Rodeo FX Builds Valerian Megacity
Barbara Robertson
September 6, 2017

Rodeo FX Builds Valerian Megacity

The movie is called  Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,  but artists at Rodeo FX who created that city for 363 shots in the film have another name. “We called it the city of a thousand assets,” says Associate Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Nofz. “There was so much stuff to model and build.”

A thousand assets was perhaps an understatement.

“At the core of the city is the international space station that grew more and more modules to become Alpha,” Nofz says. “It becomes so big. There’s not one flavor. And in addition to the environments, we created the surrounding spaceships – the hero spaceship Intruder and many smaller ones in the foreground and background that create a traffic jam around Alpha.

How do you build something as huge and complex as this? Rodeo artists used a typical VFX tool set – Autodesk’s Maya for modeling, Side Effects’ Houdini for effects, and Foundry’s Mari for texture painting and Nuke for compositing. They rendered the complex scenes with Autodesk’s Arnold, formerly from Solid Angle.

“We started with the first sequence when it was still the international space station and then started mapping out what modules and areas to add based on what we would see first,” Nofz says, “and slowly and surely built a library of pieces of assets we could use again. Olivier Martin, our in-house art director and concept artist, spent a huge amount of time creating a shape vocabulary – what would fit here, what we could repurpose to work with another environment. So, Alpha became all these different pieces depending on what you saw in camera. We built everything for the camera.”

Another early decision helped make the asset creation efficient.

“We decided to keep everything in muted colors and use lights to give the film its saturated look,” Nofz says. “That way it was easier to give a different look to assets we re-used.”

For some sequences, they shared assets with Weta and ILM.

“They could take ours and vice versa,” Nofz says. “And in certain shots, we ended up doing character animation, so we had a little bit of everything based on where it was better to finish a shot.”

The most complex sequence was the reveal of the entire Alpha background surrounded by a traffic jam of spaceships.

“We had mega alien ships, medium alien ships, small alien ships, mega human ships, medium human ships, and small human ships,” Nofz says, “and they were all moving in front of other ships.”

All told, the artists created approximately 50 ships and variations.

“We’d start with the comic books, which date back to 1975, before Star Wars, and build rough versions,” Nofz says. “We had a dedicated group of artists who designed the spaceships, and they came up with some pretty amazing stuff.”

Martin would present the designs to Besson, and once they were approved, would often give the modelers rough, painted models to start with.

“We’d texture-map the models, put them in turntables, and immediately put them into shots to see the size,” Nofz says. “If they were small, we wouldn’t overdo. Because we had previs, we could immediately populate the shots.”

The need to create complex shots for an early Comic-Con screening turned out to be an advantage in the long run.

“We had to do some of the hardest shots first, the wide shots with lots of detail in the environment, and spaceships,” Nofz says. “Once we had pushed these through, the rest were variations on the theme. We knew stylistically exactly what we needed to do, and it was clear what Luc wanted from every shot.”

Rodeo FX also provided motion graphics for the show, made cosmetic changes to plates, enhanced hallways, and so forth. A crowd system helped the Rodeo team populate the city with characters.

“The shots might be mainly about the environment, but we also rigged, animated, and rendered digital doubles,” Nofz says. “And we put a lot of background characters in our environments – like characters in tubes on bizarre elevators. We had plenty of stuff in addition to the massive CG sequences.”

But, they had the luxury of time: Production at Rodeo was close to 18 months, and Co-VFX Supervisor François Dumoulin had worked on previs before that.

Dumoulin had worked with Besson on Lucy, but this was Nofz’s first experience creating visual effects for the director. Creating a thousand assets is never easy, but Besson’s decisiveness helped make the postproduction move smoothly.

“I had never worked with a director who had such a good grasp of what he wanted,” Nofz says. “We had clear, focused direction, and on top of that, we had enough time.”