The Fifth Element: Digital Domain Brings Flesh to Life

By Sonia Osorio
April 1997 

Digital Domain didn’t have even a pound of flesh to start with. A single finger bone protruding from a glove had to give rise to a creature the likes of which had not been seen on celluloid. The sequence, a key scene in the film The Fifth Element, involves a total reconstruction of a human being in the year 2259. It runs one minute and took one year to complete. The result is a stunning CG sequence created using SOFTIMAGE®|3D technology and data from sources as diverse as the National Library of Medicine.

As Animation Supervisor for the film, Daniel Robichaud was responsible for creating a believable, stylish scene of a technologically-regenerated human, working from only a basic shot of an empty reconstruction bed.

"There was no doubt in my mind that we’d be using SOFTIMAGE|3D," he states, especially considering that the sequence involved matching live-action plates with CG elements and integrating material from various sources. Toss in the fact that Robichaud and his group were working from sketchy storyboards and sending concepts overseas for approval, and his comment holds true.

"The sequence was a lighting, tracking and design challenge and no other system would have been as comfortable or as fast to work with. We had to set everything up in a way that would allow for multiple changes from the director [Luc Besson] and visual effects supervisor [Mark Stetson]."

Creating an interactive process was especially important since there was no direct contact between the group at Digital Domain, who were developing the concept for the reconstruction scene, and the director, who was still shooting in London. "With SOFTIMAGE|3D we were able to come up with a visual language and a fast, iterative process, that, in spite of the geographical distance, enabled us to progress and deliver on time."

When the group at Digital Domain received the boards and script, it was only vaguely described that a "supreme human being" would be fully reconstructed before the viewer’s eyes. The scene is central to the film, since this is where Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), the main female character is created. The early boards outlined a being created from liquid human juices poured into a mold.

Says Robichaud: "With the technology available now, we realized that we could come up with a more elegant, futuristic approach. We wanted to develop a reconstruction process that would be plausible, understandable to the viewer, yet still have a fantasy, science-fiction quality to it."

Digital Domain sent a crew to London to survey the set so that tracking could be done with minimum problems afterwards. While the tracking was being perfected, through a combination of 3D and 2D proprietary technology, Robichaud and his group were developing the concept and look of the sequence, determining what the reconstruction process would be, how the technology would function and how the instruments would be designed. Robichaud himself developed the actual design of the machinery in the reconstruction chamber. The concept was approved via small CG images that were sent to London. By this time, the tracking had been completed and the actual execution of the shots could begin.

To perfectly match the plates, each CG element was blurred and film grain added. For the motion blur the MB Standalone that comes with SOFTIMAGE|3D was used as a post-process. The animation, modeling, lighting and rendering of all CG elements was done completely in SOFTIMAGE|3D.

The compositing of the various elements, a typical shot averaged 20 layers, was done with Digital Domain’s proprietary system, NUKE. Both mental ray® and SOFTIMAGE|3D’s renderer were used for rendering the scenes. For the shot where the robotic arms are reflected on the glass canopy of the reconstruction chamber, mental ray was particularly valuable since it offered the possibility to turn the object’s primary rays off. This way, the arm could be rendered as a reflection without obscuring the glass.