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The colour-rich capture of Valérian and the City of a Thousand Planets and why Codex was key to reliability



With Valérian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Luc Besson makes a long-awaited return to science fiction twenty years after The Fifth Element, which left a lasting mark in 1997. Adapted from the comic by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, whose flamboyant universe inspired many filmmakers, the film was entirely produced at La Cité du Cinéma, the studio conceived by the most international of French directors, not far from Paris. Three years after the success of Lucy, which grossed $463 million in worldwide revenues, Luc Besson had the means to fulfil his ambitions with a budget of €197 million - necessary to describe the adventures of Valérian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), the two space-time agents tasked with protecting the city of a thousand planets from a terrible threat.

Whilst Lucy was shot with the Sony F65, Luc Besson relied this time on two ARRI ALEXA cameras and a CODEX workflow. "For each film, we do a bunch of comparative tests," explains Thierry Arbogast AFC, the director of photography who has accompanied the filmmaker on all his fiction films since Nikita (1990). “Since digital cameras have evolved a lot, we went back to square one for Valérian and performed some very advanced tests. This time, Luc chose the ALEXA XT."

The French director, who is also the cameraman on his own films, pays particular attention to the choice of lenses. The main camera was equipped with a zoom while the second camera, dedicated to the Steadicam, was mounted with prime lenses. "At the end of the tests, Luc's choice fell on the Leica Summilux," says Thierry Arbogast. "For the main camera, Luc worked with an ARRI/Fujinon Alura 18-80mm zoom, which he has used since filming Lucy. He also sometimes relied on an Optimo 24-290mm by Angénieux."

"Luc barely ever shoots with two cameras, except for special effects, an explosion for example," adds Thierry Arbogast.  “It's one camera after another, but the Steadicam is always ready to shoot. It's much more interesting for the lighting work. This allows me to create better cinematography, not to compromise the first camera because of the second. Brian de Palma, with whom I shot Femme Fatale, works in the same way."

Luc Besson has always been faithful to his associates, and on Valérian he gathered once again his heads of crew: director of photography Thierry Arbogast, set designer Hughes Tissandier and costume designer Olivier Bériot. In order to transmit his intentions with unmatched richness for this film, he relied on visual references developed especially for the occasion. "Incredibly, Luc had his entire film in his head, every scene, every atmosphere," says Thierry Arbogast. "He first told it to me by showing me some thirty drawings which translated the atmosphere and the look he wanted well. But for the first time in our collaboration, he also asked me, Hughes Tissandier and Olivier Bériot, to each present him with a personal file of what we could bring to Valérian. For my part, the research I conducted yielded 80 photographs that I presented to him. I had drawn from science fiction of course, and heroic fantasy, but there were also paintings, photos of space or of souks. He leafed through his iPad and told me what he liked and what he did not like. It was his way of taking me in the direction he wanted for the film."


Translating the universe of a comic as rich as the one by Mézières and Christin into a film is a challenge that Luc Besson handled skilfully. "In Valérian and the City of a Thousand Planets, there is something very faithful to comics and, at the same time, it's not comics," explains Thierry Arbogast. “It is above all a film, with very contrasted and very varied visual universes. We place the viewer in a space of visual immersion, a sort of journey through incredible spaces. This film is a “trip” as they say in English, in every sense of the word."

"There is a very good use of colour in Valérian, whether on set or with special effects," he adds. “As on The Fifth Element, I extensively integrated the light sources into the set design. I love this approach, which was that of Vittorio Storaro in his day. We laid out many LED strips, which were incorporated into hallways, ceilings, in the resin. This work was done in close collaboration with Hughes Tissandier. All the LEDs were connected to a console. This gave more flexibility to adjust the result to what Luc wanted."

"In terms of light sources, we relied on many new technologies. In preparation, I reviewed and tested all the recent innovations, especially in LEDs. I was particularly interested in the ARRI Skypanel 60, which I used with some Chimeras to make it more diffusing, and ARRI's LC10 which is very directional. For a scene in the desert in which Luc did not want any shadows, I had 170 Space Lights installed on the main stage of the Cité du Cinéma. They were shrouded in white, to give a soft, warm, zenithal light, but without direction. They were “bounced" with cold-coloured LED spotlights. This installation made it possible to clear the stage, to have a beautiful play space in which the actors could run in all directions while maintaining the same light."

For the visual effects for Valérian Luc Besson appealed to the best in this field: Weta Digital, Peter Jackson's company; ILM, founded by Georges Lucas; and the French team of Mikros. "On the set, it was a close collaboration with the visual effects supervisors," explains Thierry Arbogast. “They needed to work very closely with the lighting team. For my part, I absolutely needed them to have the right information and create the light that would match with their work."

Although shooting in digital was an imperative on Valérian, Thierry Arbogast feels no nostalgia for 35mm:  "I have the impression that I have waited for the arrival of digital all my life as an operator. I even thought it was taking too long to come. I always loved Polaroid, which made it possible to have results right away. Film does not leave any room for error. Today, with the help of the DIT, we approach the final image directly on set. That changes everything."

On Valérian, the digital workflow was supervised by the DIT Julien Bachelier, who is a founding member of Adit, the French association of Digital Imaging Technicians. The team also included a data manager, Nicolas Diaz, who liaised with the Digital Factory laboratory. "The film was shot entirely in ARRIRAW Open Gate and the signal was recorded on CODEX  512GB XR Capture Drives, which proved their reliability," explains Julien Bachelier. “I chose a Codex workflow, because that allowed me to inject metadata into the ARRIRAW File Header.  We were recording all the lens data via the ARRI Lens Data System. Given the importance of visual effects on this film, we wanted to systematically integrate the shot name, camera heights and comments useful for VFX.  After each shot, I sent my report with all of these elements to the Data Manager, who inserted them into the ARRIRAW metadata via the Codex Capture Drive Docks and the Codex Production Suite software.”


An integral part of the image team, the DIT works closely with the director of photography. "I have been collaborating as DIT with Thierry Arbogast for four or five years now, and the relationship is great on set," says Julien Bachelier. “He always has a lot of ideas and is constantly inspired by Luc's imagination. For each scene, Thierry gives me directions on what he wants and I adjust the colour temperature and the sensitivity of the camera accordingly. Then we adjusted the image together to achieve the result that suited him. On Valérian, we had quite a lot of bluescreens or partial sets, and we had to pay particular attention to the colour saturations."

"In general, I make the least possible adjustments on the signal," says the DIT. I always prefer to work the image directly in the camera by playing with the colour temperature and sensitivity. Sometimes, in agreement with the cinematographer, I propose a slight adjustment on a light, to compensate for a dominant colour, for example, rather than trying to catch up in the colour grading. In any case, on Valérian, before displaying the image on the monitor, I applied a monitoring LUT supplied by Digital Factory, via Pomfort's Livegrade software, connected with some LUT boxes. This LUT was a basis for working for Thierry. Then I could adjust the image by applying a pre-grade."

For the digital intermediate, Luc Besson again turned to a trusted collaborator, SHED founder and senior colourist Yvan Lucas. It had been more than ten years since they had worked together (Angel-A) but Lucas jumped at the chance to continue their collaboration, particularly as it would mean relocating to his home town, Paris, for almost two months, where SHED set up a grading suite at La Cité du Cinéma. Luc Besson worked directly with Yvan, supplying him with detailed notes every day after Yvan had completed an initial grade. According to Yvan, “the DI went very smoothly. Luc knows what he wants and trusts that I am able to help him get his vision onto the big screen.”

Valérian and the City of a Thousand Planets was released in the United States on July 21st. It is showing in DolbyVision and EclairColor in select theatres. 

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