Shop Till You Drop
Barbara Robertson
September 6, 2017

Shop Till You Drop

Among the thousand planets that make up Luc Besson’s mega-city are two particularly interesting ones created by artists at ILM. The “first mission” sequences introduce the two main characters, Valerian and Laureline.

One planet contains the universe’s biggest shopping bazaar – five million stores that line a cross-shaped canyon extending 500 floors deep. But, shoppers in the 28th century needn’t walk through 500 floors of stores to find what they want. Instead, they stand within a large arena on a desert planet, don a helmet and gloves, and shop virtually. They can touch things with a glove. When they buy something, they place the object into a “transmatter,” and the object travels to them through space. While shopping, the merchant sees them as holograms and the two can interact.

“So, three looks,” says Philippe Rebours, visual effects supervisor at ILM. “We had the desert where we see ‘tourists’ shopping, the merchant world in the bazaar where we see all the shoppers – all these different aliens and humans – as holograms, and the tourist view, which gives the audience a POV to see what Valerian or a tourist sees: the merchant world but with a degraded image. What happens in one world happens in the other.”

And then it gets complicated. Valerian wears a transmatter box on his arm and uses a system that makes him invisible in the bazaar. His goal is to retrieve a stolen object. But the huge CG criminal Igon Siruss’ [John Goodman’s] pitghor, a dog-like alien, jumps on him and breaks the box. Valerian’s hand is in one world and his body is in another. After a 17-minute chase through the enormous CG bazaar, Valerian and Laureline escape in their spaceship, the Intruder.

Besson previs’d the complex sequence with students from his school, Ecole de la Cité, located at his film studio complex, La Cite du Cinema near Paris.

“He put a few tables here and there, shot, and edited the sequence like that,” Rebours says. “We were able to watch the sequence when we were bidding. Even though there was no set really, and done with students, you could see it was a Luc Besson sequence. I wasn’t bored at all.”

Later, the ILM crew color-coded each shot to show which take place in the desert, which is a tourist vision, and which is the merchant world, to help everyone know which shots were where. Hybride worked with ILM to create the desert world. Artists working largely at ILM’s Vancouver studio created the merchant world with its multiple stores, streets, and crowds, and the tourist vision.

Besson filmed the chase on bluescreen stages.

“In the end, the entire planet has a purple sky with an orange sun,” Rebours says. “You know you aren’t on Earth any more.”

For the desert world, the actors worked on a huge stage with sand on the ground and a portion of the wall that surrounds the compound. To make the desert scenes otherworldly, Besson filmed them top lit as if there were a broad sun. Then he sent artwork that put the desert against a red sky, and artwork with some mushroom-shaped rocks and some multicolored rocks tilted as if the wind had blown against them.

“He also sent us a photo from a commercial that had red, blue, and white clouds on top of each other,” Rebours says. So that defined the look of the desert – tilted rocks and multicolored clouds in a blue sky. Knowing that Besson would want to art direct the cloud placement, the team created a bank of clouds in different shapes and colors rendered from different perspectives.

“We passed that on to Hybride,” Rebours says. “They created the background for most of the shots in the desert world.”

However, for the merchant world, there were no practical sets.

“That’s what scared me the most,” Rebours says. “Often you think of set extensions. Here, we didn’t have that foreground. We had to have a fair amount of stores looking quite realistic in this universe, so we had to add little elements and a fair amount of texture. Every time Valerian is on a street or in the canyon, we had to create that environment, and most of the time the camera saw 270 degrees or 360 degrees.”

The environment artists used Isotropix’s Clarisse to manage and render the insane amount of geometry. To help the postproduction crews, overall VFX Supervisor Scott Stokdyk and Besson sent photos of shots filmed on set.

“I felt it was important to see how the DP lit the sets for all the sequences to get a feeling for the look of the entire movie,” Rebours says. “With full-CG shots, you can go anywhere and the artwork doesn’t provide the DNA of the movie. So, we got about 150 photos that gave us what Thierry [Arbogast, cinematographer] was doing and what Luc was looking for.” In addition, Stokdyk provided color look-up tables (LUTs).

For the stores, the artists built a library of awnings, columns, storefronts, and so forth to create multiple variations. Besson shot the sequence early in his shooting schedule and edits at the same time, so ILM received the shots quickly.

“Also, we had the student previs that gave us an extremely good indication of his way of shooting,” Rebours says. “We knew his point of view on each environment. So, instead of saying we have 225 shots with X amount of assets, we would say, OK, first we need a camera layout, then we need the environment, and then we can start shooting in the virtual set. We based our schedule on the set schedule.”

The crew took the same approach one would use on a practical set. “You place all the cameras, then you set dress the environment using small assets until it’s properly dressed,” Rebours says.

For flythroughs, they would populate the environment using a particle system.

For crowds, the animators used ILM’s Vignette system to control characters animated with cycles of 1,000 frames or so. When the camera was close, animators would hand place characters they gave specific actions. All told, the artists created approximately 90 characters.

“We had humans, bipeds, quadrupeds, flying creatures, insects, creatures that look like ocean creatures,” Rebours says. “For the human tourists, we shot extras on set, then, in cooperation with Hybride, created 100 different costumes with designs based on those the extras wore.”

For the hero character Igon Sirrus, the riggers added a simplified muscle system for his face and fat neck.

“I wanted a muscle system like we have on the body to add secondary animation when he’s speaking,” Rebours says, “a jiggle to his face.”

For the holograms, Rebours worked with ILM’s Bianca Draghici, who served as VFX art director on the film. Draghici created the specified 2D treatment: A grid moves with the characters to which additional elements can be applied.

“I think the main challenge was the huge amount of variety we needed to create and then making sure we were telling the story – that we were having the audience look where we wanted,” Rebours says. “This is a very complex, diverse, colorful world. If Luc is happy with the action on the shots, he’s not nitpicky on the details. He leaves a lot of freedom. But on the other hand, he definitely knows what he wants. He goes in one direction. He would never say he wants to try something on the left, then try right, then try left. That was good. It was a great experience. The entire team enjoyed the collaboration.”