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It's a digital generation

The Young Cgi Wizards Behind 'Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow' Have Raised The Bar For Their Art Into The Stratosphere.

September 12, 2004|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

To create a reality that's out of this world, sometimes you have to think inside the box. At least that's how first-time writer-director Kerry Conran approached his concept for "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," a retro-futuristic story set in the 1930s that includes pulp fiction, old movie serials and German expressionist filmmakers among its influences. The singular-looking film evokes styles as diverse as "King Kong," "The Wizard of Oz," "Citizen Kane," "Lost Horizon" and even "Star Wars," which was also influenced by those old serials. It features locations from New York to Nepal and volcanic islands in between, not to mention miniature elephants and a midair landing base, and yet none of it is really there. Everything on screen -- except the actors and a few props -- exists only on computers.

The movie, which opens Friday, started as a gleam in its creator's Mac. After graduating from film school at Cal Arts, Kerry Conran worked at his idea on a computer in his garage, enlisting his brother Kevin, a freelance illustrator, for occasional background paintings and titles. The indelible images included a zeppelin docking at the Empire State Building and giant robots marching through New York City.

After four years of painstaking work, he had completed six minutes of film. Kevin Conran invited producer Marsha Oglesby, a college friend of his wife's, to take a look. Oglesby had heard about it for years, and she secretly expected it to be lousy. But after Kerry showed it, she just stared at him, then asked, "Can I see that again?" After a second viewing, she wasted no time in getting Kerry and Kevin to meet with her partner, producer Jon Avnet. He experienced pretty much the same reaction. The film was like nothing they'd ever seen. Avnet agreed to develop the project as an independent film. Kerry enlisted Kevin as his production designer while still writing the script, since the film's design was integral to the story. The brothers had a shared love of old sci-fi movies and comic books from their childhood in Flint, Mich., which resulted in a shorthand in figuring out the visuals.

Kevin became a one-man art department. After production began in April 2002 in a warehouse full of computers (Macs and PCs) in Van Nuys, he generated most of the images that would form the basis of nearly 2,100 computer-generated shots in the movie. (By way of comparison, the last "Lord of the Rings" epic had about 1,500 CG shots.) Kevin readily admits the job was overwhelming, especially for a guy with no background in computers. "I knew it really was too much for one guy. But naivete will get you a long way -- and stupidity got me the rest of the way."

That and pride. After working on Kerry's dream project for so long, he wanted to see it through. He had no idea what he was in for. Before Kerry shot the actors, Kevin had to create backgrounds for almost every scene, from panoramas to an office lobby. (For the most part, that meant drawing with a pencil and paper, but photographs, paintings and 3-D models were also used.) The scenes were then transformed into animatics -- animated storyboards on computers. Darin Hollings, visual effects supervisor, then put grids on the animatics, sort of like a Thomas Bros. Guide. Little stand-in figures were placed on the grids to show actors where they began and ended up in each scene. Every scene had to be fully worked out before filming with the actors began, and with a six-week shooting schedule, that meant 40 shots a day, or one every 12 minutes.

The live-action sequences for "Sky Captain" were shot entirely on a stage in London against a blue-screen set, a filmmaking first. The blue screen allows for images and backgrounds to be filled in later. (The film was also shot using high-definition digital tape rather than film, using a Sony 24P camera.)

Before each scene, the actors would gather around a monitor and watch the animatics, so they would know what they were supposed to be surrounded by and where on the grid they needed to be at every moment. One misstep on the empty stage and they were on the wrong side of a landing strip or a robot's foot. Fortunately the actors assembled -- Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, to name a few -- jumped at the challenge.

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