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'Sky Captain' and the Virtual World of Today

VFXWorld Editor Bill Desowitz takes a sneak peek at one of next summers most eagerly awaited films, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a stunning leap in bluescreen and compositing work.

Sky Captain incubated for four years in Kerry Conrans mind and suburban apartment before being turned into a CG extravaganza. All images  & © 2003 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

New York City, 1939: A time of optimism exemplified by The World of Tomorrow at the Worlds Fair, while Europe is about to explode into a Second World War. Thats the backdrop for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the sci-fi adventure opening June 11 through Paramount Pictures thats a breakthrough in 3D virtual set design.

At a small light industrial building in Van Nuys, California, where VFXWorld was recently given a guided tour and sneak peek of the estimated $70 million production, 40 computer animators toil away on Macs and PCs. On one modelers screen, our heroes, ace aviator Sky Captain (Jude Law) and intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), appear dwarfed by a 3D map of a large museum hall with dinosaur exhibits. Meanwhile, on a nearby compositors screen, planes are layered in over mountaintops in black and white as Sky Captain shoots down zeppelins in his P-40.

But thats not half as thrilling as seeing the 22-minute show reel, highlighted by New York being invaded by giant killer robots and a squadron of destructive flying wings, or some final shots of the mayhem on HD TV with full color rendition.

The mechanized retro look of Sky Captain evokes the Fleischer brothers Superman cartoons, particularly the image of the robots attacking the metropolis; and its industrial design pays homage to the likes of Alex Raymond, Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes and Hugh Ferris, with its sleek art deco buildings, museum halls and science labs. Colors are muted, like hand-tinted photographs or even three-strip Technicolor movies of the period.

Except that virtually every shot was filmed with a bluescreen background in Van Nuys and on London stages, pushing the boundaries of virtual set design to new CG heights. Just to give you an idea of what this means: There are currently 2,031 CG shots in Sky Captain compared to 1,450 in The Return of the King. The sheer volume of bluescreen and compositing work is an industry leap, according to visual effects supervisor Darin Hollings. They are outsourcing a third of the movie, in fact, to half a dozen effects houses, including Luma (which is doing underwater work) and Engine Room. Hollings says the biggest technical challenge in pulling this off has been building a vfx facility while trying to make the coolest movie of all time.

Its a fresh vision sprung from the fertile, sci-fi loving imagination of first-time director and CalArts grad Kerry Conran. The shy 37-year-old wanted to bring back the fun and innocence of the old serials Buck Rogers meets Indiana Jones but with a unique, retro look that was attained totally through cutting-edge CG means. After storyboarding and experimenting with archival photographs as CG backgrounds, Conran worked it all out on a computer and tiny bluescreen in his Sherman Oaks apartment home. After nearly four years, he finally made a six-minute show reel of The World of Tomorrow about a mad German scientist bent on world domination with his army of robots and flying wings. The show reel fell into the hands of producer Jon Avnet (Risky Business and Fried Green Tomatoes), who had never made a visual effects movie but was intrigued by Conrans story and vision. A movie by a nerd for a nerd, Avnet cracks.

Although Conran wanted to make a black-and-white garage movie, Avnet had grander visions. Shoot it in color on HD, but make it bigger and up the stakes with movie stars. Law hired on as star and co-producer, and was able to persuade Paltrow to play his rival and old flame to create some Hawksian sparks. Then Avnet got Angelina Jolie to play Capt. Franky Cook of Britains Royal Navy, an old friend of Sky Captains (sporting an eye patch, no less) stationed in Nepal. To protect Conrans vision from potential studio interference, Avnet sought indie financing, which was raised with the help of Aurelio De Laurentiis, who serves as exec producer.

Jude Law, who also served as co-producer, and Gwyneth Paltrow try to ignite Hawksian sparks as rivals and ex-lovers.

But Avnet and Conran were both adamant that Sky Captain would play it straight and innocent just like the Saturday morning serials of the era. Yet the computer animators appear to be having a blast as they painstakingly layer in the virtual sets, backgrounds, vehicles, creatures and action sequences in 3D.

Process-wise, the first thing we did is Kerry had a script, so we sent Kerry and the script to London where he had a read-through with all the actors, Hollings recounts. We took that audio into an editing package and had a few artists do storyboards for the entire movie. So, we started off with a bit of storyboards and cut all the boards to the audio. Then, step-by-step, knowing that we were going to shoot the entire movie on bluescreen, we made a 3D animatic in Maya for every shot in the movie what that gave us is real-world information on how to shoot the shot exact lenses, camera positions, how far distance-to-subject

The mechanized retro visual style of Sky Captain is evident in the design of the killer robots, sets and lighting.

So I developed a system very much like a Thomas Bros. map and I built the stages we were going to use in London. I made a digital model, made a grid on the floor numbers one way, letters the other way, so for every single shot, we made a map from our 3D animatics and I had a survey team and so we knew what were doing every day before we went in there. I could even know ahead of time if they were going to go off the bluescreen. Once I made all these maps, the D.P. [Eric Adkins] wasnt very happy about them because what he cared about was where the light was coming from and what I cared about was where the camera and bluescreen were.

What we did on stage here is run-throughs with doubles for a lot of the movie a Jude double and a Gwyneth double. Shot the whole movie in HD with a Sony [HDW-F900 CineAlta 24P] camera and Fuji zoom lens, so we calculated all the stuff to make sure our distances were proper. Shot half the movie right here and tested our theories about how the movie was going to come together. Every shot wasnt exactly how the animatic was, so we had to track it and replot those cameras and build all the environments, texture map all the environments, render the environments, etc. Then its pretty standard digital effects from there where youre putting bluescreened actors against either a photographic background or 3D background and pretty standard composition and tracking after that.

Hollings adds that one of the interesting things about Sky Captain is that Conran had initially predicted that about 70% of the backgrounds were going to be photographic. In the end, we found that just getting those photographs and finding those environments wasnt what he wanted. To achieve his vision, we had to build most of this movie in 3D. However, for an early Radio City Music Hall scene (where The Wizard of Oz is playing), Adkins and Hollings spent a day shooting all the background plates. Adkins then shot Paltrow in London, which went faster than building virtual environments in 3D and making them look real (with the help of the FreeForm PHANTOM Omni haptic device for sculpting 3D designs).

The production team animated in Maya (with the 3D department running the software on PCs to exploit the strengths of each platform), composited in black and white in After Effects and rendered in RenderMan. The advantages to compositing in black and white began with the fact that we wanted to make a black-and-white film. Throwing out all the color issues let us focus on tone and composition first then focusing on all the color issues separately. Our elements were in so many different color spaces so it made sense to make that a separate issue. Putting the black-and-white comp first and then laying the color over resulted in a very unique look and gave us a solid process to work with that Kerry was happy with.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.