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Weta Digital Delivers Mystical Pearls and More for ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’

Weta VFX supervisor Martin Hill details the challenges of crafting a species of benevolent creatures and their world for the first eight minutes of director Luc Besson’s Academy-shortlisted sci-fi fantasy adventure.

Director Luc Besson’s ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.’ All images courtesy of Weta Digital.

When writer-director Luc Besson endeavored to produce Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based on the comic book series “Valerian and Laureline” by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, the French filmmaker knew he would have to rely on an expansive digital toolbox to realize the multitude of environments and characters described in the story. Enter a sizable visual effects team, including overall visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk, plus separate supervisors at the various vendors which handled major effects work, among them, Industrial Light and Magic, Rodeo FX, and Weta Digital.

Containing a whopping 2,355 visual effects shots, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a feast for the eyes that imagines a plethora of unique dimensions, characters, and worlds not previously explored in cinema. The film was shortlisted for a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects back in December, and was one of 10 projects presented at the recent Academy VFX Bake-off.

Presiding over the team of effects artists at Weta, VFX supervisor Martin Hill faced numerous challenges in bringing Besson’s vision to the screen, which he discussed in detail in a conversation with AWN held at the 2017 VIEW Conference in Turin.

-- WATCH: Scott Stokdyk Talks ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ at FMX 2017 --

Certainly, a project of the eventual size of Valerian was daunting for Hill’s team, but at the outset, Hill set about to strategize how to best approach the massive project in consultation with Besson and Stokdyk. “My role really starts with the first meetings with Scott and Sophie [Leclerc], the visual effects producer, and Luc, going through the concepts, the original comic, and…working out what it is Luc wants to get on screen,” Hill reflected, noting that characters and environments have equal weight in the first stages of the process, long before shooting commences. “Luc had been working on the art for the film with a group of concept designers from around the world for a very long time before we came on.”

As with any large-scale effects-intensive feature, Valerian presented Hill with an intriguing set of questions, given its story’s utter lack of identifiable visual features found on 21st century landscapes. “What differentiates this film from other films?” Hill wondered in the first round of meetings with Stokdyk, Leclerc and Besson, “and how we can prepare for that shoot and get the best possible coverage and information that we can then take back to Weta in post-production and then really fill out what it needs for the film?”

After a detailed pre-production period, which Hill referred to as “the evolution of ideas,” storyboards were created to guide all of the production department heads in their individual preparations for principal photography. “And at that point, you can really discuss all the minutiae of things that we need on set,” added Hill. “For example, there’s a lot of motion capture on this show, because Luc wants some creatures that are humanoid enough, like the Boulan Bathor characters and certainly the Pearls.”

With regards to the aforementioned innocent Pearls, seen in the movie’s first major sequence, in talks with Besson early in pre-production, Hill knew that the benevolent creatures needed to fulfill an emotional component of Valerian’s narrative in the film’s first eight minutes of screen time. “They had to play a lot of very subtle emotional changes through their story arc, from starting in this idyllic paradise world, and then their whole world just gets torn apart by the space battle that comes overhead,” Hill explained. “But then they have this rebirth, where they get off the planet and they’re able to learn all this new technology and work out how to live on the Alpha Space Station. Luc wanted them to be very graceful, very poised, very elegant and very other-worldly and beautiful, but we knew we also had to make sure that, as an audience, you could relate to them very quickly.”

For Weta Digital, the Pearls required the most effort in terms of character design, which involved both facial and bodily manipulation. “When the concept was done, the Pearls weren’t cast [with actors], and the casting had a large bearing on how they finally appeared,” Hill said of the species, who were all performed by female actresses, even to represent male characters. “Ben Mauro did a bunch of really fantastic designs for the Pearls, but once we started making 3D versions of them, we realized we needed to change them, move away a fair bit from the original designs: very beautiful faces to start with, and you start augmenting those. It’s a very delicate line of how much you can move around, and we paid really honest attention to making sure that the overall look was always going to be engaging and something that the audience can relate to.”

In addition to the Pearls, Hill’s team at Weta created critical modifications to practically-built characters that were photographed on set by Besson’s main unit. “That has a number of advantages,” Hill explained. “You’ve got the design locked down in production rather than post, so you can take this set of creatures that we did -- there was about 10 or 12 of them that fell into this category -- and apply ourselves more to the hero characters and their designs. It really helps to spread the design load throughout the film, rather than having to design very quickly.”

Throughout production and into post, Hill’s experience on the film was enhanced by his collaboration with a director who made the visual effects group feel indispensable to the filmmaking process at large. “Either he knows what he wants, but he’s also very open to looking at other ideas, and just being very quick at saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I really like that,’ or, ‘No, we’re going to stick with what we have here,’” Hill revealed of Besson. “He has this very precise idea of what he wants in most cases. And then when it comes to things, say, like the Pearls, when we’re designing them, he’s really open to ideas that you present. If you present him with something that looks really interesting and has a quirk to it that he really likes, he will straight away be, like, ‘That looks great. Let’s put that in instead.’ And one of the things that that does for the whole crew is it gets everyone really excited about the design challenges of the show, knowing that they’re all part of the creative process.”

Scott Essman's picture

From his Los Angeles base, Scott Essman has been writing about motion-picture craftsmanship since 1996.