- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Kerry Conran makes a strong case for never underestimating the technology nerd with a desire to make movies. The once-employed computer tech spent four years in his apartment in the 1990s armed with just a vivid imagination and a laptop creating the technological beginnings of what eventually would lead to his directorial debut, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”

With a tip of the computer screen to his favorite comic books, Flash Gordon serials, monster movies and genre fiction authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells, he has put together a digitally animated masterpiece that seamlessly places live actors in digitally generated environments.

Having realized that the computer was emerging as a viable production tool, Mr. Conran set out to create a relatively inexpensive film with production values and scope worthy of a far pricier project.

“I had been looking at the way they [made] traditional cartoons for the longest while and made a strange connection,” he says.

“If you could make live action the same way they made a Bugs Bunny cartoon, then a lot of the expense and time would go away in the sense that you could send someone anywhere in the world without leaving a room.”

Infinitely more realistic than “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and way more stylized than any of the recent big-budget “Star Wars” movies, “Sky Captain,” with its relatively modest budget of a reported $70 million, used basic computers and software programs found at any retail store.

One hundred technical artists specializing in crafts such as computer modeling, animation, lighting and compositing worked out of a studio designed by Mr. Conran and built with the money of producer Jon Avnet.

The creative team generated more than 2,000 digital-effects shots using, primarily, Power Macintosh G4s and software programs such as Photoshop, After Effects and the three-dimension-rendering program Maya, along with a few proprietary tools.

The actors’ work was filmed in a high-definition format on a brightly lit, all-blue soundstage. Every frame of the film was then meticulously filled in with layers of background plates, stock footage, archival footage, digital mattes, live-action explosions and other elements. With the aid of such magic, stars Jude Law (Sky Captain Sullivan), Gwyneth Paltrow (Polly Perkins) and Angelina Jolie (Captain Francesca Cook) were captured “on location” in lush jungles, on massive airships, battling a mechanical spider underwater — without ever leaving the studio.

The only on-screen limits were the computer artists’ creativity and an often overtaxed network server connecting the 100 workstations. (Mr. Avnet dubbed the server Hal, after the finicky computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

A sequence in New York circa 1939 that finds Sky Captain in his P-40 Warhawk battling massive robots was especially challenging for Hal.

“We had to completely build New York City in 3-D and model it, and that really took its toll on the server, which often gagged on the amount of data being pushed through it,” Mr. Conran says.

The scene turned into a two-month process in which Hal had to be upgraded and new tools had to be created that could handle the amount of data.

Mr. Conran even needed to hire a “render wrangler,” whose job was to baby-sit computers in the middle of the night to make sure the animation was being fully processed on the more complicated shots.

Such headaches were more than offset by unprecedented technical advantages. For example, Mr. Conran gained a level of control in the lighting of a shot comparable to that enjoyed by a painter. He exploited this new precision in fashioning the film’s noirish retro look.

The cutting-edge technology also allowed Mr. Law to act with one of his idols, Laurence Olivier, who shows up as the misunderstood scientist Dr. Totenkopf. This involved technicians using an obscure clip from a BBC interview with the now-deceased star and old publicity stills to create a three-dimensional representation of him, with an actor used to mimic his voice.

Mr. Conran hopes his movie shows independent filmmakers that the sky is the limit in the world of tomorrow, when the director can become captain of his own ship.

“I think ‘Sky Captain’ is just a tiny window into what can be done with digital effects,” he says, “and the tools are sufficiently inexpensive and sophisticated enough that independent films should begin rivaling what only studios could have done a few years ago.”

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