Virtual 3D Scanner



The film opens as a camera moves through an abstract, screen-green 3D projection of a cityscape. A police dispatch voice says,

“To all patrolling air units. A 208 is in progress in the C-13 district of Newport City. The airspace over this area will be closed. Repeat:…”

The camera floats to focus on two white triangles, which become two numbers, 267 and 268. The thuck-thuck sounds of a helicopter rotor appear in the background. The camera continues to drop below the numbers, but turns and points back up at them. When the view abruptly shifts to the real world, we see that 267 and 268 represent two police helicopters on patrol.



The roads on the map of the city are a slightly yellower green, and the buildings are a brighter and more saturated green. Having all of the colors on the display be so similar certainly sets a mood for the visualization, but it doesn’t do a lot for its readability. Working with broader color harmonies would help a reader distinguish the elements and scan for particular things.



The perspective of the projection is quite exaggerated. This serves partly as a modal cue to let the audience know that it’s not looking at some sort of emerald city, but also hinders readability. The buildings are tall enough to obscure information behind them, and the extreme perspective makes it hard to understand their comparative heights or their relation to the helicopters, which is the erstwhile point of the screen.


There are two ways to access and control this display. The first is direct brain access. The second is by a screen and keyboard.

Brain Access

Kusanagi and other cyborgs can jack in to the network and access this display. The jacks are in the back of their neck and as with most brain interfaces, there is no indication about what they’re doing with their thoughts to control the display. She also uses this jack interface to take control of the intercept van and drive it to the destination indicated on the map.

During this sequence the visual display is slightly different, removing any 3D information so that the route can be unobscured. This makes sense for wayfinding tasks, though 3D might help with a first-person navigation tasks.


Screen and keyboard access

While Kusanagi is piloting an intercept van, she is in contact with a Section 9 control center. Though the 3D visualization might have been disregarded up to this point as a film conceit, here see that it is the actual visualization seen by people in the diegesis. The information workers at Section 9 Control communicate with agents in the field through headsets, type onto specialized keyboards, and watch a screen that displays the visualization.


Their use is again a different mode of the visualization. The information workers are using it to locate the garbage truck. The first screens they see show a large globe with a white graticule and an overlay reading “Global Positioning System Ver 3.27sp.” Dots of different sizes are positioned around the globe. Triangles then appear along with an overlay listing latitude, longitude, and altitude. Three other options appear in the lower-right, “Hunting, Navigation, and Auto.” The “Hunting” option is highlighted with a translucent kelley green rectangle.

After a few seconds the system switches to focus on the large yellow triangle as it moves along screen-green roads. Important features of the road, like “Gate 13” are labeled in a white, rare serif font, floating above the road, in 3D but mostly facing the user, casting a shadow on the road below. The projected path of the truck is drawn in a pea green. A kelley green rectangle bears the legend “Game 121 mile/h / Hunter->00:05:22 ->Game.” The speed indicator changes over time, and the time indicator counts down. As the intercept van approaches the garbage truck, the screen displays an all-caps label in the lower-left corner reading, somewhat cryptically, “FULL COURSE CAUTION !!!”

The most usable mode

Despite the unfamiliar language and unclear labeling, this “Hunter” mode looks to be the most functional. The color is better, replacing the green background with a black one to create a clearer foreground and background for better focus. No 3D buildings are shown, and the camera angle is similar to a real-time-strategy angle of around 30 degrees from the ground, with a mild perspective that hints at the 3D but doesn’t distort. Otherwise the 3D information of the roads’ relationship to other roads is shown with shape and shadow. No 3D buildings are shown, letting the user keep her focus on the target and the path of intercept.



Fhloston evacuation


When Fhloston Paradise’s bomb alarms finally go off (a full 15:06 after Zorg’s bomb actually starts. WTH, Fhloston?) four shipwide systems help evacuate the ship.

First, a klaxon is heard on a public address system across the ship. A recorded female voice calmly announces that…

This is a type A alert. For security reasons the hotel must be evacuated. Please proceed calmly to the lifeboats located in the main hallways.

This voice continues to speak a warning countdown, repeating the remaining time every minute, and then when there’s less than a minute at 15 second intervals, and each of the last 10 seconds.

Second, in the main hallway, small, rows of red beacon lights emerge out of the floor and begin flashing and blinking. They repeatedly flash in order to point the direction of the lifeboats.


Third, in the main hallway large arrows on the floor and “LIFEBOAT” lettering illuminate green to point travelers towards ingress points for individual lifeboats.

TheFifthElement-FhlostonEvacuation-007 TheFifthElement-FhlostonEvacuation-009

Fourth, the lifeboats themselves eject from the ship to get the passengers far from danger.



  • The voice warning is a trope, but a trope for a reason. For visually impaired guests and people whose attention is focused on, you know, escape, the audio will still help them keep tabs on the time they have left.
  • The racing lights provide a nice directionality (a similar interface would have helped Prometheus).
  • The arrows and beacons require no language skills to comprehend.


  • The voice warning and the “LIFEBOAT” signs do require language to comprehend. They couldn’t have used Running Man?
  • You know when’s a crappy time to add trip hazards to the floor? When a herd of panicked humans are going to be running over it. Seriously. There is no excuse for this.
  • The beacons and the arrows should be the same color. Green is the ISO standard for exit, so while we’re moving the beacon lights to the ceiling where they belong, we can swap them out for some #33cc00 beacons.
  • The green arrows at first seem badly placed as it’s difficult to see when there’s a crowd of people, but then you realize that when the room is empty, people will see and follow them. People in a crowd will just follow whatever direction the horde is currently going, and seeing the arrows is unnecessary. But in a light crowd, people will get a glimpse of the arrow and become stressed out over an occluded, potentially life-saving signal or worse, get trampled to death trying to stop and read it to make sure everyone is going the right way, so ultimately awful. Put that up on the ceiling or high on the walls, too. Because people genuinely panic.


Fuel cell


Just before the spaceship takes off for Fhloston Paradise, the audience gets to see the manual interface that the airport employees use to refuel the ship. On the tarmac beneath the spaceship, the ground crewman plugs in a portable control box to the underside of the plane, and presses a button to open a hatch in the ground, from which a new, glowing green radioactive fuel cell emerges.

One of the crewmen grabs it by its circular handles at the end, removes it from the hatch, and sets it on the ground.

He then uses the plugged-in control box to open a compartment on the underside of the spaceship, from which one of the ground crew removes the spent fuel cell by hand, and inserts it into the still-open hatch.

Finally they pick up the full fuel cell and insert it into the compartment on the plane.


This scene is there to set up how Cornelius stows away on the craft, but also serves as a cinematic pun when it crosscuts to a scene inside the ship (but which must be seen rather than read to appreciate.) For such a “throwaway” technology, it’s handled really well.

  • The ground affords natural shielding from any collection of radioactive fuel cells.
  • Being circular, the cells and the handles to manipulate the cells are orientation-less.
  • There are familiar black-and-yellow-stripe warnings on the walls of the hatch and the revealed sides of the spaceship compartment. These warnings are only visible when it’s relevant.
  • The radioactivity trefoil symbol has the same colors and appears on the fuel cell, the hatch, and the compartment.
  • Having a portable and wired control box means that it’s not readily available for any passing hackers.
  • The transparent container lets the material act as an additional warning to observers: There is danger here.
  • The transparent container lets the fuel itself tell the ground crew which cell is spent and which one is full.

All told, short of making it automated, this is how it should work.


5E-opedia: Search


Leeloo learns about the facts of the human race which she is destined to save through an online encyclopedia available to her in many places: in Cornelius’’ home, the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, and aboard Zorg’’s ship. Three modes are seen for it. Today we discuss the third mode, which is to search for an in-depth topic.


When Leeloo experiences full-scale combat with Zorg and the Mangalores aboard Fhloston Paradise, she grows curious about war. On the route back to Earth aboard Zorg’s ship, she once again returns to the online encyclopedia she’s been referencing throughout the film. When she sits down, it just so happens that the system is in the middle of the W topics. It is amid “we*” and “wh*” words. “Weapon” is at the top, so maybe that’s what Zorg was looking for.

TheFifthElement-W TheFifthElement-weapon

To access a particular topic not on screen, she simply begins typing. She types “WAR,” the letters filling the screen in green all-caps, and the entry for war begins playing. This entry is different than the prior one seen on martial arts. This is simply a series of still images presented serially, around four dozen that culminate in an image of the French test of an atomic weapon at Mururoa Atoll.




Two small nuances to note. The first is that we don’t see a result of possible search results. Like Wikipedia, there is a main entry for war, and it presumes that’s the one she means. If it’s wrong, she can interrupt. That’s a smart default that will work in most cases.

The second is that we don’t see or hear Leeloo hit an “enter” key after she finishes typing “war.” (The other keys each emit a small beep.) How did the system know she wasn’t continuing on to “warrior” or “warship”? A smart system would be able to interpret the pause after the “r” as a likely end, once it passes an outer threshold for her typical typing speed, and begin to show her the “war” entry. Then, if she continued to add another letter just outside that threshold, it could evaluate the string. If it might be a continuation, like typing an “s” for “warship” it could pause the display and wait. If a continuation wouldn’t make any sense, like “warx,” it could presume she was entering a new word beginning with “x” or help her recover in case it was just a plain old typo.

Interestingly, this is kind of the way Google Instant search works. Did the designers for The Fifth Element accidentally invent it 13 years ahead of Google?

Despite that cool possibility, I have to ding this entry for not really explaining anything. Some aren’t really about war but about terror, such as the image of the burning cross at a KKK rally. But even for the others, yes, they are horrific images. And they are a stinging reminder of the horrors that accompany war. But they really only work for someone with the prior knowledge of what they describe. Steve McCurry‘s haunting image of a tank in Kuwait, for instance, inspires despair only if you know the full background story of that war, and this sequence certainly does not provide it to Leeloo.


Ultimately, regardless of the mode this encyclopedia is in, it is a cinematic conceit that we should not take as a good example of rapid learning for the real world.

5E-opedia: In-depth topic


Leeloo learns about the facts of the human race which she is destined to save through an online encyclopedia available to her in many places: in Cornelius’’ home, the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, and aboard Zorg’’s ship. Three modes are seen for it. Today we discuss the second mode, which is to select an in-depth topic.

In-Depth Topic

Leeloo can understand each item in the topic lists as they fly past. If she sees a topic that interests her in particular, she can press a button to find out more about that topic in more detail. (We don’t see the button, we just hear it.) Given that she’s looking at a screen of at most 66 and at least 4 options, and we don’t see a selection indicator, it’s anyone’s guess as to how she does this. Later we’ll see that she has a QWERTY keyboard to search for a particular word, and we don’t see that same search interface here, so it’s something other than that.

Once she indicates that she’s interested in martial arts, the entry fills the screen. The screen is a mix of a paragraph of text, images zooming around, and subtopics writ in large red majuscule letters scrolling past: KRAV CONTACT, SUMO, WRESTLING, SAVATE, KUNG FU, JU JITSU, NINJITSU, WRANG DO, FULL CONTACT… A still image of Bruce Lee from Enter the Dragon appears. This style of still-image and animated-text continues to play in a watch-and-learn way until it’s done, and then returns to the topic list.


Here, as before, I am examining things unmeant for examination. Still, I have a job to do. In the diegesis of the film, the text flies by too quick for anyone but a perfect Mondoshawan to read. But here in the real world, I hit pause. There I learned that the paragraph of text in the background has nothing to do with martial arts. We only see snippets, but they read as follows. (Please post your short sci-fi stories that can make sense of these lines in exactly this same order.)

: a hindu thus
talks to hi[s] troops about taking
d takes on a persona of its own.
monster, if it wants to live, have
loved. We then get a news flash
cult (think Waco siege coverage)

This little bit of text reads much more like a script than an encyclopedia entry. Like it was a bit of text just lying around on someone’s computer. In any case it would not help Leeloo learn Jeet Kun Do in the slightest.

On the right side of the screen (see above) we also see a vertical green rectangle. At the top is the number 5, bookended with arrows. Below that is a graph, a set of thumbnail images (whose captions are too small to read) are linked by right-angle connecting lines, like what you might see in a tech-tree for a real-time strategy video game.


When the display shifts to showing the subtopics, this green area changes. The 5 changes to a dot, and a grid of circular icons appears, each with a green rectangle to its right. The left column of icons is hard to decipher, but the right column of icons looks like control buttons one might expect: More detail, next in sequence, prior in sequence, zoom out, zoom all the way out, fast forward. Missing are common controls for video such as pause and play. A the bottom is a button labeled “EDIT”. This control panel is not seen in use.

It’s still about the learning, stupid

That stuff on the left is pointless. Of course that bit from a script is goofy. The animated stuff might be interesting for getting someone kind of excited about the topic, or maybe to remember how awesome martial arts (that they already knew about) are, but for learning any of it from a computer screen, she would have been better off spending time on youtube. Even the subtopics make no sense. Sure, they’re all martial arts, but what’s the order? Not alphabetical. Not age. Savate (18th century) is between wrestling and Sumo, both far more ancient. It’s not even a list of the same scope of thing. Aren’t Krav and Full Contact different translations for the same thing? Anyway, learning the vocabulary of a domain is only a rudimentary first step to actually learning it, much less performing it. Good thing she’s “perfect.”

The first green area on the right does actually seem useful for learning. It’s an abstract representation of how some things fit together. There’s a relationship implied between parts. It may also provide a map to a bigger picture in which this particular topic fits. That’s actually pretty useful and even Wikipedia adopts it for entries that fit into larger domains of knowledge. So, OK, we’ll cut it some slack there.

The second green area, even though I’m doing a lot of inference there from icons, also seems like it might be pretty useful. It’s too bad we don’t get to see it in action.

Better for Leeloo’s purposes of learning a topic—even if you did it blazingly fast—would be to provide her a definition, a bit about the history, and then some blazingly fast how-tos of modern practice augmented with the principles at work in each of the examples.

Profiling “CAT” scan


After her escape from the nucleolab, Leeloo ends up on a thin ledge of a building, unsure where to go or what to do. As a police car hovers nearby, the officers use an onboard computer to try and match her identity against their database. One officer taps a few keys into an unseen keyboard, her photograph is taken, and the results displays in about 8 seconds. Not surprisingly, it fails to find a match, and the user is told so with an unambiguous, red “NO FILE” banner across the screen.


This interface flies by very quickly, so it’s not meant to be read screen by screen. Still, the wireframes present a clear illustration of what the system doing, and what the results are.

The system shouldn’t just provide dead ends like this, though. Any such system has to account for human faces changing over the time since the last capture: aging, plastic surgery, makeup, and disfiguring accidents, to name a few. Since Leeloo isn’t inhuman, it could provide some results of “closest matches,” perhaps with a confidence percentage alongside individual results. Even if the confidence number was very low, that output would help the officers understand it was an issue with the subject, and not an issue of an incomplete database or weak algorithm.

One subtle element is that we don’t see or hear the officer telling the system where the perp is, or pointing a camera. He doesn’t even have to identify her face. It automatically finds her in the camera few, identifies her face, and starts scanning. The sliding green lines tell the officer what it’s finding, giving him confidence in its process, and offering an opportunity to intervene if it’s getting things wrong.

Nucleolab Progress Indicator


As the nucleolab is reconstructing Leeloo, the screen on the control panel provides update, detailing the process. For the most part this update is a wireframe version of what everyone can see with their eyes.



The only time it describes something we can’t see with our own eyes is when Leeloo’s skin is being “baked” by an ultraviolet light under a metal cover. Of course we know this is a narrative device to heighten the power of the big reveal, but it’s also an opportunity for the interface to actually do something useful. It has a green countdown clock, and visualizes something that’s hidden from view.


As far as a progress indicator goes, it’s mostly useful. Mactilburgh presumably knows roughly how long things take and even the order of operations. All he needs is confirmation that his system is doing what it’s supposed to be, and the absence of an error is enough for him. The timer helps, too, since he’s like a kid waiting for an Easy Bake Oven…of science.

But Munro doesn’t know what the heck is going on. Sure he knows some of the basics of biology. There’s going to be a skeleton, some muscle, some nerves. But beyond that, he’s got a job to do, and that’s to take this thing out the minute it goes pear-shaped. So he needs to know: Is everything going OK? Should I pop the top on a tall boy of Big Red Button? It might be that the interface has some kind of Dire Warning mode for when things go off the rails, but that doesn’t help during the good times. Giving Munro some small indicator that things are going well would remove any ambiguity and set him at ease.

An argument could be made that you don’t want Munro at ease, but a false positive might kill Leeloo and risk the world. A false negative (or a late negative) just risks her escape. Which happens anyway. Fortunately for us.


Gravity (?) Scan


The first bit of human technology we see belongs to the Federation of Territories, as a spaceship engages the planet-sized object that is the Ultimate Evil. The interfaces are the screen-based systems that bridge crew use to scan the object and report back to General Staedert so he can make tactical decisions.


We see very few input mechanisms and very little interaction with the system. The screen includes a large image on the right hand side of the display and smaller detailed bits of information on the left. Inputs include

  • Rows of backlit modal pushbuttons adjacent to red LEDs
  • A few red 7-segment displays
  • An underlit trackball
  • A keyboard
  • An analog, underlit, grease-pencil plotting board.
    (Nine Inch Nails fans may be pleased to find that initialism written near the top.)

The operator of the first of these screens touches one of the pushbuttons to no results. He then scrolls the trackball downward, which scrolls the green text in the middle-left part of the screen as the graphics in the main section resolve from wireframes to photographic renderings of three stars, three planets, and the evil planet in the foreground, in blue.

FifthE-UFT008 FifthE-UFT014 FifthE-UFT010

The main challenge with the system is what the heck is being visualized? Professor Pacoli says in the beginning of the film that, “When the three planets are in eclipse, the black hole, like a door, is open.” This must refer to an unusual, trinary star system. But if that’s the case, the perspective is all wrong on screen.

Plus, the main sphere in the foreground is the evil planet, but it is resolved to a blue-tinted circle before the evil planet actually appears. So is it a measure of gravity and event horizons of the “black hole?” Then why are the others photo-real?

Where is the big red gas giant planet that the ship is currently orbiting? And where is the ship? As we know from racing game interfaces and first-person shooters, having an avatar representation of yourself is useful for orientation, and that’s missing.

And finally, why does the operator need to memorize what “Code 487” is? That places a burden on his memory that would be better used for other, more human-value things. This is something of a throw-away interface, meant only to show the high-tech nature of the Federated Territories and for an alternate view for the movie’s editor to show, but even still it presents a lot of problems.

Gene Sequence Comparison

Genetic tester


Shaw sits at this device speaking instructions aloud as she peers through a microscope. We do not see if the instructions are being manually handled by Ford, or whether the system is responding to her voice input. Ford issues the command “compare it to the gene sample,” the nearby screen displays DNA gel electrophoresis results for the exploding alien sample and a human sample. When Ford says, “overlay,” the results slide on top of each other. A few beats after some screen text and a computerized voice informs them that the system is PROCESSING, (repeated twice) it confirms a DNA MATCH with other screen text read by the same computerized voice.


Playback box

When Halloway visits Shaw in her quarters, she uses a small, translucent glass cuboid to show him the comparison. To activate it, she drags a finger quickly across the long, wide surface. That surface illuminates with the data from the genetic tester, including the animation. The emerald green colors of the original have been replaced by cyan, the red has been replaced by magenta, and some of the contextualizing GUI has been omitted, but it is otherwise the same graphic. Other than this activation gesture, no other interactivity is seen with this device.


There’s a bit of a mismatch between the gesture she uses for input and the output on the screen. She swipes, but the information fades up. It would be a tighter mapping for Shaw if a swipe on its surface resulted in the information’s sliding in at the same speed, or at least faded up as if she was operating a brightness control. If the fade up was the best transition narratively, another gesture such as a tap might be a better fit for input. Still, the iOS standard for unlocking is to swipe right, so this decision might have been made on the basis of the audience’s familiarity with that interaction.