Luc Besson - sight & sound article

Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element" reinvents the look of sci-fi.
Nigel Floyd talks to special effects man Mark Stetson and
Stella Bruzzi examines Jean-Paul Gaultier's costumes.

You know how Blade Runner was the film everyone ripped off for the next 15 years? Well, this'll be the one they'll rip off for the next 15 years. So (apparently) boasted a colleague of Mark Stetson's, head of Digital Domain's special visual effects team for Luc Besson's science-fiction film The Fifth Element. The remark sounds like hubris - except that, after several years of dull, derivative pseudo-science fiction, the finished film does rework and revitalise the look of the genre, with a radical vision of twenty-third-century New York drawn from the work of two legendary French comic book artists, Moebius and Jean-Claude M�zieres.

This is a city totally re-imagined. What was once the street level is now obscured by a dense layer of smog. The canyons between the vertical buildings are filled with airborne traffic: battered aircabs hover and dart, police 'cars' plunge vertically down into the murk, a Thai junk sails across the crowded sky with a wave-like rocking motion. As the film starts, aircab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is already having a bad day. Then a carrot-topped, gibberish-speaking waif, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) drops into his taxi and the police begin chasing him through the canyons, guns blazing. The story has to do with a giant sphere of anti-energy that threatens to consume every living organism in the universe, unless - warns the eccentric Father Cornelius (Ian Holm) - the four elements, Earth, Wind, Fire and Water are united with the mysterious Fifth Element. Meanwhile, the flamboyantly evil Zorg (Gary Oldman) teams up with some dog-like alien mercenaries to get a piece of the action.

Stetson, special visual effects supervisor on the project for nearly 20 months, sums up the thinking behind the film's overall design: "The work Luc and his production designer Dan Weil did on the New York cityscape had a very specific aim," he explains. "Although traditionally New York is characterized by its grid-like, rectilinear street layout, curving streets and T-intersections would normally be used to constrain the view, so as to fit onto a model stage in miniature, or into a live-action screen for that matter. Luc and Dan didn't want to do this. They wanted to depict New York as they saw it - a European rather than an American view.

Luc's photographic style for this and many other films is very centred, with one-point perspective's fixed right on the cross hairs of the camera lens. And that reflects somewhat the difference between the American comicbook tradition and the French graphic artist heritage, the latter being the source for the look and design of this film. In this film, we have one-point perspectives centred down the middle of the streets, with a vanishing point to infinity. And we have to look down those streets forever."

It's this distinctly European feel that Stetson is most proud of - a realisation of Besson's long-time vision of the future: "As a story idea, The Fifth Element has been in Luc's head since he was 16 years old." The two graphic artists who influenced the teenage Besson were Jean Giraud, known to comics aficionados as Moebius, and Jean-Claude M�zieres. Moebius made his name in France in the 60s, and then internationally with Metal Hurlant ('Howling Metal', published in the US as Heavy Metal), the space-fantasy comic he cofounded in 1975, with which its superb production standards and pulp-poetic sensibility put French graphic art at the forefront of the comics world. Moebius' style is at once sweeping and meticulous in its architectural detail, an evocation of alien civilisations far away in time - and a wry study of the all-too-human beings stumbling through them M�zieres, rather less well-known outside France, achieved cult status as illustrator of a series featuring Valerian, the Spatio-Temporal Agent. His work, too, is highly architectural, though distinctly more realist in line - with a 60s art deco look to it (not unlike the French strip Barbarella, which of course inspired the Roger Vadim film). Both Giraud and M�zieres worked closely with Besson during pre-production, contributing designs for cityscapes, vehicles and interiors, with some shots taken almost directly from their illustrations.

Stetson himself joined the effects industry at the start of the 80s, building miniatures and learning his craft from such industry veterans as Douglas Trumbull and Richard Edlund. In 1989, he set up Stetson Visual Services with a partner, a modest company that specialised in creating and filming miniatures. After six years the company was dissolved amicably, and Stetson joined Digital Domain. Partly owned by James (Terminator) Cameron's film production company Lightstorm, Digital Domain provided the state-of-the-art miniatures and computer-generated images for such features as Apollo 13, Dante's Peak and Cameron's $200 million blockbuster Titanic.

Despite Besson's own modest description of his dealings with this team - that he provided them with reams of cityscapes and vehicle designs, leaving them to work out how to bring these images to the screen - Stetson is insistent that the relationship was collaborative: "I can't stress how invaluable it was to spend time with Luc and Dan in London, trying to get as much of a feel of the film as I could. We were able to show them a rough digital cityscape, a physical model of the miniature city set - and even a digital representation of the special effects stage we were planning on shooting on. This 'previous' gave us a very effective communication tool with Luc. Using our low-resolution outline images, he and his editor, Sylvie Landra, were able to use the AVID [digital editing system] to pre-edit sequences for speed, action and composition."

Despite the incredible advances in computer-generated imagery (CGI), Stetson's former trade - that of miniature creator - is very much alive. Indeed, the 60 to 70 members of the miniatures crew were only marginally outnumbered by their colleagues on the CGI team. Many of the most complex shots in The Fifth Element feature a subtle blend of these two techniques: "For example, for that first big city reveal, when Leeloo steps out on the ledge and takes in the city for the first time, each of those three shots is assembled out of essentially the same components. There are miniatures in the fore- and mid-ground, digital 2-D matte-painted backgrounds, and mostly digital cars and traffic. Luc's approach to the cityscapes dictated that combination technique: building the miniature sets in the foreground allowed us to get more detail into the fore- and mid-ground of the shots.

I can't tell you how much the look of the city is affected by the flying traffic. When we were building the compositions and working on the matte paintings, we looked at some of the scenes without the flying traffic, just to see how the blend was working. And they looked so dead and still. We had forgotten by that point how much the sky-traffic was really affecting the look.

The Thai ship is one of our most complex assemblies of separate components. The red hull is a full-size set-piece, mounted on a motion base, from which we captured the motion-control movement data. The black engine parts are all CG, tracked and matched to it. Then there's miniature foreground buildings, and the foreground plane at ground level is miniatures of buildings. But once you get to the river's edge, the former East River, you go into a 2-D matte painting (which began life as a 3-D CG model to get the composition right).

There's a lot of other little CG elements, and of course all the CG flying traffic. Then there's a little vignette that occurs in the lower right frame of an apartment; we were plugging in one of the apartment modules to explain their modular construction - why they look the way they do. That was just for the laser disc fans."

Stella Bruzzi on Jean-Paul Gaultier's costumes.

Prior to 'The Fifth Element' Jean-Paul Gaultier's cinema work has included costumes for all the cast of Peter Greenaway's 1989 'The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover' (bar the lover), for Victoria Abril as the bandaged vamp in Almodovar's 'Kika' (1993), and for one of the collections featured in Altman's 'Pret-a-Porter' (1994) and for the 100-string cast of Jeunet et Caro's retro fantasy 'The City of Lost Children' (1995). If his fashion designs are extravagantly sexy (all cones, corsets and exquisite bondage) his film creations are even more so, the epitome being Andrea in 'Kika'.

A hands-on designer, Gaultier assumed overall control of all the costumes he created, personally checking the 900 extras on 'The Fifth Element' before shooting. He continues the two-tier system established by 'The Cook The Thief' - on which he only created specially designed items for the leads (notably Helen Mirren, inspired by 'Last Year in Marienbad' and classic Hollywood) and then let the other characters rifle through his ready-to-wear collections.

The extant Gaultier signature styles are evident in 'The Fifth Element' - the cone bras, the crinoline hoops worn as outer garments, the glamorously feminine men's costumes and Bruce Willis' carefully ripped dinner shirt. But his eclecticism is also in evidence - for instance in his witty reworking of military uniforms (in this case Gary Oldman's SS-inspired high collars and wide trousers tucked into sleek boots) and the copious references to the cinematic heritage of futuristic fantasies. Although an innovator, Gaultier served a classic apprenticeship and is steeped in tradition, so there are echoes of 'Metropolis' (1926, which also inspired 'Kika'), of the functionalism of Hardy Amies' costumes for '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968) and of the gaudiness of Paco Rabanne's work on 'Barbarella' (1967).

Gaultier has said that cinema affords him the freedom to let his imagination run wild, to experiment in a way he can't in the world of couture. this feeling of liberation is exemplified by the ultramodern, provocative and sportif costumes Milla Jovovich wears. In her synthetic spider-woman body-cages, her punky t-shirt and hard boots she synthesises existing Gaultier with pure fantasy. Leeloo, Andrea and Mirren's The Wife are all pure spectacle, Gaultier's riposte to all those admirers of submissive Armani- or Cerruti-inspired clothes that blend in with narrative and character, rather than disrupting and challenging them.