By Diana WeynandJude Law may try to save the world in his new film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but it was visual effects supervisor Darin Hollings who put Law in his place—with computer graphics, that is. Law, along with co-starrers Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, performed their Sky Captain scenes entirely in front of blue screens in a London studio while Hollings’ team of visual effects artists composited every single shot in this sci-fi adventure film.Hollings, who worked on the movie for two years, describes the experience as “an odyssey, and the best learning experience of my career.” It was effects producer Melissa Taylor who brought him in. The pair had previously worked together at Disney’s effects facility, The Secret Lab.Below the Line: How did this film come into being?Darin Hollings: The director, Kerry Conran, while a student at Cal Arts, became fascinated with what he could do in After Effects, compositing blue screen shots against backgrounds. With his brother Kevin Conran, the production designer of the film, he put together a six-minute short which producer Jon Avnet saw and decided to finance. The short was very appealing—it sucked you in.BTL: What did you think of the film and the production concept when you were first approached to work on it?Hollings: I fell in love with this movie. We had the potential of making something really exciting. I thought that if we get this done, it would be something we could be proud of for the rest of our lives.BTL: How did the film break new ground?Hollings: It was much more than going in and doing effects on a movie. This film shot all the actors against blue screens. We shot a few pickup scenes in camera. We had over 2,000 shots—all blue screen. Our goal was to do all the backscreens photographically using still photos as backgrounds. We did some [2D] matte painting on the backgrounds.BTL: How did your role as visual effects supervisor differ from the norm?Hollings: This film was shot totally outside the Hollywood system. Since every shot was an effect, I wasn’t just executing shots, I was involved in planning the studio shots. We had to plan for every single shot in the film. Place the camera exactly here, the actors exactly here, the lights go exactly there. In London, people would say, “Are these people geniuses or idiots?” BTL: How did you prepare the setups?Hollings: We did thousands and thousands of storyboards for the movie. Then we put them into Apple’s Final Cut Pro and created QuickTime movies of them. We translated the boards into 3D animation using Maya, which gave us the reference of where to place the cameras. We mixed the QuickTime movies [of the backgrounds] with the camera feed [of the actors in front of a blue screen] using a video mixer [to see the final composite].BTL: What format did you shoot?Hollings: We shot everything on HD using the Sony HDW-F900/3 cameras with the Fujinon HD Cine Style 5-50mm zoom lenses [HA10x5B-10]. We used three HD cameras.BTL: How did it work during production to set up the cameras and match the backgrounds you had created?Hollings: I worked very closely with Eric Adkins, the director of photography, throughout the entire process. I would set up the cameras in the different stages and Eric would jump from stage to stage to stage setting up the lighting. We would rotate from set to set. While they were shooting on one stage, I’d go to the next stage to set that up.BTL: How did you handle the huge number of visual effects on the film?Hollings: In addition to planning the visual effects for this film, I had to put together a visual effects facility from the ground up at the same time. It was physically hard and we had to be incredibly efficient.BTL: You created a new facility just to do the visual effects for this film?Hollings: We found a building in Santa Monica and set up stations for 3D Maya to animate and model, Render Man [to render], After Effects [to composite], and Final Cut Pro [for the editing]. We called the facility WOT (World of Tomorrow). J. Eric Jessen, the editorial assistant, helped set up all the software.BTL: With so many higher end compositing programs on the market, why choose After Effects to composite the film?Hollings: The director Kerry Conran used After Effects to create the six-minute short he used to sell the film. So we used that model to composite the entire film on After Effects. We created the QuickTime movies of the backgrounds and editor Sabrina Plisco edited the entire film in Final Cut Pro. I feel like it did well.BTL: How many people did you have working on effects?Hollings: In the WOT production, there were three stages of working on the show: 1) getting ready to shoot in London; 2) shooting on stage in London; 3) finishing the movie in postproduction. Before we went to London, there were probably 35 people doing animatics of the entire movie. In London, we had traditional film type crews.BTL: Did WOT, the post facility, handle all the final composite shots?Hollings: Out of over 2,000 shots in the film, WOT did 1,100. We outsourced 900 effects to over 10 companies, some in Australia and Canada.BTL: This was clearly a relatively new process for creating an entire film. Was it smooth sailing?Hollings: We were an independent movie and had to have weekly meetings with bond people. No one was ever comfortable, always tenuous. But everyone was trying to make this movie the best movie they could.
Written by Diana Weynand