Multi pass and motion control: re-visiting the VFX of ‘The Fifth Element’

‘You know, Mark, I don’t want to do these ‘fancy panning around and seeing the whole world shots’. I’d much rather set a camera looking down a street, having a cab rush towards me, and cut as it passes by, and then cut to a reverse of it passing by, and construct my film that way.’

Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element is now 25 years old. Back in 1997, the visual effects for the film were realized with a masterful combination of motion control miniatures, CG, digital compositing and effects simulations by Digital Domain.

Perhaps most memorable are views of a future New York, complete with flying cars and a mass of new and old skyscrapers. The film was one of Digital Domain’s huge miniature shows released that year – the others being Dante’s Peak and Titanic – while also heralding the fast-moving world of CGI in the movies.

Here’s my original interview (first published at vfxblog) with The Fifth Element’s visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson, who re-visits the work, both miniature and digital.

This was your first visual effects supervisor role – how daunting was that for you?

Mark Stetson: I wasn’t afraid of the size of it. I didn’t think it was huge at the time. I mean, it was sort of standard tent pole-ish at the time and I was confident that I could do that, but it was my first one and there was a ton I had to learn, especially about digital visual effects. And I was very supported by Digital Domain. It was Digital Domain 1.0 back then, and they really gave me a great team. It was a great experience all around.

Prior to that you’d worked on things like Blade Runner and Hudsucker Proxy and Waterworld. You’d come from miniatures. Could you give me a quick background of what you felt like your area of expertise was?

Mark Stetson: I sort of came up quickly through the ranks in miniature effects and I think Blade Runner was my third or fourth picture. And running the model shop for Doug Trumbull was a huge deal in my world and in the visual effects world at the time. And so what I found is – I stayed with that for ten or fifteen years – was I really ended up fronting visual effects projects in the sense that model construction needed such a lead time that I really needed to sort of figure out the scope of the work. And oftentimes I was the first person doing a breakdown on a film: what was going to be miniature, what was going to be matte painting, what was gonna be comp, what elements we needed, stuff like that.

And so I had plenty of support in that regard but oftentimes I was the first person to seriously look at a project. So that all led to it not being an unusual transition to go into overall visual effects supervision. At least that was my foundational confidence, shall we say, my confidence in that sense. And I of course had tons to learn, but it’s a good place to start. Digital Domain was very supportive. I was actually kind of shocked when they handed me that project. I knew nothing about Luc Besson really and my first job was to read the script, get on a plane, fly to London and meet him. And let him bless me for the job.

And it was all pretty wild to start. I didn’t know what to make of the script, didn’t know whether to read it as a comedy or a drama, and had plenty of questions about that. But just sort of embedding myself with the film crew was a great experience, a great experience.

Greenscreen car element.

What do you remember about those early days of meeting Luc and going through the script, and what his view and your view was on how some of these sequences would be done?

Mark Stetson: Well, Luc was very impressed with my credentials, especially Blade Runner. And was happy to take me on almost based on that. Really he wanted to make a deal with Digital Domain and he wanted his picture to be done there. It was that more than it was me, and I was very lucky to become part of that project and part of that world. He had some pretty clear ideas and communicated them very clearly how he wanted to shoot things. He has a pretty unusual style, especially then. If you looked at his films then, he explained to me, ‘You know Mark I don’t want to do these ‘fancy panning around and seeing the whole world shots’. I’d much rather set a camera looking down a street, having a cab rush towards me, and cut as it passes by, and then cut to a reverse of it passing by, and construct my film that way.’ So there’s a lot of single centered one-point perspective shots in the movies, and his prior movies, too, if you look at them.

I remember there was one shot late in post in the cab chase we were trying to figure out where his sort of one-point perspective style just wasn’t working for the shot, where it was a shot of the cab after escaping the police and Bruce Willis relaxing for a moment when he enters an intersection and there’s a whole squadron of police cars there laid out waiting to shoot at him as he goes through. And so Luc had originally storyboarded it as if it was a tracking shot straight on the cab and you track with it as it enters the intersection, and then as Bruce Willis or Korben Dallas enters the intersection all of the squadron was there. But it didn’t give that moment of audience anticipation for seeing the cars and seeing him enter the trap.

So we had to really work hard to sell Luc on the idea of leading the cab, and then panning ahead to the police cars and then letting him enter that perspective. And I almost felt like I was betraying Luc asking him to do it that way. But once he saw it he understood what we were trying to do and he appreciated the shot. The shot turned out great.

With that experience and with Luc so clearly conveying how he wanted to construct his films, it made a real impression on me and it gave me a real understanding of filmmaker style, that one little exchange. Wes Anderson does that all the time, where he’ll start on a one point and then pan to another one point. And it cracks me up every time I see it in his films, half because it’s funny in his films and half because I think of Luc.

So, it’s 1995-96, I’m guessing, there’s been a lot of big advances in digital visual effects, but miniatures are still being used widely. Was this always imagined as a miniatures show with some new innovations in digital work? I mean, is that how it went down in Luc’s head and your head?

Mark Stetson: Yes, pretty much. We planned it out with miniatures and previs, and the art department in England was always planning to design the miniatures, and I sort of took that away from them and said, ‘No we want to design and build these in LA because we’ll be able to control them better and shoot them better.’ I had Bill Neil as my visual effects DP and he’s just wonderful. He wasn’t in it the whole time but we didn’t want to extend our stay there, and in fact the miniature shoot ended up being the same number of shoot days as the production was, so it would have been a tremendous delay in us getting back to work at Digital Domain trying to get back to shoot the miniatures in post in England.

So, that was the supposition. I had done a lot of work with big miniature cities, I’d built New York for several projects, and we were planning to do much of it with miniature buildings and scene extensions with matte paintings and other 2D techniques. So Luc’s shooting style sort of lent itself to that because we could plan out the paintings in a straightforward way and they were fairly static much of the time. There were a few shots that we ended up with CG cityscapes, when he dove down into the fog that scene of diving down through the layers of the city that was all digital there.

We built miniatures for the cab and the cop cars and some of the support vehicles, but we also designed a little squadron of support background vehicles that were always just digital, part of our so-called digital traffic system. And then we started experimenting with digital versions of the miniatures, and there was one shot after Leeloo escapes from the lab and dives off the ledge, there’s one shot where the cop car corkscrews down and follows her down, and that’s a digital shot. Nowadays you’d call it an Easter Egg, just something for us to try to see if anybody noticed that it was not the miniature, you know? We got away with it, it worked out nicely.

Tell me about the timeline. The film was shooting in London, but did principal photography happen completely and then the miniatures shoot happen, or was that done concurrently?

Mark Stetson: Well, I started at DD in July ’95, and I was handed that script and flew to London then. And I made a few trips back and forth in ’95 during prep, meeting Dan Weil and his art department, meeting with Luc, and meeting with Sylvie Landra the editor, as the project was prepping. And I flew back to LA with some designs in hand. We tried to get some things going in terms of miniature design and construction. The Mondoshawan ship we got an early start on, for instance. So we planned out the miniature crew and then went back in February I think of ’96 to start shooting.

And we started actually in Mauritania for the location shoot for the desert scenes. That was an amazing adventure all by itself. I think we were nine days in Mauritania, I don’t remember how many of them were shooting days, but it was out in the middle of the desert a hundred miles from the nearest town and we flew out there with helicopters and light planes, and landed the light planes right on the desert floor on a plateau near the shooting site. There’s a squadron of, a little fleet of pickup trucks and Land Rovers, and I think one nice Toyota. I think there was one Range Rover and one nice Toyota Land Cruiser. Everything else was like Hilux trucks and stuff.

And it was amazing, just amazing. We slept in Bedouin tents and it was an amazing experience. We had a big Bedouin dining tent that the crew would gather in, and they were all classic style, pointed top, four sided, three sides with big flaps buried in the sand and the fourth open side downwind. They’d lay down carpets inside, it was a wonderful way to live for nine days. And I felt guilty every time I used water because I knew it had all been trucked in. And there was a chef there, a French chef cooking for everybody and he had a little like a kitchen stove, like a white enamel kitchen stove with four burners on the top with a gas powering it. And he cooked for the whole crew on that thing, it’s so funny.

But, anyway, we went straight back to London after that and started shooting. Shot through until about Labor Day I think ’96, and during that time Neils Neilson built up the miniatures crew at Digital Domain. That model shop was equipped mostly with equipment from my old shop, Stetson Visual Services. I had closed my business before I started at DD. So they had the cabs and cop cars and the vertical subway, and a number of the buildings under the Mondoshawan Ship.

I had made at least one trip back during production to just check in on stuff and convey more information and review the material. So we started shooting miniatures after we wrapped production, so somewhere in May – June ’96, and I think it was a 105 day shooting schedule and a 105 day miniature shoot schedule too.

Luc Besson on set.

Can you talk a little more about how Digital Domain was generating these miniatures, or building them based off the art department’s artwork?

Mark Stetson: When Luc started the project, he had a storyboard artist that he had worked with, who storyboarded the entire cab chase and several of the sequences in the film. So we had that as a start. And then this was very early days for previs but we built a little previs team in London while we were shooting. And Karen Goulekas was my digital effects supe and she put together this little team. There was only about seven of us from DD in London and I think three of those were the previs team.

So they started building buildings and they’re very simple box buildings with black and white zebra stripes on them representing the floor height so we can get a sense of scale out of them, and the cop car and the cab and all the background traffic, they were all just little lozenges, very you know, no color maps on them, no resolution to speak of. I think we might have color coded them but they didn’t look at all like cars. They were just objects.

And I can’t remember what we were working in, maybe Prisms, it was kind of rough to get the whole thing set up. But then we started animating to the boards, and when we were ready Luc came in to start reviewing some of the shots. And we were so happy that he didn’t talk about style or finish quality or anything, he just started directing the shots. He started doing his job right away like he’d been doing it all the time.

And, this is a little aside, but it came up in a conversation I had recently with Luc’s visual effects producer Sophie Leclerc on Valerian. She said Luc could direct the previs because he had the whole movie in his head, and then she did a funny thing. We had lunch together about a month or so ago and she did a funny thing where she said she’d asked him a question about story or about shots or something like that, and he’d lift his eyes like this and think about it for a second and then come down and give her a straight answer, and that was it, that was the answer. And that’s the way he always was with me too. And to me he’s looking up and playing back the movie in his head and just seeing how the cut works with your shot in it. He knew the movie, you know he had the movie in his head, and he was just executing what was already in his head. So that was neat, that was really cool.
The shots, especially the miniatures, really seemed to feel part of that futuristic world of The Fifth Element – it wasn’t too futuristic, I mean. They were as grimy and gritty as the sets. I felt the same way in Blade Runner and Hudsucker Proxy. Can you talk about that side of things?

Mark Stetson: Well, I have a very clear understanding of your question and the answer is also very clear to me: production design. If you think about the production designers on those movies they’re all truly great production designers. Larry Paull, David Snyder, and Syd Mead together as essentially partner production designers on Blade Runner was an incredibly powerful combination of design and vision. Dennis Gassner on Hudsucker Proxy is just an amazing designer, always has been. Everything he does looks gorgeous and beautiful. And Dan Weil on Fifth Element – he was terrific, did a great job.

So on Fifth Element in particular Dan and I became very close during that project, we spent a lot of time together, and he was always talking about the movie and about the way Luc thought. And one thing he had, one thing he gave me, besides giving me sort of construction drawings and progress for the miniatures that they had begun and stopped when I told them that we really wanted to take that over in LA, gave me a pile of those, but he also gave me this bible. Luc had had a set of designers, a group of designers working on Fifth Element for about a year when it was in development at Warner Brothers, and they generated hundreds or thousands of illustrations for the movie.

And Dan gave me a collection of about a hundred of them that had to do with all aspects of the film. So most of what you see there is evoked from those illustrations, and then to think about the illustrative power on that thing. He had Moebius drawing for it, and then Jean-Claude Mézières who drew Valerian and, you know, the Valerian graphic novels are his. And Luc just hired him to do the movie. Instead of trying to rip him off he just hired him to do Fifth Element and much of the cab chase is straight from Valerian. And the illustrations he did for the cab chase are beautiful. And it’s all these crazy Baroque decorations of the city, it’s all the depths, all the perspectives, all of the jobs that I’d done before that trying to do miniatures for New York.

We could never really show shots all the way down the avenues because we just couldn’t build that far on a miniature stage. So that was the first thing we had to do, was figure out how we were going to do that because we knew we needed to, and Luc’s one point perspective, that’s how all the shots are gonna be constructed. So, you know, we used the illustrations as a guide and we started figuring out how to paint the extensions, and it was really great. And I had enough model experience personally and I had worked with Neils before on projects and he put together a great team that I helped him cherry pick.

This McDonalds miniature once sat at Digital Domain’s studio in LA. Photo by Ian Failes.

Actually, what was the methodology in building the city, filming it with that one-point perspective, but also filling it with miniature cars? Can you take me through how you actually thought you’d build up these shots?

Mark Stetson: Well, we built an inventory of buildings that would be recycled building to building, and then scene by scene we tried to come up with some accents in the foreground. You know, what’s going to really make this neighborhood? What’s gonna make it different, what’s gonna make it stand out? So when Leeloo comes out on the ledge of course it’s the lab in the foreground matching the set design of the ledge in the foreground and we had an illustration of that from Dan Weil and the team. This one was a Mézières one, of the buildings across the street and the arch bridge across the street, all that. So we knew that those were special details we’re gonna use for that scene. And in fact much of the design of the overall set was based on that first setup because it was such an important part of the shot.

And so Neils had a crew in the shop working, and then a crew on set working. And to keep the shoot going generally we turned around the set for a new setup every day, and Bill Neil was shooting away we were attempting to shoot, we attempted and failed to get motion control files from previs into the motion control programs for that film. We succeeded on the next one. We gave it a really good try on Fifth Element and it kind of failed, but ultimately just programmed shot by shot in that regard. But when you start the next setup we’d already discussed with Neils and the team and Digital Domain’s art directors Ira Gilford and Ron Gress and the art department what we’re gonna change to accent the next scene.

The down shots there was this building across the street with this whole mirror finish on the front of it. There was an Italian neighborhood with all the laundry on the lines. There was the neighborhood where the President showed up with his limo at the end of the movie that had a much more palatial feel to it. Every scene we tried to do something a little bit different. The McDonalds had a whole different feel to it. And we were also sort of mapping out where we were in the levels of the city too. You dove down in the sequence it was a little darker down in the next part.

So the model crew would just go to town and re-detail, re-paint, re-compose the buildings to make it work. It was a painter, or actually a paint team, Jamal Fort led the set work. And Ron Gress was like the best miniature painter in Hollywood at that time, so if there’s ever a question, you know, Ron would know how to fix it. But Jamal and I think his painter was Laura did a fantastic job just sort of recreating these setups day by day.

Was there a lot of confidence in digital compositing at that point, seeing as you would have the city, but then layers and layers of the traffic shooting?

Mark Stetson: There was. Compositing was of course a really big part of that show. Jonathan Egstad and Bryan Grill were the compositing supervisors. NUKE was being written as we worked and it was an in-house program at that time. Now it’s an industry standard. The transformation to digital compositing had happened in the prior five years or so, so during the life of Stetson Visual Services which was ’89 to ’94 or the beginning of ’95 we watched all our clients go from optical compositing to digital compositing. And it affected our work somewhat but not as much of course as doing CG work.

But digital compositing was pretty much an industry standard at that point. Everyone was writing their own software, there wasn’t common off the shelf software so much. There were a few programs that people were using but I can’t even remember what they were, but you know like Digital Domain, Sony Imageworks, Rhythm & Hues all had very powerful compositing programs that they were writing and updating, maintaining themselves.

The Fifth Element Digital Domain crew. Mark Stetson is front row, second from left.

I guess the extension of that was there were some pretty innovative digital solutions in terms of computer graphics also used on Fifth Element, and one of them that I just remember so much at the time was Leeloo’s regeneration, especially referencing the Visible Human Project for the scans of the body pieces.

Mark Stetson: I can’t remember where the idea for that came from but I think it came from Digital Domain. It just seemed like the idea of slicing off a cadaver into layers just made it, it was a great analogy for even rebuilding it in layers too so you could very easily visualize what a machine would need to do to do that. And this was before the age of rapid prototyping tools, but it still made a lot of sense to do things that way.

So I think we designed the little, I don’t remember if we got an illustration of those heads, the actual effector heads, or if Dan gave us, we certainly got illustrations of the chamber. And the chamber was built as a set. But the actual devices inside the cylindrical operating area I think that was pretty much all DD. I think we shot, I don’t remember if we shot plates of the space of the chamber into which we did that stuff, or if we created those.

I mean, what’s interesting about my memory of that particular sequence and other computer graphics in the film is that the popular press had already gotten excited about dinosaurs, you know, a couple of years earlier, and now they were seeing this use of computer graphics based on science. And I really do think that was a bit of a pioneering re-think of, ‘Oh hang on, visual effects can be clever not just spectacular.’

Mark Stetson: Yes, I’m flattered by that comment. I do always like to sneak things and use the tools that way, but at the time I felt like we were a little short of the mark in terms of finishing those shots, and it would have been nice to take them further. Nevertheless I think conceptually it worked and it worked for the film. The film was a bit of a colorful comic look anyway by design so I don’t think we really broke anything, but it would have been nice to take the concept a little further I think just in detail.

I wonder if you have the same view about some of the outer space and planetary stuff, which definitely looked great for the time and I think still does, but also has that comic-ey feel in some ways.

Mark Stetson: Well, if you’re talking about the water surface of the Fhloston planet, absolutely. We just totally rode on the back of Titanic development for that. We didn’t have much choice, we just used their pipeline. At the time there was sort of a sweet spot to where you can get the software to make water look good. And Waterworld landed in the same place, and Titanic landed in the same place, and Fifth Element landed in the same place. And Fifth Element suffered from the fact that that’s all you saw of the planet was that water surface, so the shuttle comes in, we pan with it into the one point perspective of the Fhloston Paradise ship, and everything else is like water. So that ship was painted candy blue.

I had a funny deal with Bill Neil, the cinematographer who was aghast at the thought of a metallic finish candy colored spaceship trying to make it look good, and I said, ‘Bill I will deliver this thing with a candy coating, not a flat coating, but I will personally hand you a case of dulling spray so you may do what you must to shoot it. But we’re gonna finish it with a candy coating. And that’s what it needed, that’s what it wanted. And Bill shot it and he got his plates and he got his mattes off of it. So it was certainly a comic book moment, not very real. That was by design. I didn’t feel like we shorted anybody in the water finish on that stuff, but it was pretty primitive by today’s standards for sure.

I know what you’re saying but my recollection is, at that time back in ’97, that particular shot with the ship on the left hand side and the water in the front was held up for a long time as a great mix of CG and miniature work.

Mark Stetson: Yeah, I liked it. I liked the design of the Fhloston ship, it was really cool, a cool design. So, we should talk about blowing it up too because, instead of doing this giant digital simulation or anything like that it was really hacked together in comp. And we shot the complete model, full-length model which is about eight feet long, put it on a model mover and we posed it with nose down for the left side of the screen, and then stern down for the right side of the screen and then did a slow move. And we just shot it twice full length, and then roto’ed out the middle and buried the middle in like a layered explosion that was just put together from explosion elements, and put some little special bits and pieces in it, and that was pretty much it. I mean, it was so simple.

Fhloston Paradise ship miniature at Digital Domain. Photo by Steve Hyde.

What about some of the computer graphics simulations, say for the Evil?

Mark Stetson: Yeah, that was a really comic book that thing. I don’t think we knew what to make of it. And telling the story of the radio waves going off of it and having those giant radio waves across is totally comic book. You know it’s just, it was symbolic imagery. How are you supposed to illustrate evil in a film sci-fi comedy? I thought the voice was more effective than the imagery but the illustration was basically just a red angry ball and we tried to give it some scale and we obviously spent a lot of time developing the surface of it and all the things that were happening on the surface. You know, somewhat sun-like in that regard. But to me the funniest thing about that was the radio waves. And then the struggle, I had a conceptual struggle with what Earth would be like with an extra moon afterwards.

I remember seeing the film and feeling like we hadn’t jacked up the Evil enough in color. And it was just a little bit dull when I saw it on film. So I was invited to attend the mastering session for HD transfer for all the video stuff that would happen afterwards, and asked the colorist to tweak a few of the shots. And Evil in particular I just asked them to take the red right off the scale. And he did. And it’s something that you normally wouldn’t do but he agreed that it worked for those shots and I just was happy to be able to make that little tweak and then to have people hold up Fifth Element as a DVD standard for many years, and then even after they sort of sorted out the first Blu-Ray which was a little bit of a mess, but after that the Blu-Ray standard, it was a standard film for Blu-Ray demonstrations for many years too. So that made me very pleased remembering that I was part of that mastering session way back when.

Now, in 1996, were you sharing the model shop with Titanic? Was that a concurrent production? And was there any issue with both of these big model shoots going on?

Mark Stetson: Digital Domain had three shows, three huge miniature shows going on at the same time. One was Dante’s Peak, one was Fifth Element and one was Titanic. And they delivered it in that order. Fifth Element was stuck in the middle of them. Dante’s Peak went over and everybody knows what happened to Titanic. It then went over enough to a special column on Variety, Titanic Watch column – you might remember that.


Mark Stetson: So, interestingly enough, Fifth Element was given home court advantage, and we used the model shop’s space in the Digital Domain complex there. The stuff for Dante’s Peak was so large, you remember that mudslide sequence, the river of mud going down there. To me that was the best miniature fluid work that’s ever been done in a film. They were up in Van Nuys in a hangar at Van Nuys airport. And then Titanic was done in Playa Vista in the old Hughes aircraft hangers down there. So they built a third model shop down there.

And DD were at something like nine hundred employees, which is kind of standard for a major facility now but back then it was almost unmanageable. They didn’t know how to do it. And so after those three projects blew though there they pretty much cut the size of the facility in half. And I thought it was a tremendous loss that they didn’t feel like they wanted to risk their business to manage projects that large, but they lost a lot of really good people when they made that choice. There was a time when we managed to get some great work out of that place. And I don’t know if that’d happen again, certainly not miniatures on that scale again.

Just to talk about a couple of other key sequences, I remember at the time thinking the morphing shots of the Mangalore with the mask on was pretty great. How did that get done?

Mark Stetson: I really have to credit Karen Goulekas with that. It was her push to do that that way. And we did try one thing that worked out really well in that. So the push was rather than a 2D morph it was a 3D morph. So we were tracking the original human skull of the guy, the human form of his head, and tracking that and match moving that, and morphing that frame by frame as he moved into the Mangalore finished form in the 3D.

And the head shape really helped that a lot because we could hide a lot of morph, you know, the obvious morph artifacts through motion blur. And just performance wise it’s hard to follow with your eye. But it was Karen that set that up, we scanned the guy and scanned the suits too. And it was all CG. It was a nice bit of work.

If you’re a visual effects aficionado I feel like Fifth Element is one of those films that people seem to hang onto. It’s miniatures, it’s real shooting, it’s matte painting, it’s CG work and compositing. Of course, that’s still how some films these days get made, but not nearly as many as pure digital effects ones.

Mark Stetson: Yes, I had always thought that integrating effects from different sources was always good. The picture I did at DD after Fifth Element was Supernova. Not a good film, but we did some great work in it and I was very proud of it. We built this amazing miniature spaceship about twenty feet long. And we made a digital replica of it. And so we couldn’t afford all the shooting days we had on Fifth Element so we couldn’t shoot the whole shot list of miniature elements.

So we used the digital spaceship, and it was an oddly designed science fiction show. It was long-lensed and we shot all the miniatures with these filters which you just don’t do. And the metallic finished ships would glow, had this beautiful glow to it. And we managed to match it all digitally to the point where I couldn’t tell the difference between the miniatures and the digital shots even while we were working on it. Some of the shots are very similar in design, I couldn’t remember whether it was the digital one or whether it was the miniature.

In fact, during that period we really worked hard to sort of understand that and replicate reality, and you had to fight to do that with scale and physical phenomena with miniatures, and then you had to sort of fight to do that with lighting, digital lighting and making lighting tools and animation to make the digital effects work and digital elements work. So it was really nice to have them inform each other.

Greenscreen plate and final.

You know which shot I think almost summarizes that in Fifth Element: the Chinese floating restaurant shot. It’s a live action set-piece on greenscreen, but in some ways it could just as easily be a miniature with people comp’d in.

Mark Stetson: That was one of the ‘all of the above’ ones. And that was also a tough sell for Luc because he wanted to sort of shoot that falling back to his one point perspective. He wanted to shoot that with the ship just driving straight across the frame. And I said no we could do this, we could have it turn down the street and sail away turning down the street. And I had to make this little mockup and use this little mini 8 camera. And we made a mockup of the set piece which was the full orange hull. All the black engine parts down below that was all digitally added later.

Anyway, we had the full size set piece, we had a model of it, an art department model of it, and we shot it with a video camera, and we laid it out on a little pivot and a grid so that we could during the course of the shot as I was testing it out just sort of physical previs we’d rotate the thing around and then took that element and comped it into a little previs’ed environment to show Luc that we could turn the thing on counts. And so we set the thing on stage on an air bearing, a big set, it was like twenty feet long or something, thirty feet, and then had, and then marked out the positions, put a pivot on it in the center, and then pushed it around as the guy was riding in the set.

And all the pots and pans were swinging and everything, it was really wonderful. And we shot it on a big green cove. We were at Pinewood, one of the larger stages, it was set up as a permanent green screen stage. So this beautiful stretched fabric cove, three sides. So that was the basis of the shot, and then we shot miniatures for those foreground buildings based on one of the wonderful illustrations that had been done for the thing, and painted out the background. So it really was all of it.

Looking back, do you feel that because this was a miniatures show that the workflow and result was different than it might be now?

Mark Stetson: The collaboration happened real time and face to face instead of shot by shot entering a dailies review, you know. You still have many people working on one shot as you did back then, but back then in the miniature shop you’d gather around a miniature building and say oh my god, that finish is terrible, can’t we fix that? And everybody’d pitch in, everybody would have an idea of what it needed to finish it off. I don’t quite know how to finish this form here, what do I do to do that? Or what Easter Egg can we bury here? You know whatever it is. It was a group experience. And there were a lot of talented people attracted to it which came from different fields.

One Reply to “Multi pass and motion control: re-visiting the VFX of ‘The Fifth Element’”

  1. Great interview Ian!! Mark Stetson is such a joy to work with, and The Fifth Element continues to grow in stature because of the incredible work performed at DD 1.0. I’m very glad that you and Mark properly contextualized that period in DD history. I don’t think anyone who wasn’t there can truly appreciate the challenge of doing Fifth Element at the same exact moment of Dante’s Peak and Titanic…the unbelievable stress. That moment was, I believe, the apogee of practical model VFX. And it would make for an incredible study of cinema history, taking those three films and setting them against the dynamics of Hollywood at that moment in 1997 — with all of the divergent personalities in play.

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