Ink & Pixel: The Fifth Element

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I’m always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. In an effort to widen the reach of our continuously growing fanbase, Ink & Pixel has been granted permission to broaden its horizons with the inclusion of films from the Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy genres. I hope that you enjoy this bold new direction for the column. Additionally, if you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

I don’t know about you, but I love movies that are, in my estimation, endlessly quotable. Whether you adhere to some of the radical philosophies recited in David Fincher and Chuck Palaniuk’s FIGHT CLUB, abide by the same laid-back approach to life as Jeffery Lebowski, or love shouting the words “Game over, man! Game over!” Pvt. Hudson from ALIENS-style – the dialogue of characters we love in film can often times have a profound and lasting effect on our everyday speech.

For my money, one of the most quotable films of the past 20 years has got to be Luc Besson’s THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Arguably, the line “Leeloo Dallas mul-ti-pass.” takes the crown, but what about lines like “Are you green?”, “Time is of no importance. Only life is important.”, or “That’s a very nice hat.” The list goes on. However, we’re here to discuss animation, are we not? Because as quotable as this film might be, it’s also the animatronic costumes, interplanetary vistas, and CGI effects that help to make this film so memorable.

For those of you who have been living off-world for the past 18 years, THE FIFTH ELEMENT is a sci-fi action comedy distributed in 1997 by Columbia Pictures. Directed and written by acclaimed filmmaker Luc Besson (LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, TAKEN, TRANSPORTER), THE FIFTH ELEMENT introduces us to Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a highly decorated ex-soldier turned cab driver, who’s just trying to make ends meet while living on planet Earth during the twenty-third century. On the verge of losing his license, Korben heads out for a standard day of work when, suddenly, a beautiful woman named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) crash lands through the roof of his cab. As she hurriedly pleads for the gruff cabbie to aid her in an escape from the authorities, Korben falls head over heels for the one supreme being who can help save the world from an oncoming alien attack.

That’s a super generalized synopsis of the film, but ask anyone who’s seen it and they’ll agree that to encapsulate the multi-branching paths of the plot would take more paragraphs than I can spare. I’d then have to tell you about the Mondoshawan race, the plight of Father Vito Cornelius, or how there are four stones, that – when combined with the powers stored within the fifth element – will unleash a weapon capable of destroying any and all threats throughout the universe. Yeah, it’s like that, and more!

At this point in the article you might be asking yourself, “Steve, exactly how did THE FIFTH ELEMENT come to be?” Well, as stated by Besson himself during a press conference that took place directly after the premiere of the film, “The first step of the story comes when I was sixteen, living in France, the country of cheese. I am very bored, so I take my pen and I create this world. I take a lot of pleasure to invent the system so, even when I have the hero living in an apartment in New York, I ask myself, why does he rent it? Why not buy? I have it down even to these details. I organize the society and I write the future ten years at a time, so when I come to write the real story, it is ready. The actual story of The Fifth Element only comes about five years ago. I have lived a little more and life has given me some smacks. I have seen more, it gives you the skin of a crocodile, so now I want to make a movie that says, why save life when you see what we do with it?”

It should come as no surprise that – the original seed of an idea for the film having been written at such a tender age – it underwent more than a few changes over the years. In fact, when Besson first began jotting down ideas for his story, both the characters and origin of their fateful meeting were quite different. Originally, Korben – then named Valtman Bieros – and Leeloo meet while vacationing on the tropical planet of Fhloston Paradise. In essence, this origin strips the story of several key characters that have important roles throughout the tale, not to mention that it changes the film’s initial location from an over-crowded, futuristic New York City to that of a foreign, alien planet.

In terms of design, Besson struggled with the character of  Korben Dallas, unable to pin down his occupation and agency as an ex-special forces captain living in a world overrun by technology. It wasn’t until Luc met French comic creators Jean Giraud (better known to some as Moebius) and Jean-Claude Mézières, and asked them to join in on the THE FIFTH ELEMENT’s creative process, that a series of solid ideas regarding Korben’s world began to take shape. Truth be told, it was Mézières’ art on a book entitled The Circles of Power (written by Pierre Christin) that was the inspiration to change the location of the film’s story to New York.

That’s all well and good, Steve, but what about the films sweet practical and digital effects? Well, in terms of digital effects, a production company called Digital Domain – based out of Playa Vista, California – lent their talents by working with programs like Renderman, Arete, Autodesk Softimage, as well as several others. Beyond the obvious CGI elements of the film, the methods of crafting scale-models, in addition to building effects through particle systems, were also used to help create the bombastic effects seen throughout THE FIFTH ELEMENT.

Particle systems? What? According to, a particle system is an incredibly common and useful technique in computer graphics. These intricate systems are used in countless video games, animations, digital art pieces, and installations to model various irregular types of natural phenomena such as fire, smoke, waterfall run-off, fog, grass, bubbles, and so on. Basically, any time you see spiraling space dust, exhaust rippling out from the back of a spacecraft’s firing engine, or the flickering embers of an explosion licking the sky, that’s the work of a particle system.

As I’d mentioned earlier, scale-models were also used to create a bustling, futuristic New York City. Models of flying cars were carefully animated to create lanes of skyway traffic, not to mention entire blocks of furnished apartment buildings. Set builders worked around the clock in an effort to bring the city to life, knowing that the motion controlled cameras used to record footage for the film would be meticulous in capturing their handiwork both inside and out of the modeled apartment buildings. Working in conjunction with the models were a series of digital paintings. Each rendering of busy sky was positioned carefully behind and along the sides of each city block, creating an illusion of depth for an already massive special effects set piece.

With the fifth element revealed, and the planet Earth rescued from annihilation, Besson’s THE FIFTH ELEMENT left theaters after having earned a worldwide total of $263,920,180! Although opinions of the film’s quality differed from critic to critic, nothing was able to stop this hilarious, action-packed romp from being a box-office success. Whether or not you think THE FIFTH ELEMENT is a science fiction classic, many people – me, for one – would argue that this film is a work of pure genius that grabs you by the funny bone and never lets go. There were once rumors of a sequel in the works, but those whispers were quickly silenced by Besson himself after he explained to the proverbial rumor mill that he has no desire to return to these characters, or book another trip to Fhloston Paradise any time soon.

For what it’s worth, I love the hell out of this movie. I could be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure that I saw it at least 5 times when it was playing in the local theater. I love the dry wit that Willis lends to the Korben Dallas character, the stunning beauty and assassin-like skills of Jovovich as she carves her way toward the location of the stones, and oh lord, that riotous scream emitted by Chris Tucker in his perfect performance as Ruby Rhod. It’s proof-positive that you don’t always have to go hard sci-fi for an other-worldly adventure to be as entertaining as it is unforgettable. See you next time, folks.


About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.