The Fifth Element: About The Visual Effects

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The Fifth Element called for many combinations of digital and practical effects techniques, frequently combined with elements from live action shooting. Miniature sets, digitally extended and enhanced, were populated with a combination of digital and model vehicles, as well as both virtual and actual actors. In addition, while creating the galactic panorama of The Fifth Element was in itself an immense task, Digital Domain was also called upon to supplement certain of the on-set creature effects, which were handled in London by creature effects artist Nick Dudman and his 55-man crew.

"The most important thing about working in a movie with so many effects," says Besson, "is to know that the movie is, above all else, a story. We put a great deal of work into the script, to see that the story is there -- we were never interested in making a movie that is about some spectacular special effect, with the story built around it. The effects are there to do their job in relation to the story, not the other way around."

Because The Fifth Element is the first feature to realize Besson' s vision through the use of elaborate visual effects, the filmmaker worked in close collaboration with Mark Stetson, Digital Domain's Visual Effects supervisor for the film, through each phase of the visual effects process. "I found that it's less fun than working with actors," Besson notes, "but it turned out to be less difficult than I expected. We started working with Digital Domain very early, storyboarding all the effects about a year before shooting began. We had lots of discussions with Mark Stetson and with Dan Weil, going over drawings, making new drawings -- everything was well-planned ahead of time."

Much of the groundwork for the effects designs was done in the first pre-production stage, when Jean-Claude Mezieres, Moebi us, and a team of seven graphic artists worked for 11 months visualizing Besson's 23rd Century world in expansive detail. For instance, in developing the alien species Besson calls the "Mondoshawan" -- hulking, arinored beings with small heads -the filmmaker initially met with the art team for a briefing session.

During that meeting, Besson told his art crew the entire history of the "Mondoshawan" species as he imagined it. "I would describe its appearance, and how it moves," says Besson, "but also its life; its likes and dislikes, its goals and history. I'd say all I that I knew about it, because I knew this creature, even if I may not have known its face."

A week later, Besson and production designer Dan Weil examined 30 or more different sketches of the "Mondoshawan," and selected a single drawing to be further developed for the creature's final look; other times, they combined portions of different drawings to realize Besson's imaginings.

A similar process was repeated for hundreds of creatures and objects, from Earth and elsewhere in the 23rd Century. Over the course of 11 months, the worlds of The Fifth Element were realized and incorporated into Weil's formal design scheme for the film.

One year later, after the brief hiatus during which Besson wrote, produced and directed The Professional, the preproduction artwork was turned over to Digital Domain, and, well before the start of the principal shoot, Mark Stetson's visual effects crew began work. "We organized our art department, headed by Ira Gilford and Ron Gress," says Stetson, "to further interpret the look of the production art, to flesh out the sketches and to fill the occasional gaps in the established designs. There were a lot of sketches and drawings being traded back and forth, particularly for the cityscapes, flying vehicles and similar things."

Notably, Stetson headed the model shop for 1982's Blade Runner -- a film that has defined the look of the urban future for the last 15 years. "One of the most gratifying aspects of working with Luc on this picture is the fact that it's not another Blade Runner," says Stetson. "The look of this film is very different and fresh. Because of the involvement of Moebius and Mezieres, the design is rooted in the traditions of the French graphic novel, combined with a photo-realistic approach that is entirely new and different."

To realize Besson' s vision of the future 262 years from now, Digital Domain's model shop produced more than 30 major models. The largest of these represented the city of Manhattan in 2259 A.D. -- a single model incorporating 22 buildings -- each building about eight feet around, and averaging a height of 16 feet. The Manhattan model alone filled two of the five stages in Digital Domain's facilities in Venice, California, where four stages were dedicated to The Fifth Element during its 18 weeks of shooting miniature effects.

"Mark has delivered some incredible work," says Dan Lombardo, Digital Domain's Visual Effects Producer on the film. The Fifth Element, designed to immerse the viewer in a unique vision of the future, offers a view of the urban landscape that is both expansive and intimate; during miniature shooting cameras often moved as close as a half-inch from Digital Domain's detailed models. "Few models withstand that kind of close-up scrutiny," says Lombardo. "That's a real testament to the diligence and detail that Mark applies to his work."

The diversity of effects techniques used for the film is a point of pride for Stetson and crew. "Mixing it up -- showing digital cars literally bumper-to-bumper with model cars -- has been a lot of fun on this picture," says Stetson, "and the freedom that gave certainly multiplied the number of elements and enriched the shots."

Work for The Fifth Element doubled Digital Domain s record for most elements in a single shot, with over 80 elements combined for each frame of one shot. The average for the picture was approximately 25 elements, in a total of 225 effects shots.

With the project well into development at Digital Domain, the principal shoot began. Throughout the shoot, Digital Domain maintained a visual effects plate unit headed by Stetson and VFX director of photography Bill Neil, to assure the accuracy of the color keys and to advise Besson on what could be achieved in the final compositions of the 125 live action shots.

As work progressed on two continents, coordination with Besson remained top priority for the Digital Domain effects unit. "Luc is a very demanding filmmaker," Stetson points out, "but he is very direct in stating what he wants and needs, and very clear and consistent in his expression of those needs. Whenever we've run into any sort of trouble, he's been a wonderfully imaginative problem-solver as well."

Besson, though he readily admits pressing Digital Domain for their best performance, also confesses to a pet name for the D. D. crew: "Les Frères Lumiere," after the French film pioneers whose numerous film firsts include the first special effects -- and it's no small honor to be named 'honorary Frenchmen' by Luc Besson, even for the most celebrated of the new breed of digital effects shops.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to work on an effects film with the expansive scope of The Fifth Element," says Stetson. "But it's particularly gratifying to work on a production that can be chosen to open the Cannes Film Festival -- it's a level of filmmaking that offers another incentive to do your very best, one that's brought by too few films nowadays."

"It's a great pleasure for me to take all of this technology, and all of this work, to draw from mythology, in order to make something that is meant purely for fun," says Besson. "Because that is what this film is all about; when I made The Professional, I was feeling a little aggressive and dark. This film comes from an entirely different mood -- it's just for fun and big, big adventure."

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