if appropriate for Lucy, ILM built a pipeline around them for use in the film. That, for instance, inspired the look of nebulas in an evolution sequence.

Toward the end of the film , when Lucy's brain reached 100 percent of its potential, she transforms into a black substance that takes 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.

For this sequence, ILM tapped into an approach that was created by another visiting talent. Explained Bluff: "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."

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ILM created a sort of time-lapse look for a scene in which Lucy stays in one place and the environment changes around her, with images from Times Square to the dinosaur era. Bluff said the team "created as if there were photographs taken every 10 years at approximately the same time of year and with the same weather conditions. There's about 30 different versions of each building as they are rapidly changing through the eras."

For that sequence, ILM even got into creating a CG dinosaur. "That was one of the really fun parts about this movie," Bluff said. "There's a little bit of everything in there."

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA