Luc Besson’s plan for Valerian and The City has enabled top VFX artists to bring to digital life his vision of an alien-filled epic for the ages

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Luc Besson’s plan for Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets has enabled top VFX artists to bring to digital life his vision of an alien-filled epic for the ages.

Besson is ready to introduce the world to a new kind of comic book hero with the release of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, July 21 a lush, effects-packed sci-fi feature adapted from the French director’s favorite childhood comic.

For Besson, director of some iconic features as The Professional, The Fifth Element and Lucy, the movie was a labour of love that he began working on in 2000, hiring ten artists to come up with designs for a movie that didn’t even have a script.

“I wanted creativity totally without frontier,” says Besson. “I wanted them to come back with the weirdest things they can (create). And then I received more than six thousand drawings and I started my puzzle.”

Throwing a wrinkle in the process was Avatar, which so impressed Besson that he threw out his nearly finished script for Valerian and started over.

The final version of the story is adapted from the long running Valerian and Laureline comic book created by writer Pierre Christin and drawn by Jean-Claude Mezieres. It debuted in the pages of Pilote magazine in 1967, with a total of 23 albums published in France through its conclusion in 2013.

Besson says his boyhood love of Valerian prompted him to hire Mezieres as an artist on The Fifth Element, but it took until now for visual effects to make possible the kind of adaptation the director envisioned. The feature stars Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline, two government agents in the 28th century tasked with stopping a plot against Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets, where the universe’s best and brightest live in peace.

Stokdyk says he was thrilled to collaborate with Besson, years after working as a digital artist on The Fifth Element. But the scope of what Besson wanted to create with the movie was at first overwhelming.

Besson’s forethought and planning, however, allowed Stokdyk and visual effects producer Sophie Leclerc to break down the massive task into manageable chunks. Stokdyk says they were able to divide up the effects among a number of top-notch companies, with Weta, ILM and Rodeo FX reliably leading the charge.

Leclerc says they played to each company’s strengths. For example, the complicated Big Market sequence, comprised of some 600 shots, required a really large asset and alien build that was tailored for ILM. The Alpha station and space battles was handled by Rodeo FX, while Weta handled some 1,300 shots, including a large amount of motion capture for the Pearl world as well as very diverse aliens and habitats inside the Alpha station. Also working on the movie were a trio of French companies: Mikros, MacGuff and Digital Factory. The final film has 2,355 effects shots.

“It was also Luc’s clear vision of what he wanted, and extremely clear, targeted comments that allowed all the VFX vendors to work very efficiently,” says Stokdyk. Luc was able to edit his movie together almost a year before the release date, and didn’t change from the very first blueprint that he gave the VFX team.”

The most complicated example of this was the Big Market sequence, set on a desert planet where tourists put on headsets that let them see into a market in another dimension and shop for the most unique items in the universe. The action takes place in two different worlds, with the aliens within the market having a third point of view on the action.