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Gotham’s future looks good in ‘Element’

If director Luc Besson’s current release “The Fifth Element,” starring Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman, reminds viewers of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece “Blade Runner,” it’s not only because both films share the same futuristic themes. The visual razzle-dazzle of Besson’s $100 million pic owes a lot to special effects director Mark Stetson, who was also the chief model maker on the 1982 android movie.

However, Stetson is the first to tell you that a major philosophical difference separates the two movies. ” ‘Blade Runner’ really set the tone and style for science fiction images in films for a decade and a half,” Stetson says. “In the Ridley Scott picture you have a post-apocalyptic vision of the world, a place where one witnesses the decay of civilization. But Luc’s 23rd-century New York City is a working city. People live under a totalitarian regime, but they do try hard to stay civil toward each other.”

However, even depicting a “civilized” city of the future requires an extensive amount of special effects on film, and that’s why Stetson and his team at Digital Domain started to work on the project back in July 1995. The f/x team was responsible for a total of 225 shots, for which they used a mixture of CG work and miniature model work. According to Stetson, there were a total of five shots that were completely CG-based.

“A film with such diverse imagery runs the risk of becoming too jumpy,” Stetson says. “That was one of Luc’s main concerns, and we managed to pay a lot of attention so it would move smoothly. None of the special effects shots actually slow down the pace of the movie.

“We packed every shot with an amazing amount of detail, opting for that busy feel of the graphic novels of Moebius (Jean Giraud). For a cab chase scene, we had to condense 55 shots for an eight-minute interval. When Bruce Willis’ cabdriver looks out of the window of his building in Brooklyn, a myriad of 3-D CG effects fill in the details of the traffic outside. Laserdisc fans are going to have a ball revisiting this picture.”

“The Fifth Element’s” city of the future boasts hovercars, emergency landing pads, 600-story buildings (with 200 levels above ground), mobile restaurants that give new meaning to fast food delivery, and that staple of sci-fi noirs, the beautiful humanoid alien, played by former model Milla Jovovich.

When Jovovich’s character, Leeloo, is gravely injured, she is rushed to a hospital of the future. Her reconstructive “surgery” allowed Stetson and company to come up with another dazzling CG morph-transformation sequence.

Incidentally, although New York is the official setting of the “The Fifth Element,” the film crew never used the actual city as a backdrop. Digital Domain created more than 30 major models of the city — with each of the pic’s 22 buildings measuring about 8 feet around and 5 feet tall.

Apart from a brief stretch in Mauritania, most of the movie was shot at London’s Pinewood Studios. In the brave new world of futuristic film production, you make your own locations using the latest in digital software and matte pieces. And you don’t have to worry about disturbing the flow of traffic in late-20th-century Manhattan.

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