‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ VFX Supervisor Transforms Live Action Into Special Effects

Valerian and the City of a
Courtesy of STXfilms and EuropaCorp

When visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk came on board to oversee imagery for Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” reuniting with the director after a 20-year hiatus, he didn’t anticipate the massive amount of concept artwork he would encounter.

“I was overwhelmed when I first joined and saw the concept art. It was on a scale that I hadn’t seen before,” Stokdyk says. “Luc had been working with concept artists all around the world for years, but as we started bringing in world-class companies like Weta Digital, ILM and Rodeo FX [to turn the art into moving images], that’s when we really started to wrap our heads around it.”

Set in the 28th century, the sci-fi epic, which STX Entertainment is releasing in the U.S. on July 21, is based on the French comic-book series “Valerian and Laureline.” In the film, the two characters are played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. They’re sent on a mission to the metropolis of Alpha, where a mysterious dark force threatens the existence of the so-called City of a Thousand Planets.

For complicated scenes, like those taking place in Alpha’s Big Market, a bustling bazaar run by pirate captain Igon Siruss (voiced by John Goodman), Besson shot entire sequences using students in Paris as stand-ins and edited them together. “It was something I had never done before with other directors, where instead of visual effects artists creating the pre-visualization inside a computer, Luc actually went out and shot something for us,” Stokdyk says.

The film’s creatures were shot using motion capture on a bluescreen with cameras rigged by Weta Digital. Human actors interacted with the alien characters wearing motion-capture suits; then a pass with only human characters was recorded — all to be transformed in post.

During the shooting of emotional creature scenes, Stokdyk did little to intervene. “Luc is a camera operator too, so a lot of [the job] was observing his process and then getting out of the way — and stepping in for a quick moment to give him the information needed for visual effects,” he says.

Stokdyk adds that Weta’s advanced mo-cap technology let Besson shoot the VFX-heavy film organically, as if it were “a normal movie.  … Everything we were doing on set was geared toward giving Luc a live-action experience.”

Each creature had its own set of challenges. For Bubble, a shape-shifter played by Rihanna, physical motions were filmed to create her morphing effect. “A lot of it was a leap of faith, knowing that Weta could replace an arm, leg or even a face if needed,” Stokdyk says. “The technology gives us freedom to make something interesting.”