Va­le­rian and the City of a thou­sand plan­ets

Trevor Hogg dis­cov­ers how mul­ti­ple stu­dios came to­gether to bring one di­rec­tor’s vi­sion of a science-fiction world to life in Va­le­rian and the City of a Thou­sand Plan­ets

3D World - - CONTENTS - Va­le­rian and the City of a Thou­sand FYI Plan­ets is in cin­e­mas now.

When Luc Bes­son had a vi­sion for bring­ing a comic-book world to life, he called upon mul­ti­ple stu­dios to make it hap­pen

When Avatar was re­leased, film­maker Luc Bes­son (The Fifth El­e­ment) re­alised that dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy had reached a point where the only limit was imag­i­na­tion; the rev­e­la­tion led him on a five-year odyssey to adapt Valérian and Lau­re­line by Pierre Christin and Jean-claude Méz­ières. The sem­i­nal science-fiction comic-book se­ries about spa­tiotem­po­ral agents in the 28th cen­tury ar­rives on the big screen with the re­lease of Va­le­rian and the City of a Thou­sand Plan­ets.

“Luc has been thinking about this movie since he was a kid,” states Vis­ual Ef­fects Su­per­vi­sor Scott Stokdyk (Spi­der-man 2). “A lot of my job was get­ting what was in­side of his head onto the screen.” Bes­son knew what the frames should look like but there was some cre­ative free­dom when it came to de­vel­op­ing the de­tails in them. “When I first came onto this movie I was blown away by all of the art­work that Luc had al­ready done with his con­cept artists. But we ended up re­ly­ing on the art de­part­ments of ILM, Weta Dig­i­tal and Rodeo FX be­cause ev­ery frame was packed with so much con­cept de­sign.”

Many be­come one

ILM was re­spon­si­ble for the Mar­ket Se­quence where a heist takes place; Rodeo FX han­dled the Al­pha Space Sta­tion; and the sub-worlds of Al­pha, like Mül where the Pearls live, were cre­ated by Weta Dig­i­tal. “Early on I put to­gether frame grabs of live­ac­tion pieces that Luc, Thierry Ar­bo­gast [cin­e­matog­ra­pher] and Hugues Tis­sandier [pro­duc­tion de­signer] had cre­ated that didn’t nec­es­sar­ily have vis­ual ef­fects in­put,” ex­plains Scott. “I gave the style guide to our main ven­dors and said, ‘Ev­ery im­age that you cre­ate syn­thet­i­cally gets held up against these.’ We weren’t shy at do­ing all CG shots, and mix­ing live-ac­tion and dif­fer­ent el­e­ments. It was what­ever made the vis­ual ef­fects soup more in­ter­est­ing.”

“I al­ways worry about ac­tors be­ing in a sea of blue screens and not be­ing able to un­der­stand where they are,” re­marks Scott. “There’s one scene in the movie where that did hap­pen. It was a di­a­logue be­tween Va­le­rian [Dane Dehaan] and Lau­re­line [Cara Delev­ingne] so they were fo­cused on each other and not look­ing around say­ing, ‘Look at how amaz­ing this back­ground is.’ We built an in­cred­i­ble amount of prac­ti­cal sets for scenes where it was im­por­tant for the ac­tors to in­ter­act with the en­vi­ron­ment, such as their workspace.”

Mak­ing the un­real, real

In the end, some 2,355 vis­ual ef­fects shots made the fi­nal cut. “For a crazy sci-fi movie it’s a tes­ta­ment to the cos­tume de­signer

and pro­duc­tion de­signer that there were over 400 in-cam­era shots,” muses Scott. “nowa­days ev­ery­thing can be a vis­ual ef­fects shot. We had 4Dmax, the scan­ning com­pany, there full-time. Any­thing that went onto the stages we scanned and pho­tographed. It felt good to cap­ture this ephemeral mo­ment in time where Luc and a group of tal­ented artists cre­ated these amaz­ing cos­tumes, props, and sets.”

But the joy also has some draw­backs. “It’s such a dif­fi­cult prob­lem to make some­thing that no­body has ever seen be­fore,” notes Scott. “For vis­ual ef­fects, it’s about what piece of Earth tex­ture can be in­jected into that re­ally far-out con­cept art­work to pull it back in again. Martin Hill at Weta Dig­i­tal showed me some scanned drift­wood with all of the de­tails taken pro­por­tion­ally out of scale that was placed un­der­wa­ter in one of their scenes. It looked oth­er­worldly.” Some cre­ative al­ter­ations needed to be made to avoid the im­pres­sion of be­ing de­riv­a­tive. “For the de­sign of the In­truder there are a lot of com­par­isons to the Mil­len­nium Fal­con and we had to walk the line of mak­ing it re­spect the comic book but also work in the cin­e­matic world of Va­le­rian.” Doghan Daguis, pearls & Bub­ble The real world also helped when it came to char­ac­ters. “There are three char­ac­ters called the Doghan Daguis that are waisthigh furry winged crea­tures,” ex­plains Scott. “We de­cided to do those CG but on-set had three peo­ple as stand-ins for eye­line, act­ing and di­rect­ing. Luc would get a take he wanted and then we would shoot a clean pass. It gave ed­i­to­rial some­thing to cut with.” The emo­tional core of the

“For vis­ual ef­fects, it’s about what piece of earth tex­ture CAN be in­jected into that re­ally Far-out Con­cept art­work to pull it back in again” Scott Stokdyk, Pro­duc­tion VFX Su­per­vi­sor

movie are the gen­tle and highly ad­vanced Pearls. “They’re an­drog­y­nous. We did a bit of mo­tion cap­ture in new Zealand at the start of the project with men and women. When we went to Paris to shoot prin­ci­pal pho­tog­ra­phy, Luc ended up putting tall women in boots, and in some cases cast more mas­cu­line women in the roles of the men to get some in­ter­est­ing things to come through the mo­tion cap­ture.” The Pearls pro­vided a tech­ni­cal chal­lenge for Weta Dig­i­tal. “As they emo­tion­ally re­spond, chro­matophores change pat­terns on top of their skin.”

“Bub­ble [Rhi­anna] is a shapeshifter who be­comes a key plot point be­cause she en­ables Va­le­rian to get into this re­stricted area dis­guised,” re­marks Scott. “The vis­ual ef­fects chal­lenge was, ‘How do you make a trans­for­ma­tion nowa­days not look like an old CG tech­nique?’ It’s a very art-directed blobby type of trans­for­ma­tion with some mis­di­rec­tion and speed changes. Ev­ery trans­for­ma­tion has a lit­tle dif­fer­ent flavour.” Ini­tially, mo­tion-con­trol cam­eras were con­sid­ered and Weta Dig­i­tal pro­duced pre-vis that al­lowed Luc Bes­son to vir­tu­ally scout the whole dance scene. “Martin Hill and I de­cided to deal with the pain of align­ing mul­ti­ple passes in ex­change for the free­dom of let­ting Luc com­pose what was on the day and work with what the dancer was do­ing and be­ing more or­ganic about it.” stag­ing a heist The fan­tas­ti­cal el­e­ments of the story pre­sented their own set of chal­lenges. “The Mar­ket Se­quence was in­her­ently com­plex,” re­marks Scott. “Part of it takes place in a desert where tourists put on these vir­tual hel­mets and go to the big­gest mar­ket you have ever seen in some other di­men­sion or galaxy. You want to jux­ta­pose those two

“we weren’t shy at do­ing all CG shots, and mix­ing live­ac­tion and dif­fer­ent el­e­ments. it was what­ever made the vis­ual ef­fects soup more in­ter­est­ing” Scott Stokdyk, Pro­duc­tion VFX Su­per­vi­sor

worlds and make them seem quite dif­fer­ent. In­her­ently there’s a geo­met­ric tex­tu­ral com­plex­ity. We have to make it clear what world that you’re in and make it com­plex but not dis­tract­ing. The more you load into a screen some­times it can de­sen­si­tise you to what you should be look­ing at. I had to work with Luc, Philippe Re­bours and the ILM team to fig­ure out when we should de­fo­cus back­grounds, add a blue tourist treat­ment ef­fect on ac­tors, and pull out items that were dis­tract­ing, and add things into empty ar­eas that were weirdly dis­tract­ing be­cause they were bare. It was def­i­nitely a shot-by-shot de­sign chal­lenge, which was fun.”

As well as cre­at­ing en­vi­ron­ments from scratch, the team soon re­alised it was also cre­at­ing new rules. “When I came onto the movie and saw the early pre-vis I asked where the grav­ity was com­ing from,” chuck­les Scott. “Within about one day I re­alised that we were mak­ing up our own rules on Al­pha. There’s some­thing about sci-fi tech­nol­ogy which is so far ahead that you can’t wrap your head around the con­cepts, so you have to let go of some of the things that you know now.” The Sky­jet was co-de­signed with Lexus. “It was brought to vis­ual ef­fects life by Rodeo FX, which pieced to­gether some 3D files and prac­ti­cal scans for the CG model and de­signed de­tails like the weapons sys­tem, mo­tion graph­ics and the an­i­ma­tion style.” A science-fiction fran­chise that pushed the bound­aries of fu­tur­is­tic tech­nol­ogy gets ref­er­enced. “Luc had Mikros FX do an ho­mage to Star Trek at one point, where peo­ple ma­te­ri­alise in the back­ground. Rodeo FX is so good at de­sign and took the lead on the feel of the mo­tion graph­ics but there were also cases where we had Mikros FX and Weta Dig­i­tal come up with dif­fer­ent ideas.” ef­fi­cient tech­niques “We chose to work in 2K in­stead of 4K as we wanted all of our VFX money to go into more it­er­a­tions and de­signs”, re­marks Scott. “3D was a post con­ver­sion so we weren’t hav­ing ven­dors work­ing on two dif­fer­ent eye de­liv­er­ies.” The cam­era of choice was the ALEXA XT. “Luc shot with a sin­gle cam­era. oc­ca­sion­ally, for ac­tion shots he would use a sec­ond cam­era or go to a Steadicam op­er­a­tor. Luc op­er­ated us­ing a zoom lens as a vari­able prime so that he could work ef­fi­ciently; he could do a close-up on the ac­tors then for a sec­ond take keep rolling and go wider. It would have made things hard on the vis­ual ef­fects ven­dors in terms of track­ing if we hadn’t got amaz­ing qual­ity meta­data out of the cam­era.”

“Luc had an edit of the movie a year be­fore re­lease so we were able to turn over shots early to our vis­ual ef­fects ven­dors, and give al­most a year’s worth of post­pro­duc­tion,” states Scott. “We had the lux­ury of hav­ing some of the best vis­ual ef­fects com­pa­nies in the world so I don’t think af­ter we got go­ing there was a worry about the work look­ing beau­ti­ful. The big­gest chal­lenge was mak­ing sure there was a co­he­sive feel to all of the vis­ual ef­fects that were in Luc’s world.” Va­le­rian and the City of a Thou­sand Plan­ets has its own unique spin on the science-fiction genre. “There are scenes in here, like when Lau­re­line puts a jel­ly­fish on her head to have a psy­che­delic flash­back, that I’ve never seen any­where else. I want to watch au­di­ences re­act to the Pearl se­quence at the start of the movie. It’s a pow­er­ful emo­tional scene with syn­thetic char­ac­ters.”

De­spite the temp­ta­tion to go all-out with CG, phys­i­cal props, cos­tumes and sets still played an im­por­tant role

Left: Al­pha space sta­tion which is pop­u­lated by a thou­sand dif­fer­ent worlds and species was con­structed by rodeo Fx

Be­low: the pearls are a highly evolved an­drog­y­nous species that emote through chro­matophores on top of their skin

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