James Cameron’s Avatar, released in 2009, marked a big moment of change in the film industry and specifically how people viewed the capabilities of visual effects.
One of the people who walked away from the theater awestruck by what he just witnessed was Luc Besson, the visionary behind The Fifth Element and the upcoming Valerian. Scott Stokdyk, VFX supervisor on Valerian and Besson’s right-hand man, told Polygon that without Avatar, Valerian may never have been made.
“When Luc saw what James Cameron did with technology and visual effects, it kind of gave him the boost he needed to do Valerian,” Stokdyk said.
Stokdyk, who also worked with Besson on The Fifth Element, said Besson had wanted to make this movie for years but simply couldn’t because the technology wasn’t quite there yet. Like Besson’s other technology-obsessed counterpart, Cameron has noted time and time again that this is one of the main issues facing the growth of cinema today.
When asked why the sequel to Avatar had been delayed so many times, Cameron has repeatedly said he’s waiting for the technology to catch up to his ideas — something Besson knows quite a bit about. Stokdyk said when working with a director like Besson, who crafts every minor detail in his mind, it can get a little intimidating trying to ensure that the visual effects match his standards. Stokdyk said being in constant communication with the director and checking in on every little detail was an important part in ensuring the adaptation was faithful to the comic and met Besson’s standards.
“Usually on a movie like this, if I’m confused about something I just Google it,” Stodyk said. “But with Valerian, because so many of our artists had grown up with the comic in France, they became the go-to point of reference for questions. I was in charge of bringing the ideas to Besson and making sure that whatever changes he wanted made got back to our artists around the world.”
The other challenge that Stokdyk encountered while working on the film was figuring out how to make it believable when they weren’t incorporating any actual filming locations.
“We had to go off of Besson’s idea for what it should look like and rely on his imagination,” Stokdyk said. “As visual effects get better because of stronger technology, there’s more attention paid to details. We have to be at the top of our game. Valerian is a really good example of that practice.”
Despite conflicting reviews on Valerian itself — Polygon called the film’s second act a “grimace-inducing detour” — the one aspect of the movie that everyone can agree on is just how incredible the visual effects are. Using technology available to him, Besson managed to create an entirely new universe based solely on his imagination, a comic book and his visual effects team.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will be released on July 21.