The ecstatic reviews for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets focused on the visual effects. RogerEbert.com reviewer Peter Sobczynski raved that the film has “so many memorable images that many viewers will find themselves struggling to keep from blinking so as to not miss any of the eye-popping delights crammed into each overstuffed frame.”
Redbox talked to Martin Hill, the overall visual effects supervisor for WETA, one of the companies who contributed to the realizing visionary director Luc Besson’s vision for the sci-fi fantasy film based on a series of beloved French comics. In the film, special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) battle a dark force that threatens the existence of the City of a Thousand Planets. Those planets didn’t create themselves: by Hill’s count, he and his team of up to 400 artists contributed 1,370 shots, just over half of the visual effect shots.
Hill has a stellar resume. He has worked with some of cinema’s most visionary directors, including Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of TinTin), James Cameron (Avatar), Ridley Scott (Prometheus) and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins).
Redbox: You are an artist in your own right, but your job is to fulfill the director’s vision for a film. What is your ideal working relationship with a director?
Martin Hill: The perfect relationship is one where you understand the director’s vision. The better you can understand that the more effectively you can get to that end result. The more contact (with the director) the much higher chance you have of (bringing it to life). I find it very useful to be involved in pre-production and to be on set during filming to see how the director is working.
Redbox: What were the creative challenges you faced with Valerian?
MH: It was the sheer breadth of the visual effects that needed to be designed. You’ve got the City of a Thousand Planets, and those distinct worlds need to be uniquely populated.
Redbox: Is there something you would want viewers to watch for that is representative of the work that you do?
MH: I’m immensely proud of the Pearls. They are entirely synthetic, but I hope that the audience believes in them as characters. We don’t want people looking at the visual effects and saying, ‘Wow, that is an amazing visual effect.’ What we strive to do is get people to stop thinking about the visual effects and just engage with the story. To be able to involve an audience and have them emotionally engaged with a virtual creation is a wonderful achievement.
Redbox: How did you get involved with visual effects?
MH: I saw a 70 mm print of 2001: A Space Odyseey and that completely blew me away. I was brought up in a more traditional family that had traditional jobs. The idea of going into a creative field wasn’t really discussed. At one point I started an architecture degree. This was at the birth of computer-aided design, which I really enjoyed. I found I was more interested in the design aspect than the actual building. I saw a pre-release of Toy Story and was amazed you could use this technology to create film, so I enrolled in the National Center for Computer Animation, a one-year course, and got a Master’s degree. The opportunity to use these skills to get into film was too good to miss.
Redbox: George Lucas once said that the finished Star Wars: A New Hope was a small percentage of what he envisioned in his head. How does Valerian match-up to what you imagined?
MH: What’s interesting is that Luc wanted to make Valerian for a long time. Jean-Claude Mézières, the illustrator on the comics, was a production designer on (Besson’s) The Fifth Element and encouraged him to make Valerian. He said there was a shared DNA with The Fifth Element. Luc said that he couldn’t possibly make Valerian with all its aliens and fantastical words, but when Avatar came out, he suddenly felt he could do this.
He talked with Jim Cameron. He did pre-visualization with a video camera. We could see how some of the scenes were going to be. The end result is so close to the original. Luc got 100 percent of what he wanted up on the screen.
Redbox: How have advances in special effects technology changed your approach to your work?
MH: It is rare now where there is an idea that cannot be done. There used to be a point in breaking down the script that the studio would say, ‘This section is too expensive.’ We are at a point in filmmaking where anything is fair game. It all boils down to ideas and the imagination and creativity of the filmmakers. If there is a will…and a budget (laughs)…it can be done.