Luc Besson was born to make “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” Based on the influential French comics series “Valérian and Laureline” (written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières), it’s sci-fi on steroids with a multitude of exotic aliens and baroque environments. Very French and very weird.
But before Besson could tackle his ambitious passion project about a pair of “spatio-temporal agents” (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne) protecting the intergalactic city of Alpha, he first had to make “The Fifth Element.” That was 20 years ago, at the dawn of CG, and his experimental tune-up for “Valerian” became a cult classic.
Bruce Willis played a flying taxi driver in futuristic New York who goes on a wild adventure with the orange-haired, humanoid savior of the universe (Milla Jovovich). Besson even hired Mézières as an uncredited designer because it was easier than just ripping off his comic series.
Now Besson has come full circle, creating a shared universe with both “The Fifth Element” and “Valerian,” each influencing the other in design and VFX methodologies.
Starting with a Color Script
On “The Fifth Element,” Besson devised a color script with reds, blues, pinks, yellows, purples, and earth tones for his eye-popping imagery that also served him well on “Valerian.” “Luc is drawn to the palette from the original ‘Valerian’ comics along with other complementary colors,” said production VFX supervisor Scott Stokdyk, who worked as a digital artist on “The Fifth Element.”
“It’s an accumulation of thousands of choices as he’s making this movie,” Stokdyk said. “But the thing that struck all the visual effects people working on this was how much Luc had in his head. He was constantly checking the work against his mental picture.”
The “Valerian” Influence
Concepts from the “Valerian” comics made their way into “The Fifth Element,” such as the futuristic New York with flying taxis and a mass of new and old skyscrapers. These were inspired by the Planet Rubanis and made easier with the help of Mézières. Digital Domain handled the miniature and fledgling CG, creating a digital traffic system for the taxi and cop cars. In fact, a flying taxi makes an appearance in “Valerian.”
“It’s very hard to do interesting sci-fi design that hasn’t been done before because you run the danger of looking derivative,” said Stokdyk. “Somehow Luc brings a combination of a French sensibility and an interesting imagination, living mentally in these sci-fi worlds.”
“Valerian” World Building
The Big Market sequence in “Valerian” (a virtual shopping mall) started out as a concept idea in “The Fifth Element” that was never realized. But there was no problem finding the appropriate scope and scale on “Valerian.” Industrial Light & Magic created a massive 500-floor canyon, which was procedurally made with Maya, model-textured with Zbrush, and sliced into pieces with Houdini. It contained a library of storefronts, 900 props, and nearly 20 hero creatures, including the crab-like Megaptor and the ape-like Siruss (voiced by John Goodman), containing three layers of simulated mesh and connective tissue.
Rodeo FX, meanwhile, created the Alpha metropolis, including a Skyjet (designed in collaboration with Lexus), the Intruder spacecraft, and select CG characters. “Alpha is drawn from every civilization in the galaxy with diverse styles of architecture,” said Stokdyk.
The Guardians of the Future
“The Fifth Element’s” creatures include the peaceful Mondoshawans, who are the target of the shape shifting, mercenary Mangalores. There’s very much a “Valerian” influence in the outrageous design, though, and combining different species.
But when it came to “Valerian,” Besson had the advantage of using the latest virtual production advancements for mo-cap and facial capture, while still using practical suits on set with CG embellishments.
Weta supplied a host of creatures, such as the humanoid Boulans (including Bubble, the entertainer, voiced by Rihanna). But the most noteworthy are the hilarious Doghan Dagius trio. They’re a cross between a crocodile and winged elephant, with three mo-capped actors providing visual reference and voices, finishing each other’s sentences. However, Weta did total keyframe animation with great skin texture.
“Each of the three contains a third of the information for sale as an insurance policy for their survival,” said Stokdyk. “The actors had open mouth expressions, but that became confusing in animation because you expected them to be articulating when they weren’t.”
Looking back 20 years at “The Fifth Element,” which produced nearly 30 future VFX supervisors, Stokdyk said: “The fact that it was ahead of its time and stands the test of time is ‘The Fifth Element’s legacy.