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The Digital Eye: 'Sky Captain' as an Indie VFX Prescription for Tomorrow

VFXWorld introduces a new column, The Digital Eye, which explores the future vfx implications of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow for guerilla filmmakers.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

As a box office performer, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is nothing to write home about. Eight weeks after its release on Sept. 17, the sci-fi pic had earned only about $47 million worldwide. This on a production and marketing budget that topped $100 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

As a harbinger of the future of filmmaking, however, this film is a blockbuster.

The visual effects-heavy film the first major feature to be shot almost entirely in front of a bluescreen was dreamed up by a comparatively penniless kid at CalArts, who happened to be very handy with Macs and HD cameras.

So whats to prevent another massively creative kid from creating his own eye-popping feature film? Absolutely nothing. And that has huge implications for how films are made and marketed, and how filmmakers are discovered.Anyone with the creative wherewithal and a computer in front of them even a high school student could create a piece that could catch the eye of a studio executive, said Darin Hollings, visual effects supervisor for Sky Captain.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow has democratized movie making in Hollywood. Creativity and a computer can get you a studio deal.  & © 2004 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow has democratized movie making in Hollywood. Creativity and a computer can get you a studio deal. & © 2004 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

OK, Im leaving out a few key facts about Sky Captain. Kerry Conran, the CalArts kid who dreamed up the movie, and his brother, Kevin Conran, managed to enlist some heavy hitters for the film: producer Jon Avnet, who optioned it and sunk the first significant cash into the project; Aurelio De Laurentiis, who financed it; Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, who starred in it; and Paramount, which acquired it.

Once Paramount grabbed the film, 14 visual effects companies from around the world jumped on board, including Stan Winston Studios, ILM, Pixel Liberation Front, Hybride and R!ot.

But even if Paramount hadnt grabbed it, the Conrans were prepared to make the film on their own with completely no name actors and to do it over one or two years on a shoe string budget, Hollings said.

They could have done it, too. By shooting in digital high-definition, they had a product that could instantly be edited on a computer, without the cumbersome process of scanning film. And because they shot virtually every scene in front of a bluescreen, they were able to dispense with prop design, expensive on-location shoots, lighting concerns and many of the other details that bedevil films. About 90% of the frames had visual effects from the airplanes to Shangri-la backdrops to those monstrous robots.

Had the Conrans done it on their own, they wouldnt have had as polished a film. And they certainly wouldnt have had the distribution and marketing power Paramount gave them. But they could have self-distributed the film to independent theaters or cut directly to DVD.

Or the Conrans could have sold the film AFTER they completed it. That would have saved Paramount around $70 million in added production costs.

Hey, thats not the way its supposed to be. Dont you need a $100 million to create convincing visual effects? I mean, didnt The Polar Express cost more than $200 million to make?

Well, the times, they are achangin. Get a Mac and Maya and some really talented kids and you can make your own sci-fi epic. Imagine what George Lucas might have done for the first Star Wars movie. He wouldnt have had to sell the concept so hard to Fox; he could have just gone out and formed his own studio. (Come to think of it, he did.)

Remember The Blair Witch Project and those shaky handheld cameras that turned a few fledgling filmmakers on a $40,000 budget into rulers of the box office? Mark my words: the next Blair Witch is going to be made by a kid on a computer and an HD cam, and it may cost even less.

If youre starting out in your career, thats an energizing thought. If youre a studio executive, its sobering.

It means that your job is no longer to just greenlight $200 million epics with visual effects by ILM. You need to keep your eye out for the next Kerry Conran and snap them up before your competitor does or before the youngster tries to market the film on their own.

Isnt that how the music industry works? Labels troll for talent in clubs and bars and listen to lots of demo tapes because just about anybody can strum a guitar and make their own CD. All you have to do is listen to all those people to find that diamond in the rough that you can promote the hell out of. And if you dont pick up an artist, they go out and sell the CD through a small independent label or online or at their concerts.

With the amount studios charge theaters for blockbuster films, whats to prevent a smaller theater from paying next to nothing for a visual effects-laden film from an independent filmmaker? Absolutely nothing.

Were nearly at the point where anybody can make a film. The studios job will be to find those diamonds in the rough and promote the hell out of them.

Hollings talks about how he helped his teenage niece and nephew put together an entire film in less than a day, including shooting, editing and even bluescreen work. Now they make their films for school projects.

Im not suggesting Hollywoods top visual effects artists are going to be out of work any more than Id suggest that Madonna is going to go hungry. No kid at a computer is going to produce a Spider-Man or The Polar Express or The Lord of the Rings. Some projects require hundreds of experienced, creative people slaving for years to create.

But theres also room in the market for garage films with dazzling visual effects. Expect to see a lot more Sky Captain s.

Michael Stroud has been a journalist for more than 20 years and runs iHollywood Forum, which creates conferences about entertainment, technology and mobile media. He was Bloombergs Hollywood correspondent for five years, Los Angeles bureau chief for Broadcasting & Cable magazine, and a technology reporter for six years at Investors Business Daily. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Wired News, The Red Herring and many other publications. He began his career as a freelancer, writing about Taiwans technology business. He speaks fluent Chinese.