Twenty years ago, Luc Besson made his visually arresting sci-fi epic The Fifth Element.
The grand intergalactic sets, alien lifeforms, and lavish futuristic costumes were designed and made mostly by hand. Its 2,000-foot-long space cruise-liner, the Fhloston Paradise, was the largest motion-control model ever built for a film at the time, weighing in at 7,500 pounds. It was shot on 35mm film, as many movies were then. And it only used two green-screen shots, and less than 200 special-effects shots, by Besson’s estimates. A comparable blockbuster of that scale today uses thousands.
“The Fifth Element was the last film made the dinosaur way,” Besson told IndieWire. “It was the last film before digital, where you have to put dots on the screen for six hours and lock your camera. It was a nightmare.”
Besson had much less to gripe about in his return to the sci-fi genre, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The film is no less visually bold, but makes use of all the filmmaking technologies that only became available after The Fifth Element was shot in 1997. Valerian has 2,734 special-effects shots, more than 14 times the number in The Fifth Element, including a massive extraterrestrial market, a space station, another luxury spacecraft, and new alien species.
“Six months later, you basically can have the camera on your shoulder, shoot whatever you want, and the guy says, ‘Oh, we’ll deal with it after,’” Besson recalled. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding? Why you don’t say that last year?’ It was insane.”
Most of the backgrounds in Valerian—an adaptation of a French time-traveling comic-book, Valerian and Laureline, that Besson admired as a kid in the 1970s—weren’t physically there were they were shot, and were added in. Actress Cara Delevingne, who plays Laureline, told the Hollywood Reporter, “we were filming basically every day in front of a bluescreen. Out of six months, only two weeks were under normal circumstances.”
And new motion-capture technology meant that Besson could see the digitally-altered action in real-time as he was filming, instead of having to imagine what it would look like when all the effects were put it in. With The Fifth Element, Besson would describe the action to the actors so they could react appropriately: “Every time Luc panned the camera on me standing on the high rise when I see New York for the first time, he would yell out ‘There’s a dinosaur running at you!’ or ‘You see medieval Europe and cannonballs!’ Or ‘You see China!’,” actress Milla Jovovich told Entertainment Weekly. “He wanted to see a real reaction and have me really visualize what was going on.”
All of the new effects also meant that Valerian cost twice as much to make. Where The Fifth Element cost $90 million (which was was a lot in 1997), Valerian, has a price tag of around $180 million. That’s the biggest budget ever from a non-US studio.
One thing that hasn’t changed much: The care and attention that went into the visuals. The Fifth Element was designed by two of Besson’s idols, comic-book artist Jean-Claude Mézières, who co-created Valerian—and even encouraged Besson to adapt the work back then in the 1990s—and Jean Giraud, who used the pseudonym Mœbius, and also worked on other films like Alien and Tron.
With Valerian, Besson already had ample art from the original source material to draw from. But he wanted to incorporate original design, as well. He sent an anonymous letter to design schools around the world, he told the Verge, and asked students to submit designs for a world, an alien, and a spacecraft, with few other details. Five artists were hired out of the 2,000 who sent submissions, and Besson worked with them one-on-one for a year via Skype, so as not to influence their creativity. Then he brought them all together. The result was more than 200 alien species, only a small fraction of which made it into the film.
That just means Besson has plenty of designs for the next movie, and the one after that, which he’s already writing—even if they never get made.
“Everybody says, ‘Why are you writing if you don’t even know you will do it?'” said Besson. “And I say, “It doesn’t matter… You [may] never know how it ends! But I know it. Hah!”