The names of Luc Besson and Bruce Willis may be writ large on the opening screen as the first of this summer’s blockbusters The Fifth Element opens, but reviewers, film-makers and now film-goers know that the real stars of the film are the design and special effects.
The Fifth Element creates a European sensibility reminiscent of the work of Jeunet and Caro’s City of the Lost Children, with nods in the direction of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Brazil. And the influences don’t stop at cinema, a spaceship reflects the architecture of Antonio Gaudi while the cityscapes draw on the nightmare world of Hieronymus Bosch. But while there are many elements that bring to mind the work of other designers and artists, the film has an identity and originality strong enough to draw favourable comparisons with Blade Runner, made 15 years earlier and still a favourite with creatives and sci-fi buffs.
While Besson is obviously delighted with the acclaim, he doesn’t believe the movie has a European flavour, a strange denial given that at its very heart lie the visions of two French graphic artists, Jean-Claude MÃ©ziÃ¨res and Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius, whose work on comics has been applauded by aficionados worldwide for the past 30 years.
Both artists, working with a team of seven others under the supervision of production designer Dan Weil laboured for a year to create a design rooted in the traditions of the French graphic novel for a cityscape set in the skies of the 23rd century, when the level of smog has forced everyone and everything upwards. Hundreds of airborne vehicles whizzing around huge buildings creates amazing fixed-point perspectives and a dizzying sense of flying and speed, neatly juxtaposed with densely overcrowded and claustrophobic interiors.
The task of finding the right people to realise this world and translate it successfully to the screen went to visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson and his team at Californian effects company Digital Domain.
A graduate of industrial design, Stetson’s track record on movies such as Blade Runner, Edward Scissorhands, Interview with a Vampire and True Lies made made him perfect for the task.
More than 30 major models – each one containing as many as 22 16ft-high buildings – were created by Digital Domain. The company also had to supplement some of the on-set creature effects, which were handled in London by creature effects artist Nick Dudman and his 55-strong team.
The success of The Fifth Element is due to a combination of digital and practical techniques with live action shooting, as digitally enhanced miniature sets were populated with digital and model vehicles as well as virtual and actual actors. What’s particularly heartening about the film is the marriage of all these different skills and techniques, so while the whole thing was cut on the digital editing system Avid, its authenticity owes as much to the miniatures team as the CGI (computer generated imagery) team and the creature effects team. Yeah, and Bruce Willis isn’t bad in it either.