Luc Besson’s Technology Allergy, Squid Superpowers and a Really Complicated Market: Inside Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a longtime passion project of French director-writer Luc Besson, known for his imaginative action thrillers La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional, The Fifth Element and Lucy.

The feature is based on the Valérian and Laureline graphic novel series, by author Pierre Christin and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières, that first appeared in 1967 and also inspired Besson to write and direct The Fifth Element in 1997. Mézières, Besson says, designed The Fifth Element. At the time, the artist said to the director, “Why are you doing this? You should do Valerian.” However, Besson felt he was constrained by the primitive visual effects technologies of 1997.

Twenty years later, Besson has finally become able to tell the stories that have held his imagination since he was 10.

The majority of Valerian‘s story is set in 2740, following Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) who retrieve a mysterious creature, the last surviving “converter” from the destroyed planet Mül. They transport it to a massive space station known as Alpha, a.k.a. the City of a Thousand Planets, populated by a wild plethora of life forms from across the universe. Upon arrival, the city’s commander (Clive Owen) and defense minister (Herbie Hancock) inform them that their metropolis is under mysterious attack from within. Could the converter be the key to solving this conundrum? Ethan Hawke, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer and John Goodman round out the colorful Valerian cast. And if you thought The Fifth Element’s cab chase was exciting, you’re in for multiple high-energy sequences and shootouts here.

Alpha is the titular intergalactic city in Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Besson began adapting the Valerian and Laureline stories to a motion picture screenplay back in 2000. He started to feel like his script was nearly ready. Then he saw Avatar.

“I came home, put my script in the garbage and started again,” he says. “Avatar was a whole different level, pushing everything. I don’t mind being second, but I want to be second. I don’t want to be ninth. So thanks to Jim Cameron, my script for Valerian is much better now. It was really a long labor of work and that’s really the only way you can win: work every day so that at the end you have something that looks like a piece of art, like it’s made by hand, with love.”

Besson worked with concept designers over a period of two years, meeting once a week by Skype, but keeping them in the dark about story details without a script, “because I wanted their creativity to work without frontier, to come up with the weirdest things that they could imagine. I received more than 6,000 drawings.”

French production designer Hugues Tissandier has worked on nine films with Besson, beginning with The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, and including the films that Besson scripted with Robert Mark Kamen, Transporter and Taken. He says, “I inherited a colossal amount from Luc’s work with a team of concept artists that included Ben Mauro, Marc Simonetti, Sylvain Despretz, Alain Brion and Feng Zhu, at the compound of Patrice Garcia.” (Garcia is the creator of the characters and universe for Besson’s Arthur series of three animated films.)

“From that, with Luc and visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk, we determined which sets would require a build in studio. We continued to develop sets, costumes, weapons and props with my usual team, keeping the spirit and the continuity of Luc’s concepts. I kept all the volumes of the Valerian books on my desk and studied them before every stage of the set build to keep with the spirit of the comics. If you take a look at the Intruder [Valerian and Laureline’s spaceship], the outside is very close to that of the comic book, and the inside is mixed with various periods, diverse technologies and that ‘Luc Besson’ touch.”

Tissandier says that his collaboration with Besson begins with him illustrating the storyteller’s ideas on a mood board program. “Between us, it is a game of permanent ping-pong. Then [come] the first drawings and the atmosphere colors, then I use 3-D software, looking at every set, then I finish with technical drawings and possibly a model.”

The approximately $200 million-budgeted film was shot at the Cité du Cinéma, in Saint-Denis near Paris. The studio complex is supported by Besson. Opened in 2012, it is intended to be a competitor of Cinecittà in Rome and Pinewood in London. According to Tissandier, the sets required a surface of 31,000 square meters. Seven stages were attributed to Valerian with more than 28 practical sets built.

Dane DeHaan plays a 28th-century Spatio-Temporal agent in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk, who won an Oscar with John Dykstra, Anthony LaMolinara and John Frazier for Spiderman 2, oversaw, with visual effects producer Sophie Leclerc, the work of the special effects houses required to fulfill the more than 2,700 FX shots in Valerian. Those houses included ILM, Weta Digital, Rodeo FX and several French companies. By contrast, Besson says Fifth Element was a mere 232 effects shots.

“My job was really to make sure all the companies were doing what was in Luc’s head and that all their work was cohesive, that it all looked like it was part of the same universe though there were hundreds of artists adding imagery to Luc’s movie from all parts of the world,” says Stokdyk, who was also a digital sequence supervisor on Fifth Element.

“The original comic books were a wealth of imagery,” Stokdyk adds. “Sometimes when you need inspiration, you look for a weird animal or exotic places. In this case, if we were ever stuck for an idea or need inspiration, we went back to the original French comic books. A lot of those comics were done over 40 years ago and they’re filled with ideas that seem interesting and fresh in 2017.”

Valerian‘s main opening sequence takes place in a multi-dimensional “Big Market” on the desert planet of Kirian, where Valerian and Laureline infiltrate the seedy underbelly and encounter Igon Siruss (Goodman), a nefarious thug who is in possession of the converter. According to Stokdyk, this may have also been the hardest sequence for “everybody to wrap their heads around” because of the complicated multi-dimensional aspects of the market, which characters can only see by wearing special glasses. Valerian also uses a special invisibility cloaking spray, which added to the visual layers. Add to that the fact that Lauerline is unable to see any of the market, and instead sees a desert area with a number of people walking around wearing special headsets… well, you get the idea.

Valerian‘s Big Market setting comprises an alternate dimension and many moving parts

“There were rules for each level,” Stokdyk says. “And we had to make sure those rules were obeyed for every dimension. I think ILM really embraced that challenge. One thing that really helped us was that Luc shot that entire sequence with his students in France. He edited it all together and that immediately brought everyone together to understand the sequence.”

ILM visual effects supervisor Phillipe Rebours says that ensuring the audience wouldn’t get lost in navigating all the dimensions of the Big Market was of great importance. “When we arrived, we saw the sequence in L.A. with Scott, Sophie and Luc, and it was great. It felt like a movie,” Rebours says. “That helped us because then we could define each shot with a special filter—for instance, this shot is in the desert; this shot is happening in the merchant world; this is a POV. Once that was defined, it translated to the shoot.”

The desert was shot on a stage filled with sand and surrounded by a blue screen, while the marketplace was filmed on another stage: a giant blue-screen room—a full blue environment with blue floors and walls—which would be replaced digitally, but which had poles that defined the walls, some 10-by-10 planks for actors as well as actor guards to hide behind and later act as references for the CG artists.

Rebours says that one particular sequence, a flyover of the marketplace that takes probably 30 seconds of screen time, required nine months to incorporate all the complex digital buildings, vehicles and characters below. There are also a number of Easter eggs in that sequence, including Bruce Willis’ Fifth Element cab—which was thrown in as a surprise for Besson, one the director loved.

Besson did not want any part of Kirian to look like Earth, remembers Rebours. “He visited us in Vancouver and saw a shot in Ignon’s alley, just outside his compound. He said, ‘That looks like Marrakesh. Let’s make the sky purple.’ And just like that, 200 shots changed because the color palette was changing. But it was a great call because having that color palette so different from one dimension to the other helps the audience navigate,” Rebours says.

According to Weta Digital’s visual effects supervisor Martin Hill,  any sequence involving DeHaan, Delevingne or Owen involved a combined plate and motion capture shoot.

“We set up the stage as a motion capture stage, a partial blue screen and set stage,” Hill explains, “so that Dane and Cara could act with the Pearl actors [a race from the destroyed Mül planet].”

For Stokdyk, the Pearl sequence at the start of the film was particularly tricky to get right, as it thrusts the audience into a very emotional scene right off the bat. “You want the audience to care about the Pearls. I think it came through and I hope everyone has a good reaction to those characters,” Stokdyk says. “There’s a lot of nuance to those characters, and it’s necessary, and I think Weta did a terrific job with that.”

The Pearls’ skin is smooth, almost translucent, which presented many challenges to Weta. “In some cases, skin that is smooth can look more synthetic if one isn’t careful,” Hill says. “Adding the nuance to that is important. We knew from the artwork the Pearls would be white, with an opalescent quality to them, so we went back to Luc’s love of the sea and marine life, which is obvious in his early film The Big Blue [about free divers]. We began looking at cephalopods, squid and cuttlefish, so we used a layered, translucent version of the squid with really high-detailed scans of the performers’ own features. We combined the two creating something which is grounded in reality, but has this otherworldly feel from the marine life.”

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