by Scott Essman
For below-the-line craftspeople, the concept of the all-digital movie looms as a constant threat. Although the prospects of totally eliminating actors seems dim, one reality on the doorstep of Hollywood is the “bluescreen movie” whereby actors are largely filmed in front of bluescreens with minimal sets and props while digital sets and backgrounds are filled in at a later date. The concept is being tested with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Directed by Kerry Conran from his own screenplay, Sky Captain is set in the late 1930s and concerns a team of New Yorkers fighting against Nazi robots. Conran had produced a six-minute short with a group of unknown actors simply called World of Tomorrow that interested producer Jon Avnet. From there, they designed an entire film that went on to include a huge visual-effects budget and stars such as Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law. Two bases quickly formed—a Van Nuys effects facility that would create all of the computer-generated backgrounds, supervised by Conran’s brother Kevin, the film’s production designer, and a London soundstage where all of the live actors would be filmed.
What helped Conran shoot the actors was the creation of a full-length animatic, detailing every scene and specific shot in the script. From there, the CG backgrounds and treatment of the live-action shots took place, with senior visual effects supervised by Scott E. Anderson. Having supervised other effects-heavy films such as Starship Troopers and Hollow Man, both for director Paul Verhoeven, Anderson was well-equipped to oversee the 12 effects houses brought in to assist the Van Nuys studio. Not only are Sky Captain’s environments completely digital, the live-action cinematography is also treated digitally to achieve a consistent look.
With films like Sky Captain that rely heavily on bluescreen technology, the jobs of carpenter, set painter, prop master, location manager, and greens person may be dramatically reduced, or at least drastically altered, but such jobs as digital matte painter, compositor, virtual designer, and colorist may sharply increase in number and responsibility.
Essential to Sky Captain’s success will be its viability as a full-length film. What likely dazzled Avnet and intrigued Paramount, the releasing studio, in Conran’s original short must hold up for 90 minutes-plus. Of course, the extensive list of postproduction credits indicates that the filmmakers are sparing no expense or talent pool to assure that Sky Captain will have an appealing visual presentation. Its box office results might go further in determining if this method of filmmaking is truly the world of tomorrow for cinema crafts people.
The writer extends special thanks to Jeff Bond for his valuable research into the making of this film.