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Shoot first, fill it in later

CalArts graduate Kerry Conran gets a big break as his ideas about computer-generated sets attract big names to 'World of Tomorrow.'

May 11, 2003|David Gritten | Special to The Times

Elstree Studios, England — Everywhere you look, it's blue -- an agreeable baby blue, interspersed occasionally with polka dots of various hues. It's rather soothing, like being enveloped in a comfort blanket.

In fact, it's just the sound stage for "World of Tomorrow," a period action-adventure with science-fiction elements starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie and being filmed at these studios 15 miles northwest of London. Why blue? Because it is being shot entirely on (you guessed it) blue screen, which means backgrounds behind the actors are filled in digitally after principal photography.

"Yeah," cracked producer Jon Avnet, "it's 'My Blue Heaven' around here." Paltrow views it differently: "I've acclimatized," she says. "But after a day here, I feel like I've been swallowed by a blue whale. It's having a funny effect on me."

For all that, there's a state of high excitement among cast and crew: They're convinced they might be involved in something radically innovative. "World of Tomorrow" is written and directed by first-timer Kerry Conran, a computer whiz who has seized the notion of digitally created special-effects sequences and taken them to an extreme conclusion. "The whole movie is a special effect, even a scene with two people sitting in a room," he said. "Really, it's a live-action cartoon."

Conran, 37, shy and soft-spoken, developed "World of Tomorrow" over eight years, mainly on a computer screen alone in his Sherman Oaks apartment. "I reasoned what was most expensive and difficult about making films was going on location, building sets, things beyond my scope or unavailable to me," he recalled. "I thought, if you can build sets or travel anywhere in the world in a computer, you have gotten rid of the most complicated part of filmmaking. Then you locate it all in a central facility like this. In my case, I'd built a 15-foot blue screen in my living room. It stayed there for three years. That was what I woke up to every morning."

He started experimenting with archival photographs, using them as backgrounds for his film-within-a-computer. Early in the process, Conran believed he could create an entire feature film on his own, without leaving his apartment: "But 3 1/2 years in, with only six minutes of film to show for it, I decided that was a bad idea, and I needed some help."

Derring-do of matinee days

"World of Tomorrow" is set in 1939 (the title comes from the New York World's Fair of that year) and owes much to the Saturday-morning serials that movie theaters used to show. It is split into seven "chapters," with titles like "Winged Terror" and "Shadow of Tomorrow." As for the film's content, Avnet, an experienced producer who found success with "Risky Business" 20 years ago, and who also directed such films as "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "Up Close and Personal," described it as "Buck Rogers meets Indiana Jones."

It begins in New York City, where Polly Perkins (Paltrow), crack reporter for the Chronicle newspaper, wonders why so many world-famous scientists are missing. Around this time, strange flying machines threaten Manhattan, and gigantic walking robots tramp down the city's streets, crushing everything in their path. Polly joins forces with her old flame and sometime adversary Capt. Joseph Sullivan (Law), also known as Sky Captain. He commands the Flying Legion, battling bad guys in his Warhawk P-40. He and Polly fly to a remote part of Nepal (think Shangri-La) to track down the crazed mastermind Dr. Totenkopf, who seems to want to destroy the world.

But this outline doesn't do justice to the look of the film, which is tentatively scheduled for U.S. release next year. In his office, Avnet finds a DVD of its opening scenes, hauntingly beautiful in black and white. They show the Hindenburg III, a zeppelin, docking 100 stories above New York on the Empire State Building. The visual iconography is very 1940s: visible radio waves emitted from radio masts, towering skyscrapers, men in snap-brim fedoras, spotlights fanning the night skies.

Conran recalled that when he had his six-minute informal show reel together, "I was mortified by it. I didn't want anybody to see it." But his brother Kevin, now on the film as production designer, persuaded him to show it to Marsha Oglesby, a producer who had worked with Avnet. "She wanted to show it to Jon the very next day," Conran said.

"Kerry brought a terrific visual style to that six minutes of film," Avnet recalled. "It was unusual, and I was intrigued. And it made me think we could make this big-looking film inexpensively."

He decided not to approach a studio, but to raise money independently and make a distribution deal only when "World of Tomorrow" was complete: "We wanted the freedom for Kerry to make this film as we all wanted. I thought I couldn't put him through a studio process. Too many cooks." To attract financing, Avnet called on two scions of the De Laurentiis dynasty, Raffaella and her brother Aurelio, who are executive producers.

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