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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At a recent Q&A moderated by Dave Carter at the Egyptian Theatre, part of Los Angeles’ American Cinematheque’s week-long screening of Besson films, Besson talked more about his love of the sea and how he feeds his imagination.

The passion, he said, was born at a young age, “when I was in Greece on a rocky coast with my parents [who worked as scuba diving instructors]. We didn’t have a lot. And when you wanted to play you took a rock and a piece of wood, and it was Indians and cowboys. You played for half an hour and then you took your rock and it was a spaceship, and there were these aliens. Then this muscle—because of the need, because you don’t have anything—grows. And I think it comes from the fact that I had nothing. The few kids that were around were Greek, so they didn’t speak French. I would get up at 4 a.m. to go with my parents, so I couldn’t play with the kids. My best friend was an octopus. They are very sweet.”

“Squid have this amazing—far beyond chameleonic—ability to change the color and pattern of their skin through these little ink-like cells called chromatophores,” Hill explains. “Luc wanted to be able to read the emotion of the Pearls through the coloring of their skin. So we took a look at the biology of how those patterns are formed, and arranged these patterns in the Pearls to similar biological rules using reaction/diffusion equations. That gave us a natural reaction and placement for all these moving highlights on the Pearls’ body.”

The Pearl aliens in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets have skin inspired by that of squid

For the CG aliens and creatures, Hill says, “We modeled in Maya and ZBrush. Weta Digital has proprietary animation and creature rigs within Maya, and an in-house software, Tissue, which simulates the skin, muscle, fat and interstitial connective tissue. Face mocap software is our in-house FACETS system. For body motion capture, we use MotionBuilder and in-house solvers. Rendering is done via our in-house, physically based shading and lighting renderer called Manuka, which is a fully spectral bi-directional path tracer incorporating Multiple Importance Sampling and Progressive Refinement.”

Very complex. How involved does Besson get in the technology? “I write in long hand. I’m totally allergic to all this technology. But I can see when a tool is interesting,” he said during the Cinematheque conversation. “In the editing, I don’t even open the computer. I can tell you to take one frame out of the shot, or put it back. That is what I am good at. I say exactly what I want. I say, ‘Yes, that’s good.’ Some shots took two years of work for a minute [of screen time]. But I don’t care how they were done. They are all great. I have a story to tell. That is my mission… If I go inside [the technology aspects], I will get lost. So I want to stay on my characters, how I can make audiences cry. I’m the only one that can do that.”

Tissandier adds, “Luc is someone who lets you work, propose ideas and live your passion. He takes in all that interests him, and that is normal. It is his movie.”

For the actors, the physical challenges of the movie were intense.

“I took sword fighting in acting school and I never thought I would use that,” DeHaan says. “Then I was handed two swords and got to fighting these guys that were on stilts. It was a blast. There was one sequence where I was in a room full of blue, and there was a cable cam like when you’re watching a football game. It was a 30 second shot where I was running through an obstacle course and I had no idea what it would look like at the end. It was exhausting.”

“I live for stunts,” Delevingne says. “I love learning new things in a movie, whether it’s sword work or anything. I’ve always been kind of the first one who goes, ‘sure,’ and dives in head-first. And it was so important for Dane and me to believe that we actually were two people who could save the universe. Everyone we worked with, the stunt coordinators, were incredible. I really would have done it forever.”

The film was shot on the Arri Alexa XT. “What’s interesting to me,” Stokdyk says, “because I was able to watch Luc more on set than I could on Fifth Element, is that most of the time it’s him operating and shooting on an 18-80mm zoom lens. He really gets into the zone with the performers. He’s constantly framing and zooming, getting wide coverage and close-up coverage. For a visual effects person who is scrambling and worrying ‘will we be able to track that with that lens,’ he’s giving instant feedback for what he wants. We were inspired to have him on set for the motion capture session.”

DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as Valerian and Laureline, respectively. Photograph by Domitille Girard

At the Cinematheque, Besson talked about a particular shot in The Professional he was very eager to get, one in which he didn’t do any coverage. The shot involved a group of bad DEA agents arriving by staircase on the landing of the protagonist’s parents’ apartment, one by one, with their leader, played Gary Oldman, the last to step from the elevator. A slow and ominous dramatic build.

“I had this shot in my head for a long time,” Besson said. “It seems very simple, but it’s very unusual. Because you are moving one way, opposite from where the people are going. It’s not normal. I was very happy with the shot, but I went back home that night and I was flipping out, because I thought, ‘Oh, my God, if it doesn’t work in the editing room, I am not covered at all.’ I didn’t sleep. I called my editor the next day and he immediately said, ‘Oh, that shot is amazing!’ I relaxed.”

It’s a valuable lesson about taking risks. MM

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens in theaters July 21, 2017, courtesy of STX Entertainment.


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