At first view, the milieu of The Fifth Element evokes the kitschy, chrome-laden future-scapes popularized by the graphic fantasy magazine Heavy Metal. The resemblance stems from the fact that production designer Dan Weil (Kamikaze, The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita, The Professional and Total Eclipse) received assistance from two of France's most celebrated sci-fi comic artists: Jean "Moébius" Giraud, a pioneer illustrator for Metal Hurlant, the French periodical upon which Heavy Metal is based; and Jean-Claude Mézières, the famed artist of the graphic novel series Valerio Agent of Time and Space.
Weil and Mézières' vision of 23rd-century New York City began with basic concepts gleaned from utopian architecture. Director Luc Besson's prerequisites were that the skyline be identifiable and that the city (viewed mainly during daytime) not be enveloped in a smoke-strewn, overcast atmosphere. The film's Manhattan a massive, multi-tiered megalopolis recalls the colossal constructs of the futurist classics Metropolis (1926) and Things to Come (1936) But The Fifth Element takes urban incursion to a different level by envisioning underground development. Says Weil, "Most sci-fi movies always imagine buildings to be higher and higher. We decided that there would be [structures] one-and-a-half times the height of the tallest skyscraper in New York City today. At that point, it wouldn't make any sense go higher, even if one could accomplish it. Also, there would be so many people living there that the ability to build higher would be limited technologically so we created a deep city. The idea was that few hundred years from now, technology will allow us to build something underground that's the size of World Trade Center's twin towers. "We also elaborated upon the concept that due to climactic changes, the sea level has lowered and New York has become arid the shore is no longer so close, and the Statue of Liberty is no longer in the ocean. There is now a lot more land; instead of going to Battery Park to get a boat, you know have to go five to ten miles further. "Still, the city had to be recognizable conceptually. The most important thing about New York is the view of Manhattan, which is known worldwide, especially to Europeans. So we wanted to keep our Manhattan in the same basic shape it's in now even if ours is higher with parallel and perpendicular street grids and the standard sizes of a block. We also wanted to keep the idea of Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey as three different cities, and not create a crazy city that was completely out of scale." The trio of Weil, Moébius and Mézières supervised seven up-and-coming illustrators of French, Brazilian, British and American extraction who toiled collectively on Besson's concepts. The initial preproduction sessions began in November of 1991 and continued for a year until the project's temporary hiatus. Drafting resumed in September of 1994, when Columbia Pictures acquired rights to the film, and continued through principal photography. Once a week, Besson offered the artists a description of a particular living being, or inanimate instrument, speaking only in terms of its intangible qualities. The illustrators had one week to devise a sketch based upon Besson's idea. The director then surveyed all of the sketches and, with Weil, selected one or asked for portions of several drawings to be melded into one design. After the first year, the team generated some 3,000 images. When prep recommenced in 1994, Besson and Weil picked the best concepts; the artistic collective then proceeded to devise additional designs. When all was said and done, approximately 8,000 sketches were created. (Elevated plane models of the various sets were later constructed so that Besson could conceive potential shots.) Since Weil hails from a realist background, the production designer steered his artistic team towards a functional futurism free from cumbersome, gimmicky hardware. He says, "Since I was working with sci-fi artists, I had to fight a lot against the mechanical and technical exaggerations of sci-fi imagery. A vacuum cleaner, for example, is just a piece of plastic that starts when you press your foot on it. When you design a vacuum cleaner for a sci-fi film, you need to add lots of little lights and pipes, and smoke vapor, so that what you have becomes a lot more complicated. My daily battle with everyone was not to make things simplistic, but to make them at least as simple as they are in the real world." As Weil notes, the vibrant palette of both the sets and props not only contributed to the comic-book look of The Fifth Element, but provided a subtle means of altering modern substances on film so that they would appear to possess more advanced qualities."It was a way of cheating the texture of traditional materials so that we could give them a different feeling," Weil says. "If you take the a block of granite and make it purple, no one knows what it is. In the same way, if you take a piece of plaster and coat it pink or yellow, no one will really be able to see it as a simple piece of plaster. And because you yourself don't have the technology to invent something a strange plastic like Kevlar, for example the challenge in designing a sci-fi movie lies in coming up with a brand new type of material which no one can explain."
Andrew O. Thompson